In 1774, German geologist Abraham Gottlob Werner published Von den äußerlichen Kennzeichen der Foßilien, a work containing an extensive color scheme that he hoped would help to describe and classify minerals. He believed that minerals could and should be identified using all five senses, including taste, but that color was the first and most easily observable characteristic. He didn’t include a physical example of the color, but used descriptive phrases, which were obviously open to interpretation and variation. In 1814, Scottish flower-painter Patrick Syme published Werner’s Nomenclature of Colours, with Additions, Arranged so as to Render it Highly Useful to the Arts and Sciences, Particularly Zoology, Botany, Chemistry, Mineralogy, and Morbid Anatomy. Annexed to which are Examples Selected from Well-Known Objects in the Animal, Vegetable, and Mineral Kingdoms. He provided a painted swatch for each color, as well as a “recipe” for reproducing the color. He also added examples of where to find each color in nature.
The names of the colors are often strange and beautiful, unusual but oddly perfectly descriptive: leek green, wine-yellow, arterial-blood-red, veinous-blood-red, hair-brown, broccoli-brown, velvet black, skimmed-milk white. And the descriptors are even more so, Breast of the Black Headed Gull, Vent Coverts of Golden Crested Wren, Back of the Petals of Blue Hepatica, Fresh Wood Ashes, Stems of the Barberry, Light Parts of Spots on the under Wings of Peacock Butterfly, Egg of Thrush, Beauty Spot of Wing of Teal Drake, Stamina of Honey Suckle. I like to imagine him looking for the perfect spot of the perfect object or animal. He must have seen the world around him, everything and everyone, as a collection of shifting shades and hues and values. What a pleasant mania it must have been to try to capture something as intangible as ever-changing colors as they manifest themselves on living creatures: the secret feathers inside a bird’s wing, the bright iridescent shell of a beetle, the veins of a leaf or a human.
The system of colors was not devised just to collect and categorize natural objects, but also to create a shared language to describe the world around us, at a time when you couldn’t just send a photograph. The system was utilized and revised down the decades by various natural scientists, including by Charles Darwin on the Beagle. When these naturalists saw a curious creature of a certain color did visions of stems and stamens and quill feathers and butterfly wings float through their heads?
In Nature’s Palette, a recent book on Werner’s system of color, we find further examples in the form of paintings and drawings of the various descriptive objects, as well as specimens gathered by naturalists and collectors. It’s probably not very surprising that (as far as I could tell) there’s really only one woman mentioned in the book, for reasons we could talk about at length but won’t. That woman is Emily Dickinson, and her contribution is several pages from her herbarium.
Dickinson compiled the herbarium when she was a student at Mount Holyoke Female Seminary, before she began writing poetry. Although, of course, she must have always been writing poetry, she must have always had the words and silences gathering in her head.
With Dickinson’s Herbarium it feels to me as though she was trying to “preserve” something in different sense of the word than all of the naturalists and scientists preserving their specimens. It feels like she was trying to save something that she loved, to hold onto memories of friends and family members, as in a family album or a yearbook. In popular culture at the time various plants and flowers represented certain friends and lovers, but for Dickinson it honestly feels as the the flowers themselves were her friends and lovers. Her language of flowers is so much wilder and truer that the trite posy poesy we associate with the era. Lonely and mortality-obsessed from an early age, she must have been a strange feeling of having-power-over-time-itself by saving the flowers’ very bodies in her book. By giving names to faded fragile ghosts.
Flowers have a weighty presence in Dickinson’s poems and letters. Their short cycles of life embody birth, death, rebirth, the passage of the sun, the seasons, our lives. Her poems were “blossoms of the brain.” Emily Dickinson’s poems about flowers are not always pretty, especially if you understand the thinly-veiled symbolism. You wouldn’t crochet them on a doily. They’re about lust and death and the blood in our veins, the blood in our arteries. They’re about creation, as a reflection of life and death and art. They’re about god, as a force that we don’t understand but that nature might. They’re about the woman she loved, (who married her brother) who buried her with cypripedium and violets at her neck, two heliotropes in her hand.
You can’t capture flowers or standardize them, you can’t create a shared language of their color, because they have their own wild fierce language.
But I still find it beautiful that people tried. That these men took the time to notice the underside of petals, the veins, the stems, the sepals and stamens. The insides of birds and butterflies wings, their tail feathers and quill feathers and beauty marks. The secret, beautiful quiet spaces. There’s so much in life that we can’t capture in words or pictures: everything is shifting, changing, and with more hues, values and shades than our eyes can see, more notes than our ears can hear, more subtleties than our hearts can feel or our minds define. But I love that we still try.