Mother Nature's paint box

Colour in Nature

January 2, 1998

The thirst for colour endured by those of us who criss-crossed the ocean dividing continents in the battle of the Atlantic during the second world war was by no means the trivial hardship it might seem. As a teenage cadet, I cannot forget the misery of that eternal grey. The sea was always grey, the sky was grey, the ships were painted grey - battleship grey they called it - and much of our time in port on either side of the Atlantic was spent with buckets of grey paint, covering patches where it had worn or rusted away, much of the grey paint ending on our bodies or our clothes. Grey, grey, grey, there was nothing but grey. Even when you got back to Britain. The towns and cities were grey, or seemed to be with the blackout, the bomb craters, the rationing even of clothes - all now forgotten and, for most readers I hope, forever unknown.

So it was with pleasant anticipation that I opened Penelope Farrant's celebration of colour in this delightful and informative book. Who would have thought of producing a large coffee-table book on nothing but colour - in science, in nature and even the cosmos about us. As you might expect, the quality of the printing and the photographs is uniformly high, though there are some puzzling gaps. For example, although Farrant mentions the deep oceans, I searched the book in vain for any mention of the ocean floor hydro-thermal vents, or "black smokers" as they are sometimes called, discovered on the Atlantic ridge. They pour out thick torrents of super-heated water that is unable to flash into steam because of the prodigious pressure of the water above, but they bring with them such an abundance of rich minerals that colonies of diverse and exuberant living things form oases around them. And there, in the total and perpetual darkness of the deepest oceans, those living things are coloured. Why? Are they perhaps recent newcomers to these hostile environments that have not yet, as it were, had evolutionary time to lose their useless colours? There is no explanation of these phenomena or even a mention of them in Farrant's otherwise superb book.

She, and indeed few others, might like to know about the effect of colour on the Asian elephant. If you drive around the forests of southern India (yes, there still are some) and you notice that the milestones are painted green rather than the conventional colours, you can be sure there are wild elephants about. Forest officers and tribesmen will tell you that if you paint milestones the usual colours, elephants will come in the night and push them over with their great feet and sometimes pick them up in their trunks and toss them into the undergrowth. Received wisdom is that among mammals only the primates - monkeys, apes and ourselves - can perceive colour. Are Asian elephants such a dramatic exception? If so, do they not deserve to be thought of as our earliest environmentalists?

I love the book's macro-photography, particularly because I have done so much of it myself, and have found that colour in very small forms of life can be as intense and detailed as any. In particular the full-page illustration of the carotenoids -yellow, orange or red plant pigments - of coelenterates, the polyps, corals, anemones or jellyfish, is breathlessly beautiful. When I first came to India and people I knew discovered my interest in photography, they urged me to go to the hills in pursuit of colour and beauty. They were wrong. The hills, at least those comparatively low ranges of southern India where I live, are uniformly green, and green is the least attractive colour in photography. There can be nothing more colourful than the rice-fields of the tropical plains: lines of women in brightly coloured saris transplanting emerald-green rice seedlings (it is believed that if men transplant them they will not grow: the women say the real reason is that such work in the hot sun is too hard for men); dark-skinned ploughmen stirring the flooded, mirrored mud, wearing little but the cloths around their heads, goading their bullocks round and round to stir the soft ochre mire beneath with wooden ploughs. A sentinel backdrop with rows of coconut or palmyra trees, a brilliant blue tropical sky.

Short of those Atlantic greys, nothing is more depressingly uniform than the green, table-flat bushes of a typical tea estate. Yet even Farrant's pages of green leaves show great beauty in that colour, too - something of a surprise.

Curiously, it is the glossary that is odd. Very odd. Do we really need to be told, for example, that the eye is "a light receptor organ", that a giant star is "a very large one", that fog "is a thick white mist", or that a gas "is a substance like air that is lighter than a liquid"? The book's glossary is peppered with such useless cat-sat-on-the-mat level definitions. Some are even downright wrong. "The range of distance from the eye within which objects are in focus" is not the depth of focus but the depth of field, Dr Farrant, a common error among amateur photographers but not one to be expected in so learned a book.

In normal times at least, not in the wartime north Atlantic, we live in a world of colour, from blue skies and coral seas, to multi-hued flowers and green plants. Farrant has set out to show us how great a part colour plays in our everyday lives, and this she does with success that overwhelms the nit-picking of reviewers such as me. Colour is explained from its production, perception and its probable function in clear concise prose, supported by more than 300 photographs. This is a beautiful book that it is valuable not only for the general reader but also for the young who have the patience to think for more than a few minutes about the purpose of colour in living and inorganic things, how the nature of light reveals colour to us but also limits it in ways that are revealed to other forms of life such as some insects: how different the world must look to the bee, which can see far into the ultraviolet. Here is a book that verges on science but is both beautiful and informative. But then science always is.

Harry Miller is a fellow of the Zoological Society, who lives in Madras.

Colour in Nature: A Visual and Scientific Exploration

Author - Penelope A. Farrant
ISBN - 0 7137 2351 3
Publisher - Blandford
Price - £25.00
Pages - 202

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