Monday, April 12, 2010

The garden of the colour blind

Imagine a world without colour. Imagine a garden without colour. Partial colour-blindness is fairly common - for example the red-green colour blindness that affects about one in twenty men. But what would it be like not to be able to see colour at all? Something, perhaps, like these photos.


The first day I was in England, I took photos of the garden intending to use them in a couple of posts. But I must have done something weird with the camera settings, because they came out in shades of grey with only the odd coloured tint.



The neurologist
Oliver Sacks' (remember Robin Williams and Robert de Niro in the film Awakenings?) describes the experience of total colour-blindness in one of his books. He talks about a visit to an island in the South Pacific where the population is congenitally colour blind, as well as also mentioning the experience of one of his patients who had lost colour vision after a car accident which damaged part of his brain. He says that this patient , "... seemed to have lost the ability not only to see colour but also to imagine or remember it, even to dream of it... (He) complained of his world feeling impoverished, grotesque, abnormal - his art, his food, even his wife looked "leaden" to him."



Do these photos give some idea what it would be like? Knock out the suggestions of yellow and blue, and they are without doubt "leaden". Not black and white - just a grisly shade of grey.



The book is worth reading. Not only for the account of the colour blind island, but also for Sacks account of the cycads on the island of Guam.

Sacks had been a collector of
Cycads since he was a child, and jumped at the chance to visit an island which was full of them, but also home to a neurological disorder called lytico-bodig - apparently caused by the poisonous effects of the plant. Cycads, in case you're not familiar with them, are plants which have been around for millions of years. They're the living dinosaurs of the plant world. Distantly related to palms and ferns, they grow in tropical and sub-tropical parts of the world where they are widely used as a food source, despite the fact that they are potent neuro-toxins, producing symptoms similar to those of Parkinson's disease. (If you've got any in your garden, don't be tempted to chomp on the plant as a snack.) Though all over the world people had apparently developed ways of detoxifying the plant, in Guam long-term effects seemed to remain. The rest is a detective story, told with Sacks usual humanity and compassion for the sufferers of the diseases he describes. It's a detective story with no solution, but well worth reading both for the botantical and the neurological details.



But back to colour blindness. What would it be like to garden, seeing only this? Sacks describes the reactions of Knut Nordby, a colour-blind scientist who accompanied him, and of James, one of the islanders :

Knut was fascinated by ... the richness of the vegetation, which he saw quite clearly, perhaps more clearly than the rest of us. For us, as colour-normals, it was was at first just a confusion of greens, whereas to Knut it was a polyphony of brightnesses, tonalities, shapes and textures, easily identified and distinguished from each other. He mentioned this to James who said it was the same for him and all the other achromatopes on the island - none of them had any difficulty distinguishing the plants on the island....

"But what about bananas..." Bob asked... " How can you tell when a banana is ripe ...?"

James' answer was to go to a banana tree and to come back with a carefully selected, bright green banana for Bob.

Bob peeled it; it peeled easily to his surprise. He took a small bite of it, gingerly; then devoured the rest.

"You see," said James, "We don't just go by colour. We look, we feel, we smell, we know - we take everything into consideration, and you just take colour!"

From : Oliver Sacks, The Island of the Colour-blind and Cycad Island Picador



20 comments:

Susan said...

Very cool pics!

~Gardener on Sherlock Street said...

Beautiful. I especially like the third photo.

Curbstone Valley Farm said...

A very thought-provoking post. You know Sue, I rather like the effect the camera bestowed on those photographs. I was once charged with developing some 'accessible' websites. Had to be understood by self-voicing web browsers, and had to use color palettes that were clearly visible to those who are color-blind. It would be shame to see a garden without color, but as you point out, the experience of the garden also includes texture, and aroma...something that sadly doesn't really come across in our blogs.

madamebutterfly said...

The photos and your post sre really very interesting. Actually looking carefully at the photos you do get more of a "feel" for the textures then if they had been in colour. The coloured part remind me of some old black and whites of my mother as a child - the photographer painted colours on, but only a few.

Jan said...

That got me thinking... but I just can't imagine what it would be like to be colour blind. Good post!

OffalyGoodLife said...

Fantastic post, beautifully written and with amazing pictures. We often use black-and-white photographs (its so easy to do now with digital cameras) and there is something often mesmerising about the results - the play of light and dark, subtle shades, peoples faces, etc. We're lucky that we have the choice of turning the colour back on, especially in the garden.

Michelle said...

My friend, Ella, is shade blind, well that's what I call it. She can't distinquish dark colors like navy blue and purple, red and orange, and pale hues of yellow, pink, cream etc...

Jess said...

My brother is severely colorblind and though I generally forget it, every so often when we are together I'll comment on the overwhelming awe of some scene or another and realize that he cannot appreciate it. Then I feel badly for him because so much of the natural world I hold in wonder has to do with the colors of it. But then again, I do wonder if what he can see is more defined in other ways. And I wonder just what he does see, because I don't think its like a black and white photo exactly. It could be just as beautiful and something the rest of us never will see!

Carrie said...

Utterly fascinating. But how awful at the same time. I have permanent double vision (I see two of everything, one image swirls around the fixed one) but to lose the ability to see colour - I think that would end me. Thank you for making me think of others, I have been wrapped up in my own depression today - shameful.

GardenerX said...

Awesome looking pictures and what a nice article to read. Ta

patientgardener said...

I cant imagine being colour blind but then I suppose you are born that way so you dont know any different. If I was colour blind I hope I would get pleasure from texture and form, although I think it would be very fustrating to hear other gardeners talking about the colour of flowers

Susan in the Pink Hat said...

In the book 'Plant Driven Design,' the authors talk about a garden designer they know who is color blind. He places more emphasis on plant texture than color and has an aide help him with flower selection. They say the results always yield more sophisticated and beautiful design as the shape of the plants rather than the color is what carries the garden. I've actually thought about taking b&w photos of my garden to see where I'm too dependent upon color and not enough on structure.

Marian said...

Thank you for a really thoughtful post - I love colour and there are just so many shades of green even, to be able to see them all is a real gift. I do think texture comes before colour though, and structure before that. I get students to take pictures of their gardens in black and white in the winter - you can really see the structure of your garden then, and if that is got right it provides the fabulous year round background for the riotous party of colour that follows!

Elephant's Eye said...

I enjoy Oliver Sacks books. He writes with such fascination and compassion. Will be doing cycads this Friday. But we don't eat them!

AaronVFT said...

Even with the other senses, a world without colour is dull and depressing.

Helen at summerhouse said...

What a fascinating post! Personally, as an artist, I would be lost without color. At least for the kind of art I do. When I was in Art college we had a student who was color blind and he gave us an insight as to what he actually saw. Of course, I also sculpt so for that I only need form and texture. But no, I would not like a world in gray scale.

Kathryn said...

very interesting thought...luckily most colour blind people can still see some colours, and are only blind to selective colours...

wannabegardener said...

Sue, excellent post. Reminds us of all the blessings in life we take for granted. To enjoy and appreciate all the colors of spring fully, one needs a stark reminder like this!

Tootsie said...

your photos are pretty! I don't know that it would matter much to me ...I just love plants...lol
My dad is color blind...most of what he sees he calls brown...so we don't really know...

Solitude Rising said...

Red-green colorblindness is hard enough. I cant imagine living in a world with no colors. Still, the pictures are great!

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