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The Peasant and the Birdnester (Pieter Bruegel the Elder, 1568) oil on panel

Ferrebeekeeper has blogged a great deal about fancy modern colors like follyMountbatten pink, mauve, and greenery.  The names and high-falutin’ synthetic chemistry underlying the pigmentation of these faddish vogue colors really is quite recent (in the grand scheme of things I mean).  Today though, to celebrate autumn, we have a very beautiful color which has an ancient name (which goes back to at least Middle English).  According to color theorists, russet is a tertiary color–the result of combining purple and orange.  What this means in practice is that russet is a medium dark reddish-brown which looks like the floor of a forest or the unswept corners of a poultry yard. We know the word was around at least in 1363, because an English statute of that year required poor people to wear russet (although it may have been referring to a coarse woolen cloth dyed with woad and madder which, for a time was synonymous with the color).

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Despite its associations with the hempen homespun smallfolk (or perhaps because of it), russet has an astonishing literary history.  The first scene of the first act of Hamlet ends when “the morn, in russet mantle clad, walks o’er the dew of yon high eastward hill.”  Russet, being a somber earthen color, was associated with autumn, death, and mourning (which is perhaps why we find it in the haunted scene in Hamlet).  Cromwell also referred to the color when he preferred a disciplined and seasoned captain in russet (e.g. a commoner with a commission) to a noble soldier “which you call a gentleman and is nothing else.”

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A Bearded Old Man, Wearing a Brown Coat and Russet Hat(Rembrandt van Rijn, 1651) Oil on Canvas

There is also an artistic truth behind the color which is painful for the excitable young artist to grasp.  Drawings made in medium and dark browns have a way of coming out far more beautifully than drawings made with brighter and more fashionable colors.   When I was young I kept making drawings with violet or blood red.  Why didn’t I listen to Shakespeare and Cromwell and use russet.  Courtiers of the 14th century may have sneered at it (and brown is perhaps still not the most chic color on the catwalk) but it is beautiful and it suits living things very well…which is good, for here in the temperate northern world we are about to embark upon an entire season of russet.

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Ok, I’ll admit it, maybe I still have some “panda-monium” in my system from Tuesday’s announcement about the 2022 Olympic mascot, Bing Dwen Dwen, an adorable panda wearing some sort of ice hauberk.  To follow up on that post, here is a picture of a baby panda in China which was just born with white and gray fur.  What’s the story here?

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Now everyone knows that pandas are black and white (except for the red panda, which is really a whole different sort of animal), however it turns out there are a couple of mysterious off-color giant panda clans out there in the bamboo forests. Apparently a family from Chengdu Research Base of Giant Panda Breeding sometimes has gray and white cubs.  Pandas from the so-called Gray family look wise beyond their years at first but then turn to normal white and black as they grow into adulthood.  Here is Chengshi, another gray-and-white cub born a few years ago who matured into a lovely black-and -white goofball.

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However, the Gray family of color-changing gray pandas is not the most dramatic clan of differently colored giant pandas.

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This is Qi Zai, the world’s only captive brown and white panda.  Qi Zai is from the distant Qinling Mountains in Shaanxi, where a subspecies of brown and white pandas appropriately known as Qinling pandas are known to reside.  Qinling pandas are rarely spotted in the forest fastnesses of their remote home.  The pandas are reputedly somewhat smaller (and more sensitive) than their black-and-white relatives.  Zoologists are still arguing about how to classify the brown and white pandas (are they a true sub-species, or just an unusual family), but it seems like they are certainly the rarest of the rare.  It is is estimated that only 200-300 exist in the whole world.

e3f4c832453cc5d0324911942eaee398.jpegBecause of last week’s post about the Thai coronation I got sucked into spooling through pictures of the astonishingly beautiful and crazy sights of Thailand.  We really need to all visit that exquisitely beautiful land! What a place!

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At any rate, as long-term Ferrebeekeeper readers will recall, I once made a (sadly unpublished) book on how to build toy vehicles out of household refuse.  The industrious Buddhist monks of Thailand however did not stop at making toys.  Thus, the temple which most caught my eye was Wat Pa Maha Chedio Kaew also named “Temple of Million Bottles.”  As you can tell by the name, this temple (and all of its outbuildings like the crematorium and the restrooms) are built of empty bottles which have been carefully mortared together to form an exquisite .  Actually though, the name is a bit of a misnomer–thus far the complex is constructed not of a million bottles but of around a million and a half bottles.

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The project started back in 1984, when some monks decided to clean up the refuse around their temple.  Perceiving the inner beauty of the discarded beer bottles, the monastics chose not to throw them away, but instead to clean them and use the brown and green glass vessels for constructing temple accessories.  The project took on a life of its own as visitors brought ever more bottles–mostly Heineken bottles (green) and Chang Beer bottles (brown).

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Anyone who has ever tried to piece together recalcitrant materials into desired order will start to fathom the scope of the monks’ accomplishment.  Beyond the novelty of the material and the satisfying moral component of seeing something so complete made of something everyone throws away, the temple is simply beautiful though.   Buildings in America are made of heavily regulated prefabricated materials expressly created for crafting buildings…and yet so many new buildings here are appallingly heart-wrenchingly ugly.  Perhaps we could take some lessons from the monks not just in upcycling but also in imagination, patience, and craft.

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Yet even if that isn’t going to happen, you can still contemplate the shadow side of Maha Chedio Kaew: in order for it to exist people drank one and a half million beers.  That is a moral lesson which the Frauenkirche simply does not offer.

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Gothic Cathedral in a Medieval City (Pieter Cornelis Dommersen, ca. late 19th century, oil on canvas)

Gothic Cathedral in a Medieval City (Pieter Cornelis Dommersen, ca. late 19th century, oil on canvas)

It has been too long since Ferrebeekeeper featured a Gothic-themed post…and we are still quite a ways from autumn, the spooky season when creepy beautiful imagery seems most appropriate.  To whet you interest for more complicated Gothic posts which are coming up (and to fulfil your need for beautiful art and architecture) here is a very beautiful painting of a cathedral by the brilliant Dutch architectural painter, Pieter Cornelis Dommersen (1833–1918) .  Dommersen’s art has fallen from fashion because of its fussy obsessiveness with detail and his anachronistic historical landscapes (which already seemed old-fashioned when he was painting them more than a century ago), but, to my eye there is a beautiful harmony of color and form in his works which make the little cityscapes come to life with unique power and vividness.  In this work the tiny burghers and worthies beneath the spires and gables of this German-looking medieval town seem to be made of the same cobbles, plaster, and masonry as their town. The entire brown and gray milieu teeters at the edge of being a Thomas Kincaid-type work of kitsch, yet somehow the way the Gothic buildings lean towards each other and beckon the viewer into the oddly familiar alleys transcends the merely picturesque realm of postcard art.  There is a real beauty and meaning in Dommersen’s art, but it is subtle and urbane.

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So, I tremendously appreciated all of the thoughtful responses to last week’s post about branding.  I took all of your kind words and good ideas to heart and I am continuing to mull over the secret mysteries of what makes some things so profoundly popular.  In fact, this concept of branding (and the psychological and practical underpinnings of recognizable things) bears on today’s post about color…specifically about the color brown, which Ferrebeekeeper has shamefully overlooked in the many posts concerning different hues.  But first, we must digress back to America’s railroad past…

Pullman Car Interior. Box #16 Folder #723.

Pullman Car Interior. Box #16 Folder #723.

The Pullman Co. was a railroad concern which operated sleeping cars from 1867 until 1968 throughout the United States. The name was legendary for comfort, style, and service.  Pullman was a visionary entrepreneur who discovered inspiration in a bad railroad journey he had suffered during his youth. This uncomfortable ordeal became the impetus for a lifelong obsession with traveling well.  His cars featured comfortable foldaway beds, separator drapes, fashionable furniture, and other amenities unknown in the day. In time there were even libraries, dining rooms, and rolling kitchens which served meals cooked on the (traveling) premises.

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The Pullman Co. also played a big role in African American history, since the attendants who worked on Pullman cars—the equally legendary Pullman porters–were largely black.  The porters’ union was important in American labor struggles and was one of the first nationally organized entities to stand up for African-American concerns at the workplace and beyond.

In fact, the story of the company touches on all sorts of different aspects of late nineteenth and early twentieth century life. There was a sprawling company town in Illinois where everything was Pullman.  There were horrifying strikes, and strange incestuous deals with railroad monopolies, and all sorts of turn of the century business and political shenanigans.  Eventually there were manufacturing alliances, and anti-trust cases. However all of this is part of a different & bigger story…

Gosh...

Gosh…

As the railroads were replaced by highly dangerous automobiles, the Pullman Company attempted to branch out into trolleys and even buses, but the concept of comfortable and elegant travel was doomed to fade from the world.  Sadly the era of luxury travel by light rail has receded into the storied past and Pullman cars seem like they belong to a vastly bygone era—like clipper ships, powdered wigs, or eel pies.

A Brunswick Green Locomotive with Pullman Brown Cars

A Brunswick Green Locomotive with Pullman Brown Cars

However, the name does not just live on in sad railroad ballads, it also had an associated color—Pullman brown.   Pullman selected a shade of brown for aesthetic reasons and because it was easy to clean (no mean feat on a nineteenth century railroad).   Presumably he liked the color too (although here I am speculating). When the company died, this color lived on…and there was another national company which operated big boxy wheeled things ready to pounce.  People who have never seen a Pullman sleeper car should instantly recognize the color, because UPS uses it as an integral part of their brand.  All UPS trucks and uniforms are Pullman brown.

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The reasons for this are multifold. Perhaps most importantly most parcels were (and are) packaged in brown cardboard so the association was natural.  Also the color apparently is easy to keep clean (or perhaps a more punctilious person would say it doesn’t show dirt).   Apparently, early on, UPS discovered that people had fond memories of Pullman brown and associated it with luxury and competence. Today UPS has all sorts of trademarks, patents, and suchlike legalistic protections over the color (!) and it is even part of their off-putting slogan “What can Brown do for you?”  I wonder what other corporate branding choices trace their history back into bygone worlds.

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A Brown Bear (Ursus arctos)

A Brown Bear (Ursus arctos)

This blog frequently describes mammals which are extinct or not well known—creatures like the pseudo-legendary saola, the furtive golden mole, or the long-vanished moeritherium, however today Ferrebeekeeper is going all out and writing about one of the wild animals which people think about most frequently.

"Oh good, humankind is thinking about us."

“Oh no! Humankind is thinking about us.”

The brown bear (Ursus arctos) is beloved, feared, worshipped, hunted, despised, and glorified by humankind.  These great bears are arguably the largest land predator alive today (their only rival is their near-cousin, the polar bear).  A Kodiak brown bear can weigh up to 680 kg (1500 lbs) and stand 3 meters (10 feet) tall when on two legs.  Brown bears can run (much) faster than the fastest human sprinter.  Likewise they can climb and swim better than we can.   They are literal monsters—mountains of muscle with razor sharp teeth and claws.  However, bears have become so successful and widespread not because of their astonishing physical prowess, but because of their substantial intelligence.

A female brown bear in an English zoo waves to appreciative zoogoers.

A female brown bear in an English zoo waves to appreciative zoogoers.

Ursus arctos live in India, China, the United States, Russia, and throughout Europe.  Because they live across such a broad swath of planet Earth, brown bears are divided into nearly twenty subspecies, but these various brown bears all share the same basic characteristics and traits.  Brown bears are primarily nocturnal and crepuscular, but they can hunt and forage during the day if it daylight suits their needs.  Since they are ingenious omnivores, they are capable of living in many different landscapes and habitats.  Usually solitary by nature, the bears sometimes gather together in large numbers if a suitable source of nutrients becomes available (such as a salmon run, a dump, or a meadow full of moth larva). The bears eat everything from tiny berries and nuts on up to bison and muskox.  Although the majority of bears live primarily by foraging, some families are extremely accomplished at hunting.  Brown bears pin their prey to the ground and then begin devouring the still living animal.  This ferocious style means that humans greatly fear bear attacks, even though such events are extremely rare everywhere but Russia (where all living things continuously attack all other living things anyhow).

Brown bear cub with mother in Alaska (photo by superbearblog.com)

Brown bear cub with mother in Alaska (photo by superbearblog.com)

Bears are serial monogamists: they stay together with a single partner for a few weeks and then move on romantically.  The female raises the cubs entirely on her own.  Gravid bears have the remarkable ability to keep embryos alive in a suspended unimplanted state for up to six months.  In the midst of the mother bear’s hibernation, the embryos implant themselves on the uterine wall and the cubs are born eight weeks later. Remarkably, if a bear lacks suitable body fat for nursing cubs, the embryos are reabsorbed.

Entertainer Bart the Bear with his trainer/human liaison

Entertainer, Bart the Bear, poses with his trainer/human liaison

Experts believe that brown bears are as intelligent as the great apes.  There is evidence of bears using tools, planning for the future, and figuring out formidable puzzles (although they are terrible at crosswords). Their high intelligence can make bears seem endearingly human—as in the case of a beer-drinking bear from Washington State.  After drinking one can of a fancy local beer and one can of mass market Busch, the bear proceeded to ignore the Busch while drinking 36 cans of the pricier local brew before passing out. There are famous bear actors with resumes more impressive than all but the most elite film stars.  In other cases, bears and people have worked together less well.  Brown bears used to live throughout the continental United States, but they were hunted to death.

"The figure of a shaman’s bear ally, paws outstretched, ready to assist in healing. It comes from the Nanai people and was collected in the Khabarovsk region in 1927. The “healing hands” of this bear were held to be especially helpful in treating joint problems." (from http://arctolatry.tumblr.com)

“The figure of a shaman’s bear ally, paws outstretched, ready to assist in healing. It comes from the Nanai people and was collected in the Khabarovsk region in 1927. The “healing hands” of this bear were held to be especially helpful in treating joint problems.” (from http://arctolatry.tumblr.com)

Humans and bears have a love-hate relationship: although bears have been driven out of many places where they once lived, the practice of bear-worship was so widespread among circumpolar and ancient people that there is even a word for it: “arctolatry”.  Bear worship is well documented among the Sami, the Ainu, the Haida, and the Finns.  In pre-Roman times, bears were worshiped by the Gauls and the British.  Artemis has a she-bear form and is closely associated with Ursus Major and Ursus Minor.  Yet bear worship stretches back beyond ancient times into true prehistory.  Cult items discovered in Europe suggest that bears were worshiped in the Paleolithic and were probably of religious significance to Neanderthals as well as Homo Sapiens.  Indeed, some archaeologists posit that the first European deities took the form of bears.

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A wild Prairie Trillium

A wild Prairie Trillium

In the wild there are all sorts of brown flowers.  Trees, grasses, vines, and wildflowers frequently bear tiny brown or green blossoms so as not to draw the attention of herbivores.  Yet brown is an unusual color in the flower garden for the same reason.  For centuries (or millennia) gardeners have tried to breed, hybridize, or mutate flowers into increasingly vibrant shades of pink, purple, yellow, orange, red, white, and blue.  However, if you look through botanical gardens and flower catalogs for long enough, you will find a pretty brown variety of nearly every popular sort of garden flower.  Here is a tiny gallery—and the familiar favorites are surprisingly pretty (and unfamiliar) in shades of chocolate, caramel, auburn, and sienna.

Brown Hybrid Orchid (Warren Arthur Wilson)

Brown Hybrid Orchid (Warren Arthur Wilson)

Paphiopedilum faireanum

Paphiopedilum faireanum

Velour Frosted Chocolate Viola (from swallowtailgardenseeds.com)

Velour Frosted Chocolate Viola (from swallowtailgardenseeds.com)

Chrysanthemum (Brown Disbud Cremon)

Chrysanthemum (Brown Disbud Cremon)

Brown Bearded Iris

Brown Bearded Iris

Terra Nostra Roses (NIRP International)

Terra Nostra Roses (NIRP International)

Copper toned daylily

Copper toned daylily

Absalom Tulip from 1870 at Old House Gardens

Absalom Tulip from 1870 at Old House Gardens

Brown Gerbera Daisy

Brown Gerbera Daisy

Voodoo Magic Hibiscus

Voodoo Magic Hibiscus

 

Brown Gladiolus

Brown Gladiolus

Brown Sunflower

Brown Sunflower

Eastern Brown Snake (Pseudonaja textilis) assuming defensive posture (a fearless photo by Stephen Zozaya)

Eastern Brown Snake (Pseudonaja textilis) assuming defensive posture (a fearless photo by Stephen Zozaya)

Ah, lovely Australia…the land down under is famed for its magnificent coral reefs, its dreamlike wastelands, its proud citizens, and, above all, its innumerable toxic animals. Although the hordes of poisonous jellyfish, spiders, snails, centipedes, and octopi are alarming, humankind is particularly hardwired to be afraid of snakes and it is in this reptilian realm that the island continent especial shines.  In fact, the most venomous land snake in the world, the inland taipan (Oxyuranus microlepidotus) lives in Australia.  A single bite from an inland taipan has enough poison to kill up to 250,000 mice!  Yet the inland taipan is far from the most formidable snake in Australia (indeed, it is a very shy and retiring serpent which lives in the inhospitable dry scrubland of central/southeast Australia).  The snake which Australians truly fear is (slightly) less toxic, but vastly more numerous and also far more prone to bite first and ask questions later (insomuch as snakes ever examine their actions).

Eastern Brown Snake (Pseudonaja textilis)

Eastern Brown Snake (Pseudonaja textilis)

Brown snakes (Pseudonaja) constitute an entire genus of venomous elapid snakes which are found throughout almost the entirety of Australia. There are nine different species of brown snakes which vary somewhat from location to location, however almost all brown snakes can be aggressive and they are apt to bite or even attack a much larger animal when provoked (although hopefully they will overlook the occasional fear-mongering blog post).  The eastern brown snake is the second most toxic land snake in Australia (and arguably the world) and, appallingly it lives all sorts of places—scrubland, eucalyptus forests, woodlands, grasslands, and farmlands (though not swamps, rainforests, or true deserts).  Because it is so adaptable, the eastern brown snake easily thrives in gardens, suburban lawns, and even in urban habitats.  Eastern brown snakes live along the highly populated southeast of Australia, up the coast to the York peninsula and into Papua New Guinea and Indonesia.  They also range through the Northern territories to Western Australia.

Speckled Brown Snake (Pseudonaja guttata) from "Reedy's Reptiles"

Speckled Brown Snake (Pseudonaja guttata) from “Reedy’s Reptiles”

The venom of the eastern brown snake is a heady cocktail of neurotoxins and blood coagulants.  Bites begin by causing diarrhea, dizziness, and collapse—which can then develop into convulsions, renal failure, paralysis and cardiac arrest (symptoms which hold true—although to a lesser degree for the other brown snakes). Fortunately all species of brown snakes have tiny fangs and they do not usually deliver much venom per bite.  Additionally, the snakes can control how much venom they inject per bite and they frequently give a venom-free warning bite out of good sportsmanship (although if you are bitten by one of the world’s most toxic snakes, the fact that the snake might not have injected you with a lethal amount of poison will be scant comfort).   A person’s weight matters greatly when it comes to surviving bites—so small children are particularly at risk.

Gwardar (Pseudonaja nuchalis)

Gwardar (Pseudonaja nuchalis)

Brown snakes eat rodents (which were introduced to Australia), small mammals, amphibians, birds, eggs and other reptiles.  They are a helpful (albeit scary) part of the ecosystem, although considering their honed deadliness, they could afford to be a bit more flamboyant.  Also, humans have effective antivenins for all the brown snakes (so if you are bitten by a modestly colored but oddly insouciant snake while you are down under, you should probably contact some health-service providers).

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Between giant planets and small stars exists a bizarre class of heavenly objects known as brown dwarfs. Brown dwarfs are not massive enough to fuse hydrogen elements together as do main sequence stars like the sun, however brown dwarfs larger than 13 Jovian masses are believed to fuse deuterium atoms and large brown dwarfs (65 Jovian masses and up) are believed to fuse lithium.  Since brown dwarfs can be very much like planets or like stars, there is a specific definition to describe the objects: a brown dwarf must have experienced some sort of nuclear fusion as a result of mass and temperature, however it cannot have fused all of its lithium (or it is considered a star or stellar fragment).  A stellar physicist reading this blog might object that medium and large stars have some lithium present in their outer atmosphere, or that a very young white dwarf could still have some unused lithium present, or even that an old heavy brown dwarf could have fused all of its lithium.  That physicist would be correct: she deserves some cookies and a pat on the head for poking holes in unnecessarily simple definitions.

Various Classifications of Brown Dwarfs

Various Classifications of Brown Dwarfs

Brown dwarfs were theorized to exist in the 1960s, but no astronomer managed to discover one until 1988 when a team of University of California astronomers who were studying white dwarfs found a bizarrely cool red spectral signature for a faint companion to the star GD 165.  Since then many brown dwarfs have been discovered and sorted into the major types M, L, T, and Y.  They occupy a strange ambiguous area at the bottom of the Hertzsprung-Russell diagram—objects which are luminous and massive in comparison to everything else but tiny and dim compared to real stars.

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There are some planets which are known to orbit brown dwarfs and there also brown dwarfs known to orbit true stars.  It is beginning to seem that there a great many brown dwarfs out there: perhaps they are as numerous as true stars (or maybe they are even more common than that).  Since they are hard to detect, scientists do not have a very accurate assay of their frequency in the universe.  The question bears somewhat on our understanding of the universe–since a great deal of matter is  not accounted for.

An artist's conception of a brown dwarf seem from a closely orbiting planet

An artist’s conception of a brown dwarf seem from a closely orbiting planet

My mind keeps returning to the fact that some brown dwarfs have planetary systems.  Imagine these melancholic twilight ice worlds forever orbiting a dim glow which will never blaze into a true sun.   It is a melancholy picture, but not without a certain beauty.

A Brown Dwarf with Planet and Moon (painting by Lynette Cook from fineartamerica.com)

A Brown Dwarf with Planet and Moon (painting by Lynette Cook from fineartamerica.com)

Puce flea on pale puce background

Puce flea on pale puce background

There is a lot of misunderstanding about the color puce.  The American definition is a middle tone brownish purple-pink, however, in France, where the name originated, puce describes a much darker and sterner red-brown.  Other fashion sources occasionally also use the word puce to describe a murky shade of green horror created by mixing orange and blue (although I personally regard such a concept as misguided on many levels).

A Puce Sari

A Puce Sari

The dreadful sounding name has an equally vile origin.  The French word for a flea is “une puce”.  Puce was the term used for the brownish red dried blood stains left on sheets or clothing when a person was badly bitten by fleas:  so puce has its origin in bloodstains.  I suppose we are lucky it isn’t called “crime scene” or “parasite”.  Despite the confusion regarding the nature of the color, it has had periods of real popularity.  Marie Antoinette”s favorite color was said to be puce (although I can’t find any portraits of her wearing it).  The color seems to be favored by the great and powerful–it is also the boss’ favorite color in Dilbert.

French puce suede oxfords (from "Pointer" if you must have them)

French puce suede oxfords (from “Pointer” if you must have them)

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