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“Ultimate Gray” and “Illuminating”

It is mid-December and that means that it is time for Pantone to announce the color of the year for 2021 (on the outside chance that the longed-for new year ever actually arrives).  Through some sort of dark chromomancy, the Pantone high counsel of color wizards usually manages to correctly predict the trends of the coming year with their selections (for 2020 they presciently selected depression-colored blue).  After this epic disaster of a year (when the world was ravaged by a plague and the nation came an electoral inch from re-electing an evil fascist criminal) it is frightening to see what hue the oracles have chosen to represent our shared destiny.

Andddd…to be honest, the outlook does not look so great.  As in 2016, Pantone has cast a vote for transition, change, and uncertainty by naming two colors of the year. However, whereas the colors of 2016 (baby blue and pink) were at least pretty, for 2021 they have chosen the leaden hue of wet concrete and the vivid yellow of “checks cashed” & “liquor” signs.  It looks like driving through South Chicago in 1993! The colors’ proper trade names are “Illuminating” for the bright yellow and “Ultimate Gray” for the dark cold gray.

Good times…

Pantone chooses dull, ugly, neutral colors when they project a downturn and bright, splashy colors when they are predicting boom times.  By choosing both they are throwing up their hands in bafflement (which makes perfect sense, since the world’s economic sages are likewise shrugging and anxiously pulling their collars). The blathering spokespeople who have to spin this stuff into sales copy are talking about “light at the end of the tunnel” and “uplifting, smiley face yellow”, but I think the residents of East Flatbush can recognize down-and-out colors from shared urban experience.

The Colors of the Year for 2020 & 2021…and 2002 there on the letters, I guess

From Ferrebeekeeper’s perspective, there is indeed a hint of better times in these colors.  Bright yellow and wet concrete are not just the colors of the inner city shopping district, they are colors for building!  When you look at a new highway or a new airport, it is all “Illuminating” and “Ultimate Gray”!  Caterpillar paints its bulldozers, backhoes, road-graders, and cement mixers high-vis yellow for safety reasons (speaking of which, a season of safety would be nothing to sneeze at).  Brand new concrete is…the color of wet concrete.  Perhaps the color oracles are indicating that America and the world can indeed move forward, but only if we stop bickering, denying, and doting on cowardly con-artists and start building.

In fact I am writing sarcastically, as fits this publicity stunt non-event, but bright yellow really truly is a beautiful color on a yellow tang, a golden oriole, an autumn cherry tree, Oshun’s dress, or even a good number 2 pencil. All of which is to say: the 2021 color of the year is more of a choose-your-own affair than usual (and we are already talking about colors, any of which take on the meaning you ascribe to them).  Can we work together and dream and plan and rebuild?  Or are we going to spend the year blaming those other people for our problems as we walk down the gray boulevard of broken dreams to cash our sad tiny check before heading into the Dollar General?

Hey! Has anyone checked the Pantone people’s bank accounts to see if they just received a suspiciously large number of crumpled dollar bills?


Knotweed growing from a crack in the concrete

I used to be a tenant in a Brooklyn apartment with a concrete patio in the back (in fact I still am, but I’m describing a different place). I spent a lot of time back there grilling, talking with my friends, or just pacing around. Sometimes my roommates and I threw parties and we had huge groups of people over: naturally the largest groups of guests were usually packed on the patio. One day I was on the patio, quietly appreciating the garden plants, when I noticed that there was a crack in the concrete right next to the barbecue grill. Growing in this unfavorable environment was a flattened-out dark green plant.  It was spidery and sprawling with tiny leaves and wiry stems, but it was thriving right where everyone walked on it constantly.  In fact it was next to the grill!  I think I probably spent the whole summer standing on it and cooking without even noticing.

This plant was Polygonum arenastrum, more commonly called the common knotweed.  It has a prosaic name and it is not exactly a giant redwood in terms of magnificence, but perhaps the giant redwoods should look up to it.  Although it was originally from Europe, it is now on all of the continents except for Antarctica, and it can be easily found in most temperate locations.  It has made a living being underfoot.  A summer annual, the knotweed is a bicot with a long taproot. A member of the buckwheat family and a cousin to the smartweeds, it grows on footpaths, dirt roads, and in barnyards–anywhere it can find packed ground.  The foot traffic which is inimical to other plants is actually helpful to it.  The tiny plant has a great many common names.  To quote Edwin Rollin Spencer’s folk-lore treatise, All About Weeds, ”Like most of the weeds that came from the Old World this one has many English names: Ninety-knot, Centinode, Ninejoints, Allseed, Bird’s Tongue, Swynell grass, Swine’s grass, Redrobin, Armstrong, Cow-grass, Hog-weed and Pig rush.”  Spencer further underscored this point by calling the plant “knotgrass” throughout his little essay.

Most of the literature I have found concerning the knotweed/knotgrass is about how one can eradicate it (to summarize this accumulated body of wisdom: pull it up), however the lowly weed has found its way into some lofty places.  In A Midsummer Night’s Dream, the Athenian nobleman Lysander tells off his lover Hermia (when, thanks to the magical power of fairy herbs and plot contrivances, he has conceived a dislike for her):

Get you gone, you dwarf;
You minimus, of hindering knot-grass made;
You bead, you acorn.

This is an allusion to the folk belief that eating knotweed would retard a person’s growth. It was also reckoned by herbalists to be a astringent, coagulant, diuretic and expectorant, but I am not going to make any attempt to assess whether those things are true–I’m only reporting lore.  Small birds certainly enjoy the seeds as do some larger animals (hence some of the common names).  The Vietnamese make use of a closely related species Polygonum aviculare as rau đắng, an ingredient in hotpot.

A diagram of Polygonum aviculare to be in Italian

If you are feeling a bit trampled down you might pause to think of the knotweed.  It lives underfoot, but it lives everywhere.  Because of its humble appearance and lowly aspect (not to mention our haughty human tastes and perspectives) we call it a weed.  Looked at from a more expansive vantage (or maybe from the knotweed’s own perspective), we might call it a winner.

Ye Olde Ferrebeekeeper Archives

December 2022