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Orpheus (Jean Delville, 1893, oil on canvas)

Orpheus (Jean Delville, 1893, oil on canvas)

The constellation Lyra was named after the haunting lyre of Orpheus. After the great musician was killed by maenads, his severed head and his lyre were thrown into the river and then drifted down to the sea. Zeus sent his eagle to pick up the lyre and carry it up into the night sky as an eternal reminder for human creative professionals about the nature of their discipline. The myth of this constellation is entirely different in China—as we have seen—yet it too revolves around star-crossed lovers sundered by circumstance.

The Constellation Lyra

The Constellation Lyra

Meanwhile…the robot observatory Kepler has been scanning the heavens for the subtle signs of exoplanets since 2009. The spacecraft malfunctioned in 2013, and engineers are still arguing about how best to salvage or repurpose it (or whether such a thing is even possible), but the vast treasure troves of data collected by Kepler are still yielding stunning discoveries. One of those discoveries just came to light this past week. In the constellation Lyra, there is an orange star 117 light years away from earth. The star is only 3/4th the size of the sun, but it is much older—dating back to 11.2 billion years ago (the sun, by comparison, is 4.567 billion years old). The universe itself is 13.8 billion years old—so the orange star has been burning through most of the history of creation. Because the orange star is smaller than the sun it has a much longer lifespan and will probably continue to fuse atoms together for another 20 billion years (whereas the dear sun, alas, will use up its fuel in another 4 or 5 billion years).

An artist's conception of 444 Kepler and its planetary system

An artist’s conception of 444 Kepler and its planetary system

This is already heady stuff to think about, but not unprecedented. What is news is that Kepler discovered five small, rocky planets orbiting this ancient star—by far the oldest planets ever discovered. The planets are tiny—smaller than Earth and closer to 444 Kepler than Mercury is to our sun. In light of this discovery, the ancient orange star in Lyra has been designated as 444 Kepler.

The Lament of Orpheus (Alexandre Séon, 1896, oil on canvas)

The Lament of Orpheus (Alexandre Séon, 1896, oil on canvas)

444 Kepler is from one of the first broods of stars to exist. The fact that it has planets at all is something of a surprise. Astronomers are working to explain the genesis of such early planets. Of course this discovery raises other questions as well, about whether life could be much older than imagined. However to such questions there are still no answers. From the heavenly lyre of Orpheus, as from the rest of the firmament we have still heard nothing but silence.

lead-image-halloweenDuring secondary school in rural Ohio the music teacher annually dug out the moth-eaten scores for a bunch of Halloween songs including “Black and Gold,” (the lyrics of which I still somewhat remember). The song was a doggerel hymn about the colors of Halloween season and the lyrics were just a list of black and gold items: jet black cats with golden eyes, golden goblins, pumpkins, and black shadows. Some young wag always said “this should be titled ‘black and orange,’” which I thought was a fair point based on all of the orange and black candy and decorations around.


Allegedly the seasonal color scheme of black and orange go back to the ancient Celtic traditions which Halloween comes from. Orange (or rich gold/saffron, maybe) is the symbolic color of the harvest, the crops, and the autumn leaves whereas black represents night, death, and winter darkness. It’s a good color combination, but I always wonder whether the seasonal obsession with bright orange and black may be more a result of marketers rather than ancient Celts—or maybe they actually dug out black robes and golden sickles every year for Samhain just like the music teacher got out those smudged Halloween music sheets.


If it is a marketing tradition, the marketers chose well. Orange and black are beautiful together and perfectly fit the season, but you rarely see people running around wearing this combination other than tigers and baseball players (and tigers aren’t even people). I wonder of there are shopping seasons in the future that likewise will be known by color—like back to school will be aqua and puce. Perhaps the seasonal holiday colors are predetermined by the natural colors season. Do Australians have a creepy death holiday in their fall (our spring) or what? Or is everything just orange, dun, and buff there every season? What are holiday color combinations from other cultures?

Polynesian Halloween?

Polynesian Halloween?


The carrot (Daucus carota sativus) has been in cultivation at least since classical antiquity (although Roman sources sometimes seemingly confuse the root vegetable with its close cousin, the parsnip). However don’t imagine toga-clad Romans walking around the Forum chewing on bright orange carrots like Bugs Bunny! In Classical antiquity and throughout the Middle Ages, carrots were purple or white. It was not until the 16th century that far-sighted Dutch farmers stumbled upon a mutant orange carrot and hybridized it with other varieties to begin the now-familiar tradition of all orange carrots. It is said that the orange carrots were chosen not just for their patriotic Netherlandish color (the princely Dutch House of Orange was leading a revolt against the Spanish) but also because they were sweeter and milder than the ancient white and purple cultivars.


A rainbow of heritage carrots from Burpee seeds

A rainbow of heritage carrots from Burpee seeds

Apparently all humans (with our tastes skewed toward a primate color palate) like the color orange better. Despite the fact that other colors of the tasty root dominated the market for two thousand years, orange carrots have now thoroughly supplanted the old varieties. Even in diverse New York, you would have to go to an esoteric farmer’s market or a specialty shop like Dean & Deluca to maybe dredge up some purple carrots. However seed catalogs still sell them–so if you want to eat like a healthy Roman grandee (assuming grandees even ate carrots), you can always grow your own.  Additionally, it looks like health food aficionados have become convinced that purple carrots contain anti-oxidants, so maybe the color pendulum is about to swing back the other direction…



Here is a gorgeous warm earth color for Thanksgiving week.  Gamboge is a deep yellow/pale orange color of tremendous antiquity.  By ancient tradition, Theravada monks dye their robes this distinctive color to show their devotion to the middle path.  The color is named after the Latin word for Cambodia, “Gambogia”, which was (and is) a center of Theravada spirituality as well as a major source of milky sap from Gamboge trees (genus Garcinia). Such sap is dried into a brown gum resin which is the main constituent of gamboge dye.


Because the color plays such a large role in the religious life of South Asia, it is well known throughout the world. Gamboge is a lovely and vibrant color in its own right—a perfect medium between orange and yellow.  All sorts of animals, fruit, and flowers can be described as gamboge.  Although Thanksgiving has no color scheme per say, the fallen autumn leaves usually inspire decorations in some combination of gamboge, sienna, and russet.


Melo Pearl

Melo Pearl

The world’s rarest and most precious pearls do not come from oysters, but instead from very large sea snails of the species Melo melo.  Melo melo snails lives in the tropical waters of southeast Asia and range from Burma down around Malysia and up into the Philippines.  The snails are huge marine gastropods which live by hunting other smaller snails along the shallow underwater coasts of the warm Southeast Asia seas.

Melo melo snail (Melo melo)

Melo melo snail (Melo melo)

Melo melo is a very lovely snail with a smooth oval shell of orange and cream and with zebra stripes on its soft body.  The shell lacks an operculum (the little lid which some snails use to shut their shells) and has a round apex as opposed to the more normal spiral spike. This gives the Melo melo snail’s shell a very aerodynamic lozenge-like appearance (although living specimens look more like alien battlecraft thanks to the large striped feet and funnels).  The animals grow to be from 15 to 35 centimeters in length (6 inches to a foot) although larger specimens have been reported.  The shell is known locally as the bailer shell because fishermen use the shells to bail out their canoes and small boats.

Melo melo at Birmingham's National Sea Life Centre (with keeper)

Melo melo at Birmingham’s National Sea Life Centre (with keeper)

Melo pearls form only rarely on the snails and are due to irritating circumstances unknown to science.  No cultivation mechanism exists (which explains the astronomically high prices).  A single large melo pearl can sell for hundreds of thousands of dollars or more in Asia.  The pearls are usually egg-shaped or oval (although perfectly round specimens are known) and they can measure up to 20-30mm in diameter.  Not nacreous (like pearls from oysters & abalones), these valuable objects have a porcelain-like transparent shine.  Melo pearls are brown, cream, flesh, and orange (with the brighter orange colors being most valuable).

Melo pearls with Melo melo shell

Melo pearls with Melo melo shell

Apart from the fact that they come from a large orange predatory sea snail, what I like most about melo pearls is the extent to which they evoke the celestial.  It is hard not to look at the shining ovals and orbs without thinking of the sun, Mars, Makemake, and Haumea.  Rich jewelry aficionados of East Asia, India, and the Gulf states must agree with me.  It is difficult to conceive of paying the price of a nice house for a calcium carbon sphere from an irritated/diseased snail, unless such pearl spoke of unearthly beauty and transcendent longing.


Chuck Yeager's X-1 Test Plane

It has been a while since Ferrebeekeeper has presented a post about color.  Therefore, to liven up the gray monotony of midwinter, today’s post features one of the most vivid colors out there.  International orange is a brilliant deep orange which is in widespread use throughout the world. Strangely enough, this eye-popping color was created and adopted for practical reasons.  International orange (a dark orange with hints of red) is the contrasting color with sky blue (pale blue with tinges of green).  The military and aerospace industry use international orange to make planes and personnel distinct from their surroundings.  Many famous test planes have been painted international orange including Chuck Yeager’s X-1 (above).   The color is also commonly used for flight suits, rescue equipment, and high-visibility maritime equipment.


Thanks to the high contrast of the color against the background, crews were more able to track the progress of test craft against the sky.  Additionally, if something went wrong, rescue and recovery became easier if the craft stood out against the sky, ocean, and land.

The Golden Gate Bridge

Aside from its use in spacecraft and supersonic test planes, international orange also makes tall structures stand out against the skyline (and therefore protects against accidental collision).  A darker “architectural” version of the color is instantly recognizable as the orange of the golden gate bridge.  The Tokyo Tower was painted in international orange and white in order to comply with safety regulations of the time.  The bright orange of both structures has become an integral part of their recognizability and appeal.

The Tokyo Tower

Although it is not branded as such, the natural world also has a use for international orange and a surprising number of poisonous creatures can be found in similar shades. Bright orange makes the creatures visible and advertises their toxicity to potential predators.  It is funny to think that tiny frogs and huge towers share the same color.

Oophaga pumilio (Strawberry Poison-dart Frog)

It might seem hard to believe but before Europeans discovered America, pumpkins were unknown in the old world. The familiar orange gourd-like squashes are native to North America. They belong to the Cucurbitacea family, which includes cucumbers, honeydew melons, cantaloupe, watermelons and zucchini.  The oldest pumpkin seeds discovered date back to 5500 BC and were found in Mexico—so the people of the Americas have been planting and harvesting pumpkins for a long time.  This makes perfect sense since pumpkins are low in calories but high in fiber, Vitamin A, the B vitamins, potassium, protein, and iron.

Today pumpkins are a huge agribusiness and US farmers alone grow more than 1.5 billion pounds worth (which is about the equivalent mass of eight aircraft carriers—although the pumpkins would be less handy in a naval engagement). Annual contests are held around the country to see who can grow the largest pumpkin—a record currently held by Chris Steven’s 821 kilogram (1,810 pound) monster pumpkin grown in Minnesota in 2010. Ninety five percent of canned pumpkin puree is grown in Illinois, the home of Libby’s (a giant vegetable canning company currently owned by Nestlé, the world’s most profitable company in 2011).  Strangely the pumpkins canned by Libby’s are a sort of buff colored variety which look very different than the orange jack-o-lantern pumpkins which are sold at produce-stands.

A field of commercial pumpkins in Illinois

Speaking of jack-o-lanterns the tradition of carving faces in vegetable to ward off evil spirits goes far back into the depths of medieval Irish history, however since pumpkins were unknown in Ireland until the 16th century such face-lanterns were originally carved out of turnip, mangel-wurzel, or swede.  It was not until the nineteenth century that such lanterns acquired their name and came to be associated with Halloween.

(AP Photo/Robert F. Bukaty)

Since I like to write about colors as well as farming, there is a handsome medium orange color named pumpkin, which, as you can imagine, is a staple hue for plastics and confections manufacturers as October and November roll around.

The Common Teal

The Common Teal (Anas crecca) is a gregarious dabbling duck which is widespread throughout temperate Europe during all seasons.  Further east, great flocks of teals live in Siberia during the summer and then migrate to India and China for the colder months.  But why is this duck being mentioned on Ferrebeekeeper?  Well, as it turns out, this is a post about color–and the common teal gives its name to one of the most widespread colors, teal, a middle tone blue-green.  The male common teal has a blue-green patch of feathers around his eyes–and these feathers are what the color was named after.

Situated half-way between blue and green, teal is a handsome tone which appeals to people who like both those colors. Teal featured prominently in the Plochere Color System, a color methodology favored by interior designers since the late forties.  Additionally, teal was one of 16 original HTML web colors formulated in 1987, so if you are a web pioneer or came of age in the nineties you may also have seen quite a lot of it.  But, even if you are somehow not an aging interior designer or an old school computer geek, you have still been inundated with the color teal by a different industry.

In order to make scenes comprehensible, television and movie producers (and visual artists for that matter) need to make the people in their shots stand out from the background.  Most actors range in hue from pale to dark orange. As you can see in the color wheel which I have very helpfully included above, orange is opposite on the color wheel from teal.  The easiest way to make actors contrast with the background and thereby have shots with adequate color contrast is to portray orange actors against a teal background.  Of course gifted directors use a whole range of techniques to provide contrast to their shots—talented filmmakers utilize light and shadow, wide-ranging color contrast, and subtle visual cues to make shots comprehensible.  But terrible directors (or producers running behind schedule) can simply have the digital effects technicians make everybody look like John Boehner running around in a swimming pool.   It’s shocking how many movies (especially bad movies) do in fact look exactly like that.

Chevy Chase, is that you? You look like a pumpkin!

Ye Olde Ferrebeekeeper Archives

April 2021