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bluets

sensitive indicators of change in our surrounding ecologies

The part I do remember: that the blue of the sky depends on the darkness of empty space behind it. As one optics journal puts it, ‘The color of any planetary atmosphere viewed against the black of space and illuminated by a sunlike star will also be blue.’ In which case blue is something of an ecstatic accident produced by void and fire. - Maggie Nelson, Bluets

Have you experienced a place with such unnatural lighting you feel your vision shift? Have you done so for an extended period of time? Imagine a grow room where green plants bath in violet light, isolating the spectrum most efficient for growing specific plants. While in the purple light, your eyes adjust to the room and try to neutralize the effects of the color. They normalize and the purple begins to take the place of warm daylight. When you leave the green house, the world is tinged with a virulent green which appears to filter the visible world. At first, it’s frightening; like having your eyes infected and your vision forever altered. Soon, however, the green fades. The colors that feel normal return to your best memory of them. How long do you think you might have to stay in a glowing purple greenhouse before that light establishes itself as the normal of your vision? How ephemeral is color and our perception of it? If sight and color perception are so fragile, so precarious, what other senses might also be so? 

Molecules of blue dye and blue light are different phenomena that share the same visual expression of color upon entering the eye. From a living indigo vat to the inorganic chemistry lab of Dr. Mas Subramanian who synthesized the world’s newest blue, this color has a growing vibrant history. From the various origins of blue underfoot to the bending of vibrating light above, a rich terrain of ethnobotany awaits research into the poetics of color. Now, when eco-tragedies already define the 21st century, it is urgent we reconsider our relationship to the land underfoot; perhaps, the best way to do this is by re-instilling a sense of enchantment and wonder in the color of our natural world and its complex ecological, historical, and cultural inhabitants. As the green gap, the space between good intention and useful action, grows wider each day, my attention is turned to focus on one color which is an indicator of environmental action/inaction, cultural memory, and historic craft traditions around the world: blue. What if blue is ephemeral with consideration to how delicate it becomes when facing climatic tragedies?

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Why, having lived so long at the expense of other creatures and the earth, are we not healthier and happier than we are? Why does modern society exist under constant threat of the same suffering, deprivation, spite, contempt, and obliteration that it has imposed on other people and other creatures? Why do the health of the body and the health of the earth decline together? And why, in consideration of this decline of our worldly flesh and household, our "sinful earth," are we not healthier in spirit? - Wendell Berry

Centaurea cyanus, also known as bluets, cornflowers, bachelor buttons and by several other names, were considered a weed in their native habitat of Europe where they could be seen spotting the agricultural fields of corn and other grains. As the cornflower seed invaded the agricultural crops in a globalizing world, the flower immigrated to North America and Australia, naturalizing in these new environments. After the transgression of European borders and over the blue seas, this flower began to thrive by appealing to human desire. No longer a weed, and instead endangered in its original home, the cornflower was saved by blue. And some stories from long ago suggest that humans, too, have been saved by blue. Queen Louise of Prussia fled Berlin when she was being pursued by Napoleon’s forces. As the story goes, she hid with her children in a field of cornflowers and kept them quiet by weaving flower wreaths made of the bright bluets. In a way, Queen Louise and her children were saved by the blue of blooming cornflowers. This plant later became a symbol of Prussia. From weed to endangered plant, the cornflower has become a plant of desire and a plant of protection. In these appeals to humans, the blue flowering plant has been propagated, nurtured, and given plenty of the basic elements needed to thrive.

Cornflowers possess a co-pigmentation complex. They express their protocyanin dye in a range of colors, from reddish-orange to green, depending on the pH of the dye solution. With this ability in mind, is it possible not to alter the color of the cornflower petal dye but to alter the color of the growing plant by altering the pH of the soil? If the soil is made slightly acidic or alkaline, will the blue disappear? Will the blue cornflower grow red or even green? How dependent on healthy soil is the blue of the cornflower? With the blue skies above cities graying and the warming ocean greening, how sensitive is the blue of our surrounding ecologies? The cornflower may indeed be an indicator of the acidification of agricultural soils. And, along with other pH sensitive blues, it may be an indicator far beyond the agricultural field.

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Executive Order 13112 defines an invasive species as “an alien species whose introduction does or is likely to cause economic or environmental harm or harm to human health. How strange must it be to have your existence defined in the terms of another? To be overgrown, detrimental, hurtful, offensive or superfluous—but by whose standards? To become classified as a weed a plant must first overcome large-scale geographical barriers, survival barriers, establishment barriers, dispersal and spread barriers. Finally, it must cause negative environmental, economic, or human health effects which outweigh the beneficial effects (to humans).

Cornflowers are one of many plants that have suffered the dangers of language under several definitions and categories since humans began doing so. Major shifts in access to the elements of survival have shifted in parallel fashion to the ever-shifting definitions given to cornflowers (and many other species) by humans. From weed to ornamental, invasive to endangered, the cornflower has continued to grow while inadequate language, another ‘invasive species,’ wraps around and around the blue flower in an attempt to suffocate and then breath life back into it, repeatedly. It is language and definition, categorization and desirability that overgrow and clear cut our existing ecologies; language (and belief in it) transforms our landscapes, our agricultural fields, our waste heaps, and all that surrounds us by establishing invasive and noxious human-centric values for all. Ursula K. Le Guin suggests an amendment: “One way to stop seeing trees, or rivers, or hills, only as “natural resources,” is to class them as fellow beings — kinfolk…I guess I’m trying to subjectify the universe, because look where objectifying it has gotten us. To subjectify is not necessarily to co-opt, colonize, exploit. Rather it may involve a great reach outward of the mind and imagination.”

There is an undeniable vibrancy in soil, sunlight and water. Michael Pollan writes about how plants may be “nature’s alchemists, expert at transforming water, soil and sunlight into an array of precious substances,” but without the ingredients preceding the seed, the flower would not grow, and we would indeed not have blue, let alone much else.

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Much like the flower wreaths woven by Queen Louise of Prussia and her children to protect them from those seeking power, a flower wreath created directly on the floor with the potential for growing sensitive blues is a form of protection. If a work can span an internal space (where we protect it) and an external space (where it protects and speaks to us about our changing environment), we can begin to forge a new non-hierarchical relationship with one another that benefits human and non-human alike.

For now, this is what we know of matter: A handful of types of elementary particles, which vibrate and fluctuate constantly between existence and nonexistence and swarm in space, even when it seems that there is nothing there, combine together to infinity like the letters of a cosmic alphabet to tell the immense history of galaxies; of the innumerable stars; of sunlight; of mountains, wood, and fields of grain; of the smiling faces of the young at parties; and of the night sky studded with stars. - Carlo Rovelli, Seven Brief Lessons on Physics

Soil becomes a universal source, which, in Rebecca Solnit’s words, “mediates the organic and inorganic worlds.” The vibrant matter of soil is both an origin and a destination—the prima materia. To turn attention to the land underfoot is to also consider the land which once was and that which will never be. It is to expand a singular perspective for humans to multiple perspectives for all. Can soil that is embedded with cornflower seeds full of potential blue be positioned on the ground so that it spans internal and external spaces? Inside, heightened awareness of space and material preciousness can protect the soil and seeds laid out in a delicate floral wreath pattern. The soil and seed are still. They continue to possess potentiality, but without the elements they are unable to thrive. Outside, the circle is complete with seeds in the existing soil. This circle is only visible when standing at and viewing from one particular perspective. In time, rainwater, wind, and the movement of earth’s inhabitants will activate the cornflower seeds planted outside, but by then the soil patterning inside will be long gone and the blue arc of flowers will appear little more than a vivid accident. This circle peaks and fades at different times. It is never visible all at once to us. And still, this circle is complete in its incompleteness. When working with the elements themselves as collaborators the work is slow. It takes time to grow a flower. Rain and wind now carry with them soil and seed, washing away the human hand that endangered the cornflower in the first place and spreading blue before it’s gone.

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