For the past five years, the views on my ride to work at this time of year never get old. In particular, I never tire of seeing the fields near the corner of Routes 60 and 62, radiant with yellows and pinks. Goldenrod and Joe Pye Weed carpet the unkempt part of this field as they do in so many other open, wild areas in late August through September.
There are other fall flower combinations to admire too. Small pockets of roadside still sport purplish-blue Chicory flowers in between creamy white Queen Anne’s Lace. In gardens, Purple Coneflowers share space with boldly yellow Brown Eyed Susans and Coreopsis. The abundance of goldrenrod pops out when accompanied by bright purple asters.
A seasonal tourist industry is built around the reds, oranges and yellows that are revealed as deciduous trees prepare for the long winter. Without a doubt, October hillsides are glorious and worth the drive, but September fields are the opening act and worthy of admiration too.
While the individual flowers are beautiful, the combinations of colors are striking. I’ve admired and photographed these pairings in the wild. Inspired, I have recreated these color combinations in vases and gardens. The beauty astounds me. The combinations are so perfectly composed. Is it more than just happenstance that they occur together in nature?
I was delighted to find I was not alone in asking this question. In her book, Braiding Sweetgrass: Indigenous Wisdom, Scientific Knowledge and the Teachings of Plants, Robin Wall Kimmer wonders the same thing. Reflecting on her idealistic youth, she recounts the start of her scientific career. Her reason for majoring in botany, she wrote, was to learn why asters and goldenrod looked so beautiful together. She was told to study art instead.
I love boxes. And by boxes, I mean containers to organize things. These can be physical things, such as paperclips, rubber bands, and tacks on a desk. The scientific world organizes living things into Kingdom, Phylum, Class and so on based on their characteristics. In school, we separate learning into classes of History, Science, Math. Categories are ways that help us understand and organize the world, but they are a human construction placed over an organic world. That fit isn’t always perfect.
Flowers can be the territory of science. When we look at a flower, we can classify it into genus and species, examine the health of the plant and the environment it grows in and study the relationships it has with other living things. Flowers can also be the territory of art. We can capture their beauty through various media and revel in their beauty. But what if we let down the box walls and let those worlds come together?
The asters and goldenrod Kimmer wrote of are purple and yellow. From the art world we can learn that these colors are complimentary colors. On the color wheel, they are directly across from each other. When paired together they have high contrast. The striking difference in colors helps the other stand out. While that is beautiful to humans, flowers don’t bloom to attract our attention but that of pollinators which aid in creating seeds. We can use that knowledge from art to ask questions that lead to new scientific discoveries. Do insects see the striking difference between flower colors that humans do? Do flowers that contrast with their surroundings attract more pollinators? There is evidence that this is true. Could we use that information, once corroborated, to help threatened pollinators and plants?
Let’s go back to the view from my daily commute: the pinks and yellows of the goldenrod and Joe Pye Weed, along with the green of the leaves are a triad. This means they are equidistant from each other on the color wheel. Is that why I find them so appealing? They create a balance found during this change of season. What questions can we formulate around that?
Appreciating and creating art is a path to learning more about the natural world, including how to observe it closely. Audubon is offering a workshop titled “The Art of Botanical Drawing”, for 3 consecutive Saturdays in October. Beginners and seasoned artists are invited to hone their observation skills while developing drawing and watercolor techniques. The sessions will progress each week, culminating with a finished watercolor painting of a botanical study. The methods used throughout the workshop are inspired by Agathe Ravet-Haevermans book, The Art of Botanical Drawing an Introductory Guide.
The fall flowers make me glad to be in this beautiful world. They bring forth questions which are the spark for new discoveries about our world we live in. They inspire me how to be in the world. Like the flowers, we can strive not to imitate each other but to be ourselves. Not to use criticism to mask underlying jealousy of someone we think has more or better. Rather than strive to compete and outshine each other what if, just sometimes, we did as flowers do and as Kimmer so beautify states “That September pairing of purple and gold is lived reciprocity; its wisdom is that the beauty of one is illuminated by the radiance of the other.“
Katie Finch is a naturalist at Audubon.
Audubon Community Nature Center builds and nurtures connections between people and nature. ACNC is located just east of Route 62 between Warren and Jamestown. The trails are open from dawn to dusk as is Liberty, the Bald Eagle. The Nature Center is open from 10 a.m. until 4:30 p.m. daily except Sunday when it opens at 1 p.m. More information can be found online at auduboncnc.org or by calling (716) 569-2345.