(First appeared as part of The Poetry Exchange’s Featured Poet, Spring, 1997 under the title: “Deforested”)
Gray day wasted while the whippoorwill Wishes that the slushy city sewers Had not replaced the only lonely home he knew. The groggy foggy unfocussed hurly-burly rushing Of splashing autos on the gray macadam roadways That gnarl through the neighborhoods Is vaguely deja vu. Silhouetted smokestacks shadowly seen, Limned in gray on gray-green, Remind the mind how poor people pass the day after day. Where no home fire hearth lighted cabin In the winter woods beckons, beacons, hearkens Heartily a red sunset glow on white snow For a day’s work done.
One hardly knows.
Here, where machine clouds of steam unsentiently sip, sap the soul, You wonder as the rain water wanders, Then rushes through the gurgling gutters, What foul trick man played upon his own brave soul, To have forsaken all the fiery emotion that makes life great To sit at desks, to stand in lines, to wait. Where are the country color and The rich thick loves hidden Beneath the inventions, interventions, and pretensions of society?
We wander in our own gray-glass cages In a lurching kind of mock-precision, Like the nightmare dream of a psychotic technician. And the only color the commuter encounters In his travels to and from, Is the scarlet and the gold of a raccoon Too stupid to stay off the highways of modern civilization.
Pet Sematary (A relevant book by Stephen King which was a partial inspiration for the poem)
At least, most forms of life need water. Indeed, most forms of life are mostly made of water.
Water is some amazing stuff. It’s one of the few things that ordinary people in ordinary circumstances see in solid, liquid, and gaseous phases. One thing that’s unusual about water is that when it freezes, it expands. It also has a high “heat capacity.” This means that water takes a lot of heat energy, relative to most materials, to increase its temperature. It also means that, once heated, it takes a long time for the water to cool to the ambient temperature. It’s why land areas that are near the oceans tend to be more moderate in temperature than similar places inland.
A hundred miles inland from where I live is a place called “Palm Desert.” The average night temp in the coldest month is 41 degrees Fahrenheit while the average daytime temperature in the warmest month is 107 degrees Fahrenheit. That’s a difference of 66 degrees! I live near San Diego, a few miles from the ocean. For San Diego, the average coldest temperature is 51 degrees and the average for the high is 77. That’s a difference of 26 degrees. Quite a difference. That difference is due to the high heat capacity of water.
Water is beautiful in many forms: rivers, springs, waterfalls, clouds, rainbows, dew, rainstorms, ocean waves are just a few of the many ways that water strikes us as beautiful.
A well-fed adult human can last weeks without food but only a few days without water. I wonder whether we also need the beauty of water. It shows that the region we’re in may be survivable. It also indicates there is other life as well nearby. Perhaps as a corollary to these, water may remind us as well that what is “out there” and beautiful to look at is also “in here” — inside us.
Water also plays with and transforms light. When water shows itself as droplets, as shown in the pictures here, it demonstrates two aspects of its nature: it adheres to other surfaces and it coheres to itself. A drop of water on a flower or leaf demonstrates its dual nature. This is also our own dual nature. We must play our part for a time as a separate droplet, but such a droplet does not keep that form forever. Each one of these water droplets has been part of a cloud, part of a river, part of an ocean. We too change. We too need to be coherent. But we also need to interact with and adhere, at least for a time, to aspects of our environment.
A drop of water does not obscure the form of the leaf or petal it finds itself on. Rather, the droplet enhances the form of the leaf or petal upon which it rests.
Have you ever been called the “Life of the Party”? Have you wanted to be the “Life of the Party”?
When you read the expression, “Life of the Party,” who or what do you think of? Who is the “life of the party” when it comes to our Garden?
Is it the brightly colored hooded oriole who flitted about just outside my office window during hours of ZOOM calls?
Or, was it his more drably colored mate?
Both are needed for the species to survive.
You might tend to think of flowers as the “Life of the Party” and it’s true that our Garden has many colorful flowers!
And even the not-so colorful flowers can be infused with light. Are they then, the life of the party?
In addition to flowers, the garden has more active members such as bees, lizards, and rabbits. I often see coyote scat, though I’ve never seen a coyote in the garden.
We may think of flowers as being the life of the party, but without leaves, flowers and fruits would not grow because they wouldn’t have a source of energy. Leaves also can exhibit many beautiful patterns and colors.
There are a few human figures in the Garden — statues engaged in two of my favorite activities: dancing and reading.
Are they the life of the party?
The crows are certainly among the most vocal of the participants in the party. Does that make them the life of the party?
And, what about me? I help show the beauty of the Garden far beyond its physical boundaries. Of course, that happens anyway! The bunny eats fruit in the Garden and poops somewhere else to fertilize the soil and perhaps spread seeds, sometimes taking them far beyond the range of the wind. All the green leaf plants in the Garden take CO2 out of the air and return O2, each molecule of which diffuses far and wide, eventually across the planet. The bees cross-pollenate across Gardens.
So, who, exactly is the life of the Garden? I think the only accurate answer is that everything alive is the “Life of the Garden.” Not just everything within the “boundaries” of our Garden but on the entire planet. Every molecule that is here, will eventually be somewhere else. Every molecule that will be here in a few million years is now far away.
Today, I decided to change up the photo scene so I walked to a nearby State Park. Some nice flowers presented themselves on route. For instance, the bright yellow flowers under the bright blue sky reminded me of the bravery of Ukraine.
When I arrived at the park, two flags I am proud of greeted me. Of course, it doesn’t mean the State of California is perfect — nor is the USA. But most of us at least are trying to make them better.
I was also rewarded with beautiful flowering trees on my walk on the park.
Many bright beautiful flowers also greeted me in my walk in the park.
Some of the beautiful flowers who greeted me on my walk in the park (as well as on the way there) showed their support for Ukraine and the bravery of her people.
The most beautiful gift of my walk was completely unexpected— a very large & very colorful celebration in an Indian tradition. I strongly suspect it was a wedding since I noticed a nearby restroom said “grooms”; people were in a good mood; the celebration included all ages; and everyone looked beautiful.
In addition to the color fest, a band arrived and played beautiful music beautifully! I thought about trying to record some. Where this picture was taken isn’t far from the highway. Since it was behind me, it was easy to block that noise out with my brain. It would be far harder for you listening to it on your device though.
The walk in the park also reminded me how wonderful is the music made by little children. It is the same music regardless of language if you listen with your heart.
Once more, I find myself grateful that humanity survived & thrived in so many diverse ways. So many solutions to so many problems! Amazing wealth of experience! We can become wise at a whole new level — if we are respectful and kind to each other. Is that too much to ask? I really don’t think it is too much to ask.
I love also the way plants have invented so many solutions to so many problems. We have much more to learn from them — and each other — than we can currently even imagine.
For example, I saw this “Wild Cucumber” as I began my walk home, still enjoying the music & the chattering children. This plant uses hydrostatic pressure to shoot its seeds out at 11 meters/sec. We can learn much from every living thing — including other humans.
She sensed that she was surrounded by others — some very like her and many very unlike her. Yet — she couldn’t shake the feeling that something was not right.
She felt — bound up. She wasn’t free to grow in the way she really wanted to. And now she was moving in a most peculiar way. Her ancestors had seldom moved in such a way as this except in times of great catastrophe such as an earthquake. Suddenly, she found herself completely disconnected from the nourishing earth. Beneath her was nothing but cold hard metal and a whirring vibration.
Now the warming sun disappeared, not as a gentle sunset. No. This was a sudden and violent transition from warm noon sun to complete and utter darkness. She sensed that she was not alone in this sunless prison. All of her fellow prisoners were also in a panic. Again, she sensed the cold hard metal beneath her and a deeper rumble of whirring vibration.
Then, and completely without warning, the sunlight again began to beat upon her with its full force.
Soon, she felt herself unbound. She struggled to understand. She tried to stretch her roots out, tentatively at first, as you might begin to wiggle your toes after waking from a deep coma. She felt an unslakable thirst, Then, she sensed moisture nearby and minerals.
She still felt as though she were in a very strange place. Had she formed her thoughts into words, she might have thought: “I have no idea why they would place me here of all places.” If rose had been human, that would have bothered her a great deal. But among her many distant aunts, uncles, and cousins, those who spent their energy decrying their placement, few survived. Her strategy, like those of her successful ancestors, was rather to spend her energy being as beautiful and varied as possible.
Her faith was strong. Had she had a verbal creed, it might have been something like this:
“I believe in the bees and the breeze.
I believe in my own heritage.
Like all other living things on earth today, my ancestry is 4.5 billion years old.
I believe in the power of my roots to seek out and find the nourishment I need; to keep in mind my goals of water and minerals. I push and push, and when I reach the impenetrable, I seek a way around. I dance the dance of life. I don’t avoid the strife. I relish it.”
In the next few days, visiting bees told her that there was plenty of sunshine around even though Rose herself was mainly in shade. That bee-speak was enough to give Rose all the hope she needed to grow tall and wide. She explored in every direction.
The bees that buzzed near Rose told her, in their own way, of the vibrant and varied colors of her many other neighbors. She found their descriptions exotic and evocative. From time to time, she attempted to emulate those neighbors. The buzzing bees would pause in their busyness on occasion to give her feedback on how well she matched the colors of her unseen neighbors.
Over time, she sensed the vibrations of other beings besides the bees. Feathering beings and furry beings, some large and some small. Mainly, they were friendly beings who admired her artwork. But there were also those who cared little for her artwork and instead simply came to feast upon her. Rose’s body became sustenance for mites and snails and aphids. Sometimes, other creatures came to protect her. She liked that. Sometimes, they failed to protect her and the pain became unbearable. But bear it she did.
Rose resolved to use the pain to make her creations more beautiful still.
With zero contrast, nothing can be seen at all! Beyond that however, it is interesting how many plants and animals as well as good designs show the property of Contrast. Plants “use” contrast, if I may speak in teleological terms, to attract pollinators such as butterflies and bees to their flowers. Plants also use contrast to “announce” to animals who spread seeds that their fruit is ripe and ready to be eaten. If the fruit part of a plant did not make such an obvious “announcement,” a forager might damage a plant by eating all of it rather than just the sugar-rich fruit.
By contrast, fall leaves show high contrast which adds to their beauty, but this is probably just a “side-effect” of the leaves “saving” their water & chlorophyl and leaving other colorful compounds in the leaf. I suppose there could be an evolutionary advantage to a tree that is beautiful in the fall. I could imagine that bright colors attract animals and birds to “hang out” nearby and this means that the soil will be enriched by animal excretions and sometimes deaths. In some cases, the color might “signal” animals that fall is coming and if the animals take more appropriate actions, this makes for a healthy ecosystem for the trees. I know of no such evidence however. It seems likely the bright colors are a beautiful side-effect of the tree breaking down the no-longer-useful chlorophyl to components that are stored in the roots. The more we learn about trees though, the more “clever” they seem so I wouldn’t put it past them to have “reason.”
Some animals, such as zebras and tigers, use contrast as a kind of camouflage. If you see a picture of a zebra or tiger out of context, you may think, “What? How is that camouflage?” But in the bright sun, grazing in tall grass (or lurking there, hoping for dinner), it actually does serve such a purpose.
There is also a more subtle kind of camouflage that some animals employ. High contrast can make it difficult for a potential predator or prey to “parse” the visual image. I believe some of the professional tennis outfits, for instance, make it harder for an opponent to “read” the actual body positions from across the court, especially with non-foveal vision. Is that what’s going on in the picture below?
Considered separately, the shadow of the fence in the photo below strikes me as more beautiful than the fence itself. This is largely due to the higher Contrast in the shadow. I think another property “Roughness” also plays a part. The fence is machine milled and regular. The shadow falls on uneven ground. Rather than obscuring the Contrast, the Roughness actually enhances it. In addition, the fence appears quite separate and distinct from the greenery behind it. However, the shadow is partly determined by the fence and partly determined by the uneven ground. This means the shadow exhibits more “Deep Interlock and Ambiguity.”
I do think the combination of fence and shadow is more beautiful than either taken alone. Taken together, there is an additional layer of Contrast between the “mechanical” regularity of the fence and the rougher feel of the shadow.
One of the things that trees do is add contrast by virtue of the branches and leaves casting irregular shadows in many places but letting bright light through in other places. Here is a simple case.
In the photo below, the landscape architect has likely intentionally designed this arbor partly with contrasts in mind. Dark vs. Light; Horizontal vs. Vertical; Straight vs. Bent; Built vs. Growing. What other contrasts do you see?
Contrast is often desirable not just in terms of vision, but also for other senses. A good salad, for instance, shows contrast in color, but also in terms of textures and tastes. Orchestral music shows contrast in terms of loudness, timbre, harmony, melody, etc.
Living things also exhibit contrast, not only in their visual appearance, but also in terms of the rhythms of life. Many plants and animals exhibit both daily cycles such as sleep and wakefulness, but also yearly cycles (hibernation, aestivation, migration, mating season, losing fall leaves, blooming & fruiting, etc.). In fact, many animals & plants only live one year.
Stories typically exhibit contrasts of various sorts. A story (whether play, movie, novel, or short story) is often more interesting when set in both wartime and peacetime, in both country and city, in two different times, etc. In addition, a good story often has contrasting characters such as hero and villain, or two less extreme characters, one of whom is a “foil” for the other. The plot itself is constructed of contrasts in value. The hero loses an athletic contest. Then, the hero wins! Then, the judges unfairly strip the hero of the medals. Then, an investigation reveals that the hero was framed and the hero prevails after all. Love may conquer all — but never without a struggle!
This succulent pictured below seems beautiful to me partly because of Contrast. Is there an aesthetic “purpose” to the contrast shown? Or, is the real “point” to provide the sharp spikes on the edge of the plant and in order to make those spikes effective, the plant needs to be drier near the edges or have a yellow pigment that somehow facilitates the growth of spikes? Perhaps the plant’s growth is limited (in the Southwestern US) by the available water and not at all by sunshine (which is plentiful). Therefore, there is no “point” to having the entire plant green.
If it seems too far-fetched to imagine a plant exhibiting contrast because it’s more beautiful, it is not to far-fetched to imagine animals exhibiting contrast to attract other animals; most notably, a mate. Insects, birds, mammals, fish, sometimes exhibit “displays” of high contrast color in order to attract mates. Typically, such displays are only used during actual mating season.
In addition to seasonal and daily “contrasts” in behavior and appearance, animals often exhibit contrast at a finer temporal granularity. As humans, we breathe several times a minute and our heart beats about once a second. Some aspects of our anatomy and physiology have evolved to provide antagonistic forces and processes. We have, for instance, our sympathetic nervous system that prepares us for “Fight or Flight” reactions. The para-sympathetic nervous system turns on a “rest and digest” mode also called “feed and breed.” Our sensory and motor systems use both excitatory and inhibitory processes to “sharpen” what we perceive and the actions we take. Our musculature often has muscles that produce “opposite” results. Our biceps bends our arm and our triceps straightens our arm. The adductors in our legs move our legs inward toward our trunk and the abductors move our legs apart.
Contrast is so prevalent in the natural order of things “out there” and in the structure and function of our own bodies that it is hardly surprising that our conceptual structures often exaggerate contrasts. We often think, for instance, in terms like these: “Up or Down? Liberal or Conservative? Good or Evil? Strong or Weak? Black or White? Growth or Decay? Orderly or Disorderly?”
If we return to the photo of the fence and its shadow, for example, we are tempted to describe the darkest parts of the shadow as being places without light while the spaces between have light. Of course, there is light, even in those shadows. Light is reflecting off the nearby trees, houses, grape vines, sand, cars, etc. There is nothing shown in this photo that has no light.
As Amanda Gorman pointed out in the recent Presidential Inauguration —
“For there is always light,
if only we’re brave enough to see it
If only we’re brave enough to be it.”
When it comes to User Interface design, contrast has many uses. For example, contrast is often used to signal whether an item is chosen or not, or whether an action is available or not. Interfaces often include text and the text is easier to read if the contrast is higher. In the early days of human computer interaction, text was composed of a relatively small number of bits that were either on or off. High contrast came with the technological limitations of the devices. More recently, text often appears as dark gray on light gray rather than as black on white. Why? I have no idea. People sometimes claim that low contrast is “easier on the eye.” So far, no-one has been able to point to empirical evidence. However, text is harder to read when the contrast is low. If the user is old, or trying to read in glare, or has limited vision, or the reader or device is moving or vibrating, low contrast text can become illegible. The “worst” cases I’ve seen are on devices such as CD players or smoke alarms. To simplify (and therefore cheapen) manufacture, the letters are not painted at all but simply embossed as white on white or (even worse) black on black. From my personal experience, few things in modern life are as pleasant as being awoken around 3 am by a screaming smoke alarm which has cryptic and unreadable directions in white on white.
At a more abstract level, a high level of conceptual contrast can often make the user experience less frustrating, more enjoyable, and more productive. What do I mean by “conceptual contrast.” In this context, I mean that two related actions or situations that are clearly differentiated in the commands, the explanations, the terms etc. are less prone to confusion. Let’s pick on what I see right before me: the high level “Pages” tool bar. “File Edit Insert Format Arrange View Share Window Help” At a visual level, these are nearly white on a black background; i.e., easy to read. But what is the conceptual contrast between “Format” and “Arrange”? How about “View” and “Window”? Are there other terms that would be better cues as to what these groups of functions do?
The same for menus within the document. I see above the material I am actually typing another use of the words “Insert” and “Text” appears right next to it. But how is this different from “Text” on the right? It’s not that any of these items are so confusing that they cannot be learned. “Style” when you are writing (as opposed to “word processing”) generally refers to something much more abstract that the type of font and the size or color of the text or the spacing between lines.
I think a more fundamental issue is that typical text editors, after the “Clippy” fiasco, have steered away from explicitly supporting the process of actual writing. That would be much more difficult. I’m not going to try to design such a system here. To give a hint of the kind of thing I mean though, suppose that a text editor explicitly supported writing a short story. Embarking on writing a short story, the user might be presented with a choice for guidance. Perhaps this hypothetical writer wants to try writing a “locked room” mystery. And, maybe they want lots of guidance. So, the software leads them through an idea generation phase. In that phase, perhaps it is more productive to turn off various kinds of “autocorrect.” Perhaps the author is encouraged to “solve” the basic problem (how was the murder committed) before actually beginning the writing. Maybe there is a high level of visual Contrast which serves as a constant reminder to the author that they are, at this point, generating ideas.
Von Oech suggests that problem solving involves four stages that he illustrates with four “hats” — an explorer’s pith helmet for the Exploration phase; an artists beret for the Creation Phase; a judge’s wig for the Editing or testing phase; and a Viking warrior’s horned helmet for the marketing and sales phase. If such a model were supported by the software, you might expect a strongly contrasted visual interface to reinforce the phase of writing that the user was in. The Exploration phase might consist visually of cards that various fields that would support research. The artistic phase might be a mind-mapping tool. And, so on. The user would know at every glance which phase of the overall writing process they were “in.”
It may be that any such process involves too much overhead or is too rigid. But what is the alternative? At present, the author must either keep almost all the information about their goals, ideas, and processes in their head or in a separate document or spreadsheet. As I look at the screen in writing there is almost no clue about “where I am” in the process of writing. Whether or not you buy into the specific four-stage model of Von Oech, I do believe that various phases of writing do offer contrasts in terms of how that phase should be supported. I only chose writing as one example.
Nearly any task that the user is engaged in has some structure to it. Scientific research, learning a foreign language, organizing a tennis tournament, planning a trip, finding a house, buying a book on-line, etc. All of these have different sub-tasks. In some cases, the user wants more flexibility; in some cases, less flexibility is actually helpful. But most “application programs” seem to me to be deficient in terms of guiding the user through a process; giving any visual indication of where the user is in the overall process, or of tailoring actions to which subtask the user is engaged in. If a user is generating ideas, for example, pointing out grammatical errors, typos, and spelling errors is distracting and not that helpful. On the other hand, if the user is finished writing and is proofreading, then such suggestions may be helpful and appreciated.
What do you see as the uses of Contrast in User Experience? Is it best thought of as a visual property which may be nice to have but is not crucial? Or, does Contrast also apply to different subtasks or phases which need to be reflected in both the appearance of the UI and in the way the functionality works?