Like the Biblical Adam, I've Been Invited to Name Things

Western culture has a long tradition of labeling things, categorizing things. The Greeks did it. And the biblical Adam did it when God invited him to name the birds of the sky and all of the animals below.

So I guess I'm a Westerner, because when I came across a small stand of fireweed growing alongside a wood in the Pacific Northwest one summer, I couldn't help

A fireweed blossom glowing pink in the San Juan Islands summer sun. Photo by Barbara Newhall

wanting to know -- to name -- the color of those glowing fireweed blossoms.

Were they purple? Indigo? Cerise? Or what? It was impossible to tell for sure. I walked around and around the patch of fireweed, trying to get a bead on the flowers' elusive color.

I took photos, lots of them, and, sure enough, when I pulled the captured images up on my monitor back home, I still couldn't tell what color they were. Their hue had changed day by day and minute by minute during my visit up north, and they were doing the same on my computer screen.

I Googled myself over to Wikipedia to see where the colors fit on the color wheel. But no sooner had I spotted some promising color charts -- including Goethe's eighteenth-century color wheel -- than I realized it was time to leave my computer behind and meet an old friend for lunch.

As I dug into my feta and spinach phyllo over at La Mediterranee in Berkeley, my friend, a Buddhist, turned the conversation to the Western mind's tendency to judge, make distinctions, and assign things to categories, including colors. Our brains get so busy putting things in their place--naming them--she said, we forget to . . .

Forget to what? I can't remember. What was it my friend wanted me to know? Something about being open to what's real, to what's right in front of you, except she said it way better than that.

My lunchmate was making a lot of sense. But as I moved my fork from the piquant feta and spinach on my plate to the cinnamony chicken cilicia, my thoughts strayed to

When the sun dropped low in the sky, the fireweed fell into the shade and the petals turned purple, violet and lavender. Photo by Barbara Newhall

my plans for the afternoon. As soon as I got home, I promised myself, I'd reboot my computer, pull up my fireweed photos, and get the exact names of their hues from the experts.

Lunch over, back home, I set my inner Westerner free. A few clicks of the mouse, and there they were, an array of stunning colors to choose from: cornflower blue, heliotrope, violet, mauve, magenta pink, crimson, lavender -- words as evocative as their subjects.

I'm pretty sure that my Buddhist friend, Westerner born and bred as she is, will like the words as much as I do.

© 2016 Barbara Falconer Newhall. All rights reserved.

Barbara Falconer Newhall writes about the view from the second half of life at More about her rocky spiritual journey in her prize-winning book, "Wrestling with God: Stories of Doubt and Faith." Feeling political? Read about how Donald Trump exposed the elephant in the pro-life room. More beautiful stuff at "What a Tulip Can Do -- If You Ask It."

The same patch of fireweed in November -- silvery white. B. Falconer photo