Friday, November 30, 2012

Xmas or Christmas?

Every year as the Christmas season approaches,
a debate about the propriety of the abbreviation "Xmas" begins.
In recent decades, substituting the abbreviation "X" for "Christ" 
has often been criticized as cold-hearted heathenism, 
a kind of secular insult to the religious basis of the holiday.

photo courtesy of

While capitalism and commercialism 
have indeed co-opted this revered Christian holiday,
much in the same way early Christianity absorbed pagan celebrations,
the use of "Xmas" is neither secular nor recent.
And it doesn't mean that Christ has been X'd out of the celebration.
Quite the contrary, actually.

According to the Oxford English Dictionary, 
the earliest reference using Xmas appears in the Anglo-Saxon Chronicle,
an historical narrative first commissioned by 
English King Alfred in the late 9th century.
In 1021, an anonymous Chronicle scribe wrote:
On Xp[ ]es mæsse uhtan, 
which means 'On Christmas before dawn.'

In 1380, there is this explanation in Volume I 
of the Selected Works of  the English Wycliffe Sermons: 
X bitokeneth Crist, meaning "X" betokens or stands for Christ.

The use of "X" as an abbreviation for Christ dates back even further,
some sources say as early as 4th century Rome,
because the Greek spelling for khristos was XPI[ ]TO[ ].
"XP" and its derived forms X with a superscript t, Xt, and X  
were routinely substituted for the word Christ in English texts 
in each century from the 11th through the 21st century, as in these words: 
 Xtian 'Christian', Xtianity 'Christianity', Xtened 'christened',
and even Xpher 'Christopher'.

So next time someone employs the abbreviation "Xmas" instead of Christ, 
we can all relax, knowing it's a language equivalent 
  like Mr. for mister or Dr. for doctor.
Linguistically, Xmas is not different in meaning from Christmas,
any more  than French "noel,"
German "weihnachten" or Spanish "navidad" are.
And that's good to know.

Thursday, November 29, 2012

Christmas Camellias

After the trees turned brilliant gold and red this autumn 
and some early Christmas lights began to sparkle,
a number of local camellia shrubs burst into full flower as if it were spring.
One tall camellia had grown above a hedge that is along my route.
That shrub was covered in the most cheerful, soft pink blossoms,
but they seemed completely out of place 
against late November's red autumn leaves. 

I know there are some "Christmas camellias," 
hybridized to bloom in winter, 
but I don't think the ones I've been seeing are those varieties.
 I never noticed this phenomenon around the Shire before.
But then my pink camellias are finicky, only blooming in February.
Yet, seeing all the white and red camellias blossoming now,
I can't help but wish I had a camellia shrub with white or red blossoms 
to clip and bring inside for Christmas arrangements.

I don't buy a cut evergreen tree for Christmas--
one season of daily watering a Scotch pine and picking up its dropped needles 
was enough to cure me of that tradition.
But I do love fresh flowers in the house any time of year--especially Christmas.

I especially like the poinsettias that come in shades from ivory to red.
In years past, I have decorated for Christmas with many different color palettes.
In one house we lived in, the living room walls were raspberry,
so my tree ornaments were pink and green; my poinsettias were pink too.
Other years, in other places, I favored purples.
Other times, all blue. Some years, all colors. 
And sometimes, gold, silver, copper, and bronze.
And the variety of poinsettia colors have served my decorating schemes well,
but the plants themselves lack versatility.

That's why the early bloom of camellias
have made me imagine them for Christmas instead.
White ones would be beautiful with silver or gold.
Red ones with their dark green leaves would be great for a traditional look.

I don't know if these winter camellias are blooming early or right on time,
or if any will end up in my house this season,
but they are a lovely, early Christmas gift from nature,
whether viewed from indoors or out.

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Wednesday, November 28, 2012

Christmas in a Nutshell

In the early 1900s, 
my maternal grandmother announced her engagement to her friends 
by handing out walnuts with a paper message tucked inside.
She said she had decided to give them the news "in a nutshell."
I always thought that was terribly original and charming.
Charming, yes. Original? Maybe not so much.
Because the other day, I ran across a reference to Victorian pastimes
and one of those was crafts involving walnuts.

This photo is by Michael Arnaud,
in the Good Housekeeping article: "All-Natural Christmas Decor" at
homemade walnut ornament

One of the craft projects was to gild walnuts. 
I'm not sure exactly which method they used. 
There are a few possibilities.
According to, gilding in the Victorian era 
required a somewhat complicated process of mixing ether and gold chloride. 
The ether would take up the gold, enabling it to be painted on a surface.
Painting was an acceptable pursuit for Victorian ladies,
so there may have been ready made metallic paint available.
And I think using gold leaf was probable.
Regardless of process, Victorian crafters would gild walnuts 
and hang them as Christmas tree ornaments.

Another project with walnuts was to pick the nut meat from the shell,
and then create miniature bird nests 
or perhaps fashion a cute kitten or puppy inside.
Sometimes the shells were hinged so they could be opened to reveal 
a tiny still life or gifts of jewelry.
The blog "Disdressed" has a photo of a cute walnut sailboat:

Years ago, my parents gave me a dish made of cross-sawn walnuts:

The cross-sawn walnuts would make beautiful gilded ornaments.
They would require a steady hand and a lot of time though.

I like the idea of using naturals in art and craft, especially at Christmas time. 
Sitting around a table with people you love, working in harmony
to create unusual Christmas decorations from simple materials--
that's one of the best things in life.
Try it sometime.
And don't forget the glitter.

Tuesday, November 27, 2012

Pine Needles, Pine Cones

Leaves are not the only things that fall from the trees in autumn.
Here in the Shire, we are showered with thousands of pine needles, too.
And as the pine needles pile up, I always think two things.
First, I marvel at the abundance nature brings,
and second, that there must be something useful to do with pine needles
besides rake them up around the trees.

Then the other day, I ran across step-by-step instructions
for making baskets out of pine needles.
I was amazed that all those little piney nuisances 
could be turned into magnificent works of art in the right hands.
I couldn't find a copyright free photo for this post, 
but search "pine needle baskets" in Google images for photos.
They are unbelievably beautiful.

For those with vast quantities of pine needles, 
the time, and the interest, here's a link:
I have to admit, I'm tempted to try this.
Maybe someday I will.

Another bounty from pine trees is the pine cone.
Squirrels eat the cones from the white pines, which are common here.
 I've spent more than a few moments 
watching a hungry squirrel devour a pine cone
by rotating it in its tiny paws the way some people eat an ear of corn. 
Judging from the mess of pine seed wings left on our deck each year,
pine cones are a popular squirrel treat.

Unlike pine needles, pine cones are much easier to use in craft projects.
And this time of year, pine cones
 make an attractive addition for autumn  arrangements.
One of my nieces used to use them to make very pretty wreaths. 
They also can be coated with peanut butter, suet, and bird seed
to make natural feeders for birds.

My mom used to put white glue and glitter on pine cones for Christmas.
Other Christmas pine cone projects include scenting them for potpourri 
or dipping them in wax and sawdust for burning in the fireplace. 
Both are good ideas, but when it comes to Christmas, 
there can never be too much glitter.

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Monday, November 26, 2012

Owls at Dusk and Dawn

One of the things I love about our little corner of the world 
is that once the leaves come off the trees,
we can hear distant sounds that are less apparent otherwise.

I've mentioned before the  blast of tugboat horns in the distance 
as they push freight upriver 
and the low whistle of a train as it traverses the night.
One thing I don't think I've mentioned before 
is the sound of an owl at night fall.

Yesterday my husband heard an owl hooting 
from one of the trees behind our house.
We were curious about exactly what species of owl it was, 
so we consulted the website
sponsored by the Cornell Lab of Ornithology.

Here is the sound of the owl, which turned out to be the most common owl 
in this part of the USA, the Great Horned Owl:

photo courtesy of

We also listened to the sound of the Eastern Screech Owl, 
which is a pint-sized owl common to suburban areas and woodlands.  
My husband said he hears this owl's call frequently 
in the early morning, right before sunrise.
It's an odd call, one that sounds like what the Cornell Lab 
describes as a "descending whinny":

I didn't realize until I read the descriptions in
that songbirds and starlings will actually gang up on owls 
in an attempt to drive them away.
The site says that when one hears a cacophony of blue jay shrieks, for example,
it may be a good sign that they are "mobbing" the owl.
And as well they should, I suppose,
since owls are known to eat the occasional songbird.
But primarily, they eat mice, which are loathsome creatures, 
so I will have to forgive them their occasional choice of a feathered appetizer.

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Sunday, November 25, 2012

Always a Breeze

One autumn morning earlier this year, 
my husband and I walked along a creek
that runs through a park in the county where we grew up.
Purple rocket flourished on the banks, along with tall golden flowers 
that looked like a cross between a black-eyed Susan and a sunflower.
The grass along the sidewalk was dotted with dock and plantain.

Near the end of the path tall cottonwood trees rose from the creek bed,
and as we walked by, a gentle breeze rattled their leaves.
Decades ago, my husband and I walked near cottonwoods in another place,
and he remarked that there's always a breeze under a cottonwood tree.
Its poetry caught me by surprise, and I've always remembered it.

Photo courtesy of

 To get to the pathway along the creek, 
we had crossed a footbridge with silvery metal railings
and after we saw the poplar trees, 
we crossed back to the other side over a walkway with red railings.
The bright red looked out of place, even uncharacteristically cheerful,
in a region given to a no-nonsense, utilitarian approach to life.
But I enjoyed the pop of color.

After our walk along the creek, there were other sights and sounds:
mockingbirds and blue jays calling from the trees,
a roadside stand selling pumpkins harvested from local fields,
an Amish couple selling handmade baskets next to their horse and buggy.
Finally we returned home after traversing endless miles of highway 
under the watchful eyes of red-tailed hawks.

There is something comforting in the common and everyday.
I like to think that is where magic is found. 
 Phillip Levine said it best:
Let your eyes transform what appears ordinary, commonplace,
into what it is, a moment in time, an observed fragment of eternity.

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Saturday, November 24, 2012

Recipes for the Season, Victorian Style

This week, I ran across an interesting archive
of Godey's Lady's Book,
the popular 19th-century magazine for women 
that was once published in Philadelphia, Pennsylvania.

Since Thanksgiving has just ended, 
and the Christmas season just beginning,
I thought it would be interesting to see what recipes
Godey's suggested for Thanksgiving leftovers.
Apparently, leftovers were not so common then,
as there were no recipes for turkey casserole
or turkey sandwiches with stuffing and cranberry sauce or the like
published in any issues I browsed. 

But even though Godey's Lady's Book didn't include such suggestions,
I thought it would be fun to share some of the "receipts" 
published in the November 1885 issue.
The issue had no shortage of instructions 
for preparing hearty meat dishes,
from how "To Broil a Fresh Mackerel" to "Baked Fish," 
"Roast Chicken," "Braised Beef," or "Beef Patties" 
and "Hashed Mutton to eat like Venison"--don't ask.

Most of the meat dishes require prodigious amounts of butter or lard,
and one is instructed to bake, boil, broil, 
and otherwise braise the victuals into culinary submission.
An unusual Godey's tip for roasting chicken 
was to bandage the legs using lard and muslin to prevent uneven browning.
Something to consider if one runs short of aluminum foil.

But I really got interested when Godey's got to the desserts.
The Scotch Shortbread recipe requires lots of butter, of course,
but also suggests adding a sprinkling of comfits, sugar coated nuts or fruits,
over the pastry before baking.
It did sound delicious and very rich.

And speaking of butter,
how about this yummy recipe for Cake Fritters:
Ingredients.--stale cake
Currant jelly. 
Lard or butter.
Cut any kind of stale cake into neat slices,
drop each slice into very hot lard or butter 
and fry until they are a delicate brown.

The homemaker is instructed to place the lard-fried cake slice 
on a plate and top each one with a teaspoon of the jelly.
That recipe makes fried Twinkies sound like a low-calorie snack.

On the other hand, let's say one's dessert preference runs 
more toward semi-raw eggs blended with sugar.
If so, White Pudding is a good choice.
This pudding recipe requires a "teacupful of gelatin," 
water, sugar, two lemons, and five eggs, separated.
Add boiling water to the gelatin along with the sugar and the lemons.
Strain the gelatin mixture, fold in egg whites "whipped to a froth." Chill.

photo courtesy of

I can't visualize it very well, but it sounds too egg-y for me.
But maybe I just don't understand the appeal. 
After all, there is also a sauce made from the egg yolks.
It requires boiled milk, sugar, and yolks topped off with a touch of vanilla.
Whipped into a creamy sauce and poured over the egg white pudding,
and that would just about do it for me.
I'd have to swear off desserts for awhile.

Looking at excerpts from a Victorian magazine like Godey's 
 gives a glimpse into meals of the past. 
Some things are not so different; for example, 
one issue offered recipes for Christmas dinner,
but then, another entire issue boasted
of several economical ways to cook rabbit.
And other issues included New Year's fare,
summer picnic foods, and Easter recipes; 
fortunately, the Easter dishes were not in the same issue as the rabbit cookery.

At the very least, it makes one understand
how much time went into Victorian meal preparation.
In these days of pre-packaged, ready-to-eat meals, restaurants, and take-out,
it makes one appreciate just how quickly 
we can satisfy our hunger with a tasty meal.
Whether it's fried in butter or not.

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Friday, November 23, 2012

Over the River and Through the Woods

Recently my husband and I took one of my favorite Virginia day trips.
We crossed the southern branch of the Elizabeth River,
and drove through the countryside in Isle of Wight County
and Surry County, Virginia.
Unfortunately, I forgot to bring my camera or my cell phone,
so I didn't get any photos.

I love this drive in the autumn. The weather is usually spectacular.
And on our recent trip, we were not disappointed.
The sun was shining, the sky was deep blue and cloudless,
and the fall leaves remaining on the trees provided a rush of gold.

photo courtesy of

This drive takes us right through peanut and cotton country.
Both remain a novelty to me even after years of living in the South,
probably since I'm rarely out of the city.
A cotton field ready for harvest is so dazzling white, 
it looks like a blanket of snow.
Years ago when I lived in Little Rock for a brief time,
I remember seeing tufts of cotton that had blown out of trucks
all along the shoulders of a Delta highway
and wondering where the snow came from. 
It took me a moment to realize the white drifts were cotton.

Another thing I like about the drive is seeing
old farm houses and former sharecropper cabins, 
most all with their original tin roofs, still standing near the fields.
Simple and neat, many were decorated with pumpkins and chrysanthemums.

Closer to Surry County, the land rises 
and the road curves around through the forest and along open fields. 
After the harvest, birds will flock to feed on what remains.
One harvested field was so full of starlings, 
they had actually stirred up clouds of dust.
I suppose it's possible they were indulging in a group dust bath,
but knowing how greedy starlings can be, 
I think it's just as likely they were eating.

Finally, we stopped at Chippokes Plantation 
and walked along the James River.
The water, reflecting the sky, was a delicious blue color.
And hundreds of white sea gulls floated together.
Compared to the noisy starlings in the field, 
the gulls could have been asleep, they were so quiet.

We walked up to the River House Mansion 
on the original part of the Plantation before turning back. 
There were still a few dandelions here and there,
and I couldn't resist plucking one with a cottony seed head
and blowing all the little puffs into the air.

photo courtesy of

On our way home,
we drove by an oak tree that I had photographed two weeks ago
because it was afire with autumn color.
And I hardly recognized it. All of its leaves were gone,
its bare branches stark against the sky.
It seemed to say autumn is nearly over 
and winter is but weeks away.
And so it is. 
Makes me glad I got to see autumn unfolding in the country.

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Thursday, November 22, 2012

The First Thanksgiving?

Like most children raised in the United States,
I learned that the first Thanksgiving occurred 
in the early 1600s in Massachusetts.
Pilgrims. Indians. Food exchanged. Thanks and gratitude given.
We all know the story.
In elementary school, we traced our open hands to draw turkeys.
Later, we graduated to tempera or watercolor paintings 
of pilgrims, Indians, and open-air tables laden with food: 
turkeys, ears of corn, bowls of cranberries, squash, pumpkins.
Regardless of what we painted on our table still life,
the backdrop was always Plymouth, Massachusetts.

photo courtesy of

But then I grew up and moved to the Shire. 
And what did I see the first time 
I visited Berkley Plantation along the James River?
A sign commemorating the first Thanksgiving--in Virginia.

But then a few years later, while I was visiting Roanoke Island
in North Carolina, I discovered another sign
commemorating the first Thanksgiving--there in Carolina.
Very interesting.

I wondered if anyone else knew
 that Virginia and North Carolina claimed first status.
And so I decided to research it,
and I found this really great article "The First Thanksgiving"
  by the late genealogist Merwin Almy.
Although Mr. Almy passed away earlier this year,
is now maintained by his family.

Merwin Almy has settled the question, I believe.
According to Mr. Almy, 
the First Thanksgiving occurred in 1586 
on Roanoke Island in North Carolina.
And why did they give thanks? 
Mr. Almy wrote that when the relief ship finally arrived,
they were all so grateful they gave thanks at a special dinner
 and then "fed-up with the perils and hardships, 
they all went home."

Mr. Almy confirms that Thanksgivings also took place in Virginia.
He says that the first Virginia Thanksgiving was held at Jamestown Colony in 1609; 
then again in 1612, when the colonists gave thanks for, to quote Mr. Almy:
"the arrival of Governor Dale with a ship-load of girls
intended to become the wives of the settlers."
Oh, the things they leave out of the history books.

And a third time, a dinner of thanks, 
which was required by the charter of the Berkley Hundred settlement,
 was held in 1619 at Berkley Plantation 
 in present day Charles City County, Virginia.

And what year does Merwin Almy, genealogist and historian, 
give for the pilgrim's Thanksgiving celebration in Massachusetts?
Not until 1621, more than three decades 
after the southern colonists first gave thanks.

I think if Mr. Almy's research teaches us anything,
it's that the earliest American colonists 
understood they had a lot to be grateful for, regardless of their challenges.
Something we can all emulate, any time of the year.

Happy Thanksgiving!

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Wednesday, November 21, 2012

Pumpkin Eater

I was chatting with my sister last night 
and told her I needed an idea for today's blog.
She suggested lots of great ideas about apples 
and the apple and peach orchards near where we grew up.
So I began researching apples, 
but soon I stumbled upon a reference to pumpkins.

photo courtesy of

With Thanksgiving's arrival tomorrow, pumpkins seemed like a timely topic,
and my curiosity was piqued when I read about some of the ways
the word pumpkin was used in the past.

Of course, they weren't always called pumpkins. 
The original word for pumpkin was borrowed into English 
from Middle French pompon, 
which referred not only to pumpkins but to any edible melon or gourd.
In Middle English, the word was spelled pompione or pompion.
Later, pomkin and  pumkin were common forms.
I found this citation in the Oxford English Dictionary:
Their wigwams the midst of their planting grounds
where they raised their beans, corn, and pompions.
(C. De W. Brownwell 1864)
It reminded me of some of the first Thanksgiving stories I've read.

But what I find more interesting about the history of the word pumpkin
is its use through the centuries as an insult, 
especially when leveled at overweight men.
In Merry Wives of Windsor
Shakespeare refers to one male character as  "this grosse-watry Pumpion."
J. Fletcher, in Rule a Wife (1625), excoriates one man, calling him:
"another Pumpion, the cram'd sonne of a Starv'd Vserer"
(the crammed son of a starved usurer or money lender).
This historic use of the word may explain the nursery rhyme 
that ridicules the cuckold Peter:
Peter, Peter, pumpkin-eater, had a wife and couldn't keep her.

photo courtesy of

But I don't think any of these insults can compare with the subtle
swipe delivered in this 1640 quote from R. Brome in the work Sparagus Garden:

                    "Pompeons are as good meat for such a hoggish thing as thou art."                                  

Later, the use of pumpkin as an insult expanded to include
any stupid, self-important, or arrogant person, 
as in this rather contemptuous exhortation
from Joseph Tinker Buckingham's 1852 Specimens of Newspaper Literature:
"come shake your dull noddles, ye Pumpkins, and bawl."

On the other hand,
since the end of the Victorian era in the United States,
pumpkin or punkin has also been used as a term of endearment.
So tomorrow, as families and friends gather together
to celebrate their blessings,
let's hope if someone calls someone else a pumpkin,
they really mean it--
or not.

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Tuesday, November 20, 2012

The Blustery Day

I don't mind the leaves that are leaving.
It's the ones that are coming.
                                                                --Piglet in "Winnie the Pooh and the Blustery Day"

Although yesterday was Monday,
it  was a lot more like Winnie the Pooh's "Winds-day."
The wind gusted, blustered, and breezed 
from the early morning through the early twilight.
And with each gust, the chill was a little chillier,
the flecks of rain a little rainier.

Leaves have been falling for some time now;
they come down on top of everything 
and so far have arranged  themselves in small drifts and piles.
But yesterday's wind shook loose all but the most tenacious.
Soon, there won't be any left on the branches at all--
they'll all be on the ground.
And how long will we wait until they come again, tender and green?

Photo courtesy of

When I was out crunching through some fallen leaves yesterday,
I wondered why leaves fall from the trees every autumn.
There must be some natural purpose, I reasoned.
And there is. 
According to the web site,
losing leaves is a way for trees to preserve water.
Dropping their leaves affords them protection against the drier winter air.
So that's interesting. 

I've also read that the fabulous fall colors in most trees 
are already there throughout the year,
just obscured by the green chlorophyll. 
That's mysterious.

Photo courtesy of

And trees sheds their leaves so they can rest 
and sustain themselves through the winter.
That's kind of magical.

Wind blusters. Leaves fall.
Nature unfolds.
As Benjamin Hoff says in "The Tao of Pooh":
Things are as they are.

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Monday, November 19, 2012

Pumpkins or Poinsettias?

In the USA, the last three big holidays of the year
are slowly morphing into one giant season,
simply termed "the holidays."
It is in large part due to commercial interests,
but also because, as they have done for centuries,
people want a reason to celebrate
when early darkness and cold weather begins.

Halloween has the advantage of coming first,
so it rarely has to share attention with Thanksgiving, the middle  holiday.
And being able to have strawberries or lettuce in winter,
instead of only spring,
makes the significance of harvest increasingly lost on people
already unaware of  the daily rhythms of nature.

So don't look now, but before next week's Thanksgiving table 
is set with roast turkey, stuffing, mashed potatoes, and yams;
Christmas lights will already have been twinkling 
on some houses since the day after Halloween.

photo courtesy of

Irrespective of what I said above,
I'm still not completely sure why some people underplay Thanksgiving's
celebration of autumn bounty, family, and gratitude 
by decorating with holly wreaths and red ribbons; Christmas trees and reindeer.
I like those things too,

But bringing them all out in early November seems a bit premature--
rather like displaying witches, black cats,
and trick-or-treat bags in early September.
Of course people can, but why would they want to?

Driving home amidst sparkle lights and Santa Clauses recently, 
I was reminded of the lyrics from the song 
"We Need a Little Christmas"
from the musical Mame:

Yes, we need a little Christmas
Right this very minute
It hasn't snowed a single flurry,
but Santa dear, we're in a hurry ...

photo courtesy of

Even though I prefer to keep my holidays separate and in chronological order,
that doesn't mean I don't understand the attraction of a longer Christmas season.
The decorations, the parties, the gifts, the special desserts, 
the religious observances and rituals, the candlelight, the glitter,
these are but a few of the many delights offered up 
during a very pleasant season.
And who wouldn't want that to last longer than a mere four weeks?
Therefore, I suggest that instead of starting Christmas on November 1st, 
we extend it the other way, into the final days of wintery January 
when we really need some good cheer.

That's something to consider 
as we're all sitting around the Thanksgiving table.
And at our house, Santa Claus won't be carving the turkey.

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Sunday, November 18, 2012

The Mystery Tree

Woodman, spare that tree!
... cut not its earth-bound ties ... .
                                    --George Pope Morris

November is the best time of year
to see autumn color in southeastern Virginia.
Our growing season is long, so late October to November 
generally brings cooler temperatures and drier air
that help to bring out the color in leaves.
In the last couple of weeks, 
I've marveled at how beautiful the autumn color is this year.
It seems a cliche, but everywhere I look there is a magnificently colored tree
wearing the deepest yellow, the brightest orange, the most vibrant red.
Even the oak trees, which often just turn brown, now glow in russet tones:

But there is one tree or shrub behind our house
whose color is unparalleled as far as I'm concerned:

The soft blended orange-red-yellow color 
never fails to catch my attention.
Its beauty stirs my soul.
As George Pope Morris said:

My heart-strings round thee cling;
close as thy bark ...

I can't imagine not having it there, 
but we came close to removing it this spring.
The small wooded area on our lot
grows so thick and dense that after awhile, it encroaches on the house.
I'm not exaggerating when I say that if left untended,
it would consume our house.
So this spring my husband cleared some of the brush and lower limbs.
When it came to this tree, perfectly shaped like an umbrella,
standing alone between two oaks, he hesitated.
Should we keep it?  Should we let it go?
I said take it down; he said let's think about it.
We left it.
I'm glad.

But what is it?
We wrongly thought it was a Carolina spice bush, but it's not.
We examined the leaves, looked at field guides, searched the internet.
Our best guess is a persimmon.
But we're not sure because it's never set fruit.
So if anyone knows, please enlighten us.
Till then, our tree will remain a beautiful mystery.
And next spring:

Here shall the wild-bird sing
And still thy branches bend.

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Saturday, November 17, 2012

What about Blue?

As I've noted in my most recent blog posts,
the earliest period of the English language
did not have that many words to express color, 
favoring words for light or brightness instead.
We can be relatively assured that colors in the landscape
existed back then as today, 
but the lack of hue terms does make one wonder.

Ronald Casson, whose "Color Shift: 
The Evolution of English Color Terms from Brightness to Hue" 
was published in the journal Color Categories in Thought and Language,
theorizes that perennially overcast climate may have dulled color senses.
Additionally, there were few pigments for dyeing cloth
and much of the clothing, goods, and tools would have been 
limited to the natural and rough hewn, 
resulting in more muted colors.
The several color terms English speakers did have 
suggest they came from their landscape:
green leaves and trees, the red sunrises and sunsets, 
the yellow of wax and wood.

Casson includes a few more brightness terms 
with occasional uses for hue, among them:
the values hwit 'white', blæk 'black', and grǣg 'gray'.
Not surprisingly, white primarily described reflections and shining things
such as helmets, light, or silver. As a hue, white expressed 
 the color of hair, milk, flour, alabaster, whale bone, and snow.

photo courtesy of

Black was also a brightness term, 
denoting something that shined, flashed, or had burned.
Black as a color: soot, coal, pitch.
Also clouds, dark nights, and ravens.

And Casson says that gray described gleaming or shining light.
It also expressed the color of hair, 
the elderly (interesting how universal and long standing that is), 
animal fur, geese, bread, wheat, and porridge.
The latter three make me think the early centuries may have offered 
a rather unappealing cuisine, especially if the bread was gray.

But then what about blue? 
I would have thought that blue, the color of the sky and water,
would have figured more prominently.
But in fact, in the Old English language period,
blue as we know it is was conspicuous by its near absence.

blue aster photo courtesy of

According to the Oxford English Dictionary, 
the term was originally blǣwen,
and it referred to not only pale blue, but also shades of pale gray and pale green.
Only after many years did it become associated with blue alone.
In that sense, blǣwen described cinders, indigo, and sapphire.
But the color word "blue" we owe to the French bleu
which entered the English language in the 14th century.
Blue skies, blue flowers, blue garments, the deep blue sea
now found expression in the language.

I like shiny and bright things, things that glitter and glimmer and glow.
But  I can't imagine a language that could express only those senses.
I'm glad English and other modern languages have a multi-hued vocabulary
because without one, our holidays might  be bright,
but they wouldn't be colorful.

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Friday, November 16, 2012

Color My World

The earliest existing records in the Old English period
date from about  the 7th century.
And as I mentioned yesterday, there were very few color terms
in the language that described hue in that time. 
Most color terms expressed light and luminosity,
but words to express hue were not completely absent.
Often the same words were used to describe brightness and hue.

So I thought in this season of fall color, 
it would be fun to explore the earliest color words.
Yesterday I mentioned a fascinating article by Ronald Casson,
"Color Shift: The Evolution of English Color Terms from Brightness to Hue"
published in the journal Color Categories in Thought and Language.
It is Casson's article from which most of the following information 
on color and its uses is drawn.

As one might expect, 
rede or red is one of those colors that expressed both brightness and hue.
Casson tells us that red expressed the luminosity and brightness of flame,
but also the color of the sky at sunset or sunrise.

photo courtesy of

Red also described blood, complexion, hair, and roses.
photo courtesy of

Another color term that has been in English for centuries 
is green or in its early form, groene or grene.
It too had a brightness sense, being used to express 
the head of a falcon reflecting the sun, 
water, and flashes of light from green gemstones.
As a hue, green described fields, grass, trees, and unripe fruit.

leaf photo courtesy of

Yellow, originally gelu (g was once pronounced like y)
commonly expressed both brightness and, to a lesser extent, hue.
In its luminous sense, yellow described sunlight or the glint of gold.
But as a color, it described linden wood shields, wax, butter, and egg yolks. 

These are three of the original color terms. 
There are several. Does that number include blue? orange? purple?
Join me tomorrow as we explore more early colors.
There are a couple of surprises in the palette.

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Thursday, November 15, 2012

Shining so Bright

On rainy nights, the pavement reflects passing lights
and makes one feel as if life is a watercolor painting.
It's hard to imagine describing our surroundings
without words for the colors we sense; 
but as I mentioned yesterday, early in the history of English,
there were very few terms to suggest the saturation or hue of a color.

According to Ronald Casson in the article
"Color Shift: Evolution of English Color Terms from Brightness to Hue,"
which appeared in the journal Color Categories in Thought and Language,
most color terms of the Old English period 
predominately expressed brightness and luminosity.

Photo courtesy of

For example, Casson cites an early brightness term called tohrt, 
which denoted light.
Torht was often used in collocations 
like heofontorht, meaning heavenly or glorious brightness,
and radortorht, meaning 'heavenly bright.'
Since heofon is the word for heaven,
I would think those two would be reversed.
Regardless, the word torht was dropped during the Middle English period.

But there were a few brightness terms 
that did survive into today's English.
For example, dunn meant strongly bright 
and was used to describe rising clouds of dust, vapor, or smoke. 
The word's form  survived nearly intact,
but over time, its meaning shifted 
so that today dun refers to a brownish, dull color.

Casson also includes the term pealu,
a dusky gray color that was used to describe a polished shield, 
sun shining on waves, or a well-groomed horse.
Today's word pale is derived from pealu.

Another brightness term that was introduced early in the history of English,
but one that also later changed its meaning 
was the word scir (pronounced sheer).
According to Casson, scir  meant gleaming, clear, and bright.
Later in Middle English, the word's spelling changed to schir 
and added the meaning pure.
Over time, the word came to be associated only 
with the qualities of thinness and transparency,
meanings which the word sheer retains today. 

And what colors were in the English lexicon from the beginning?
Come back tomorrow and we'll walk through the watercolor world of early English.

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