Monday, August 31, 2020

Waiting for Raspberry

NEW! "Waiting for Raspberry" Original Oil, 4 x 4 inches

"Raspberry" Original Oil, 4 x 4 inches

My newest miniature painting of a female, or juvenile, Purple Finch is shown here, above the colorful male I painted a few years ago. Because juveniles look similar to females, I can't specify with certainty the sex of this bird. One thing is certain however, it is not an adult male. Adult males, like the one depicted above, are colorful. They are the shade of ripe red raspberries, but definitely not purple. I am posting both of these paintings because the following paragraphs refer to the nomenclature of the Purple Finch.

In my attempt to understand why the Purple Finch is called such a name without having a shred of purple in its feathers, initially my research took me back to the beginning of time when purple was first discovered. But for the purpose of my investigation, going back that far wasn’t necessary since I couldn't find any documentation referencing both the origins of the Purple Finch’s namesake and the color purple until the 1700s. 

On its own, purple has a long and storied history. Think of the cave drawings of the ancient world. That’s how far back the color purple has been used. Purple textiles were expensive, difficult to obtain, and laborious to produce, which is why they were associated with royalty and worn by the rulers of the world. The greatest Dons of Spain and the noblest of Romans wore purple garments as status symbols to indicate their high rank and leadership positions. 

Without needing to dig that deep into purple’s past, my findings regarding why the Purple Finch was called such a name went back around 300 years. Studying the color purple around the time the Purple Finch was recognized in literature seemed to be the key. In other words, detecting early mentions of the Purple Finch in journals or scientific publications and connecting that time in history with the color purple became the focus of my research. My goal was to gain an understanding, and perhaps reach some sort of loose conclusion, as to how the Purple Finch got its name. 

For some, it might be ample to dissect the Latin version of Purple Finch, which is Haemorhous purpureus. Haemo means “blood” in Greek, purpureus means “purple, or dark red” in Latin. Piteously teasing a rudimentary outcome, this translation provided little satisfaction and was hardly conclusive as to why this bird got its name. Why wasn’t it called the Dark Red Finch, or crimson, old-rose, scarlet, or raspberry? All of those colors have been used to describe the male’s feathers, one of three finches in North America that are undisputedly reddish. The others being the male House Finch and male Cassin’s Finch.

Although I was unable to positively identify who discovered or named this bird, its namesake is associated with the German malacologist Johann Friedrich Gmelin in 1789. During Gmelin’s lifetime, the seat of the purple industry where such colorful textiles were produced was Nicoya, Costa Rica; and it was there where a specific color named Tyrian purple was manufactured and used to dye clothing. 

So what is Tyrian purple and how is it different than the purple we are accustomed to today? Tyrian purple is actually a crimson color and was derived from certain rock snails, specifically the murexes. Another shellfish from the same family of seashells called dog whelk can be located throughout the rocky shores of Europe and the northwest Atlantic coast of North America. Both shellfish have the ability to render variants of purples and reds from their mucus. Tyrian purple is most closely associated with the murex genus of mollusks. 

As mentioned earlier, the color purple, including Tyrian purple, can be traced back to ancient times. Its use has spanned centuries from early cave drawings BCE to the 1800s. One can assume it was discovered by accident, as most things are. Perhaps a person curiously disassembled, or tasted, a few snails on the seashore, inadvertently splashed a bit of snail onto his clothing, and later noticed his clothing was splotched with various hues of red.

Or, perhaps in more recent times, it was rediscovered by a dog.

In a 1636 painting by Peter Paul Rubens titled Hercules’s Dog Discovers Purple Dye, the artist depicts Hercules on a beach with a dog. Lying on the shore are various types of shellfish. The dog, standing next to Hercules with its paw resting atop one of the mollusks, is featured with a red substance dripping from its mouth. One can assume the dog made contact with the snail. Had the painting’s title been different or unknown, a viewer might have thought the dog’s mouth was covered in blood; but based on the title of the work, the dog’s mouth is covered in Tyrian purple. Taking a closer look at the painting, the artist’s and/or commissioner’s choice of snail is a bit odd. Instead of painting a spiny murex, the snail associated with Tyrian purple, Rubens portrayed a snail whose shape is more indicative of a nautilus. Nautilus snails do not contain mucus with the ability to dye clothing purple.

Hercules's Dog Discovers Purple Dye by Peter Paul Rubens, 1636

Generally speaking, dyeing textiles Tyrian purple is a thing of the past, although there may be some current production by certain peoples in respect of tradition. For all intents and purposes, the industry has disappeared. In the following paragraphs, I will refer to the purple industry in the past tense.

Several methods were used to obtain the purple-yielding mucus from the snails. The ancient and primitive method was to excessively squeeze each gastropod until fluid emerged from their posterior resulting in the snails’ death. Not only was this highly destructive, the dye wasn’t as pure as later methods would prove. Great heaps of murex shells have been found on the coast of Crete, Greece and in Sidon, Lebanon. 

Another method involved boiling large quantities of snails in vats. An undesirable side effect of this process was that it yielded fishy-smelling clothing. As a consequence, Roman emperors used perfumes extravagantly to mask the odors of their noble garments. In time, the industry became unsustainable. When a Roman emperor forgave all taxes to those who labored in collecting murexes, the mollusks were most likely in decline, or near extermination.

The third method was used by the Nicoya Indians in Costa Rica as late as the mid 1700s, the century that intersected with the life of Johann Friedrich Gmelin, the person associated with the Purple Finch’s name. It involved squeezing the gastropods once, occasionally twice, before returning them back to the oceanic rocks from which they came. This more conservative method was likely formed from centuries of experience. Even still, great quantities of shellfish were being used just to dye a few ounces of thread, one aspect that had never changed.

The final method closely related to, if not interchangeable with the third, was also utilized by the people of Nicoya. Using cotton as their primary textile, they simply ran the thread across the mouths of the shells. With experience came knowledge and those who worked in the industry became experts at their craft, recognizing differences in Tyrian purple hues based upon the hour in which the materials were dyed. In all likelihood, there was an art to obtaining consistent results. 

While it’s possible, and dare I say likely, that Johann Friedrich Gmelin was referring to Tyrian Purple when describing the Purple Finch, I am wholly bound by the inconclusiveness of my research. To assume, and in brevity know, what Gmelin was thinking at that time is preposterous. However, given that one of his many titles was that of a malacologist (the study of mollusks), along with the history of Tyrian purple and time frame therein whereby its production in Costa Rica overlapped Gmelin’s lifespan, there is evidence to infer Tyrian purple, also known as crimson, was the reddish color attributed to this bird’s name.

Just in case you’re wondering, purple is created in laboratories and produced synthetically these days.

In other news, as August comes to a close, signs of fall are widely present. The Purple Finches, which numbered around a dozen at my feeders recently, are slowly dwindling in numbers and heading south. Northern Flickers are calling and so are Blue Jays, except while spearing nourishment from apples in trees. Black bears, groundhogs and white-tailed deer are all benefiting from this fruit as well. I have never seen a single apple left on the ground to rot here at my home. 

Most birds, including neck-straining warblers and everyone’s favorite, the hummingbirds, are migrating. Sparrows are especially abundant and noticeable. Common nighthawks were numerous over a marshy field close to my home on August 23rd; and just like the barn swallows that I love so dearly, these birds fly similarly by zig-zagging back and forth, nabbing bugs mid-flight. They are mesmerizing to watch. Belted Kingfishers came through on the 11th and 18th, and a pair of house wrens raised their presumed second brood of the season nearby. Fledging occurred on August 15th from a rather unusual home: an industrial black sleeve attached to cable wiring that overhangs the ditch in front of my house.

In the woods, one of my favorite plants, the red baneberry, is holding onto its dark red fruit in shadier locations, but those closer to the forest’s edge reveal berries that have shriveled up like raisins. Asters are blossoming in pretty whites and pale violets. Goldenrod is tall and striking in masses, covered with hundreds of buzzing bees. In particular areas of my yard, there are robust patches of it, strong and tall, proving that my efforts to eradicate common tansy are paying off. Bringing back native ‘weeds,’ as some like to call them, is truly a labor of love unfit for those who prefer, and understandably so, not to have their faces buried in tall grasses, ferns, thorny thistles, asters, and ivies just to accomplish what is surely a daunting task. If my chore coat, boots, gloves, and hat weren’t all doing their jobs, I’d be covered head to toe in pricks, pokes, scratches and rashes, not to mention laden with a sour mood.

With the arrival of fall and the changes the season has to offer, I hope you are all doing well. And if you haven’t driven your car in a while (in my case due to the pandemic), this is just a friendly reminder that it’s spider season. You may want to check for webs and dangling spiders inside of your vehicle before heading out, especially near the front window or steering wheel. A yellowish, translucent, hanging arachnid wasn’t a particularly calming sight when I noticed it ten inches from my face, ready to drop from its thread onto my lap while driving to the post office today. Next time, I’ll heed my own advice before potentially causing an accident. One would think I’d be used to close encounters with creepy crawlies given the number of hours I spend in the woods, but I expect to see them in the woods, not hanging from my car’s windshield. For me, today’s brush with this eight-legger reminded me just how permeable our world is to nature; and in these trying times, I found comfort in that despite this spider’s unwelcome appearance.


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Johann Friedrich Gmelin. February 20, 2020. Johann Friedrich Gmelin.Wikipedia.

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Nicoya. April 18, 2020. Nicoya. Wikipedia.


Nuttall, Zelia. “A Curious Survival in Mexico of the Use of the Purpura Shell-Fish for Dyeing.” Putnam anniversary volume; anthropological essays presented to Frederic Ward Putnam in honor of his seventieth birthday, April 16, 1909, by his friends and associates.G.E. Stechert & Co., NY. 1909. 368-384.


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Schultz, Colin. (2013, October 10) In Ancient Rome, Purple Dye Was Made from Snails. Smithsonian Magazine.


Trotter, S. (1912). “The Names “Purple Finch,” “Mavis,” and “Highole.”” The Auk, 29(2), 255-256.


Tyrian purple. August 2, 2020. Tyrian purple.Wikipedia.


Waldert, Peter. n.d. Purpureus/purpurea/purpureum, AO.Latin is Simple.

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