18 April 2016

Chartreuse, The Color of Spartina Grass

“Chartreuse photographs badly.”  Photography can’t convey everything the human eye can see;  Eastman Kodak admitted as much about its color film decades ago. 

According to landscape historian John R. Stilgoe in Alongshore (Yale University Press:1994), no photographer has ever equaled the painter Martin Johnson Heade in capturing the fleeting colors of the coastal Atlantic marshes   Salt marshes are common along the east coast of the United States and, after he  was initially taken with them at Newburyport, Massachusetts in the 1860s, Heade continued to search them out, from Montclair, New Jersey to Florida.  To survive in the harsh environment of intertidal marshes. Spartina grasses, their  primary color chartreuse, flourish in  back-barrier marshes, tough but protected tbrunt of wind and ice.
Writers, too, have tried to capture the lambent nature of marsh life.   Sarah Clark wrote in an issue of Harper's Monthly (1882): "As the sunset deepens, the salt-meadows are clad in a golden green moss, each dry blade and bramble on the wind-swept hill gleams like a javelin, the red flowers burn into crimson flames, the cranberry swamp, too, is on fire, and the bridge in the distance looks as if it led to paradise." That bridge became when  Alvin Langdon Coburn's photogravure The Bridge At Ipswich (1904) was published in Camera Work. The bridge in question is  Choate Bridge, the oldest stone bridge in United States.
A character in Sarah Orne Jewett's novel A Marsh Island (1885), seeing the area at high tide thinks it "looked as if the land had been raveled out into the sea, for the tide creeks and inlets were brimful of water." At low tide the characteristic browns and grays of the marshland are "embroidered here and there with sapphire."  Marshing is the name given to the coastal farming, of "salt hay,"   farming made anarchic without benefit of boundaries, no fences or stone walls possible when the tides wash away all markers. By the 1660s, Plymouth colony was awash in disputes over trespass.  Jewett (1849-1909) also  reported in 1872, that the men of Rowley were armed and ready to do battle to protect their right to cut hay in the marshes. Usually people were more reasonable in settling their boundary disputes; the tides were there to administer daily doses of humility.
In early spring chartreuse is the green of the moment, a fleeting color. For the past three weeks or so, geese in the park down by the lake have been pairing off two by two; it is mating seaon on the Great Atlantic Flyway. With anticipation I check each day for babies, waiting  for those first few, short days after the goslings are born, the days before their feathers take on the dun coloration of their parents, the days when they are little fuzz balls of yellowy-green: in a word, chartreuse.
For more about Martin Johnson Heade and salt marshes, visit the excellent website Hay in Art

Martin Johnson Heade -  Salt Marshes, Newburyport, c.1866-76, Museum of Fine Arts, Boston.

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