Monday, October 19, 2009

The color-blind naturalist

(If you see a number in this circle, then you are not one of us.)

I am willing to come out of the closet and tell the world that I don't see things the same way most people do.  Along with 7% of American males and 0.4% of American females, I am color-blind.  The genetic basis of this condition and the myriad of details surrounding the types of color-blindness are too esoteric for this post, and their description would bore most of you to drink (even more than you currently do).

Color-blind people are apparently interesting and curious to normal-sighted people.  Holding up some item at hand, the perennial question is always: "What does this look like to you?"  Come on.  Think hard about that question for a minute.  You are asking someone who does not see objects as you do what the world looks like.  The color-blind person could only describe the world as he sees it, not the way you see it, so no matter what the answer is, it will be of no value to you at all.  It is a ridiculous question, but non-color blind people ALWAYS ask it.  Do you do it just so you can laugh behind our backs?  To make yourself feel superior? I'm really sick of the ignorance of the colored-sighted persons.  It is high time that color-blindees stand up and complain about the bigotry and ignorance that exists in the U.S. toward those of us who happen to have been born with a weird density or arrangement of cones in the retina of our eyes.  This "defect" is not our fault, and being grilled relentlessly by our children, and now grandchildren, who try to teach us the colors by holding up those stupid Crayola crayons is not helping.  What the hell is mauve, anyway?

And besides, how do we know that an object that you say is "red" is really that color?  That is just the way YOU see it.  I see it differently.  Maybe I am correct, and the majority of people are incorrect.  Is it correct to call it red because more than 50% of humans say that is what it is?  Or, to get even more complicated.  Because I have been told all my life that the color of the shirt you are holding up is called "red", I may have learned to call it that, even though I see something very different from what you see.

To publicize the plight of color-blind persons, I propose we initiate a Special Olympics of sorts.  The main event, which would actually constitute an extreme sport for color-blindees, involves a railroad crossing in an actual rural setting. The exciting spectator part of this is that the umpires wait until a train is coming at full speed.  The umps hold up a green flag when it is safe to cross and a red flag when it is not safe.  If the contestant gets it wrong, they lose, big time. 

Actually, this railroad crossing event simulates what real life is like for us all the time.  Years ago, my brothers (who are both also color-blind) and I went grouse hunting in southern Ohio.  As we crossed an intersection in a small town, cars screeched to a halt from two directions and started blasting their horns.  We pulled the car over to see what the heck was wrong.  After studying the situation for a few minutes, we realized that the traffic light had the green light on top and the red light on the bottom.  Go figure.  It was Ohio.  Our M.O. had always been to drive through any intersection when the bottom light was on and stop when the top light was lit.  This had worked for years.  The color never mattered to us.  Whoops!  It matters in southern Ohio.  Was this some kind of trick to kill off color-blind innocents like us?  (By the way, in Romania and Turkey, color-blind people are not given a driver's license.)

I went through life bearing this burden from primary school until I was 40 thinking I simply saw objects slightly differently from other people.  Then, when we were on sabbatic in Costa Rica in the mid-80s, I was taking a hike with my son Matt along a trail in the Monteverde cloud forest.  At one point in the walk he said: "Dad, look at those red flowers on that plant."  I said: "What red flowers?"  And he patiently pointed out to me that there were dozens of red flowers all over a patch of some herbaceous plants about two feet tall immediately next to the trail.  I realized then that not only did I see colors differently from normal people, but that I was not seeing some objects at all.  Only two weeks ago, my wife was exclaiming about the red apples all over our tree about 50 feet from where we were standing.  I could not see a single apple unless I stood right next to the damn thing.  I have been quasi-depressed about this startling revelation ever since that day in Monteverde.

In 1968, I thought I might turn this handicap to my advantage.  I had received my draft notice to report to Uncle Sam.  You know, that uncle who has 300 million nieces and nephews.  The Vietnam War was at its peak, and the military took every body they could find.  I heard a rumor that they even picked up a road-kill deer at one point, because the body was still warm.  They probably figured the deer could at least serve as a company clerk.  So I thought I might fail my physical if I was color-blind and, thereby, not have to go into this dangerous situation.  I took my physical in Columbus, Ohio and, immediately after the eye exam, I asked the technician if I was color-blind.  His response: "Yep. Next."  I spent the next three years in the U.S. Army.

So I am a nature lover, and I have been all of my life.  But think how much more beautiful it would seem to me and to color-blind people everywhere if we actually saw the world in all its incredible, colorful reality.  Brilliant flowers and ripe fruits and autumn leaves on trees that we hear everyone exclaiming about.  And rainbows.  And blushing girls.  And birds.  And Christmas lights.  And even traffic lights.  Damn those deficient cones!


  1. This is all too familiar to me. I learned to read faster than anyone in my preschool because it was the only way I could tell what color marker to use during drawing exercises. This summer we hung pink flagging in the woods to mark off our plots; it might as well have not been there for all I cared, as it was lost among the green leaves. The other day someone pointed out to me the thousands of bright red fruits on a Cornelian cherry dogwood from across the street... I couldn't see a single one. It is a constant daily struggle.

  2. Mark, really unfortunate for people like us who love nature. We will never know what it really looks like.

  3. I guess I lucked out ---my mom's dad and brother are color blind, while bibliophilic myopia aside, my eyes came with the full assortment of cones. Interestingly, it looks like a fix for those deficient retinas may not be as far off as you think.... Recent studies at UW have successfully engendered color vision in 2 adult male squirrel monkeys (only the females normally see in color ---I wonder why?), using a viral vector gene therapy. This blog's comment daemon doesn't seem to allow pasting, so try this link:

  4. Modern Vet: I read about the monkey studies several months ago, and found that encouraging. Do females only need to see color because they need to see something about males that is important in mate choice?

  5. You just need an excuse to drink huh buddy

  6. Ryan, I don't drink a lot, but I drink regularly. Slow but steady wins the race.