Wednesday, June 13, 2007

What I learned from the ducks

Yesterday, I went on a field trip with some of my favorite people: my kids, my husband (kidnapped from work for a few hours), my friend/neighbor Kathy and her kids and, Lara (the one and only – always great to see her again) and her kids. I arranged this trip to the Great Salt Lake Nature Center weeks ago and it turned out to be well worth waiting for. Ethan is an avid bird watcher so I was primarily thinking of him when I set up the visit, but we all had a marvelous time studying the ecology of the Farmington Bay wildlife refuge and seeing the birds. There were huge pelicans with 9-foot wing spans, avocets on their nests, blackbirds everywhere, all kinds of ducks and shore birds, and a whole telephone-pole rookery full of cranes. Wow. I think I spent the whole 2 hours with my eyes glued to the binoculars and a permanent smile stretched across my face.

After dropping Ken back off at work, Kathy and I went to Liberty Park in Salt Lake for a picnic lunch. This was the highlight of the day for Kathy’s kids who had a blast feeding the huge flock of geese who live there. Sure we had just spent the morning studying birds in their natural habitat, but there’s just something special about being able to get close enough to feed them your sandwich crusts and pick up their discarded feathers and smear the bottom of your tennis shoes with a layer of their guacamole-colored poop.

As if that weren’t enough for one day, we decided on a whim to stop at the new IKEA on the way home. Kathy and I had some silly notion of letting the kids play in the kid zone while we took a look around, but as it turned out, the store was packed (read: a two hour wait for the kid zone) so we just wandered around with our jaws hanging down for a while and then left without buying so much as a napkin. The place is utterly amazing. It’s a castle a palace a temple. A temple to Jörgen Ikea, the Swedish god of home décor. (I just made that up. Does it sound credible?) I couldn’t get over the monumentality and density of it all. And of course from the minute I began rolling my child-laden cart down the polished concrete aisles, I was overwhelmed with the feeling that I needed everything I saw. My life was incomplete until I owned that crocheted pillow, that drying rack, that potted bamboo plant. How did I ever live without a room full of toddler-sized wicker furniture? I tell you, the place casts a powerful spell.

Madame Matisse by Henri Matisse
The other almost dizzying thing about IKEA is how bright all the colors are. The place produces a sensory overload, perhaps meant to stimulate your brain into a buying frenzy but in fact a bit on the nauseating side for me after a while. I felt like I was trapped inside a giant bag of Skittles. Maybe I’m a bit over-sensitive to the question of color because it’s something I’ve been thinking about a lot lately. I’m brainstorming an idea related to color for my novel (yes, still working on it) and in my college class just last week, I taught my students about the “emancipation of color” that happens at the end of the 19th century in art. Some of my students have a hard time with the use of arbitrary color by artists like Gauguin and Matisse. The blue trees, yellow faces, and red grass seem crazy and illogical compared to everything we've seen up to that point in the class – they want art that follows the rules and imitates nature.

But since my trip to IKEA I’ve been struck by the thought that our own culture is absolutely filled with arbitrary color even more so than the culture in which these early Modernist artists lived. If anything, we should find it easier to embrace modern art than the 19th and early 20th century audiences did. Just look around. Our real sky may be blue and the trees may be green, but everything else is artificially colored. My car is gold, my walls are sage, my CapriSun is pink, the Kleenex box on my desk is bright purple with little flowers all over it, the shirt I’m wearing right now is dyed an insipid shade of Kermit-the-frog green, and the toys scattered all over my floor are every conceivable color of plastic with the brightest saturation possible. Is any of this logical? Our world is a place of flashy, fake colors produced by a marketing industry that uses textiles, packaging and media to attract our attention. The plumage is always intense because it's always mating season at IKEA.

It’s not that nature isn’t colorful. Yesterday we saw ducks with blue beaks and others with emerald green heads; the blackbirds had bright red and yellow spots on their wings. But in nature, color always serves a purpose: it attracts a mate or warns a predator or helps with pollination. And nature knows when to go easy with the paint brush. I learned yesterday that the Mallard drake sheds its characteristic green feathers and cannot fly during the late summer. This is when it grows light brown feathers to help it blend in with its surroundings. Subtlety: what a concept. The difference between humans and ducks is that we seem to have forgotten the value of camouflage.


Luisa Perkins said...

Ahh, IKEA. We bought our first kitchen table there 18 years ago when we were engaged. The first time I went there, I thought, "They should put one of these in Utah. Everyone would go wild."

I'm glad Jorgen finally got my brainwave. ;)

Can't wait to hear more about your novel! Are there some archived posts that would fill me in?

bubandpie said...

This post is one of those eye-popping moments for me - I am so easily seduced by bright colours (definitely a female bird in that respect, though not in others). Now at least I can recognize when I'm being manipulated... (but, ah, how I love Ikea!).

Radioactive Jam said...

Mmmm, Skittles...


I don't know if we've forgotten camo so much as let subtlety succumb to atrophy.

Andrea said...

I agree Ikea casts a spell and it's hard to leave empty handed. I'm impressed you did!

Dedee said...

Wow! I love the post. I haven't been to IKEA yet. I'm afraid of falling under the spell.

I love color, but I'm with you in that I don't like the overdone. Subtlety makes me happy. I think that birdwatching would have been so much fun. I love Mallards and their various color schemes.

I love sunsets and I love manipulating colors in quilts. being subtle reigns in the world of quilts. Interest comes from subtlety not garishness. In fact, I put together a quilt once and realized that I couldn't make this quilt with all bright garish colors. It didn't work. I had to include drabs and soft colors or it looked terrible.

Maybe I won't go to IKEA. I'd get on sensory overload quickly. Yuk!

Kimberly said...

IKEA frightens me. And once upon a time, colour used to as well. I've found ways to add touches of it into our home.

How clearly you expressed happy to see Mental Tesserae light up on my bloglines screen today. =)

TARA said...


One some levels, I think a love for IKEA has to be aquired over time. For me, and many people I know, the sensory overload never goes away. But, once you learn the layout of the store, and the occasional shortcut so you don't have to navigate the whole thing, it really is pretty cool for what it is. I stopped in last Friday around 4:30 and it wasn't too crowded at all. I spent $3.23 cents on 6 small goblets and about 10 minutes. Of course, I was already in the area, so it was worth the trip. It should get better once the novelty wears off. When they opened ours in Arizona several years ago, the freeways jammed and people actually abandonned their cars on the side of the freeway and hiked the rest of the way! Now that's insane!!!!

Glad to hear about your field trip too. How fun that you got to kidnap Ken so he could go too.

Jenni said...

I can't believe you left IKEA empty-handed. Are you sure you're not, in fact, a being from a far-flung planet?

Heth said...

Best line: "The plumage is always intense because it's always mating season at IKEA."

Oh my goodness I love that store.

The Lazy Organizer said...

I'm sure we're the only creatures on earth that wear camo to stand out.

Liberty and Ikea too? If I hadn't had company the next day I would have joined you. It sounds like I may have missed the best part of the trip!

I visited a couple weeks ago and I did not leave empty handed. I got lost for two hours in there and with a potty training toddler that was not the best of times.

An Ordinary Mom said...

I love IKEA. We even have a bunk bed from there. However, it is a bit overwhelming. I imagine in Utah the Kids Club is always going to have a long wait :)!!

compulsive writer said...

I have a friend who is one of the most colorful people I know. I love people who are bold enough to embrace vivid color, even though I'm not one of them. And while I think in some cultures and environments color may seem artificial, in others it's perfectly natural.

But I know exactly what you mean about being manipulated by marketing. I feel the same way every time I open a home decor magazine or flip through the home decorating channel.

Oh, and by the way:
This sentence--
"The plumage is always intense because it's always mating season at IKEA."--is absolutely delicious!

Annette Lyon said...

I don't dare step foot in Ikea. I'm afraid I'd never come out. As for color, I'm a design idiot. People think I'm boring and bland for choosing neutrals, but after reading this, maybe I can just claim I'm following nature!