Color Games

I know some readers are sick of this stuff. A few good ole’ boys have even felt compelled to compose scathing letters to the editor. Then again, there are those who can’t get enough. So what to do when you sit in my chair and a story like this one drops into your lap?

It came via snail mail. I arrived at work and found a plump envelope resting on my desk, one that had the look and feel of a resume. The absence of a return address told me it was no resume, though, and piqued my curiosity further. I briefly suspected hate mail but quickly ruled that out. I have never received multi-page mail of that nature. Hate mail is typically short, vicious and to the point, often grammatically, uhm, challenged. I was convinced it was something worth reading, probably about cougars, maybe salmon, perhaps biomass or Wal-Mart or some other controversial issue I’ve chimed in on over the years. I couldn’t resist opening it and taking a look, so I peeled back a corner of the sealed flap, worked my index finger inside the inch-long hole and tore a jagged line along the fold. Sure enough, cougars.

The tidy letter (I only found a few minor typos in five single-spaced pages) began with a formal, six-line business address topped by my name in the upper left-hand corner. Then the intro began with a razor-sharp, barbed treble hook: “You seem to have run out of information relative to mountain lions but have established a proven record of honest interest in these animals locally. Consequently, this is a belated Christmas gift in hopes you can use it coupled with your investigative credentials to advance knowledge of mountain lion presence here.”

Hmmmmm? Interesting, indeed, but no time to carefully read it, organized in three bold-faced, labeled segments, “Published,” “Unpublished” and “Unsubstantiated.” Nonetheless, I skimmed through it, got the gist, and arrived at the end, where it was signed “CAU,” followed by the postscript: “Name omitted due to location and the traffic it may cause if you printed my name and address, but I will respond to any information or questions printed in your column if I know
the answer and subject demands response.”

The writer is an artist who believes in local cougars because he and his wife have seen them. The first sighting occurred several years ago on Route 2 in Shelburne as the couple drove past the old Mt. Mohawk Ski Area. Years later, his wife turned on two 500-watt floodlights to illuminate their backyard from the deck and came face-to-face with a big cat passing through. That animal “whirled around and stared directly into her face, waited, then turned and bounded off, tail high. As she described the ears and tail, there was no question but what this was a mountain lion like we had seen on the Trail.”

The man even ventures off into the common subplot of government conspiracy and secrecy, accusing MassWildlife’s Western District office of receiving, reviewing, substantiating, then burying photographic evidence of a Berkshire County cat furnished by a private citizen. I’d rather not go
there; have heard it or similar accusations many times in the past. They’re not worth chasing for many reasons, foremost that there is zero chance of confirming such a tale through state wildlife officials. Zilch. Especially now that you must first go through an annoying state Executive
Office of Energy and Environmental Affairs filter before speaking to any state employee. If something must be hidden, it will be. You can thank dandy former Gov. Mitt Romney for that. But let us not digress into politics. Back to the letter, which delves into a fascinating discussion on color manipulation under different concentrations of light, according to our source, the reason big-cat reports vary in color from black to gray to brown depending upon where and what time of day they are seen. And remember, this analysis comes courtesy of an artist who is familiar with
the way color changes under different light.

The first hint of this color-altering dynamic appears early in the narrative, paragraph five, when describing the Mohawk Trail sighting, a road-crossing from the overgrown ski area to the old Taylor farm, now Kenburn Orchards Bed & Breakfast: “As the animal traveled through the shade into the sunlight and out, it changed from gray to auburn to a light sienna (rust) and then back as it passed in front of us.” Get the point? The animal appeared to be several different colors during the same brief sighting by a trained eye. It gets better later, when the writer returns to an in-depth color discussion to conclude his piece.

Because I do not understand the relationship between light and color nearly as well as my source, I am about to do something I usually avoid like the plague when writing: lengthy quotes. To me, extended, uninterrupted attribution in a piece like this is lazy. A writer should be able to capture conversation by paraphrasing and writing, not quoting, except for short snippets delivered for sudden impact, maybe humor. I often find myself feeling the same way about dialogue in fiction, even from the masters, including my own favorite, the great Hamsun. I would rather be told what was said and why, not read quotations. But that’s just me.

Nonetheless, here I am about to violate one of my own golden rules by quoting verbatim my source’s scientific analysis of why the color of cougars can vary so from sighting to sighting. Sorry. Here it is. Rather than using quotation marks, I’ll use italics to identify his words:

Finally, I wish to debunk some of the misinformation we are fed by the fish and game, DCR or whatever it is called now. For too long, they have been fabricating information about … how the animal could not have been a mountain lion because they misidentified the color. I write not as a hunter or any kind of outdoorsman, but as a professional artist with the requisite training and about 50 years experience. Part of that training includes initial and continued intensive study in color and color theory as well as improvement in observational skills. … It is because of this
training and experience that I know our DCR is either lying to us, doesn’t know how stupid they actually appear or, since most are male, carry the color-blind gene, or perhaps all three. Here’s why:

Animal colors in this area as opposed to the tropics appear to be made up of a color and a tint (white) or shade (black) of that color. Burnt sienna (rust or iron oxide), such as that of a fox, for example, is a dominant color. Add more black and it turns a darker color, such as that of a blue Doberman. Add lots of black and you get a brownish black, such as a black bear.

The base of a rust color is composed of burnt sienna (red) and gold (yellow). A cougar’s color is on the gold side of this base. It appears that the color is generated by mixing the yellowish ochre color with that of its complement, which would generate a neutral gray or muddy brown. The surface of the animal appears to be a coppery-bronze rust color depending on light. However, as one looks inward below the surface toward the skin, it appears to get grayer and more neutral. This can be explained in several ways.The first possible explanation is that the deeper you look, the darker it gets, therefore harder to see color. It might just be that the pigmentation appears only on the very tips of the hair while the rest is the neutral of the color. One might think of this color-changing as perhaps a defensive response that allows the animal to hide in some types of lighting.

Furthermore, color changes with light. For example, take a walk in the woods with the sun at your back and the foliage will appear one color. Turn around and it is completely different. In addition, the sun reflects off the surface in places where the fur is compressed, and is absorbed in others as the animal stretches, creating lighter or darker variations of the same surface. In the animal world, think of the ridgeback, where the light splaying on the texture seems to create a different color along the back, where you look into the fur.

The animal I saw was in and out of the sunlight and at different positions relative to where I was. When I was in a position where the animal faced me or was at an angle in the light, it was a rust/bronze color. But as it moved across my path, I looked directly into the ends of the deep fur and it was gray. This occasionally shows up in photos of the animal and should help explain why there have been different color sightings by various people.

Since most cougars hunt and travel in the poor light of dawn or dusk, the colors of the beast would probably appear to be deep yellow- to grayish-ochre. Seen in front of the light, however, they would appear black. Finally, in any group of similar animals, there will always be variations. That the state uses this color “mix-up” to prove its point and confuse the issue is either innocent ignorance or blatant subterfuge. Take your pick.

So, readers, chew on this analysis whenever contemplating the reason why witnesses dating back to colonial New England have been reporting black or gray panthers. Apparently, it’s all about the light under which they see them. And remember, the preceding explanation came from a man who knows color and the effects of different light on it. That’s why I printed it as it came to me. Frankly, I couldn’t have said it better myself, and may have been inaccurate if I tried to paraphrase.

Why chance it?

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