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Brown isn’t the only color Wendell Willard ’70 sees when he looks at wood.

“I don’t like to stain wood or artificially color it,” says Willard, who for 37 years has co-owned Harvard Custom Woodworking in Massachusetts, crafting cabinets, built-ins, and freestanding furniture from native hardwoods. “I prefer to finish with clear coating or oil—then you see all the true shades.”

For example, maple, to Willard’s eye, is more blond than brown. White oak is a warm tan. And cherry starts off a pinkish red, but darkens and intensifies with age.

“Black walnut may be the closest to what others think of as brown,” he notes, “but I see a whole range of colors, from light amber to cocoa to chocolate to purple.”

The beauty, Willard says, is in seeing something seemingly ordinary as anything but: “You have all these glorious colors coming through.” —ES


With the scope of ecocriticism continually expanding, Susan Signe Morrison ’81 proposes a broadening of the “green studies” color palette.

“What about ‘brown studies’?” says Morrison, an English professor at Texas State University. “There are aspects of life beyond trees.”

Including some subjects routinely reserved for the restroom.

“We now basically have one attitude toward excrement: It’s bad,” says Morrison, who wrote Excrement in the Late Middle Ages after recognizing a recurring theme in literature of that era. “But in the Middle Ages, there was a huge spectrum of attitudes—from very bad, where shit would be a metaphor for sin; to good, where it’s a code for resurrection.”

Morrison wants to combat the stereotype that medieval people reveled in waste: Legal cases from that period pointed to sewage concerns, she says. Dung heaps, valued as fertilizer, turned up in wills. Sure, iconic writers like Dante and Chaucer sometimes focused on feces (enough for Morrison to coin the term “fecopoetics”) but, if anything, people then had a much more well-rounded take on what we leave behind.

“Traditionally, people wanted to repurpose things—including excrement,” says Morrison, who followed up her fecal-focused book with research on waste in general. “We, of course, have become this society where we just throw things away. We set ourselves up as, ‘We’re cool. We’re not like those medievals,’ when in fact, we’re just as dirty, if not worse—especially toward the planet.”

There’s Magic in Mixing

Start with a little red, yellow, and blue, and what can you make? Orange, green, and purple, of course—but also turquoise and crimson and lime and marigold …

“When my publisher asked me to write about color, my only guidance was that it also include tertiary colors,” says Arielle North Olson ’53, whose What Can You Do With Red, Yellow and Blue? is her sixth children’s book. “I could go in any direction I wanted, so I decided just to make it fun.”

Initially inspired by the hues of an old oil-paint box, Olson loved the opportunity to explore color in creative ways.

“I am fascinated with the brain condition synesthesia, which adds color to sights, sounds, and smells,” she says. “I would love to see India’s Festival of Colors [Holi], when powdered paints and colored waters are thrown on happy celebrants. And wouldn’t it be fun to eat enough brine shrimp and algae and carrots to see if we could become as colorful as flamingos?”

Her newest publication, Where Shall We Go, Big Black Crow?, expands on her vibrant outlook. Co-written with her daughter and illustrated by her granddaughter, the board book uses color and lift-the-flap fun to guide readers on a search for the bird’s dinner.

“Colors play such a vital role in attracting children to books,” Olson says. “Our words might never be read if the illustrations don’t lure readers inside.” —ES