As the story goes, when God spoke to Moses from the burning bush, he revealed his true name. From the moment of man's first inkling of the vast miracle of his own existence, he's tried to put a name to it. A name is not merely an arbitrary designation or a random combination of sounds. The name conveys the nature and essence of the thing it's been given to. It represents the history and reputation of the thing. But a name by itself just isn't enough somehow. Moses may have been privy to the Name, but everyone else added the adjectives – all-seeing, loving, vengeful, benevolent, and almighty are just a few.
In school, we were taught to avoid overusing flowery language because too many adjectives and adverbs can ruin the reading experience. Well sure, I can see that. When the writer expounds for the sake of expounding, the reader's brain has trouble making sense of it all.
Victorian writer and shameless expounder, George Bulwer-Lytton, left a few memorable tidbits behind. Example: This well-known opener – It was a dark and stormy night...
Funny how no one ever mentions the rest:
It was a dark and stormy night; the rain fell in torrents except at occasional intervals, when it was checked by a violent gust of wind which swept up the streets, for it is in London that our scene lies, rattling along the housetops, and fiercely agitating the scanty flame of the lamps that struggled against the darkness.
A century later Ernest Hemingway might have taken a stab at it like so:
After dark a storm came, and sometimes in the wind there was a noise on the rooftops. You could see the streetlamps struggling to stay lit.
A half century more and Cormac McCarthy might have a go:
Nights dark beyond darkness and the days more gray each one than what had gone before. Like the onset of some cold glaucoma dimming away the world. The blackness he woke to on those nights was sightless and impenetrable. A blackness to hurt your ears with listening. No sound but the wind in the bare and blackened trees.
My mind has this ability to add and extrapolate. In Bulwer-Lytton’s description I can feel the wind but also see scraggly city trees bending from the force. Backlit by the flames of flickering light, I see the slanted rain streaks on the street lamps’ glass panels and see shop shingles flapping like wooden flags. Over all that, I can imagine a dirty, sooty, 1830’s London with poor and ragged souls chilled to their marrow and hovering in doorways. Cloaked and sodden, they turn their backs to the cold and heavy rain.
In Hemmingway’s version I see an overall mild storm with the occasional gust that wants to extinguish the lamps. My mind doesn’t care to fill in or extrapolate here.
Even without the rain and gust-dimmed lights, in McCarthy’s few lines I see desolation. Again, the words are so tight, the image so compact, my imagination says “Enough. I see it.”
I’m ok with all three but I'm sure you can guess the writing my imagination prefers – George Bulwer-Lytton’s.
As a romance writer, I find adjectives and adverbs to be life’s jumbo box of crayons. You know, the super-sized box with the built-in sharpener on the back. These modifiers express feelings both physical and emotional. They give a reference point to interpret with. They describe and evoke. But most of all, they lend a tangible quality to the names of things. They color our world. My mind needs adjectives because I see and hear and feel the colors, textures, sounds, and beauty of life. I need them because I have feelings and one size does not fit all. Spring is the perfect time to go for the jumbo box!
Of all the spring colors, I have to say green stands head and shoulders above the rest. This isn’t a generic monotone color. Oh no, far more descriptors are needed here. The range and scope of spring green needs as many as language and imagination allow. In spring, one must spell Green with a capital G.
If I gave an April tour of spring green in my yard, this is what I’d see:
The newly budded weeping willow tree whips will have filled with running sap and turned a yellowish-green. They’re also nubby with unsheathed catkins, each of which has the slightest reddish tinge. Hosta lily spikes of numerous varieties jut up from the ground in clumps and are mostly white-tipped emerald or jade. Lacy bleeding hearts will appear and their stems are a plump hunter green shot with dark crimson edges. Vibrant yellow daffodils have thick kelly-green spikes. (I must add another adjective here – succulent.) Spring cedar growth is dark, almost a shade of olive, but where the squirrels have been stealing bark for their nests, I’ll see the yellow-gold cambium layer exposed in strips that run in long lengths up the trunks. After all these years the trees seem to take this vernal pillaging in stride.
The oak flowers in their spring emergence are not quite as yellow as the willow. The small bit of umber and brick red interspersed throughout tend to play a trick on the eye unless you purposely look for the green. Any spring rain will darken the bur oak’s corky bark. Each tree would be riddled light and dark with damp and dry places. Spring rains will also waken the pubescent moss and lacy-edged lichen of sea green that innocently grow all over the trunks and wait patiently for summer’s leafy shade. After 200 years, I do believe the oaks could care less.
By far, the most green comes from the lawn. As my house is surrounded by rolling fields, the lawn stretches as far as the eye can see. In a matter of weeks, I'll look out on a dew-kissed morning and imagine I’m in Ireland because the whole of it will be dressed in emerald green. It will stay that way until yellow dandelions take over. Then the mature grass gets so tall it goes to seed and bends under its burden. That changes the color dramatically – more of a silver green. The crabgrass and fescue are darker and thicker, more of a teal green. The small clovers and tiny weeds have their own variations on the theme. Slender blades, newly sliced through the topsoil are the faintest and purest of all the greens in my backyard. Describing the green of my lawn is a hard one because all the many shades collectively defy description. There just aren’t enough words for the job.
George Bulwer-Lytton could have run with this. Cormac McCarthy could certainly describe the emotion of the colors here. I think it might be lost on Hemingway. Or maybe he'd just keep it to himself.
Rose Anderson is an award-winning author and dilettante who loves great conversation and delights in discovering interesting things to weave into stories. Rose also writes across genres under the pen name Madeline Archer. She lives with her family and small menagerie amid oak groves and prairie in the rolling glacial hills of the upper Midwest.
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