Portraits of Wildflowers

Perspectives on Nature Photography

Cream paintbrush

with 37 comments

Most Indian paintbrushes (Castilleja indivisa) are red, like the one in the backround in this picture from the town of Manor on April 20th. Occasionally a paintbrush is yellowish or cream or white, like the one in the foreground here that is the real subject of the portrait.

* * * * * * * * *

Two days ago I posed an English language challenge: to come up with a sentence containing the words adopted finished stirred. The three words had to appear exactly that way, with no punctuation or other words in between, and the full sentence had to be grammatical. That seems like a difficult task, and no takers have come forward. (This is primarily a nature photography blog, after all.)

Languages allow for the nesting, i.e. embedding or insertion, of one sentence inside another. With that in mind, let’s begin with three simple sentences, each containing one of the verbs in the challenge (I’ve italicized those verbs).

1: The book stirred emotions.
2: The girl finished the book.
3: The family adopted the girl.

Now let’s nest 2 inside 1 as a way of including what we know about the book:

2 inside 1: The book that the girl finished stirred emotions. (Notice how stirred now immediately follows finished. Do you see where this is going?)

Now let’s nest 3 inside the nested combination of 1 and 2 as a way of including what else we know about the girl:

3 inside 2 inside 1: The book that the girl that the family adopted finished stirred emotions.

Grouping symbols make the nesting structure clear:

The book [ that the girl [[ that the family adopted ]] finished ] stirred emotions.

If you drop what’s inside the double brackets, what’s left makes sense. Likewise, if you drop everything that’s inside the single brackets, what’s left makes sense.

There’s no theoretical limit to how many levels of nesting you can have, but even with just the two levels of nesting in our final sentence, comprehension begins to falter as verbs pile up toward the end of the combined version.

For example, suppose we add just one more sentence to the original three:

4: The senator visited the family.

Nesting that inside what we already had gives us:

4 inside 3 inside 2 inside 1: The book that the girl that the family that the senator visited adopted finished stirred emotions.

I doubt whether even German speakers, who have a head start by often putting two verbs together at the end of a sentence, could follow this.

In fact the sentence could be even more opaque. Through a peculiarity of English, we’re not obliged to include that when it’s the object of the following verb. For example:

2 inside 1: The book the girl finished was long.

If we suppress every such that in a sentence with multiple levels of nesting, not only do verbs pile up toward the end, but noun phrases pile up at the beginning:

4 inside 3 inside 2 inside 1: The book the girl the family the senator visited adopted finished stirred emotions.

Try reading that out loud to someone, even slowly, and I’m pretty sure the person won’t understand it. What fun!

© 2021 Steven Schwartzman


Written by Steve Schwartzman

May 2, 2021 at 4:33 AM

Posted in nature photography

Tagged with , , , , ,

37 Responses

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  1. How to confuse your friends… 🙂

    Ann Mackay

    May 2, 2021 at 5:51 AM

  2. Beautiful portrait of the paintbrush. German would simply join the three words into one 😂

    Alessandra Chaves

    May 2, 2021 at 7:44 AM

    • That’s an insightful-about-the-way-German-word-morphology-works comment.

      Steve Schwartzman

      May 2, 2021 at 8:26 AM

      • In this case it would not work in German, because these are verbs. If I’m correct in my knowledge of my native language, verbs can’t be joined that way in German; adjectives and nouns can, as e.g in the (in)famous “Donaudampfschifffahrtsgesellschaftskapitaen”. As Mark Twain remarked, some German words are “alphabetical processions”.


        May 2, 2021 at 8:47 AM

        • I think Alessandra was having a little fun with her suggestion, even if German doesn’t concatenate verbs the way it does nouns and adjectives.

          I hadn’t run across your German word, which I see Wiktionary has an entry for:

          When I was in college I worked at constructing the longest possible English phrase consisting entirely of words that are formally nouns. What I came up with was the “Jones Beach State Park beauty contest winner.” I see now that I could go a step further with the “Jones Beach State Park beauty contest prize winner.”

          Steve Schwartzman

          May 2, 2021 at 9:00 AM

          • Now that’s an interesting contest, too.
            We used to make even the “Donaudampfschifffahrtskapitaen … ” longer. So far I’ve come up with “Donaudampfschiffahrtsgesellschaftskapitaenswitwenpensionskassenverwalter”, and I’m pretty sure even that can be added to. Another play with words, one that a colleague of mine invented, was to find the German word with the most consonants in sequence. I think that was “Matschschleuder”. 😀
            So much fun in playing with language!


            May 2, 2021 at 9:42 AM

            • It is fun. When I was young I similarly tried to find the English word with the most consonants in a row. The best I could come up with was thousandths. While that has five consonant letters, I soon realized that it’s not really five consonants because th represents a single sound. Furthermore, in speech the d isn’t pronounced, so there are only three consonant sounds in a row.

              Steve Schwartzman

              May 2, 2021 at 10:16 AM

      • I learned German for many years in school back in Brazil. I never got to be really fluent but I can get by.

        Alessandra Chaves

        May 2, 2021 at 9:02 AM

  3. Lovely portrait of a very rare paintbrush in our region in BC!
    Grammarly would have flagged down the nested sentences as hard to read.

    Peter Klopp

    May 2, 2021 at 8:19 AM

    • The increasingly nested sentences are hard to read and understand, no question. That’s why we don’t normally nest more than one level deep.

      Steve Schwartzman

      May 2, 2021 at 8:29 AM

    • You’ve seen that paintbrushes are as common here as they’re rare in your area. That works to my photographic benefit.

      Steve Schwartzman

      May 2, 2021 at 8:49 AM

  4. What an absolutely fantastic picture! 🙂


    May 2, 2021 at 8:28 AM

    • Now that’s the kind of comment I’m happy to get. Thanks. You’ll understand that my eyes didn’t see the scene this way; my imagination did.

      Steve Schwartzman

      May 2, 2021 at 8:32 AM

  5. Gorgeous capture, Steve. I don’t think I’ve ever seen a cream or yellow paintbrush, but I love this photo!


    May 2, 2021 at 9:45 AM

    • Glad to hear it. Now you’ll have to be on the lookout for this natural variant, though it’ll probably have to wait till next year because most paintbrushes here have passed their time already. The cream-colored ones make up a tiny fraction, but with so many paintbrushes in total, the light variants aren’t really uncommon.

      Steve Schwartzman

      May 2, 2021 at 10:00 AM

  6. My editors would not like such a sentence. I was never clear on where to put commas for such sentences. I am not even sure that it is grammatically correct without commas . . . somewhere. Regardless, I would have said it by simpler means, which is probably how I limited my ability to come up with a good sentence. Anyway, like you say, this is about nature photography, so we can just conveniently forget about my lack of linguistic proficiency.
    You know, as much as I like these elusive Indian paintbrush (which I have yet to experience), I really do expect them to be bright red or orange. Pale yellow or white seems to be unnatural for them. White is my favorite color, but somehow does not suit all flowers well. For example, cream colored nasturtiums are just plain wrong! Cream colored California poppies, as well as pale purple California poppies, were something we watched out for when we were kids, like other kids hunt for four leaf clovers, but are not actually pretty. I mean, they are nondescript. Typical bright orange California poppies are as exquisite as they are because of their bright orange color! I think a cream colored Indian paintbrush would be pretty to me because I have never seen any Indian paintbrush before. When I get around to growing some though, I will stick with the more common types found in nature.


    May 2, 2021 at 10:43 AM

  7. My favorite composition, flower on dark background! I enjoyed the wordplay, too.

    The vernal pools in rock in your earlier posts are quite interesting. I don’t recall ever seeing anything like that in my travels. Life is opportunistic, and tenacious!

    Lavinia Ross

    May 2, 2021 at 11:11 AM

    • And tenaciously opportunistic! Like you, I’m fond of wildflower close-ups with dark backgrounds, which I often look for when I’m out in nature and about to do a portrait.

      Steve Schwartzman

      May 2, 2021 at 1:13 PM

  8. You are right, Steve. Even to a native German speaker too many nested verbs are overwhelming.


    May 2, 2021 at 4:26 PM

  9. This is a lovely paintbrush. I’d say it’s yellow, and cream, and white, all at once. I was looking at some of my photos from Floresville, and realized that I’d captured a few truly pink ones in the field next to the cemetery: not faded red, but pink. I’ve found yellow this year, too. It does seem as though there are more variants than in the past, but perhaps that’s because I’ve seen more paintbrushes, and been more observant.

    That’s an interesting discussion about nesting words and phrases. If Henry James or Proust were with us, I’m sure they’d have something to contribute!


    May 3, 2021 at 6:53 AM

    • I also noticed how this specimen had yellow and cream and white all at once. Can’t say I’d ever noticed that in a specimen before. From what you say, experience has increased your powers of observation.

      I recently tried reading a late Henry James novel but gave it up after several chapters. In contrast, I made it all the way through one volume of Proust in French in college. I wonder if I could now.

      Steve Schwartzman

      May 3, 2021 at 7:15 AM

  10. I like how the white flower is juxtaposed to the similarly shaped and suggested red flower in the background.


    May 4, 2021 at 12:46 PM

    • That’s what I like here, too. I think of the red paintbrush as an “echo” of the cream-colored one.

      Steve Schwartzman

      May 4, 2021 at 12:57 PM

  11. I love the comment above that describes this as yellow cream and white altogether. What a beautiful image of this wonderful flower. I, too, only think of Indian paintbrush as being reddish orange-ish. I remember them from upstate New York in my childhood, which makes me wonder now if they still grow there, or if they only grow in the west. Maybe we just called something else by that name.

    Birder's Journey

    May 5, 2021 at 8:52 AM

  12. I missed this one so thanks for the link. I like the combination with the like-shaped red flower in the background. How did you light this? Reduced flash?

    Steve Gingold

    April 17, 2022 at 2:30 PM

    • Not remembering how I lit this picture from 11 months ago, I looked at the metadata just now and found that I did not use flash at all. I must have exposed for the foreground paintbrush, which by contrast would have given me a somewhat dark background. In processing, I probably pulled the Blacks slider way to the left and then manually darkened any hot spots in the background that still showed.

      Steve Schwartzman

      April 17, 2022 at 4:08 PM

      • I often do that too. Now with the improved masking in Lightroom it is even easier to make such adjustments.

        Steve Gingold

        April 17, 2022 at 4:13 PM

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