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Composite Perspectives

Photos © 1999 Mark Oatney, text © 1999 Clara Weygandt. All rights reserved. No photograph or text may be reproduced, stored, transmitted, or used in any way - via any electronic or printed medium - without written permission from copyright owner.

Photographs by Mark Oatney
Text by Clara Weygandt

The first flowers I remember were formal. Roses. Ranunculus. Carnations. All serious sounding names, the colors deep soft pinks and reds. When you put them in a vase, they stood straight up. Then there were daisies. Bright yellow and gleaming white. Irritatingly cheerful. And the name: daisy. So casual. They smelled sharp and pungent, flopped out of the vase, hung down the sides. They were not my favorite flowers.

But in my early botany classes, I learned about Asteraceae. Under the dissecting scope I saw a new world; hundreds of tiny individual flowers. The Latin was wonderful. Senecios, Erigerons, Cirsiums. I enjoyed the common names too, like groundsel and pussy-toes because they rolled on my tongue like marbles. Or fleabane daisy because it made me feel like I was in the middle ages. I mostly liked the fleabane part though. Daisy was still too simple.

Then one evening I was reading Mother Tongue by Bill Bryson. In the chapter on how English has changed over time I stumbled over "...daisy was originally day's eye." I thought about how dark our world used to be, how everything was lit by candles, and fire. And how, even on gray days the yellows and whites of composites would glow. Pale circles in a darker ground. It was the perfect name. Day's eye.

In the field I saw composites, especially the natives, with new appreciation. Many were shrubs, like artemisa and baccharis. The classic Wyethia mollis, the Latin a complete mouthful; the common name of mule's ears easy to remember once I saw the tall furry leaves. Beautiful Balsamorhiza sagittata, blooming generous and golden among desert peach and bitter brush. I discovered that certain arnica leaves had a scent that was indescribably delicious. Once we found an arnica whose flower smelled like chocolate. I was entranced. I saw Blepharipappus scaber, the small white and purple flowers so thick that when I waded through them, I felt like I was crossing some dancing, light-catching river.

Now when I see composites I think of the earth as the sky, and the flowers as stars. All those eyes of the day, the brilliant colors and symmetrical shape scattered over the sides of hills, the sides of roads, along arroyos and gullies, every inflorescence a reflection of light, a small reminder of the sun.


About the Photographer

MARK OATNEY has a BA in biology from UCSC, and has propagated rare plants and tracked Spotted Owls throughout the northwest. Field biology led naturally to nature photography, which allows him to focus more directly on the beauty and mystery of nature.  For more information, or to see a much broader selection of his photographs, visit his website at

About the Author

CLARA WEYGANDT has spent five summers monitoring the revegetation of plants along a pipeline in eastern California. She has published poetry and essays in various small presses, as well as natural history articles in a national dive magazine.  She has a BA in environmental studies from the University of Santa Cruz, California, and is currently working on a Masters in environmental writing at the
University of Montana, Missoula.


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