Just Ask

Drive almost anywhere in rural North America and you’ll see old barns: old red barns. Why are barns almost always red? Just ask the Farmers’ Almanac.

Hundreds of years ago, many farmers would seal their barns with linseed oil, which is an orange-colored oil derived from the seeds of the flax plant. To this oil, they would add a variety of things, most often milk and lime, but also ferrous oxide, or rust. Rust was plentiful on farms and because it killed fungi and mosses that might grow on barns, it was very effective as a sealant. It turned the mixture red.

OK, that makes sense: effective and plentiful/cheap, rust makes an excellent paint additive, especially when covering a big area. But why is it plentiful? Just ask Smithsonian Magazine.

As soon as the star hits the 56-nucleon cutoff (56 being the total number of protons and neutrons in the nucleus), it falls apart. It doesn’t make anything heavier than 56. What does this have to do with red paint? Because the star stops at 56, it winds up making a ton of things with 56 nucleons. It makes more 56 nucleon-containing things than anything else (aside from the super light stuff in the star that is too light to fuse).

The element that has 56 protons and neutrons in its nucleus in its stable state?
Iron. The stuff that makes red paint.

Well, that’s kinda cool. What could seem further apart than stars and barns? And yet, they’re connected.

But it doesn’t stop there. Just ask National Geographic, which asked Karel and Iris Schrivjer, an astrophysicist and a pathology professor respectively, in an interview about their book.

Everything we are and everything in the universe and on Earth originated from stardust, and it continually floats through us even today. It directly connects us to the universe, rebuilding our bodies over and again over our lifetimes.

It’s not just barns: It’s *all* connected to stars. And it’s not exactly breaking news. Even so, I don’t go around seeing every thing and every one as stardust in a new format. Or the me in the mirror as today’s expression of a “pattern in flux.”

The body that is with us all our lives is always changing. We are quite literally not who we were years, weeks, or even days ago: our cells die and are replaced by new ones at an astonishing pace. The entire body continually rebuilds itself, time and again, using the food and water that flow through us as fuel and as construction material. What persists over time is not fixed but merely a pattern in flux.

We rebuild using elements captured from our surroundings, and are thereby connected to animals and plants around us, and to the bacteria within us that help digest them, and to geological processes such as continental drift and volcanism here on Earth. We are also intimately linked to the Sun’s nuclear furnace and to the solar wind, to collisions with asteroids and to the cycles of the birth of stars and their deaths in cataclysmic supernovae, and ultimately to the beginning of the universe. Our bodies are made of the burned out embers of stars that were released into the galaxy in massive explosions billions of years ago, mixed with atoms that formed only recently as ultrafast rays slammed into Earth’s atmosphere. All of that is not just remote history but part of us now: our human body is inseparable from nature all around us and intertwined with the history of the universe.
Schrijver book blurb on Amazon

Would it make any difference to spend even a minute every day appreciating this perspective? Just askin’.


If you give National Geographic your email address you can read the whole transcript of the interview with Karel and Iris Schrivjer about their book: Living with the Stars.

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16 Responses to Just Ask

  1. Ian Hepher says:

    Joni Mitchell was right, then, when she wrote the immortal lines:

    “We are stardust, we are golden
    And we’ve got to get ourselves back to the garden”


  2. Tom Watson says:

    You’ve put your finger on a distant memory.
    I grew up on a farm in southwestern Ontario. My dad’s barn was red. On the front was painted “Eadie W. Watson & Son.”
    Guess my almost-four-years-younger sister never figured into the picture.

  3. The explanation for red in barn paint differs from the one I was told in New England, namely, that barns traditionally were painted in the fall after the annual slaughter of pigs. The blood of the pigs was added to buttermilk or to whitewash made with slaked lime or with calcium carbonate (chalk). The preferred description seems to be the one you offer but there is an explanation of “Suffolk Pink” painted houses in the UK that mentions pig or ox blood as colorants as well as berries, blackthorn, or sloe juice. The Swedes use an iron oxide in lime wash almost exclusively for their summer cottages. These recipes may or may not preserve the wood better depending on how carefully the ingredients are handled. Having spent many an hour at summer cottage wielding a paintbrush, I find these other traditions fascinating. It’s mind-bending for me to imagine most of our summer cottages painted red-and-white but more relatable than my debt to stardust.

    • Isabel Gibson says:

      Laurna – Interesting. Using paint with a blood additive seems a little gross to this city girl, but I guess it just pushes the “iron” part of the explanation down a level to hemoglobin. Not that we have rust in our veins, even though some mornings it feels very like. As for relatability to being stardust, I agree. Maybe we needed to start this education a bit earlier for it to really sink in. Like age three?

  4. barbara carlson says:

    I don’t remember learning any of this — did I GO to school?

    • Isabel Gibson says:

      Barbara – LOL. I know just how you feel. I feel as if I’ve learned more science since leaving school than I ever did in school. That wouldn’t be surprising, given the relative times involved. I don’t actually know what the K-12 school system sees as their purpose, but my view of it would be to prepare us not so much for work as for lifelong learning.

      • barbara carlson says:

        Yes. School is learning how to learn. And sit still.

        • Isabel Gibson says:

          Barbara – 🙂 Yeah, we could do without that bit, but it’s easy to see why it’s more convenient for those who have to work there.

  5. John Whitman says:

    Isabel – the new siding and shingles of the barn on the old family farm in NS were “painted” with used engine oil with red ochre (iron oxide) powder mixed in. Used engine oil probably wouldn’t be environmentally correct these days, but it was available free-of-charge from the local service stations back then.
    There was some debate as to whether it should be red ochre or yellow ochre, but barns were traditionally red so red it was.

    • Isabel Gibson says:

      John – 🙂 I think it’s fascinating how strong the force of tradition can be. “Of course barns are red” carries the day long after the actual reason for it no longer drives the decision. I didn’t know about the linseed oil – and used engine oil seems like an odd choice, too. I guess anything that seals the wood will work – and the cheaper the better. This just reminds me of how little I know about some of these basics.

  6. John Whitman says:

    Also remember this is rural NS 60 years ago where houses were white, roof shingles were green and barns were red. People were shocked and it was the topic of discussion when some new people decided to put blue shingles on the roof of their new house.
    Nowadays, anything goes.

    • Isabel Gibson says:

      John – LOL. I remember a Turkish professor who had moved to Saskatoon. When his wife saw the mix of roof colours on the plane’s approach into the airport, she almost refused to disembark. What barbaric place was this that he had brought her to?

  7. Thank you! I knew nothing of this. I thought farmers just liked red paint.

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