Monday, 10 March 2008

The Comfort of Green

An essay by Elizabeth Ayres, from her forthcoming American Dreamscape: Reflections from Chesapeake Bay Country. Photo: NASA Earth Observatory, which also has scientific data on conditions in the Bay.
If you could just suspend your disbelief for a moment. Dismiss your need for empirical evidence. Imagine with me that, behind its closed and virgin eyelids, the unborn child sees green. Green the jungle waters of the amniotic sac, the enfolding darkness, the warm, protected tides. Green the silence, all passion and strife muffled, far away. Green the growing in that nine-month cushioned ride.

Do I exaggerate? Maybe, but scientifically speaking, green is life. Consider those two Greek words, chloros, green and phyllon, leaf. Chlorophyll is the molecule that uses the energy of sunlight to make carbohydrates from CO2 and water. It absorbs well in the blue and red but poorly in the green portions of the spectrum, which is why tissue containing the molecule appears green. Green is our very breath, the primal exchange from which our planet evolved: carbon dioxide for oxygen, light for food.

I am mesmerized by green. I have just returned home to Chesapeake Country after a lifetime away. Thirty years in the concrete wilderness of Manhattan. Five on the vast gray mesas of northern New Mexico. Forgive my hyperbole, but as I drive down the street I am convinced that the woods are unable to contain their joy at my arrival. See how they run right down to the edge of the pavement, to gather me into their arms?

Back in New Mexico, people prided themselves on their love for the austere beauty of the high desert. “I had to go east to see my mother,” someone might say. “There was all that broccoli.” And everyone would laugh knowingly. As if disdain could compensate for what we lacked: the consoling, companioning presence of things green and growing.

I walk down any road, enchanted. Green is a riotous abundance, an effervescence spilling forth, a verdant champagne. I see birds on lawns, telephone poles, I hear them chirp or twitter. But when they disappear into the exuberant mass of trees, they become something else: the green beak of the living world, piping its very own song.

Green beckons, like a crooked finger. Seduces, like a whispered secret. I sit on my friend’s deck, staring intently into the woods that surround her house. Inside that luxurious flourishing I detect a pale emerald glow. Magic? Yes, but thoroughly explicable. Plant pigments accept all other colors but reject green, which then builds up a kind of spectral surplus that transfuses what light remains. Botanists call it “the green window.” I prefer to think that the sun threads her darting needles with green to stitch us all together. Trees, bushes, birds, people. . . we are all one fabric, one whole and arboreal cloth. What to do when the scissors go snip, snip, snip?

When I found this house, I rejoiced, for behind me lay a thick expanse of trees. I moved in on a Monday, set up my back bedroom office to green applause. On Friday, I swear, just four days later, I stumbled sleepily into my office to see what all the noise was about. Outside I saw a vacant brown lot dotted with mammoth bonfires. Bulldozers roved among the burning piles like grazing dinosaurs. The herbaceous monsters had devoured my woods, quite literally, overnight. There’s a road back there now, an inert ribbon of cement, and soon more people will come, I have counted hookups for at least a dozen houses. The people will eat and drink, work and play, but where will be the comfort of green? Farther and farther away, I suppose. And if the story of my homecoming repeats itself – as it will – I fear we are very busy sending ourselves into exile.

No conclusions here. From the green heart of the growing world a green pulse continues to throb. I know what it’s like, to be cut loose from that umbilical cord, so I just hope we can all stay connected to it for as long as we inhabit this womb called earth.

Elizabeth Ayres has written Know the Way (poetry, Infinity, 2005), is about to publish her American Dreamscape essays, and runs a Creative Writing Center with meditation and writing retreats on the Patuxent River.
See also
- naturalist Tom Horton's books:
Island Out of Time, Water's Way, Turning the Tide, The Great Marsh, Bay Country; his book Growing, Going Gone: The Chesapeake Bay and the Myth of Endless Growth (2008), and his article Why Can't We save the Bay? in National Geographic June 2005; Chesapeake Bay Foundation's news, video and blog; a recent scientific report on the impact of climate change on the Bay.
- Steven Pavlos Holmes' Maine Voices book, his and Facing the Change.
- Chris Clarke's Creek Running North blog from the Pacific coast, and Placeblogger directory.

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