During lockdown I rediscovered nature – and the colour green
As I do the washing up, the radio is playing Schubert’s “Die Schöne Müllerin” (The Lovely Milleress). It’s a song cycle that vacillates sharply between joy and sorrow, confidence and despair. As well as a companionable little brook, it stars the colour green.
When the lover feels optimistic he sings of his love springing up like new seeds, and his fingers binding the milleress’s green lute-ribbon round her hair. But when, in her green dress, she betrays him by falling for a passing hunter, his beloved’s colour suddenly becomes hateful. The lover first summons up the saddest greens, cypress and rosemary, in which to die; then he imagines weeping over all the green in the world, the leaves and the grass, until he has bleached them white.
At first this seems a startling reaction. Being English, I have spent a great deal of my life in green. Despite living in cities and suburbs, my mental picture of home when abroad is almost entirely verdant: rolling hills, clustering woods, smooth lawns. I take green for granted, the pleasant, soothing background to settlements, motorways, picnics, football, fairgrounds, even to the sight of my red-haired neighbour Tania walking her two elderly greyhounds across the gardens in a white-lace nightdress at dawn. It is so omnipresent that I sometimes suppose my fondness for harsh desert places – the mesas of New Mexico, the high plains of Castille – springs partly from a wish not to let green lull me too much.
Yet it’s also a difficult, ambivalent colour, as that song cycle shows. I’ve never worn it with any success, not even as a ribbon; it seems to turn my skin a strange yellowish colour, as if being “green with envy” were an actual medical condition. Certainly the ancients believed it was, caused by too much bile in the body.
The phrase is as old as Sappho, or older: pining lovers who turned pale also turned green, as though they were seasick with the ups and downs of desire. Shakespeare gave jealousy green eyes, thinking, some say, of the eyes of cats. Green’s darker, more tormented side was evoked even in the days of Chaucer, when green was high fashion, and a gown of that shade was more expensive than one of any other colour; and even when no month was as treasured as May, when new leaves reached their loveliest brightness in the woods.
The ambivalence goes on. Those green leaves of May were widely thought unlucky if they were carried into the house. My deeply rational parents somehow believed that emeralds brought misfortune, perhaps because green was the colour of the ridged-glass poison bottles that sat on a high shelf in their pharmacy, a colour naturally menacing and to be avoided.
The mouth-puckering fluid pressed out of young grapes and crab apples is called verjuice – literally meaning green juice – though it may as often be yellowish or brown. Green fruits in general are tart, hard, immature, not ready; you will be ill if you eat them. Yet green vegetables burst with vitamins and minerals, and we must all eat more.
In the 17th century Nicholas Culpeper found all sorts of uses – whether purgative, emollient, blood-clotting or anti-inflammatory – for the bruised leaves of almost any plant. And the vivid young nettles that sting so viciously are soothed immediately, as I’ve also found blisters are, by the moist green plaster of a dock or a plantain leaf.
Since greenness is now a political virtue, a shorthand for sustainability, frugality and awareness of nature, it has become somewhat dissociated from the colour itself. Or it had done, until this year. Lockdown was the time when I rediscovered, along with nature, green in its full power: whether the new sycamore and oak leaves of April along a favourite path, or the bindweed wreaths of July, offering white flowers like a salve. For a few, precious months we the public were allowed to walk on the golf course, where the unworn, pampered, deep-green grass lay under our feet like a carpet. We became empresses and kings, soothed and elevated, above all, by the richness of a colour.
The course is confined again to golfers now, and we miss it. We are also beginning to miss green. On the south coast of England we have had no appreciable rain since February. The grass in the gardens lies in brownish patches like an old mat, worn down by the countless circuits of people doing exercise, and baked by relentless sunshine ever since. A hose is turned on morning and night in a desultory fashion, but the green is not reappearing.
I begin to know now what Federico García Lorca felt when, in dry Andalucia, he wrote “Green, I love you green”: Verde que te quiero verde. Green wind, green branches, the wind full of mint and sweet basil, and a girl on her balcony with green skin and green hair. Even there, green is ambiguous: the fig tree’s leaves are like sandpaper, the wind is scented with gall. But Lorca’s first response is love and gratitude.
I used to think only writers from arid lands like his could give green its full due. I think differently now.■
Author: | Post link: https://www.economist.com/1843/2020/09/28/during-lockdown-i-rediscovered-nature-and-the-colour-green
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