Sunday, May 14, 2006

Into the green world

“A green thought in a green shade.” Andrew Marvell

Color begins with the retina. As light passes through the cornea it is focused by the pupil and flashed like a projector onto the retina, where photoreceptive cone cells sort the input and convey the information to the brain. What we perceive as color is nothing more than an analysis of wavelengths reflected from an object and its surrounding area. The retina sorts the data; the brain makes sense of it.

From where I’m standing my retina, my brain, says green.

Perhaps, if we step back in time a few hundred years, this makes perfect sense on a subliminal level, for the Oxford English Dictionary includes an archaic listing for the word dating from the early 1500s to the late 1800s. Before passing from our vocabulary, the word was used as a verb, and meant “to desire earnestly, to yearn, to long after or for.”

Which is appropriate, for my emotions at this point are decidedly not passive. Since my encounter with the hawk I have been captivated by the idea of disappearing into the green world.

Sometimes, usually in the spring but occasionally in mid to late summer, and only when faced by a seemingly limitless expanse of deciduous forest that appears to be as tight-knit as a beaver dam but is, in fact, as porous as a politician’s morals, I am drawn as if summoned to the deepest, most shadowed fastness of woods, only to stand there peering into their haunts with what can only be described as a yearning to enter. Sometimes I do, but more often I find ready excuses for not following that siren song. Too many bugs, the timing is wrong, my dress is inadequate—on and on the pathetic litany rumbles. I am left on the outside, waiting.

That I am called at all is the curious thing, considering I come from a desert place. I suspect that my psyche recognizes some aspect that it feels is lacking, like a vitamin or nutrient. Green, color therapists tell us, is a calming hue, with properties that include healing and rejuvenation.

Naturally such theories are explosive to others in the mind field, but I detect a kernel of truth in it. (In refutation to this, studies have shown that people from temperate climes do not respond in kind to the color green. The dictum holds true mainly for those who experience both winter’s bleakness and spring’s resurgence of growth. My wife and I were temporarily converted to this outlook during a week-long camping trip to South Carolina, where the dark woods were first a novelty and then a nightmare unrelieved except for a few grassy clearings where we pitched our tent, swampy marshes whose muddy banks held traces of the passage of large carnivorous reptiles, and the occasional view of the Atlantic Ocean. Green equaled claustrophobia.)

If nothing else, I have my own psychological state to offer up as proof, for when I stand on the threshold of the forest it’s as if the engine that runs me sputters, slows and grinds to a halt, leaving me poised to step through a curtain, as it were, and vanish from the race of men.

Several days ago I walked across the street from our home and peered into the dappled shadows of the small grove of trees draped between the road and Juganine Creek. It’s a wild place carpeted with flowers, fallen trees and farm equipment slowly breaking down to their base elements, preserved by a fortunate accident of topography. Situated on a steep slope, the forest covers an acre or so and is composed of a half-dozen or so species of trees. The cinnamon flash of a fleeting bird had lured me, and as looked for it a sharp-shinned hawk whipped past, almost removing my hat in the process, and without rustling the tiniest twig melted into the gloom. Almost—almost—I plunged after it, but my time belonged elsewhere, and frustrated I broke off and returned to my chores. But the vision of that hallowed emerald chamber remained.

Until this moment, when my wife and I pause outside what at first glance appears to be a solid barrier of vegetation. She’s holding a small GPS unit whose arrow points directly north. To get to the geocache we must pass beneath that lush canopy into a no mans land, something she’s loathe to do. Fortunately for me, this was her idea.

I’ve been greening for this, and after finding an almost imperceptible trace of a path in the deep grass, I plunge into the trees. The first rows of smaller specimens quickly give way to taller, and more widely dispersed, trees, under whose shadows the air is heavy and musty of damp earth and untamed growth. Footing is tricky, with downed timber hidden beneath knee-high plants and vines that claw at our ankles, the soil spongy from recent rains. In a heartbeat the low gray skies are supplanted by an ethereal green light. The green world.

Birdsongs echo and reverberate. I distinguish them aloud as we pick our way, but in the preternatural hush of the understory our voices seem somehow irreverent, and soon we fall into an easy silence. I try to steer away from stands of poison ivy but it’s impossible to avoid them entirely. The unit says we are four hundred feet from our destination.

When I turn to Lori I see a pale form bounding toward us. It’s a large Husky, and as it stops to study us with those colorless eyes, I break off a stout branch for a cudgel. The dog slips away in pursuit of some unseen thing.

Its presence leaves me unsettled. And for the remainder of our time under the trees I am wary and tense, and relax only when we finally break out into the open and see the levee curling back toward town. Lori is relieved to escape, but the land seems too orderly, too neat, for me. The real world is untidy, untamed, untrammeled. The real world is green.


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