Green To Me

Like anything I love, I mistrust the color green down to the fingernail-edges of all the feelings it engenders in me.

Helena Fitzgerald has had writing published in Rolling Stone, ...

 

They brought the kudzu in to cover up the scars.

We’re driving down to Savannah on the I-16, the highway that points like an arrow from the forest to the sea. There’s a thunderstorm picking up around us, and I have a warm styrofoam cup of gas station coffee and I’m sitting cross legged on the passenger seat, watching the rain whip the trees into a cacophony of green. The color seems to stain out past the borders of plants and vines and leaves and seep into the rest of the landscape, so that everything, even the billboards and pavement on the freeway stretching out in front of us, is at least a little green. The car is pointed toward the southern edge of the country, and it feels like the greens spill right off the edge of the land, curling and sirening out into the sea.

Kudzu is a shocking green, like someone pushed a neon highlighter through the landscape, underlining the highways, spelling out a route on a map for a driver with poor eyesight and worse memory, so that they couldn’t miss it and couldn’t get it wrong. The plant was introduced to the south in 1930s during the Great Depression, with the newly created Soil Conservation Service offering cash incentives to farmers who agreed to plant kudzu seeds. The beneficiary of one of the great public relations campaigns in American history, kudzu was talked about in quasi-religious terms, miracle and resurrection, making barren ground live again. This is always the promise of green: The dream of rebirth, the springing hope that one could start over and be made new.

But mainly kudzu was planted along railway tracks and new highways, places where industry and infrastructure had left ugly breaks in the land. Its eager and abundant green filled in the gashes and covered over the visible brutalities of progress, promising that what was profitable could also be beautiful, that the old did not have to be at war with the new, that the arteries of money were not at war with the land but one with it. It made the claim that these huge many-lane roads sprung symphonically out from the green, as wild and miraculous as the world’s natural wonders.

In Bluets, Maggie Nelson asks, as the supposition that grounds the whole text, “imagine if I told you that I had fallen in love with a color.” Nelson refers to her obsession with blue, the blue of sadness and pornographic movies, the blue that haunts poetry and old jazz standards about despair. Reading Bluets, I felt intimately connected to Nelson’s obsession. Not the color blue—I feel only the usual amount of emotion toward that most emotion-laden of all colors—but the idea of having fallen in love with a color, all its figurative heaviness, its associations and its metaphors threading through my life, casting a wash over my experience of the world like an Instagram filter that slides its uniform color veil over the whole image. I look for greens, teasing them out of photos, trusting them too much when I find them, giving far too much credit to any place that will offer me the greatest possible abundance of green. Like anything I love, I mistrust the color down to the fingernail-edges of all the feelings it engenders in me. The very fact that I love it so fiercely, that it compels me so again and again toward it, makes it both suspicious and sinister to me. What are the larger forces working to make this color seem like escape and solution, like a larger and better answer than words, like the final destination and the place to hide? What is green doing that makes it seem to matter so much?

*

America first used green ink on money during the Civil War. The government issued paper bills as a means of financing the Union, literally printing currency, inventing money out of thin air. We had done this same thing during the Revolutionary War, but the paper money was printed at such volume that it almost immediately became valueless and useless. This failed currency wasn’t green, and though I know it’s not as simple as that, I also know that, in some ways, it is. Green is money’s blissful lie of abundance, the loving embrace of a well-made long con. Previously, state and local banks had issued their own bills, but the Union’s regularized currency branded itself by the sickly green accented color that we associate with money today. The color was the result of anti-counterfeiting measures; photography was a new technology, and required new precautions. The green on the bills wouldn’t show up on photographic copies, and therefore proved authenticity, protecting the government’s monopoly on printing money.

In 1929, following the stock market crash, the U.S. government re-thought and essentially rebranded its money, shrinking down the size of the bills and standardizing the designs for each denomination. But when it came to rethinking the color, the treasury chose to keep the green, despite the fact that advances in anti-counterfeiting technology meant it was no longer necessary for authentication purposes. While the reason for keeping the green hue was primarily because green ink was plentiful and cheap, it was also determined that green represented stability and growth to people—by seeing green, they would associate a feeling of generativity and dependability with the sight of a U.S. dollar bill.

American summer highways are as green as money. The two are completely different shades and yet they do the same thing, perform the same acrobatic function through the means of color. The intentional planting of kudzu to cover over the scars that highways and railroads left on the land is another version of the choice to make money green, using this color to promise stability, comfort, and generativity, making money the same color as nature and new growth, as the wild and untouched places, the very landscapes that money cannibalizes and negates. The green of money isn’t quite the green of anything else, the stain and tracery on crisp twenties or softened, wallet-dwelling ones, on sweaty cash that peels off close to the skin and sticks to tables and floors, that scatters haphazard from purses like feathers. The color of money always feels not-quite-there, like a trick, about to rub off or fade to grey or beige. It’s a green with no life in it, without any of the rebellion of the trees that crowd east coast highways. It’s closer to the desperation of hospital green, or to the deep relieved green in the heart of forests.

Money is a living symbol, a thing that needs you to believe in it in order for it to exist. A system of currency functions because enough people collectively buy into a mass delusion, an agreed-upon psychosis, that the cost of opting out of the belief becomes quite literally too high. It’s a symbol that churns itself into truth, a fake that becomes real through insistence and repetition. Green meant something long before America existed or had a currency to print, and yet perhaps today green means growth, and stability, and wealth, and greed, only because money is green. The symbolism flows as much in the other direction; the things we feel about the color are things we feel because we know we are looking at the color of money.

*

My husband moved from the south to New York to live with me. When his parents call, they ask him if he misses green. People who don’t live here always say that about New York, green standing for all of the natural world, green as the opposite of the skyscraper. “Don’t you miss seeing green?” But green is everywhere here, as artificial as it is abundant. Nothing, not even the highways on the route to Savannah in a thunderstorm, feels as green to me as this city does. When the heart of summer flares over the landscape, all through Manhattan the trees turn green and it makes me feel like a tourist. Nothing is greener to me than this grey barren city where I live, this flattened and rebuilt, over-farmed and over-foraged, brutalized urban place. It’s nothing like the kudzu-greens in the south, and yet when I think of New York, I think first of the color green.

I grew up on the West Coast, where summers bake a dry heat over the landscape and everything shrivels and dissolves. To try to flatter it, locals call the summers golden, but they’re really brown, dried out and drained of color, aridly rent of moisture. Even on the rainy days the foliage keeps to itself, hardy and resilient, refusing romance and adjectives. But in the summers, my parents and I would fly out to visit my Dad’s family in Harrisburg, then rent a car and drive to New York to see their old friends in Manhattan. On the drive between the two cities, up the winding Eastern interstates, the trees along the highway and even at the median strip burst a wet, saturated, promiscuous green. That green was the promise of another world where it was summer the way it was supposed to be summer and therefore I might be young the way I was supposed to be young and had never felt young, an unknown place where the rules might be different, where things might be generous and infinite. I wanted to get myself inside of that color, wanted to get my teeth around it, wanted to somehow change my life so I could be swallowed up by that green, so that what it made me feel wouldn’t include the fear that it would be taken away, so that green did not threaten an ending.

Color of course has no human desires, no inherent morality; neither does beauty. Humans put narrative to our reactions to beautiful things until the thing and its story are inextricable, a chicken and egg problem, impossible to know where it starts. I still feel same way I did when I was a teenage tourist about the green that wreaths the long blocks around the museum by my house, that riots up and down the median strips of highways, the green that overhangs parking lots and makes a canopy when I lie on my back and the lattice of sunlight and leaves close over my face like water. But all this emotion might mean nothing more than the fact that money is green.

I’ve spent a lot of my life in proximity to other people’s wealth. Growing up, my parents both worked at a small, wealthy private prep school—we lived on the campus, in a grand home that didn’t belong to us, part of faculty-issued housing, a fact I never understood until the board of trustees summarily kicked us out of the house during a legal dispute when I was seventeen. In my twenties, I worked as a private tutor for wealthy families, teaching rich children how best to sell themselves to the Ivy League. During those years I often lived in someone else’s house, travelling with the families I worked for and pinballing through airports from one home and one country to another. Green was a constant then, a spiraling, crawling, blossoming thing. The worlds of the wealthy are green worlds. The greens are lush behind walls and gates and stone fortresses, passed down for generations along the neat right angles of lawns and swimming pools that particular almost-green gem-blue that occurs nowhere in nature except in the pool in the backyard at a rich person’s house. In East Hampton, the lawns were green like the purest idea of the color, so that they softened the day, the conversation, the people, the whole apparatus of life around them, giving the place an Edenic sense of newness, as though one had stumbled through a doorway into some hidden elsewhere, untouched by the sins of the ongoing world. On the wide avenues of neighborhoods set back from the beach, trees leaned heavy green canopies over the road and cradled you in a whorling green archway, held in the gentle hands of this color that guided nighttime in slow and forgiving, all neon pinpricks of fireflies. The lawns here looked like velvet, like no one had ever heard of scarcity, of want, of the arid, scratching dirt under lesser landscapes.

*

Green, of course, is about water. Water is about life, and it’s perhaps the thing we who are lucky enough to have enough of take the most for granted. Dystopian stories often crucially focus on water. In Mad Max: Fury Road, George Miller’s 2015 harrowing vision of a perhaps not very far off future, the landscape is blighted and drained of all moisture; its residents are gaunt and withered, bodies creaking like cheap furniture left out in the sun. This dying landscape is ruled over by a vicious warlord who hoards all the remaining water for himself. The only green in this world is in his labyrinthine lair, the palace he has built for himself that both shuts out and perpetuates the horrors experienced by the general public. Everything inside his walled enclave is saturated, literally dripping. He hoards not just water, and not just verdant green plants absent from the earth below, but also the fertile bodies of women: both very young girls who function as sexual slaves and incubators, and wet nurses, women with overflowing breasts, bursting with fertility. The women inside this monstrous treasure trove are currency as much as the water and the plants are; all of it is a kind of money, and it exists in the same warped, seductive, sickening way that money does in our own world, in the dragon-hordes of our only slightly less outwardly ghoulish overlords.

During the car chase that dominates most of the action in Mad Max, the women who are our heroes set out to find “the green place,” a promised land like the land of milk and honey, the place beyond the desert where at last everything is abundant. They never find the green place—it doesn’t exist anymore, we learn in the film’s most heartbreaking reversal, and they must return the way they came to build the green place themselves. But green, in this figuring, represents escape, represents whatever frees us from the demands, consequences, limits, and hard truths of the world in which we live. Coloring the dream of a place that will do this green is part of a long tradition.

In the final, triumphant scene of the film, when the rebels take back power, they turn a gigantic faucet on full-blast, and water rains back over the blighted landscape. The camera focuses lovingly on the color green that crawls down the side of the structure where power had been concentrated, seeming to promise that that green will soon disseminate to the people below, and then to the rest of the world. This last scene is a utopian vision of anti-capitalism: the water is money, distributed unregulated and wild to the assembled populace, everything for everyone, and everything free. Money is always green, even when the paper bills aren’t.

We think, or at least I think, of green worlds as a forgiving elsewhere, the color wiping a cityscape back to the innocence of its origins, restoring what was here first. Within this dream of re-ordering and rebirth, we are capable of being lost, granted the ability to be unknown, to stay undefined, free of a rigid identity, free of binding declarative markers that map out a human fate. This, also, is the thing that green does to me when it sings out of the park a block away and bleeds a vivid stain down the edges of the highway. It seems to be promising a cocoon in which I could shed the burdens of the accumulated self and be reborn or, better yet, unmade. Green as an oblivion, as a takeover by something larger, unruly and unruled.

Northrop Frye, writing about Shakespeare’s comedies, referred to what he called “the green world,” a both real and unreal space that by existing allows the action of the plays to unfold. The green world is often literal—in Midsummer Night’s Dream and As You Like It, the characters vanish into a forest on the edge of town—but also a figurative space beyond the borders of society’s strictures. In the green world, magic exists, and rules do not. Characters within the green world work out their desires and inconsistencies, their questions and their undefined selves, free of the constraints of a watchful society, of a place with laws or limits.

They then, crucially, in often-overlooked and almost always tedious fifth acts, re-emerge into that society, having purged themselves of their rebellious impulses. As is so often the case, what seems like a rebirth is really only a process of grooming. Characters go into the green world thinking they are nameless and familyless; they enter despairing of love, or ready to shake off the bonds of society. They re-emerge ready to mate and marry, ready to be visible within the requirements of a patriarchal society. The lost seekers who went into the forest frequently come out having discovered that—surprise!—they’re the ruler of the city or country or society they sought to escape, their namelessness transformed into aristocracy. They run away from the law, then return as its representative and beneficiary. All of those plays in which the green world figures, the Forest of Arden and the fairy realms and the island in The Tempest, are silently about the character’s wealth. Every marriage plot is a story about economics, a parable more of social mobility than of love. The green world is a fantasy of escape, and, like all fantasy, like all escapes, it is offered only to those who can afford it.

The high school kids I used to tutor frequently attended summer camp. They lived in the grand, sharp cities of the world but in the summer their parents packed them off to remote idylls, places with wood-walled cabins and horses and art and crafts and lakes for boating and swimming, enclaves in hard to find and gorgeous locations, down remote dirt roads, where green cradled the tents and the picnic tables, where green erupted and embraced imaginary utopias, green like something into which to sink backward. They spent their summers in these imaginary utopias, returning home with stories about friends whom they would only see once a year—camp was meant to be an engineered green world, a controlled wild place that began and ended at the temporal borders of a paid vacation, lifted neatly out of the real world to which it returned them unharmed and essentially unchanged. It was a way to experience something without risking anything in the experience. Summer camp serves the same purpose that a long adolescence does, and the same purposes that Shakespeare’s green worlds do: The safe rebellion, the risk that never touches consequences. The green world is a place built of money and yet it is free of money, too, and in this way it’s entirely about wealth, as the wealthy are the only ones who are able to escape from the grey and consequent prisons of money, the world in which all the corners are defined by lack. Green is a second chance, and while everyone might deserve a second chance, in truth it is often something that can only be purchased with money.

*

The first Dutch sailors to land on the island not yet named Manhattan called it the greenest place that they had ever seen. Maps and paintings from the time or from not-so-far-afterwards show it as a heartbreakingly verdant place, bursting with saturated foliage, all rivers full of leaping fish and trees offering generous shade. It’s endlessly debatable what the word “Manhattan” actually means, but a number of theories translate it as something close to “green place.” The same people who gave this piece of rock that name, who sighted that green land singing out off the coast of the country and scammed it away from the native people who lived there, who purchased it for the richness of its greens, promptly set about destroying every vestige or possibility of that color, carving the grey stone and wet mud of profit and business out of the green island, until that bright memory seemed impossible.

Nearly two hundred years later, in 1858, Frederick Law Olmstead and Calvert Vaux won a contest to design a large park, in the style of London’s Hyde Park or Paris’ Bois du Bologne, in the center of Manhattan island. At the time, the Romantic notion of Arcadian parks was in high fashion—wealthy aristocrats purchased imitations of nature’s lawlessness, perfect representations of uncontrolled growth, the rigidly constructed fantasy of an unconstructed world. Central Park sprang out of this same tradition, this trend for artificially wild places. Built before the modern skyline, the park was supposed to make its visitors able to believe for a few hours that they were not in the city at all, that they had vanished to the patrician, untamed countryside, offering a fantasy of the out-of-reach luxury of escape, of relief from the city’s pace and crush and ongoings. Vaux and Olmstead repeatedly rejected suggestions that they incorporate European wrought-iron gates at entrances to the park, saying that they wanted the lack of ornate entrances to signal that in this green space “all were welcome, regardless of rank or wealth.”

But the space where Central Park would be built already had residents. In 1850, the land was home to a growing community made up mostly of Irish immigrants and formerly enslaved black people. Much of the land was used for farming, and numerous small villages had sprung up around these farms, some building schools, creating their own insular functioning societies. Some of these communities had been in place for more than fifty years, multiple generations living and marrying and growing old and dying, passing on traditions and small joys and sorrows from parents to children. In 1857, the year before Olmstead and Vaux dreamed their democratic park, nearly two thousand people were evicted from the land by the city’s government under eminent domain laws. Whole villages were razed, wiped out to nothing, as though they had never been there at all, to make way for the new green world. In the subsequent building of the park, an elaborately over-budget and red-tape-strewn process from which Olmstead was fired and re-hired multiple times, more gunpowder was used to clear the space where the park would be than was used in the entire battle of Gettysburg.

New York kills off its greens and replaces them with a theme park version of exactly the thing it killed. Central Park is in this way perhaps the most perfect expression of the green world, its overwhelming seductions and the lie at its heart, the dream of stability in the color of money, and the violence that that stability requires. Central Park began to decline almost immediately after it was completed; it was massively expensive to keep up, and the government in power at the time simply didn’t care, preferring to spend the money elsewhere and mostly on themselves. The park wasn’t made a priority until the 1930s, when LaGuardia put Robert Moses in charge of its restoration.

Moses is one of New York City’s largest-looming villains. He is memorably responsible for tearing down the old, gorgeous Penn Station, and converting it into the grimy eyesore level of hell that it is today. But more importantly, during his long tenure in power, he did everything he could to make the city unlivable for poor and non-white residents. He presided over mass evictions and conversions of low-income housing and immigrant communities into money-making large-scale constructions that shut out those who could not afford to start over, who lacked the means for second chances. He also saved Central Park, and is perhaps more responsible than anyone else for the park as it exists in current iteration, in much the same way Rudy Giuliani is responsible for the present-day family-friendly Times Square. In a single calendar year, Moses turned Central Park from a blighted, neglected waste where greens struggled futilely through dirt and trash and broken benches to a verdant wonderland. Through a relentless militaristic campaign of green, Moses completed Olmstead’s vision.

To love Central Park is to tacitly approve of Robert Moses and to approve of the politicians who evicted nearly two thousand people from their homes and razed entire, functioning communities with schools and farms and families in order to create a vision of a green world supposedly free and open to all, who, like the Dutch settlers before them, destroyed a natural world in order to buy and sell a facsimile of one. To visit Central Park and feel for a few hours mercifully free of the sharp edges and ambitions of the grey city around it, to believe in the mathematically exact beauty that this green place offers, is on some level to align oneself with Moses’ vision of the city, or with the gentrifiers who are the inheritors of Moses and of his predecessors in a line stretching back to the original developers of the park and to the Dutch before them. The green spaces are their genius, the honeyed trap they set for the unpersuaded. The park offers a vision of a verdant, utopian escape, but its green is on the side of the autocrats, not the angels. So often this is the reckoning with the green and beautiful things in the world—our idyllic escapes, our havens, were purchased with blood money, created at the expense of other people’s lives. Other homes were destroyed so that we who are privileged enough to access such things might have a temporary escape from ours. Like turning bills green to signal stability, generativity, and comfort, and like painting kudzu over the gashes in the landscape left by empire-building, money papers green over the ugliness at work in its mechanisms, and offers access to that beauty in exchange for accepting the violence that it does. When Central Park fell into disarray again after Moses’ departure, it was cleaned up when the broken windows theory of policing took hold in the mid-1980s. The green world usually has cops at its edges.

*

Earlier this summer, Lorde’s first big single off her new album Melodrama was the song “Green Light.” Its chorus is childishly simple and infernally catchy: “I’m waiting for it/that green light/I want it.” That last phrase, I want it, is shocking in its bold-faced brattiness, a toddler stomping her feet and throwing a tantrum, I want it I want it I want it. The green light is permission, the go sign, the yes, the open door, the starting pistol. It’s the lawless greed that the green worlds of both youth and money permit, barreling into uncertain choices heedless of the havoc they might wreak. Within the measured and artificial green world of Central Park, the place perhaps closest to this conceptual promise of utopia has historically been The Ramble, which at least once, if not now, was a haven for cruising, a place to have anonymous sex, a place where desire could exist outside of the ordered and admitted narrative of one’s own life. It’s a similar feeling, a similar want, to that glorious, addictive, sticky-fingered adolescent exclamation in Lorde’s song-of-the-summer chorus, that green light/I want it. A certain kind of sex does this, turns everything green, driving out the thoughts of rules, consciences, or good hygiene, bathing everything in a wash of color the shade of abundance and of hospitals, of freedom and of money, want thundering its false promises and drowning out the noise of the world, until everything is nothing but green.

Lorde - Green Light


Perhaps my love of the color green is an indictment of what living up close to others people’s money for so long has done to me, the consequences of placing myself in this same situation over and over again. I have set up shop right at the borders of the walled garden, have made myself too available to the songs the sirens are singing. I understand deeply and intimately, like a knife at the bottom of my stomach, why the color of money is green. I understand why the treasury chose to keep the color, to perpetuate the longings for the safety, the softness, the green-blanketed escapes that only money affords, the place where sound dims and recedes. I can see how this want—for sex, for money, for a small, safe permitted place outside laws and consequences—warps people’s ability to care for one another. I can see all of this and I can still desperately thirst to be let into the green, the place up in the warlord’s mountain where all the water is kept. It would be a lie to say I want to open the faucet on the waiting populace; first I want to go up there all alone, into the hoarded green world, and put my face in the water, all for me until it makes me sick, nothing but green and silence.

Although I don’t know this for sure, I always imagine that green is associated with hospitals for the same reason it is associated with money and road-building: because it offers a desperate optimism, an aching hope of escape. That optimism is terrifying, like the optimism of payday, the giddy high-wire feeling of spending money without looking at your bank account balance, the split-second buoyancy when dollars rain from the ceiling. It’s the kind of blind hope that breaks people against the rocks beneath it, that ruins people’s lives. I love green things because I am scared of them and because I mistrust them. I know that I am fundamentally not allowed inside the green world and there’s nothing we love more than the door we can’t open, the light that won’t change to green, the place which would unlock all the permissions, a whole world of second chances, the secret garden, the green place.

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