The Universal Notebook: It's not easy being verdant

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Whenever I hear an announcer on public television or radio say that the MacArthur Foundation “is committed to building a more just, verdant and peaceful world,” it occurs to me that we here in Maine couldn’t inhabit a much more verdant world. Green is such a dominant color this time of year that we tend to take it for granted.

As I sit here writing, I look out on a backyard that is a sink of greenery. Poplar, alder and a huge white pine form a backdrop climbing halfway into the blue sky. The woods to the right and the cedars and pine to left frame the view. Raspberry bushes, broad-leafed rhubarb and poppies that popped a week ago command the middle ground. Then there’s the lawn, a salad of grasses, clover and weeds, leading up to the back steps overgrown with fern fronds and lily blades.

Years ago, a painter friend, probably Tom Higgins up in Farmington, told me that he preferred to paint in the spring and fall when the landscape has more variety of colors and the bones of the earth show through. In summer, he observed, Maine turns into a huge green sponge, lush, verdant, but monotonous. I think of that description every time I drive into Portland along Interstate 295, the little brick city erupting out of the low, leafy landscape along the banks of the Presumpscot, the Forest City as Emerald City.

We live in the trees, or beneath them as the case may be. We walk through the woods and the fields. We keep our lawns mowed. Even our highways are bounded by verdant landscapes. We do not want for green. Urban dwellers hunger for green. That’s why parks and cemeteries are the most beautiful features of most cities, and why millions of tourists each year seek the solace of nature in Vacationland.

Green is a restful, soothing, refreshing color. Hospital rooms are often painted green. Television guests wait in green rooms to help them relax before they go on the air. Given the natural overabundance of green in our lives (I just mistyped “in our olives.” A Freudian slip?), the citizens of Maine, the most heavily forested state in the nation, should be the most laid back people in America. Being nervous by nature, I have to wonder whether I could function at all outside the green nurture of Maine, where the foliage apparently soaks up some of my anxieties along with all that carbon dioxide.

My problem, I have been told both by my earthy wife and a masseuse who once read my aura, is that I’m not grounded enough. My energy is all in my head. I tend to relate to the physical world as a mental construct. So instead of just accepting the soothing sensory signals of green and growing nature, I find myself analyzing them.

I start out enjoying the verdant beauty of my yard, but I end up thinking about the fact that the leaves and grass aren’t intrinsically green. We see them as green (if we possess the requisite cones in our retinas) because the chlorophyll in them absorbs red and blue light and reflects green light of a wavelength between 520 and 570 nanometers.

Of course, there hasn’t been much sunlight lately. Maybe I could relax and enjoy the green world all around me if it weren’t so damn wet. A month of rain has turned my yard into a temperate rain forest. Peonies and phlox are beaten down by downpours, the lettuce and basil are stunted and nearly drowned, hostas grow out of control, there are slugs everywhere and the lawn threatens never to be mowable again. It’s a jungle out there. Welcome to the Pacific Northeast.


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beem-edgar-op.jpgThe Universal Notebook is Edgar Allen Beem’s weekly personal look at the world around him.