by Brooks Riley

UnnamedI’m standing at the window looking north over a small garden with several different kinds of trees and bushes. If I refine my intake of visual information, I am, in fact, gazing at many different shades of green at once, perhaps even all of them (at least 57, like Heinz). There’s the middle green of leaves on a thorny bush in the sunlight, and on the same bush, a darker green tweaked by shade. Add to these variations of light the variety of flora in my view, and I come away with a whole alphabet of green—the common green of a lawn, the brown green of dying leaves, the gray-green highlights of a fir tree, the black green of certain waxy leaves, the lime green of new leaves on a late bloomer, the Schweinfurt green of certain succulents. Green in nature is a chlorophyll-induced industry all its own—a Pantene paradise. . .

. . . for those who love green.

I do not love green. Separated from nature, green is a travesty. I was born with green eyes, and I do love them, but I wouldn’t want their hue on my sofa or my walls or my bedspread or my person. Removed from nature, decorative green is a shabby attempt to remember nature or worse, to try to recreate its effect on us. As a child I was attracted to green olives, acquiring a taste for them that had as much to do with their color as with their shape. But olive green is not that far from baby-couldn’t-help-it green, or drab Polizei green (slowly being phased out in favor of blue), and removed from its smooth round humble origins in an olive, loathsome. So too the so-called institutional green, once thought to soothe the troubled souls of those coerced to spend time in schools, hospitals, or insane asylums.

I’m not here to condemn another’s love of the color green. And from a Pantene point of view, I confess to appreciating certain shades of green (artichoke green, celadon green), as long as I don’t have to apply them to anything.

Color preference is a personal matter, and undergoes changes as we ourselves change. When I was seven, my mother said, “We’ll paint your room any color you want.” Without a blink I barked “Pink!” Needless to say, she winced, and I’ve been wincing ever since. It didn’t take long for me to see the error of my ways as I grew out of the implicit frills of that color toward a subtler palette of preferences. After a brief flirt with, yes, hunter green, I finally settled on taupe, umber, sienna, ochre, wheat, aubergine, most of the greys, and those two dependable non-colors, black and white. Each serves a function as base color, the starting point for a foray into more obvious colors like red, yellow, blue, pink, and other bright colors on a limited basis. Bright colors are like seasoning, to spice a palette, not to be the main event. Like the flowers in a meadow, bright colors complement a background, and create a synergistic effect.

My relationship to green is bipolar: Bored and offended by it as an abstract color or category of colors, I love it in nature, in all its manifestations. The effect of green landscapes on our brain has been scientifically explored: Gazing at the green leaves of a tree is said to have a calming, possibly healing effect on us, whereas a photograph of those leaves has little if no effect at all. (Take that, nature photography.) Nevertheless, I once photographed the crown of a maple in springtime and turned it into a screensaver on the large monitor where I worked. I loved the day-glo intensity of the new leaves and found it difficult to resist the urge to count every one of them, a pastime not unlike counting sheep.

I’m kinder to the color green in art (early Renaissance Siena paintings, certain Caspar David Friedrich paintings, Albrecht Dürer’s watercolors, Jennifer Bartlett’s black greens in her paintings from the mid-Eighties). As a fan of Biedermeier furniture, however, I’ve always felt betrayed by its preference for green upholstering. I’m tolerant of the soccer field and the billiard table because they serve a purpose and the beauty lies elsewhere. But I actively avoid websites that are green in color (call it an allergy) even if I sympathize with the symbolic use of that color for political purposes. Michael Pastoureau in his recent book Green: The History of a Color has apparently claimed that green is the color of the 21st century, co-opted for all forms of ecological idealism. That spirulina and broccoli are the new standard-bearers of health and well-being doesn’t compromise the deep blue of my ecological utopia.

But even in its natural habitat, green is so omnipresent that we sometimes prefer an alternative rainbow: that of desolation, like the warm brown-red hues of a rocky desert. Years ago, in a caravan travelling west to Las Vegas from Telluride, a trip that featured the rosy Bryce Canyon, the burnished red Monument Valley, the taupe-ish Gooseneck, and then, out of nowhere, the green routine of Dixie National Forest, a fellow traveler seated behind me suddenly uttered: “I hate green. I hate the color green.” The speaker was Werner Herzog, indulging an abiding compulsion to make contrary statements in odd places. (Later that day he declared “I hate Wagner” as we rolled toward that casino-neon inferno in the desert at dusk to the conflagration scene from Wagner’s Götterdämmerung blaring from the tape deck. It reminded me of his outburst in Les Blank’s documentary Burden of Dreams: “The jungle is obscene. There is no order in the jungle!” Spoken like a true German stereotype knee-deep in the green chaos of an Amazon forest.) In the natural context of a forest such as Dixie, Herzog’s statement about green seemed wrong, like saying “I hate the moon,” or “I hate sky.”

Still, I understood what he meant. The polychromatic splendor of desert hues we had been seeing on that trip had definitely trumped the mundane beauty of a classic forest. Context is crucial when contemplating a color. Our perception of a stand-alone color will always be upended when a context exists—a blue sky in the background, for instance, or the shocking juxtaposition of one color with another.

Meanwhile, I’ll keep gazing fondly at green as long as it’s outside my window. Anywhere else it will remain persona non grata.