I know the green of trees. They were a comfort in my long, dry childhood. Leaf after leaf against a strong blue sky, crisp and unapologetic. I know the green of dark summer grass through which the pale praying mantis barely moves. How could something so frightening appear so kind to my little eyes? His insect skin, pale and vivid.
And just yesterday, I felt that liquid warming of my heart when an especially large Prayer stayed so long outside my Brooklyn window. The intent stare of eyes cresting his heart shaped face. He lifted one eyebrow and beckoned me to sit still and root for him. For over an hour I watched as he lifted and lowered his thin prehistoric limbs. A luminous, stained glass creature. Moving up the window pane, falling back, moving up, falling back. Hypnotically, I went with him and like Alice in the rabbit hole, fell back through a memory bank of green and greener still, until the dark woods of my youth surrounded me.
I am eight years old, camping in New England with my childhood friend, my family of seven, my cousins, uncles and aunts. We’ve ringed the darkness with our station wagons and moldy army tents, hauled the suburbs with us into these deep woods. I am in the stone silence of sleep when the world splits open through my eyelids. There is no warning, or context or reference to prepare my limited mind.
I see giant, blinding green balls of light. In an arc above me they are everywhere. Undulating, pulsing, zigging, spinning. The light is mesmerizing, then menacing, it takes my breathing with it. It takes the world away. Although suspended they move in place like waves, changing size, reaching out then retracting, an eerie color I have never seen, ever imagined. They are not the green I know.
Leaning toward the sleeping bag to my right I push against my nine year old friend and now she too sees the green glowing orbs. Some as large as bowling balls, some as small as fists, but all are consumed with a fire too hot for themselves. We squint away from the green glow. Frightened we sink down deep into our bags for protection, afraid to look, afraid to look away.
The next morning we told the grownups, grasping at language, calling them “green glowing rocks.” We ran the story by each adult, certain we had great importance to share. The kindest ones smiled at our story, our dream tale, and then moved on to their coffee. The others didn’t entertain the conversation at all and our confidence lost it’s air. The bigger kids suggested we had seen only the glow of a Coleman lantern sputtering a final greenish-yellow burst of life, or lichen patches on the trees reflected in the nonexistent moonlight.
But I knew better, I knew green.
Post script: At 53 I’ve lived most of my life pre-digital. Long before cell phones, neon was king and PCs were dreams. In my 20s I thought the green orbs were the headlights of alien ships, in my 30s I saw my first laser and believed the military could have been running tests in the woods that night. But I remained uncertain until my 40s, when I swam with phosphorescence. Amid the tiny strobes, blinking coursers on a restless liquid monitor, I added another green to my vocabulary.
A rare occurrence in Virginia, they appeared in late summer under a pale moonlight that gave me confidence to shed my clothes and feel the silky plankton against my bare skin. Miniature versions of the green orbs of my youth laced the water. To every movement of mine they pulsed and flashed in response. So unworldly, so eerie, staring into the bioluminescent glow I was transported back to that night in the woods. I knew this vivid color, owned by mother nature and imitated by technology. She had a line on digital green before we thought to invent it, before day-glow hit the 70’s and long before minuscule chips spawned devices that ran our lives and devoured our social graces. I knew this color as the color of the natural world. The color of bubbling phosphorus pools in Iceland, summer fireflies and the wondrous northern lights. And I also knew it as the color of exquisitely rare ball lightening. It was what I saw in the tent that night so long ago. I’m sure of it now, because I’m sure of green.