The painter of Ireland works with a green brush – this is nothing new. But I was unprepared for the extravagance of it all. On arriving in the Southeast, near Cork, my jet-lagged eyes had to recalibrate to process all the shades of green, all the textures. It is a kind of vegetal madness here, a raucous glut of sun-soaked growth. It is a cliché illustrated in hyperbole.
No surface is uncovered by moss or grass or lichen, no branch left unbowed by a corolla of leaves. The plant kingdom sorts itself messily into layers. Ferns spring out of tufts of olive-hued moss, on tree trunks filmed with algae. Grasses race skyward, indecorously. Duckweed forgets its place; it traces a lacy path up drains onto driveways, a cheery, swampy carpet. Frills of perennials pour out of crevices in walls. Spring got the memo here: It. Is. On.
I walk until I hit a fence, trace it until I find a gate and walk on. My footsteps compress the grass, scenting the air with chlorophyll. A rabbit skitters nervously across the field. Flora own this place; the fauna are just tenants here. And we modern, house-dwelling humans are only visitors – guests if we behave ourselves, interlopers if we misstep.
With fresh memories of winter, it is a joy to be in this landscape of renewal, immersed in such giddy reanimation. Liberated from ice and hard ground, the yellow-green fronds thrum with audible energy. Something in our souls is listening. This verdant quickening is our reveille, a call to slough off winter’s slowness and participate in regeneration. In temperate climates, it’s a profound inflection point in our relationship with our surroundings, marking the moment where the landscape begins to feel alive to us, and to be a source of energy.
I’ve been thinking a lot about this after listening to a wonderful interview with the late Irish poet and philosopher John O’Donohue (on a recommendation from my dear friend Mara). O’Donohue brims with wisdom about the relevance of beauty to meaning in life, and speaking of landscapes, he observes:
I think it makes a huge difference when you wake in the morning and come out of your house whether you believe your are walking into a dead geographical location which is used to get to a destination or whether you are emerging into a landscape that is just as much if not more alive as you but in a totally different form. And if you go towards it with an open heart and a real watchful reverence, that you will be absolutely amazed at what it will reveal to you.
(Before I go on, I must urge you to listen to the interview because reading the quote cannot give you the feeling you get from hearing O’Donohue’s placid, lyrical voice. I hope you will.)
Now, coming back to the topic at hand, the frenzy of unfurling and blossoming, the green, the growth – these aesthetics of renewal, the reminders of the simmering life in our surroundings. Why should we care about these artifacts of the landscape? Why, as O’Donohue says, should we be bothered with what they might reveal to us? Or rather, in an age where foraging is a hobby rather than a subsistence strategy, why should these inedible, unsellable displays matter to us at all?
Our emotions are often vestigial imprints of our ancestors’ rhythms, and without conscious explanation our neurotransmitters soak our brains with pleasure chemicals in these same cycles. No matter how detached from the earth we are in our workaday existence, our bodies vibrate to its frequencies. The return of greenness feels like a return to life. It’s why we hold festivals to celebrate cherry blossoms. It’s why we freak out about ramps. Spring is our stirring. It rises into us from the ground up.
(Also, a lush environment signals other things that might be beneficial. Clean air. Unpolluted rainwater. Sunshine. Good property values. This practical lens can’t be underestimated.)
Of course, the greenness is just the surface. That lush field is all cell division, pollen, and spores – plants grasping for one another like freshman at a frat party. All this wild greening is nature’s adolescence, and those allergies are testament to a large-scale seduction. These aesthetics of vibrance are also aesthetics of sex. And plant sex brings about all kinds of things we like, such as those that might be baked in a pie, or those that taste best with a sprinkling of sea salt and some Tuscan olive oil.
It’s strange to say from this vantage that I had no particular interest in Ireland before I ended up here. Soul-starved by a winter that dragged despite its mildness, I had a craving for verdure. But despite the platitudes of an emerald isle, sold to us Americans by cereal box leprechauns and intensely scented soap, I hadn’t thought about the greenness in the planning. It was almost an accident that I ended up here: a workshop that never happened, a scrambled plan, an affordable airfare. And suddenly I was here, submerged in it, and grateful.
Landscapes can wake us up, recall us to ourselves, stir us out of apathy, heal pains. They absorb tremendous anxiety and radiate energy. We are just starting to understand the emotional impacts of nature, but they seem to parallel the physical effects of plants, which complement our physiology, breathing in our effluent carbon dioxide, and exhaling oxygen. In seeing some rare, wild landscapes this week, I’m reminded of the destruction we are bringing to so many of these sacred places. I hope through a deeper understanding of what they give us, we might feel inspired to take better care of them.
April 2nd, 2012