Well, “all the green” is probably a lie, since there are likely more shades of green found in nature than any other color. If you don’t believe me, all you have to do is hop a plane to the Pacific Northwest on just about any day of the year, because there’s something about the clouds, the grey-ness, that simply illuminates the greens in a way that isn’t possible on a sunny day. I’ve spent some hours researching whether or not this is true, with little luck. I found myself in the territory of science I could not quite translate—values of wavelengths—and also of painters and graphic designers who speak of pigments and colors, but only in their own language. It’s quite a fun little rabbit hole, so I invite you to take a little trip there yourself if you’re curious.
The word green itself originates from the Old and Middle English grene, which finds its roots in both “grass” and the Teutonic gro. The first documented use in English was in AD 700. Although I intend to explore the etymologies and stories of shades of green, it is worth noting some important meanings of green itself. While green was often considered an unlucky symbol in English folklore (it was commonly worn by the wily fairies), Islam considers it to be holy. I can’t quite put my finger on the first green for me, although chartreuse, which I found in my twenties, was possibly the first green that transcended both sense and language.
I’d like to leave this topic open for as long as I can. I spend a lot of time in the woods—as wild and deep as one can go here in Ohio—and I can’t imagine running out of greens anytime soon. Still, I find no need to name the greens unless they ask me to; there is something sad in naming for the sake of naming. Just like I find it impossible to remember the wildflowers and the trees until I have a relationship with them, until I have a story with which to connect them. But here are two more greens that do have stories.
Good old Wikipedia says simply that Kelly green is a popular shade in both Ireland and the United States and that it takes its name from the common Irish surname. It’s fairly close in color to the green sashes worn by American Girl Scouts, and although I still have my own sash tucked away in a box somewhere, I am certain that it’s not the origin of my love for kelly green.
No, it started with Patti Smith, who in her book Just Kids wrote about a kelly green raincoat she’d loved during her lean, bohemian days in New York—“an unconstructed raincoat of kelly green rubberized silk” (Smith, 2010, p. 225).
She’d rescued it from a secondhand shop in the Bowery in preparation for a longed-desired pilgrimage to Rimbaud’s birthplace. Later, she wore it as a part of a carefully orchestrated outfit meant to impress Tom Verlaine, who she hoped to convince to play guitar for a recording.
“Divining how to appeal to Tom’s sensibilities, I dressed in a manner that I thought a boy from Delaware would understand: black ballet flats, pink shantung capris, my kelly green silk raincoat, and a violet parasol, and entered Cinemabilia, where he worked part-time…whether or not my getup impressed Tom, I’ll never know, but he enthusiastically agreed to record with us.”
(Smith, 2010, p. 241)
I’ve had lean, bohemian days of my own, and I remember so clearly what it was like to own just two pairs of shoes, to have so few articles of clothing that they could all fit in two neat little stacks on a closet shelf—but still to possess that feeling of invincibility when I’d slip into a special dress, like I was some sort of goddess temporarily alighting upon the earth. So, I recognized Patti’s kelly green raincoat as soon as my eyes fell upon those words. I think it’s funny that this post is about color and yet it was another writer who made me love kelly green, spinning her magic with only black type, white paper.
This one is courtesy of another musician. Tori Amos sings about a man’s love for and longing for his lost wife in “Weatherman” from her Unrepentant Geraldines album.
“He is not a weatherman,” the song begins, “but his bride lies with the land, and she will whisper to him, I’ll be dressing up in snow. Cloaked in echo it’s almost as if only nature knows how to bring his wife to life and breathe her into form…”
Tori goes on to sing about the man, a painter, who watches each season go by and imagines that the spirit of his dear one is alive in the land they both loved. When summer finally arrives, she sings, “In summer she’s dressed in Viennese green.”
I’ve scoured the far corners of the internet in search of Viennese green, and it’s nowhere to be found. Tori must have invented it, conjured it from the views at one of her own countryside homes in Cork or Cornwall. And still, it’s a true color now. I’ve listened to this song, this man’s love story, so many times that I can feel it, I’m convinced I’ll know Viennese green when I finally see it with my own eyes.
Amos, T. (2014). Weatherman. On Unrepentant Geraldines. Cornwall, UK: Mercury Classics/Universal Mercury Classics
Green. (n.d.). In Wikipedia. Retrieved June 4, 2017, from https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Green
Smith, P. (2010). Just Kids. New York, NY: HarperCollins.