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From Green Green Green, a book of essays, which was published last month by Nightboat Books.

There is a deathliness built into the linguistic history of green. As in, you look green. As in, lie down. These meanings come from Latin (verdigris) through Greek (chloros), in which green signifies a paleness pertaining to complexion, an excess of bile. Just as the other side of an olive leaf is silver. And drought-resistant plants, in white sun, turn yellowish or gray. So, California, in a drought, can go blindingly white, not just in the sky, but on earth also. And yet, from the Greek word for green, we also have chlorophyll, the substance that transmutes light into nourishment.

This layering of possible meanings is uncanny; what is familiar is already strange. In German, the word for the uncanny comes from a negation of the word for the homely, unheimlich from heimlich, a quick slip, on a prefix’s turn, from the cozy to the claustrophobic. So, the Unheimlichkeit of greenery arises from an intuition, built into the very evolution of these words, that there’s something sick in the insularity of overstuffed couches and inward-facing family units. Something suffocating in the siphoning off of the private from the public green.

American lawns are uncanny. Rarely used, they extend the loneliness of an interior into a sterile green that neighbors can evaluate without ever needing to enter. At its inception in America, however, the front lawn was a democratic technology, an extension of the village green. For centuries, green or empty spaces in Europe were placed at the back of houses, concealing practical household chores and leisure from public view. There, at the back, the lawn later became a feature of British landscape gardening, where it served as a framing device for ornament, or as the designated location for certain kinds of activity—lounging, picnicking, lawn games. The lawn was a private public green. Familiar but forced.

For a brief period in the nineteenth century, before becoming a symbol of private property in the twentieth—the white picket fence—the American lawn was a space of the commons, a symbol of shared resources, green gone proverbial, linking citizen to neighbor.

The American lawn is and has always been a landscape of erasure. Because grass can grow almost anywhere—on faux-Scottish golf courses from Dubai to Palm Springs—lawns invoke an elsewhere. A village green that is sometimes found in New England and certainly in a place like Celebration, Florida, but has largely ceased to be used. Or which has maintained only the absence of allegory: an ethereal pasture made more of imagination than material. Grass overwrites the particular characteristics of bioregions, mowing over geography into ubiquitous turf.

The lawn itself absorbs multiplicities within a single figure, subsuming species of grass into a uniform vegetable entity, presenting a gathering of individuals as a unified field. Kentucky bluegrass, crabgrass, and other species common to the American lawn—few of them native to the Americas—become one, the melting pot combining with the salad bowl to make a green averse to history. History means sharing a past, present, and future world.

Only since the Seventies has green, in both German and English, signaled the protection of the earth. When that word was adopted as the color of environmental advocacy, there was a tacit acknowledgment of the two seemingly conflicting etymologies of green: the fresh and the fetid, springtime and sickness. And an acknowledgment of allegory: that a color could stand for a condition of verdure, ailing, on a planetary scale.

Allegory implies that something more real is taking place outside a text. The proper nouns that pin together the tapestry are also rents in its fabric. Love has a life in language, and in the garden down the hall and through the door.

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