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home : features : science and nature July 22, 2014

Bill Amos : Hidden Worlds - The Greening

The Greening

Now that we're emerging from the long winter's snowy blanket, I notice newly-bare rock walls, darkened fields, the open, slippery road, and find myself "annihilating all that's made to a green thought in a green shade." I've seen enough black and white -- and too much brown mud. I think green. Andrew Marvell got it right 350 years ago when he wrote of greenness's irresistible appeal.

In past Aprils I've walked through verdant parks and lush botanical gardens in the south, enjoying acres of flowers and nectaring butterflies after starving for them during a snail-paced New England spring just beginning to open. For the moment my yearning for greenness would be satisfied -- until returning to the Northeast Kingdom and finding it still locked in a chilly monochrome grip.

Thankfully, not true today. The last few days have been spectacular: bright, warm, free of insects, the sky illumined in Maxfield Parrish blue. I go outside and do nothing as long as possible. I look overhead at towering maples nodding expectant buds. A nearby solitary crabapple has beaten them to it; its little leaves are beginning to unfold in juvenile green. The grass spurts, the first daffodils curtsy in white and yellow, and day lilies surge on either side of a rock wall. A few butterflies -- Spring Azures, Mustard Whites, a solitary White Admiral -- dart between new green lily shafts searching for what is not yet there. Each day promises more green than the last, and with the progression, my spirit soars. "Clothe the earth with greenness," sang Coleridge, and we sing with him.

Imagination takes me back to a time in the Earth's history -- 500 million years ago -- when the barren brown landscape had no cloak of green. Simple plants lived in ancient shallow seas and were just beginning to wash up on muddy shores where they survived long enough to be lapped by waves that moistened their fragile cells. Away from the coast, the land had form but no color: it was built of mountainous rocky upthrusts and blowing deserts; it was roughened and dissected by torrential rivers that carried sand and mud torn from the land, then deposited it upon broad lowlands and in distant bays and along ocean shorelines. The stage was being set, but there were no players on the scene.

Eons passed and the green margins of streams and wetlands widened as plant mats crept onto land. They were flat and hugged the surface; they branched, groped outward and up-slope, but not yet upward into the air. Slowly the damp soil turned green with struggling plants, some of which we might recognize as today's liverworts growing on moist banks. Opportunities for photosynthesis and reproduction arose where formerly there had been none on the ancient, dusty, sun-baked land. Minerals and nutrients, accumulating in the virgin soil, nourished the green, pioneering invaders.

For the first time, spores were produced that could withstand dryness; they blew in the wind hundreds of miles and across the world to colonize other isolated moist places, where the special inheritance they carried allowed more of their kind to prosper. In their seclusion lay the secret of new shape and character, for small populations isolated from their kin have only a limited gene pool to draw upon, and because accidental mutations inevitably occur, the nature of a sequestered species departs increasingly from its ancestry. Entirely new plant specialties appeared everywhere across the waiting continents. With time and isolation from the moderating, neutralizing influence of large populations, moist pockets of ancient plants experimented by building elevated stalks and stems that rose aloft in the dry air.

Not only could a spore capsule at the tip of a wand-like stalk release its precious cargo into the breeze more successfully, in other plants mere elevation itself set the stage for future development as stems developed reinforced conducting vessels, which with tough cellulose and lignin walls supported growth to even greater height, and provided strength to penetrate hard, dry soil where needed moisture lay below an arid surface. Conduction of water and nutrient minerals from source to cellular factory made possible great size in plant colonizers of the early continents. Towering tree ferns and giant horsetails were among the first to reach high into the air. As roots and woody stems did their work, herbs and shrubs and trees invaded the land until it was blanketed from shore to upland mountain slope in photosynthetic green. There had been nothing like it before. The land became transformed by a welcome and life-sustaining color that to this day affects us in a fashion difficult to define.

Perhaps the dim ancestral pull we feel has an origin in the slow march of simple animal life from swamp and bog onto the new green land. Scorpions and proto-insects were followed by hungry amphibians just emerged from their fishy past. And with those first four-footed, moist-skinned sluggards, our progenitors, we were on our way. Does greenness help us feel what we cannot remember?

We draw in the red warmth of the setting sun, wonder at the reflection of blue sky upon the open ocean, are astonished at yellows and violets of flowers and thermal springs, but there is only a single spectral band we crave when it is absent, the greenness that conveys life as no other color can. Its vital magnetism is rooted deep and achingly within us.

Poets sing of the greening of the land, but each of us, even those with no poetry in our souls, welcomes the advent of spring unlike any other season. Now is the time to stand on a hilltop and shout to the world the words of Charles Lamb, "I am in love with this green earth!"

©2014 William H. Amos

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