Greens

A rental car is a way of playing dress-up. A rental car is freedom in the way a disguise is freedom. We flew into Savannah in the middle of summer, which is a categorically insane thing to do, but, in the parking lot of the airport halfway between Savannah and Hilton Head – an airport that feels like the lobby of some family-package resort where people wear straw hats that aren’t really straw and carry blow-up palm trees to pools where there are no palm trees in sight – the heat feels better than the heat in New York. In New York the heat is about death, but here there’s something living and generative about it, the kind of greenhouse heat in which things sprout and flower and flourish. It’s the heat of ripe, saturated greens and thick wet mud, dinosaur heat, Genesis heat, the world a compulsive riot of invention, sailors from the cold places in Europe arriving at a new land awed and predatory, taking it in their hands like a ripe fruit, the coast of Virginia bleeding green out into the ocean, pulling ships in like sirens, turning the men into pigs. I was already sweating by the time we got in the car. I felt for a moment that I understood Thomas’ relationship to cars and to driving, how for the twenty years he lived here his car was more his house than his house, and how driving a long green highway between cities is sometimes the most we have ever felt alone together.

I can’t stop exclaiming about how green it is. In Bluets, Maggie Nelson says “suppose I were to begin by saying that I had fallen in love with a color.” Nelson talks about the blue of pornography and of sadness, the color a shorthand for the link between the two. She talks about seeing blue pigment and wanting something visceral from it that she cannot quite understand. The way Nelson feels about blue is the way I feel about green, the desire to eat the color that shimmers and thickens around the sides of the car, a green that overhangs that road, that closes the neighborhood off from the sky, the green that sneaks in through concrete and invades the sidewalks and office buildings in Atlanta, the green that hides houses and expands under the influence of storms, when rain saturates the color until I expect all the water to run green.

The first time I ever visited Thomas down here, we drove I-16 to Savannah in a thunderstorm, drinking coffee from Cracker Barrel left over from lunch, the radio and the air conditioner blasting, rain whipping tattered billboards above the treetops into defiant flags. The whole world drowned and driving toward the ocean as though trying to return home. The highway was the most green thing, whispering a nowhere, trees on either side reaching toward each other. We sat in the consequence-less embrace of the thunderstorm as though in suspended animation, safe in the eye of all the dancing green.

Northrop Frye uses the term “green world” to describe the enchanted forest and its significance in Shakespeare’s comedies. Characters disappear into the green world, where society’s rules are suspended and nothing counts, and, in that liminal space, work out their problems, returning to the city of systems and laws with their edges smoothed clean, ready to rule or to marry. The green world is perhaps why Shakespeare’s plays feel so correct performed outside in the middle of summer by semi-amateurs in costumes from Goodwill that smell like bug spray. When Thomas still lived in Atlanta, in his spare time he ran a community theatre that performed Shakespeare outdoors. This detail was part of why I felt immediately comfortable with him. I don’t remember the first time I sat on a lawn in summer and watched this kind of play, but I was young enough that it was before conscious memory. Plays like this are one of my parents’ favorite things, and in any town we visited for more than 48 hours, they’d find some troupe of actors making use of some green lawn. The sky would take at least until the end of act one to fall into darkness, and fireflies would gather to the sound of imperfectly rendered iambic pentameter. It was easy to fall asleep on those nights, wrapped up in picnic blankets; the language, even in the mouths of the most tone-deaf college students, was a lullaby. Done well, however, it felt at its heights extraordinarily safe, bigger than me in the same way as the dome of star-splattered night sky, something within which to wrap myself and hide securely. When I met Thomas, he was rehearsing a production of Measure for Measure, an old weird favorite of mine, a play in which everything is wrong on purpose, a monstrously funny, horrifically sexy, and morally nauseating piece of text. I never saw the production, so I cannot tell you if it was any of these things. When I finally made it to that green lawn outside Atlanta, it was for a production of King Lear set in Faulkner’s world of grand crumbling families and poisonous notions of honor. I sat on a blanket in the back and ate ribs messily with my hands while tragedy unfolded on a makeshift stage where a big dented piece of scrap metal called up the storm. It was perfect. Lear of course doesn’t have a green world; it dwells in the horror of the actual, and understands that when we attempt to escape the world of law and system, the recourse is madness, then loss. But the space around it that night was one, language closing into a warm darkness and all the wide leaves rustling to sleep.

Yet, in its literary conception, the point of the green world is not to escape society but to return to it, ready to live usefully within its systems. It would be nice to forget that part; it would be better to end the plays before the interminably boring weddings in their fifth acts, and pretend we could dwell forever beyond the grid and outside the logics, in the place by the highways where the greens riot and drown out reality. Even when cities are verdant with green space, they are still the opposite of green in that they turn possibilities to actualities, in how they ask you to decide and to define. The way Thomas walked before he moved to New York was a green thing, ambling and honeyed with slowness, a green idea that time was passing as kindly as one had always hoped it might, that there was much of it left – green is the kind of indulgence one is allowed by a fertile harvest, by the just-before-you-fall-asleep sense that there is enough of everything. I don’t know the history of why America made its paper money green, but I know it makes sense to me – another imagined safe place, another way one might attempt to escape rules and systems through a sickened and giddy abundance.

I keep retweeting my own tweet about wanting to know what the citizenship process is like for the farthest corner underneath my bed where no one can find me. The idea of escape used to feel small and feasible, like an airplane. Lately I feel more and more that this is less and less true – the idea of safe places, of somewhere to go, has receded into the fictive. I want to name a safe place, and I can’t. Being in a car on a long drive, on an anonymous strip of highway with the whorling green throwing up walls on either side of the car so we hurtle through space like a planet knocked out of orbit, with the music and the air conditioner on, seems the closest thing. I understand that in reality this car does not keep me safe, that cars are in so many ways the opposite of safety. But for a few hours this is my green world, this moving box that smells like new leather and permits no outside intrusion. It is both imaginary and temporary.
 
When Frederick Law Olmstead created Central Park, it was based on arcadian notions of green spaces in fashion in England at the time, intended to give the sense of a sprawling chaos whose symmetry and grace were an accident, and promising, therefore, that the world itself, in all its randomness and chaos, might also by pure accident be compelled to offer symmetry and grace. It still feels that way. Central Park is the green world literalized: In the middle of the city’s grid, the park offers a place into which to escape and then emerge back into the city on the other side, resolved to it. When the park was built, the idea was that in Central Park one might be able to believe that was one was not in a city at all, that New York had been some industrial nightmare out of which one had passed unscathed. New York, of course, would never stand not to be paid attention for even such short relieved breaths of time – skyscrapers were invented soon after the park's completion, and threw up their long skeletal fingers around its perimeter. And yet it feels as if Olmstead's design had anticipated them. From the end of the Great Lawn the rearing skyline is framed perfectly, a postcard image, and for a moment, there in the green world, the city becomes not itself but the idea of itself, released from daily struggle into fantasy, the Emerald City on the horizon.
 
In Chattanooga, we’re staying in a bed & breakfast beside the Tennessee River, up on a bluff in the arts district. Our room has a tiny balcony overlooking the river. We sat out on it last night after dark when the weather broke, breathing in the unfamiliar silence of a gone-to-sleep town before midnight. Halfway across the river, a long verdant strip of land cuts like a splinter through the water and passes under the bridge. The seemingly uninhabited island bubbles with thick greens, trees hanging their kudzu burdens right down into the water. It looks like a ghost story, like the part of a long mystery when you lean in close, nauseous with the coming revelation. On the island, points of light from flashlights appeared, mapping out an unsteady path through the trees at the edge of the water. A few shrieks and whoops went up from the congregating lights and caught the thick green air. The lights went back and forth through the trees in no particular pattern, until they all disappeared. The next morning, I watched a group of kids push off from the bank of the island in a tiny rowboat. I imagined them sleep-eyed and hungover, full of want and worry, small dramas sprouting between them. They had gone into the green world and come back into the obligations of the real one. Literary theory says nothing of the disappointment when the real world is still there waiting, of the sinking hope that green might obliterate everything, that the trees might at last succeed in reaching each other from the sides of the highway and overwhelm the structures that have encroached on them, the dream of a green and violent justice setting the world back to perfect chaos. 

I've linked to one of Thomas' essays on the South earlier in here, but you should read all of them, especially this one on air-conditioning. I also have a few newessays at various places, if you're looking for more sunday reading.