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March 17, 2003

Go Green

On Saint Patrick's Day I make the effort to wear something green. The hue is a chief symbol of the day, and more than harps or leprechauns, it goes beyond Celticism per se, for who can lay claim to a color? Ireland may call itself the Emerald Isle, but Green, in shades from chartreuse through hunter, is coming soon even to the center of our local island.
It can't come soon enough.

Green has always been my favorite color, ever since I was very young and endorsed it because I thought that dinosaurs were green. By now, the idea of one color being better than another seems politically incorrect, but I am convinced that some have greater moment than others...
Musing on it, I ponder how Green is the color of growth, but also of putrid, decaying death. Yet the Green of rot is also the Green of growth, albeit on a smaller scale, as Life recycles itself.

We don't like to think about death and decomposition, whatever the color. It takes the geologic distance of fossilization to make such realities approachable, as in the form of the dinosaurs, beloved of children everywhere. The dinosaurs provide a scientifically sanctioned gateway into the Mysteries, via authorized stories about who-we-are-and-how-we-got-here. Since these fundamental ideas are otherwise ill addressed, it's no wonder that children are drawn to the charismatic figures of the prehistoric giants, who take on the characteristics of initiatory guardians.

The fascination with dinosaurs is one of my earliest memories. Like the gods, they are real-yet-not-real; nowhere to be found in this World, except in artifacts endorsed and explicated by certain guardians of "the truth," who may attest to their reality. I was one of those kids that knows all about dinosaurs, but much of what I knew has now changed, as science updates itself.
For one thing, I knew they were green.

Green is a conventional color for reptiles, in coloring books and cartoons, and in the popular imagination. Greenness marks the dinosaur as the Other, for people, (and mammals in general,) are very much not green, except in metaphorical envy, or physical illness. Science has come to recognize that dinosaurs most likely enjoyed a range of coloration as wide as that of their descendants, the birds, but Green, today's color of nostalgia, is hard to let go of, especially in the case of a class which has only a past, and no future.

It may be that our future depends on a clearer understanding of our relationship to the Other. The issue is reflected in the difficulty we have in reconciling our Humanity with our animal ancestry. Changing the color of the dinosaurs is a way of mediating this relationship; of being more honest about our common ancestry, but as Saint Patrick's Day proves, we will still be left longing for the Green of the Old Country, or the old serpent, so summarily expelled. As anodyne I offer an exotic alternative, in the form of the one green mammal: the Sloth.

The Sloth is not really green in and of itself, but during the rainy season algae grows on its gray-brown coat, providing camouflage, and a virid reminder that the true keepers of the Green Mystery are the Plants. They are the main source of the color, and the foremost embodiment of Otherness among living things; alien to us ambulatory animals, yet intrinsic to our existence. To them Saint Patrick owes his hue: to the old sod, rather than any gemstone. Not the emerald isle, but the kingdom of chlorophyll.

If Saint Patrick's Day is to be a Holiday outside of Ireland, then it should have new symbols. What could be more fitting than a slow-moving, tree-hugging, American mammal, inverted amid the verdure, with plants actually growing on it? Let's welcome Spring with a glass and a Bradypus: the Green Man for the new millennium. Fear not for saurians of the past; the dinosaurs are gone for birds of many colors, but if you can't grow a green coat of your own, at least wear one.