Bein' Green, by Joe Raposo
It's not that easy bein' green
Having to spend each day the
Color of the leaves
When I think it could be nicer
Bein' red or yellow or gold
Or something much more colorful like that
A canopy of Concord Grape leaves

Joe Raposo wrote this soliloquy for Kermit, a song covered by scores of artists, phrases sung by Big Bird at Jim Henson’s memorial service. As a botanist, I’ve always been stricken by contrasting truths Kermit voices.

It isn’t easy being green, a color long associated with the wealth of merchants, bankers and gentry.  It’s linked to our own dollar – greenbacks, lettuce, etc. Green is important to Islam, found in the flags of nearly all Islamic countries, representing the lushness of Paradise. Humans associate green with nature, the color of environmental movements, even the term for sustainability. It’s not easy.

Green eyes, we learn, reflect emerald hues due to an optical trick in which melanin alters the appearance of natural blue pigment. And people have picked up on that deception. Shakespeare colors envious and malevolent personalities green with his “green-eyed monster” (Othello) and “green-eyed jealousy” as described in Merchant of Venice.

In some ways, it’s easy to be Green – the color at the center of our rainbow. It’s the “G” in ROY G BIV, an acronym many of us learned to recall spectral order – Red, Orange, Yellow, Green, Blue, Indigo, and Violet, the seven names of colors Isaac Newton proposed in his Lectiones Opticae (1675) and codified in his 1704 Opticks – his first scientific book published in English rather than Latin.

Diagrams from Newton’s Opticks

To the botanist, the rainbow represents that fraction of the electromagnetic spectrum available and usable by living organisms, without being inherently destructive (which is the case for more energetic wavelengths, like UV and xRays.) For humans, the rainbow is that fraction we see, thus the spectrum that drives organic reactions, from photosynthesis to sight.

The world merges at our mid-spectrum, at green. Being the center of human perception, we can distinguish more hues of green than those of any other primary color; it’s said humans can distinguish over 2 million gradations of green. That’s a useful talent, since we live in a green world, green because photosynthetic cells have stacks of membranes arrayed with chlorophyll molecules. And practically any educated person knows that chlorophyll, the compound that captures light energy for plants, is green.

What doesn’t strike most of us until we ponder why substances are certain colors, is that chlorophyll is green because it absorbs other colors, specifically reds and blues. That frees green to reflect from the surface of stems and leaves, or to transmit, that is to pass through. Because we perceive green so well, its easy – the living world that surrounds us comes across as green.

Cells filled with green plastids (chloroplasts) of the moss Plagiomnium affine – Photo borrowed from Wikipedia, 2020

But that green is hard won. Plant cells master the tiny bodies (chloroplasts) that generate and manage chlorophyll like a shepherd herds sheep. The green plastids rush around their cell, grazing on water and nutrients, but totally kept and directed in the essential process of capturing light energy to produce glucose and chemical potential. Chloroplasts, scientists tell us, are “endosymbionts” – previously free-living organisms that anciently were taken in by other cells to form a cooperative, irrevocable relationship.

In a woke world, chloroplasts could be viewed as slaves, reproducing and working independently while having lost any possibility to live outside the cell that owns them. From another perspective, they are tiny green algae, dependent pets, floating in an aquarium-like cell. Regardless, the entire living world depends on the sugars generated through photosynthesis, sugars that store the chemical energy captured from sunlight.

“Visual Color Perception in Green Exercise: Positive Effects on Mood and Perceived Exertion”, 2012, Adam Akers, Jo Barton, Rachel Cossey, Patrick Gainsford, Murray Griffin, and Dominic Micklewright* School of Biological Sciences, University of Essex, Wivenhoe Park, Colchester, Essex CO4 3SQ, United Kingdom, Environmental Science & Technology, 46:8661-8666.

Color Management Guide, Arnaud Frich.

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