From the Director: Seeing Green

As a kid I used the orange crayon to draw grass. “He’s OK with numbers and letters,” the teacher told my mom, “but he’s having some trouble with colors.” Then came the discomfiting tests: pages full of swirling dots in which everyone else saw numbers and letters. I saw swirling dots.

My color blindness is mild and close to meaningless—a constant excuse for bad clothes, an easy and light joke at my own expense. And I see plenty of colors, maybe even the full range, so I don’t miss out; it’s just that I see them differently, by which I mean wrong. Their demarcations and labels are different. Your green is sometimes my orange. Your blue is sometimes my purple.

This can lead a child—or an adult—to wonder: Where else might this be so? Where else might we see essentially what everyone else is seeing, but draw the lines between things differently, and assess their significance differently? And what if these things are more consequential than colors?

In his short novel The Lives of Animals, J. M. Coetzee’s main character, Elizabeth Costello, argues that our treatment of animals is akin to what the Nazis did in the death camps. “Let me say it openly,” Costello says, “we are surrounded by an enterprise of degradation, cruelty, and killing which rivals anything the Third Reich was capable of, indeed dwarfs it, in that ours is an enterprise without end, self-regenerating, bringing rabbits, rats, poultry, livestock ceaselessly into the world for the purpose of killing them.” Later she says, “I seem to move around perfectly easily among people, to have perfectly normal relations with them. Is it possible, I ask myself, that all of them are participating in a crime of stupefying proportions?” Just before the end, Costello says, “Calm down, I tell myself, you are making a mountain out of a molehill. This is life. Everyone else comes to terms with it, why can’t you? Why can’t you?”

When my teachers and parents told me that grass is green, not orange, I came to accept it. I’m fifty-two now and still see grass as orange, but I have accepted that it is green. I have, in Elizabeth Costello’s words, come to terms with it. With respect to color and perhaps too many other things, I have calmed down.

Some people haven’t, and why should they? Some of us, like Elizabeth Costello, look around and see what everyone else sees, but see it differently. Look how we treat each other, some say with alarm, or look how we treat the earth. And it’s not only that some of us see the same things, but differently—with more outrage and alarm—it’s also that some, like Elizabeth Costello, feel differently about what they see. This is where ethical vision departs from aesthetic vision: moral lines mean more than color lines. The choice of one crayon rather than another is not equivalent to the choice to treat people or the world around us in ways that might do serious damage. An F-150 is a way to get from one place to another, or it is another weapon in the assault on the planet. Buffalo Wild Wings is a place to watch football and eat chicken, or it is another purveyor of horror. There are many ways to see the same thing but perceive it and feel its weight differently.

Green is a color I still get wrong. Morals, probably also wrong. And maybe most concerning of all, I still mostly keep calm.


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Also in this Issue

From the Director: Seeing Green

Editor's Note: Green

Pantoum for an Uncertain Future

Tonalidades de la Vida / Shades of Life

Buying In

Portrait of My Mother in Mint Green

Losing the Forest for the Trees

Memoria Ancestral

Merciful Debt


People, Places, Things: The Dalles, Oregon, 1988

Discussion Questions and Further Reading for "Green"