My most effortful and recent formal education was in Linguistics, in which the study of words became my obsession. My informal education in permaculture is still unfolding. It is also very effortful, and yet brings me moments of bliss. I hope you will forgive me for frequent detours into language. I know it is not the core topic of this website, but since I do the writing, the things which magnetically attract my unfocused mind are going to tend to surface.
The name green idiom comes from something I misunderstood. Listening to the dub poetry of Linton Kwesi Johnson about thirty years ago, specifically the piece Street 66, I was transfixed by these words:
Outta dis rock shall come a greener riddim
Even more dread than what the breeze of glory bred
Only I thought he'd said "out of this rock shall come a greener idiom". To understate the effect, it gave me food for thought, like a deep riddle, it teased me. In my mind I understood that the creators of Dub, like Moses, would strike a rock, and water would pour out, and that poetic flow would be a greener idiom. This I interpreted as a freedom based way of speaking, a way of speaking way beyond what we were in at the time, a turn of phrase showing fertile well watered growth, nurturing, love, and the full development of creative potential for everyone and the alliance with earth, and all its gorgeous green wonders, a balance between men and women, between people, and between people and so called nature. I really don't know where all that came from, but I owe this name to a trick of the ear, and to the effect on the mind of great poetry and a beautiful voice, and to wishful thinking. Its like calling your website 'paradise', knowing how far off you are.
To unpick the separate parts: We've given the name 'green' in English, to light in the 495-570 nm range, reflected most frequently in the environment by the molecule chlorophyll, the essential energy harnessing molecule in plants. But in other languages there is no term for the colour of plants as an isolated thing, and the colour of plants and blue of water and sky are subsumed under one name. This is much closer to an inclusive environmental concept, in terms like eluhlaza, (isiXhosa). The chlorophyll colour has come to represent nature in English, and movements whose goal is working in greater harmony with nature. The colour as a symbol best encapsulates in popular usage the desire to do nature less harm, which is much of what this site will be about, but that is not all. It is missing something. The harmony with 'nature' out there, the forests, trees, and the fresh air is not the only natural harmony, there is also the harmony of energy, of investment of effort, harmony with nature within, and with other humans, in a concrete jungle perhaps, which it could represent. ...and the understanding that green is not the only colour 'nature' can be.
The picture of the veined leaf is loaded with meaning relating to this website and its domain name. Firstly a leaf contains that green stuff chlorophyll which is still the most powerful collector of energy from the sun. An energy source that has no polluting side effects connects back to greenness. Plants are also the foundation of the food chain based on harnessing the sun's energy, and thus elemental
to permaculture thinking. The network of veins is real life metaphor for the way many artifacts (think internet and road systems) and things in creation (blood vessels, river drainage patterns, tree branching and much much more) connect to each other in networks. It is the most logical means of energy distribution. It is so efficient that networks are self creating. There are even parts of language which work like networks, like the lexicon. The network is a deeply meaningful structure. Lastly this is a gardening website, primarily, and a leaf is the basic material of gardening, well, in my garden anyway, its like you'd use an atom or molecule to represent chemistry or some kinds of physics. But each leaf is different, and this one is coated with sticky claw like hairs, and this odd property represents diversity.
The term idiom also points to human language, our first technology, and to the creative power within us as solution seekers. An idiom is an expression with figurative meaning that does not coincide with its literal meaning, it has atoms of poetry. This hints that talking about greenness is not necessarily talking about the colour, or even a landscape of that colour, and that these values can be transferred to a thing that is not green at all. Idiom is also a manner of speaking that is natural to a group of people who speak a certain language, thus suggesting a community of communicators, with certain leanings, green leanings, ideas, terminology, and a way of framing the world, or what we would call a perspective. Green talk makes certain assumptions which are taken as understood. But when I read on Wikipedia of its symbolic meanings, it made me slightly uneasy.
I know the 'vibrant' green colour of spring acts against the background of the dark anaerobic sludge under the snow which becomes visible after the melt, making the first buds appear luminous, and eight months of cold are so awful, that green brought joy to so many people living or starving through the cold winter that it became the basis of several religions. One could be forgiven for confusing this intense contrast and this resurgence of green with the coming of a season of abundance of natural life globally, but the green of spring is conditioned by climate, and not universal. In some regions of the world lushness is permanent and there is no green season. In other desert regions like this one, there are two maybe three springs, and there is slow chlorophyll, which is a darker green, and which protects the plant from poisoning itself with too many byproducts of photosynthesis, due to the strong light. This dark chlorophyll was less inspiring to early settlers and colonists, and the lack of apparent freshness in our vegetation was furthered by botanical sunscreens, red in colour, and the water saving waxy grays, and the protective white fuzzes of hair.
Plants here are seldom deep bright green. Where I come from the green flush such as it is comes in ‘autumn’, whatever that means. It comes with the first rains. ‘Spring’ (the beginning of the warmer season ? ) is marked by red, white, yellow, orange, blue and purple, a riot of flowers on the landscape which recedes into heat and dryness. I noted that Wiki’s references for the colour symbolization of green are all northern.
Growing up amid the greyish coastal margin vegetation of a vast desert, I’ve seen a desire for greenness by people who felt sentimental longings for the northern spring flush and its particular luminous colour up north becoming one of the most destructive impulses affecting our plant environment.
This desire brought plants from distant areas of the globe which multiplied and destroyed most of our own grey and thorny vegetation which is one of the most remarkable and undoubtedly the most beautiful on earth. I've also seen the waste of vast green irrigated spaces for the rich - golf courses, nestled in the dry landscape, where other people don't have drinking water. Green is wrong, so wrong, in this particular place as a metaphor for ideological 'greenness'. I want to resist it, but its ability to speak as a symbol, its universality as a term and its scope is too powerful. I want to use only its metaphorical value, as a philosophy which teaches of harmony between all living things, teaches respect of all living things, teaches one to wait and watch with extreme caution, before plunging in boots first and altering things to conform to one’s own contextually irrelevant parameters, because the self righting systems in nature are millions of years old, and they will do better. Teaches is wrong, too, it should be learns, a philosophy which learns respect and harmony. Actually, the grey of the desert more closely symbolizes the awe and respect for life, for nature and the fragility of its niches, and their antiquity, and the quiet observing before acting, that I’m striving for. Grey represents age, too, and I do notice that in the main, on the average, we get “greener” as we get “grey”, indeed we can become obsessively so, but if the site were called "grey issues" I don't think anyone would google it let alone get my message, or even get to the point of disagreeing with me on something, which is inevitable. Globalisation and the environmental disaster into which we're heading has shown us that we are all inevitably linked. Sometimes this connectedness is not good. The globalization of plants was not good in many areas of the world and in many niches.
Lastly, we can't just exclude humans as we are today from the mix, dreaming of the green idyllic times before we wrecked everything. We are part of the problem and we'll be part of the solution. Our haemoglobin, so similar to the molecule chlorophyll, gives our blood its red. Green and red are the yin and yang of life, and they are both needed for a full picture.
When you mix them together on an artists palette you get brown or grey. Most of the landmass of earth when its seen as a sphere from out there seems to be brown or grey. This is the brown and grey and blue planet, with a little green, and a lot of the grey of human habitation. Cities tend to reflect grey, the mix of all hues, and smog and concrete. Another reason to call this the grey idiom, but enough of that. Returning to practicalities, a knowledge of how this all works in the blending of plants with different foliage tints is important in your garden design, and if you are not familiar with it, the colour wheel is a foundational design tool.
To quote the page on companion planting, in a permaculture garden so called pioneers are planted first, like legumes, comfrey, yarrow, all fast and early flowering. Pioneers are plants which in the wild first establish themselves on disturbed soil, or a new surface of soil. There is a danger in this, because it is these types of pioneers which often become invasive in the Fynbos. The supply of information is formed by global hierarchies. There is a lot of information on plants from the more developed parts of the world and if in a permaculture garden each planting must have 3 purposes, we may go for what we "know" and what we "know" is formed by the power hierarchies. What we do not know is that indigenous plants have just as many if not more than 3 uses. For example in any one planting of edible indigenous green carpet plants, there are five or more possible advantages: 1 the plant is edible, 2 it is used to our climate and needs no watering, 3 it forms a ground cover or part of the permaculture "geoderm", and 4 it avoids introducing alien pioneers, and the threat they present to our local plants, 5 I have not even mentioned their benefit as companions, because no body knows !
Our plants are often grey and dark because they grow slowly as I said. The faster growth of pioneering European invaders indicated in their lush green fast chlorophyll, can completely overwhelm slow growing local plants, and if a vigorous drought resistant alien pioneer gets into the wild it will threaten many local species. The problem is that many of our plant foods are alien to this country and not meant for this type of climate, and unlikely to spread invasively, but the exotic pioneering plants used in permaculture, as well as some fruit plants are tough and drought resistant. I believe the use of indigenous plants to take up the niches of these aliens in the vegetable garden will perfect SA permaculture, and we should give it a new, Khoesan name, in honour of this region's Khoesan heritage of botanical lore.