When Grandma Talked Grass

When I was six, my grandmother, a first-generation Irish-American, told me that grass was green because the wee folk came around every night and painted it thus in honor of blessed St. Patrick.

I’d stay awake nights to catch sight of the wee ones, but never did. Yet every summer morning the grass in the backyard was wet and fresh and green. The world was magical then, even in my own backyard.

Then only three years later, in third grade science, Sister Alcuin explained the grass was green because it contained a chemical compound called chlorophyll.

So in only three years, I transitioned from believing grandma’s magical account of why the grass was green (and she may have believed it herself), to knowing the mechanical account from the science textbook.

But neither account is completely satisfying, and so I am still left to wonder why, in the grand scheme of things, grass is green. What’s the meaning of that?

Is it just because it is, or because, as a middle bandwidth color between the intensity of infrared and the more tranquil ultraviolet, green keeps grass from getting too hot or too cold?

Green vegetation also provides a background that allows both predator and prey to see each other’s approach, giving each a fighting, or fleeing, chance. Is grass green to serve a wider purpose, or being green does it have unintended consequences?

The ancients gave us wonderful myths that are still enjoyed — and believed by many like my grandmother — to this day. And the scientific and industrial and the information revolutions have provided us with an overwhelming amount of data to sort out.

But the two pictures, magical and mechanical, don’t connect, so we’re left trying to navigate in a world of cognitive dissonance. We have learned a lot, the poetic and the prosaic, but we make little effort to know why.

Why is that?

© 2022, Thomas Mahon



Tom Mahon, author of Charged Bodies

I started writing about technology in 1974, and began a half-century career as publicist, historian, essayist, novelist and speaker, in Silicon Valley.