Of Lichen and Lilies: A Review of Gillian Osborne’s Green Green Green

“Green is an echoing color, a space of meeting and reverberation at the middle of the spectrum,” Gillian Osborne clarifies at the outset of her newest collection of essays, Green Green Green.

Osborne, a leading voice in contemporary ecopoetics, writes prose that spans botany, literary history, theory, geography, etymology, memoir, motherhood, and more. Across six essays, she elaborates on the many intersections of literature and the natural world and positions the act of reading as a living, growing entity—a breathing thing engendered with personal possibility. At the same time, this book is not for those who don’t appreciate a healthy dose of science; Osborne devotes ample time to the habits of wildflowers and other plants native to places where she, and several well-known literary figures and scientists, built livelihoods in the United States. The result is a breathtaking cultivation of life, both past and present, that illuminates a path toward creative and compassionate connection with the deeply interwoven offerings of our world.

Despite the insistence of its title, Green Green Green focuses less on the physical manifestations of the color green and more on the various spaces that it occupies and creates. In the first essay, titled “Of the Eccho in Green” after William Blake’s poem “The Ecchoing Green,” Osborne delves into the color’s extensive layers. She addresses that, for most, green is a color of freshness, youthfulness, growth—a sign of movement. But she’s quick to draw attention to a kind of death and sickliness that is associated with green as well, the color often being used to describe an unwell complexion or a fit of jealousy. When the word ‘green’ was eventually adopted to represent environmental advocacy (yet another signal of a movement), it acknowledged both of these meanings: “the fresh and the fetid; springtime and the sickness.” 

This initial musing on the faces of green tactfully sets up the remainder of the collection for one of its core ideas: “the idea in green is the necessity of being with.” Green: pulsing through the veins of poetry, public lands, poppies. Green as a catalyst for intense relational longing or a fresh new way of approaching words on a page. A lifeline in the dead of winter, greenly warm. “Green, as it echoes on the green, is the color of human community: of history, migration, mingling, haunting.” 

The next essay, “Reading Natural History in the Winter,” gets to “the underappreciated edges of things” by focusing special attention on local flora, the seasonal reading habits of literary figures like Emily Dickinson, and the gardening exploits of Osborne’s own grandmother. As she ruminates on the frequent absence of greenery during the winter months, Osborne inserts lists of flowers that bloom in different regions of the United States, which she found in horticultural journals and her grandmother’s belongings. Lists, and the very nature of their particularity, offer much in the way of categorization; they allow us to separate one thing from another, to deduce what a thing is by comparing it to what it is not. When readers are granted the space to make these connections themselves, they can use that agency to build entire worlds. Osborne asserts that poetry produces a similar phenomenon. A poem, much like a list, leaves openings for personal experiences to seep through in ways that prose does not. Poetry goes “round and round in space and time” and so allows the personal past to fuse with present learning in myriad possible variations, while narrative’s preference for context attaches itself to specific events. Osborne shows that, with every passing season and every fade of one color to the next, undeniably, “Reading takes place.” 

So too does writing, for that matter. Green Green Green politely challenges its readers to reimagine what writing can accomplish in the way of healing, for the individual rather than for the collective. The essay “Poppy/Friend” is composed of letters between Osborne and her friend Juliana Chow, which discuss parallel sets of letters between Herman Melville and Nathaniel Hawthorne, Emily Dickinson and her friend Abiah Root, and Johann Friedrich Gustav von Eschscholtz (a naturalist) and Adelbert von Chamisso (a botanist). Letters are always attached to specific moments in time, and they offer one of the most direct pathways to the mind and emotional state of an author. Even when letters return unread or disappear without reply, the very act of writing (and sending) them can tighten the divide between what we’re able to say and how we feel. “Poppy/Friend” pinpoints familial love and desperate longing between friends across generations by referencing the drift of the California poppy into other states’ geographies: “A poppy friendship is careless, almost unassuming in its attachments.” Osborne suggests that flowers are a lot like friends; they come in and out of our lives at their own pace, and they can be brilliant while they are in season—even if they should not last. She gently reminds, “With these things we adorn our lives.”

With the advantage of categorization having been previously mentioned, Osborne turns to posit that one of the benefits of close reading is actually its capacity to de-categorize. If we’re able to recognize ourselves by what we are not, then surely we can begin to identify the ways we mesh with the world around us. The essay “Of the Vicinity Of” is an amalgamation of short sections that relates one subject to the next, one person to another. Osborne seamlessly connects mushrooms to marriage to science to metaphor and shows that, despite our propensity to divide ourselves from the great expanse of nature, “the distance between fossils and lives sometimes suggests otherwise.” The essay is a continuous stream of information that eventually arrives at the all-too-recognizable tug between art and science.

Where does the poet fit into this dichotomy? It’s a good question, “how a poet, nourished on the water, direct, sun of a unique locality… could be lily-like.” Because poems are a kind of calculated personal narrative, they are both attentive to form and formless. Poetry is a prime example of how, when the logical and the spiritual unite, they can create something entirely novel that is indicative of both present and past, where “the living feed the dead by hand.” Is memory not one of the poet’s main projects? And if it is, that would mean reading is a way for people to live on, to reproduce as would lichen or lilies. For Osborne, “‘Education’ can sometimes be a way to bring oneself back to life” and close reading is “spiritual survival, oriented toward a vicinity of others.”

The last essay in the collection, titled “Lichen Writing,” is a site where all of these reveries about literature, plant behavior, and reading converge into one stunning thesis about the written word as it relates to the natural world. Osborne reflects on the writings of one of the earliest lichenologists, Edward Tuckerman, who believed that lichen (which for him sat at the bottom of the plant hierarchy) modeled a “potential for human humility.” Humans are tied to the earth despite our unique capacity to destroy it, and Tuckerman felt that the study of lichen presented a way for humanity to live “in closer communication with rock and dirt.” Lichen-writing, says Osborne, then has at least something to do with analogizing, with identifying relations between subjects, objects. But equally as important as analogy is affinity, where “Something symbiotic falls apart to be remade in other materials, over and over.” For Osborne, a focus on affinity when reading or writing facilitates a certain proximity to the natural world, making it the ultimate literary paradigm: “We learn to write by learning to read the material effusions and lines that already compose the natural world.” Our art is as inseparable from the earth as we are.

 Reaching the end of this collection is to reach a revised understanding about what reading and writing represent and accomplish—processes that at once become evergreen. Gillian Osborne weaves together some of the affinities that define our lives, using history, plants, and people, and encourages readers to take keen notice to “the living histories that green-things carry, that [draw] [us] out of locality, into global repetitions of lowliness.” Osborne turns green into practice, a way of life, challenging us to locate and live alongside the wildness that permeates our very roots.


Tryn Brown

Tryn Brown is a writer based in San Francisco, CA. Her work has been featured in Split Lip Magazine, Sidereal Magazine, Wrongdoing Magazine, and others. You can find her on Twitter @themeasures.

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