'A Green Thought in a Green Shade'


WE all long for release from the compulsions of life, for leisure to muse on the world that lies beneath the eagle’s ken, to weigh and value the confusing elements of living. Such a happy state of philosophical calm can actually be attained by one who has been a long time bedfast. For him who knows himself to be an established resident of the ‘pleasant land of counterpane,’ all the clamor and confusion of life have ceased. The list of activities available to him has shrunk to such a comfortable brevity that at last it fits into his inelastic twenty-four-hour day, making it possible for him to relish the full flavor of his pleasures, undisturbed by duties plucking at his sleeve.

To a man on his feet, life must perforce be a harassed, feverish choosing from among a multitude of duties, tasks, and pleasures elbowing one another for his attention. Often he but blindly accepts, until life is nearly over, those activities which have crowded and jostled most rudely, only to realize that in the confusion the polishing of boots has pushed aside the poetry he might have lived; that the rush of business has routed romance from his days. The invalid, however, develops a quiet, leisured feeling comparable to that of a rainy day at home when one finds time to paste all last season’s pictures, reminiscently, into the kodak album, to sort and rearrange the family library, or to put a long-avoided hall closet in order. Rain removes the pressure of errands, gardening, shopping; it removes the danger of interruption, leaving a pleasant freedom for longneglected, homely tasks within the house.

It is this sense of freedom from duty, this sense of peace and abundance of time, that I remember best about several long periods in bed. They were the only times in my life when I luxuriated in the reading of a magazine clean through each week from the ragged small boy on the front to the floating soap on the back. And I did it with never a tug from the multitude of tasks that now crowd around and force me to skip, skim, and snatch! I dawdled conscience-free over the embroidering of brood after brood of little doilies, each led by a big mother doily, and over the making of numerous linen crusts for the pincushion pies of that period. I neutralized the serious activity of the mind, Stevensonwise, by knitting enough yarn to have fleeced a small flock of sheep. I listened without thought of time to the good talk of a friend at my bedside. I studied Spanish, unharassed by lessons and recitations.

I amused myself by trying to write descriptions of the swaying veil of rain outside my tent, of the sounds that came to me between sundown and starlight, or of the battle of the orioles that flashed in gorgeous orange and black in and out among the green fans of the palm tree. I learned to identify the thirty-two varieties of birds that came to the persimmon tree, the olive, and the palm, to the fuchsias, and the nasturtiums about my tent. I watched a spider prepare her net from the skillful stretching of the first silken radii, through the patient, busy toil of spinning and gluing in place the regular concentric polygons, and then saw a humming bird poise, buzzing, while he neatly plucked her from the centre.

I dallied down the primrose path of daydreams, rebuilding all the houses in which I had either lived or visited, quite without the slightest annoyance from blundering carpenters or a limited bank account, planting lovely gardens that sprang into luxuriant beauty with all the speed of Jack’s beanstalk, sans weary waiting and painful backaches.

I worshiped beneath the cathedral window of a chayote leaf, sun-illumined, intricately veined, exquisitely, translucently green,

Annihilating all that’s made
To a green thought in a green shade.


But such religious calm is not for the mere sojourner who stays on his bed a few paltry weeks with his mind still tied to interrupted tasks, fretting to be with them again. He must first suffer the sinking of the good ship Ambition, and know it to be beyond the diver’s reach. Only after that can he give his mind freely to constructing another little world on the desert island of his bed. And the hope of rescue, if it exists at all, must be fixed upon such a vague, indefinite, distant future that all plans concerning it will be fashioned out of the stuff from which dreams are made. For a daydreamer, mentally landscaping the river bank of his childhood home, can quiet quivering nerves while planting an unfriendly yucca between the brownstone boulders only provided that the old home is far away and the possibility of his ever wielding a spade there has become infinitely remote; whereas, if his mind seizes upon some project with which he must soon be busy, he grows more and more tense and wakeful, experiencing an unrest that would ruin the calm peace of his hermit’s cell, and drive away all chance of catching at the tantalizing thought that hovers near.

One must renounce the world completely, like a person taking holy orders. But to sever the threads that bind the mind to the old ways requires time. At least a six months’ novitiate is necessary for anyone destined to join the distinguished company of those able to enjoy that pleasant fraction of living left to the bedridden.

During that novitiate the successful invalid must make a survey of his resources and build anew with whatever materials he finds at hand. When I was abruptly reduced to surveying my whole world from an open tent and knew that all my resources must be found within the view bounded by the back-yard fence, I considered with bromidic piety that at least the trees, the vines, the sky, and the clouds offered more than did Helen Keller’s silent darkness; I pondered scientifically that Darwin needed only one square yard of grass in which to observe the surviving of the fittest. And then one day as I idly watched a small gray bird hunting insects in the fuchsia a few feet away, and realized that he was not one of the familiar linnets all about, there dawned a pleasant curiosity as to whether he was as rare to others as he seemed to me, whether I might, perhaps, find his title and connections in some Burke’s Peerage of birds.

Such a book was found, and by patiently observing gray streaks, brown streaks, and black streaks, by carefully studying pictures and descriptions and noting ranges, I came eagerly to the triumphant conclusion that I had been watching none other than a ‘Melospiza Cinerea Graminea, A.O.U., No. 581 h’ — in other words, a Santa Barbara song sparrow. I knew then that this world is truly ‘so full of a number of things’ that, no matter how small a scrap of it might be left to me, it would still contain life and beauty and interest.

The fact that nearly all the materials from which the invalid must build his new world are merely portions of his old environment makes it harder for him to discover them. They are like the thimble in the game of ‘I spy.’ Though the same varieties of birds had always been singing in the tree tops, hiding nests among the leaves, hunting insects along the twigs, yet until now all the small, gray, streaked birds were to me merely linnets; the orioles with orange hoods and the ones with black crowns were simply orioles; and any one of our five kinds of humming birds a humming bird was to me and nothing more.

But in one respect the invalid may go adventuring where much is unfamiliar. He will have need for inventions and ideas to increase the livableness of his unusual mode of life. And he will be amazed to discover how long it takes the human brain to blunder upon some simple contrivance that is waiting to revolutionize existence. He will cease to wonder why the race in primitive times took so long to evolve from the stone age to the iron age, or why nobody in all the Roman Empire was clever enough to think of eating with forks instead of with fingers. For the invalid is an individual without an adequate background of invention and technique for his new kind of life. He is sure to have many problems that are unique and must therefore be solved without the aid of those few great minds through which, as James Harvey Robinson maintains, most of the human race gets its thinking done vicariously. Consider, for instance, the woman who sat for months before a hospital window in San Francisco watching the clouds and the sea gulls, and waiting for someone to discover that if her chair were raised but four inches she could also see a wide panorama, including the Golden Gate and the ships of all the world steaming in and out.

We human beings are like the wild elephants that Mr. C. Mayer writes of in Asia. He says that they are often captured by men who ride into the herd on trained elephants that butt and shove an intended victim about until he is too much occupied to notice one of the men slipping to the ground and putting a rope around a hind leg. The beast is then doomed to a life of captivity and hard labor solely because it never occurs to him to seize the men one by one, drag them to the ground, and crush them underfoot like snails on a garden walk.

Doubtless we are all at times just as close as that to discovering something important, missing it only because genius fails to lift its eyes at the right moment. I know the invalid often is. It must have been as late as the second July before it occurred to me that I could stop counting seams in the canvas roof and establish a summer residence under the sheltering canopy of the persimmon tree, where the birds came so near that I could have touched them, where I witnessed a thrilling drama enacted by a terrified spider and a foraging wasp, where I even became intimately acquainted with a rare summer shower, and learned that Hawthorne must have been cheated by a New England fondness for the fireside and the closed window into thinking that ‘Nature has no kindness . . . during a rain. ... In such spells of weather Eve’s bower in Paradise must have been but a cheerless and aguish kind of shelter.’ In my earthly bower, at least, the patter of rain on the leaves, the fragrance of the sprinkled earth, the sweet, fresh cleanness of leaves and bark and fence and even of the air, the thrill of so flagrantly disregarding precedent, all combined to obscure anything ‘cheerless’ or ‘aguish.’


From his position outside the stream of human events the invalid comes to comprehend them as all parts of one story. He feels himself to be an interested stay-at-home following reports from the various campaigns of some great struggle, as though his newspapers and magazines were bulletins from the front. He even goes so far as to lose sight of the distinction usually made between man and nature. A town becomes as much a part of nature as an ant hill or a grove of trees.

For me I think this feeling was intensified by the trick of listening to the composite of sounds produced by the functioning of the universe all around me — the sleepy chirping of a bird settling to roost in the vines; the soft, quiet patter of first raindrops on my tent roof; a man’s voice calling, a child answering. These became part of an endless symphony played by an orchestra of unnumbered pieces, a symphony that began before there were ears to hear, when the first winds stirred the waves on a lifeless sea, one that continues with ever-increasing beauty and intricacy of motive on through the ages. I knew then that to live is to be a player in that orchestra of eternity, that the invalid is but a disabled performer listening to the music as he may not do while taking part in its production.

Nor do the benefits of being bedfast cease with the beginning of the invalid’s long struggle to be back again in his normal place. He returns ‘trailing clouds of glory.’ At least many simple, commonplace circumstances that have long had no place in his life are for him glorified. The delightful harshness of stiff leather on unaccustomed feet transports him suddenly with exciting vividness far from pillows and sheets, back to tramping over the hills after the cow, or riding a horse at a run along a firm sandy beach when the tide is out. And to be able, after a little, to move from here to there without being carried, and later to walk out upon the rough, hard earth — such simple experiences make the invalid want to behave like a certain toddling baby who, finding himself out-of-doors without a guiding hand, lifted his arms and his face in instinctive worship toward the sky and shouted and danced until he lost his balance.

Hobbling on crutches for a few hundred yards along a dusty country road may not seem sublime to the onlooker, but it can lift an invalid to exalted heights. For he knows that at last he has broken through an insulation that has long kept him away from the good old dirty earth. He can even grow sentimental over the dust upon his shoes. It is to him a symbol of all things rough and hard and far removed from the protected softness of invalidism. It is as meaningful as the first sight of land to a home-faring Columbus. To discover that he can dance again is like finding himself suddenly able to float away through the air at will, knowing surely that this time he has captured that old familiar dream and dragged it across the boundary into reality. For him a glamour hangs over all that he does. He moves about in a little private heaven of his own, where he rejoices over the motion of his body, the pressure of weight upon his feet, the privilege of changing from hour to hour the physical objects spread before his eyes and serving as a background for his thoughts. He even glories in hardships, in the exertion and roughness of hard physical labor and the muscle weariness that comes after it.

He who has taken up his bed and walked, like the man who has been blind and now can see again, actually possesses only the common tools of living that other men have always had, but because of that alone he crowns himself with a vaunting joy that lifelong victims of vulgar good health can only attain through lofty achievements.

Paradoxically, though he remembers his term in bed as a pleasant release from the drive and hurry of living, as he draws furt her and further away from it and becomes more and more a member of that great human swarm that works and plays so eagerly and knows not why, he develops an ever-increasing dread of a forced return to the old slothful ways. He outgrows the narrow boundaries within which he had learned to live, and acquires again a taste for action. And, since his appreciation of every activity is vastly increased, it is not so unreasonable that he should dread the thought of losing them again.

Richard Halliburton in his Royal Road to Romance describes his feelings when looking into the face of death in the shape of a cobra at his feet, its head reared to strike. He says, ‘There was no fear of death, but utter despair at leaving all that is life.’ And when the danger was past he ‘crumpled up in a convenient mud puddle. But, oh, what nice mud it was, what lovely rich brown mud. It oozed through my fingers; I could feel its warmth and stickiness. . . . Beautiful jungle . . . beautiful world . . . beautiful life! It is thus that the ex-invalid feels toward even the ‘mud’ of a normal existence, and he would go back to his exile with a heart-sinking regret, not because of what he knows he would find there, but because of parting with so much that is now doubly valued. He knows

How good is man’s life, the mere living! how fit to employ
All the heart and the soul and the senses forever in joy!