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Tangled up in green

We seem resigned to losing our green world.

It’s ten in the morning on 1 October in the city of Córdoba. The breeze off the Guadalquivir is a thin, cool filament of that scent – or rather, of that entire sensory system – evoked by Lorca’s famous opening to “Romance Sonámbulo”, Verde que te quiero verde, which can be translated in several ways, though most often as: “Green, how I love you green”.

After a long, dry summer, it rained again a few days ago but now the sun is bright, filling the greenery around the Roman bridge with pools of light and shadow; a hinterland of mystery that runs through the city like that slender, green wind, in spite of the heat and noise and the politics of greed and power that killed the poet – whom everyone here calls simply “Federico” – and more recently created the artificial, asset-stripper’s “crisis” that is never far from anyone’s mind as they go about their business in the paved world.

I hadn’t planned to be out here on the bridge with the accordion buskers and the last gaggle of tourists; my intention had been to spend the early part of the day in the Mezquita, that breathtakingly elegant old mosque into which the Christian “liberators” of Andalucia inserted their florid “Renaissance” cathedral but, not for the first time, I had felt the need to get away, irritated by the manner in which the complex, organic geometry of the Moorish space had been crudely overlaid with what I can only think of as decor – a profusion of images and flourishes that seem to me both ugly and arrogant.

Friends here point out that the Moors did the same thing to the Roman remains (and glimpses of mosaic through gaps in the marble floor stand as a passing reminder of that ancient world) but I still feel aggrieved by the Christian world’s insistence on the busily human, as against the Moorish respect for space and light and organic form. To me, Lorca’s verde belongs more to the Moors than to those who came after – and perhaps it belonged even more to those the Romans displaced: the Phoenicians or the now almost forgotten indigenous tribes that inhabited the green mystery of these riverbanks before them.

Lorca’s green is slender and precious, a vital essence preserved against the heat and aridity of Al- Andalus but we find glimpses of it everywhere, even in the now mostly grey rain of Britain, where remains of the pagan greenwood persisted, in spite of a long history of dull rationalism and enclosure, until, as E M Forster says, it “ended catastrophically and inevitably. Two great wars demanded and bequeathed regimentation, which the public services adopted and extended, science lent her aid, and the wilderness of our island, never extensive, was stamped upon and built over and patrolled in no time”.

Soul wood

It is an observation that has been voiced many times, and it has been dismissed just as often as “nostalgia” and “Nimbyism” by the public servants and scientists, (and by their paymasters, the banks and developers) whose business it is to turn every last vestige of the old greenwood – the lungs and soul of this land for millenia – into money. Their money. It’s ironic, then, to see ambitious politicians prattling, around conference time, about the abandonment of the coalition’s supposed “green agenda”, for we all know that there never was such a thing, just as we know that, in current parlance, the word “green” is little more than a catchy prefix: green business; green politics; green lifestyle.

Yet we seem resigned to losing our green world, just as long as enough green hogwash is slapped around to distract us from the fact the wildwood has been consigned to a (Hollywood) fairy tale,  and verde is just a word in an old poem.

This article first appeared in the 15 October 2012 issue of the New Statesman, India special