There’s a chemical that is found in every green plant – every tree, grass blade, bush, cactus, moss, rosebush, whatever. It’s called chlorophyll, a green pigment that absorbs just the right wavelength of sunlight to jumpstart the complex chemical process, photosynthesis, whereby plants make food. Chlorophyll enables plants to transform air, sunlight, and water into sugars that nourish the plant and anything that eats it. Chlorophyll is, really, the basis of life on this planet.
Chlorophyll is also the stuff that puts grass stains on the knees of your pants. It’s a pigment, remember, which is basically paint. It’s the reason plants all over the world are green and not pink or blue. And it occurred to me one day, as I was fruitlessly trying to scrub the indelible stains from my favorite jeans — could this remarkably persistent green coloring somehow be used as an art material?
So I try it. A handful of clover and dandelion leaves, rubbed firmly on white paper, leave a startlingly bright green stripe. Nature’s crayon. Hmmm. This is sort of fun. I experiment with other wild pigments. Yellow dandelion flowers give a sunny yellow stripe. Raspberries yield psychedelic purple. Wild grapes provide a rich plum color. Blueberries are disappointing: just beige goop. I haven’t experimented with apples yet.
Why, you may ask, is this entertaining but trivial idea so important, worthy of a newsletter article? Because, for children these days, nature is something you Just Don’t Touch. During field trips, when I ask students what they think the most important rule of the Arboretum is, they one and all chorus, “Don’t touch anything!!!” Think about it — wasn’t that the rule on every field trip you ever went on? “You see with your eyes, boys and girls. Please don’t touch!”
But kids need to touch the real world. They need to pick grass blades, and fool around with dandelions, and count the petals on daisies to discover if “he loves me or he loves me not.” They need to get their fingers stained with wild grapes and raspberries and get wet and muddy and grass-stained. But it’s getting harder to persuade kids to do these things. Fear of germs, ticks, rabies, germs, strangers, germs .… Kids don’t mess around much with nature any more. But there’s something about crayons that no kid can resist.
So, parents, grandparents, aunts and uncles: this summer, give it a try. On some rainy day or during a dull picnic, get a big sheet of paper. Grab some clover and dandelion leaves and paint that chlorophyll all over the place. Pick some dandelions and paint bold yellow suns. Experiment with some other colors, too — purple lilacs, red tulip petals, orange day lilies. There’s a whole Crayola box out there along the trails and in the gardens.