I was born in May, which makes my birthstone the emerald. This is fitting enough because I've always had a strangely close relationship with the color green.
For my birthday the year I turned 7, my mother gave me an almond-sized, rough-cut piece of transparent green stone that she said was an emerald.
Was it really? I don't know. It's long since lost, and my mother, now 88, doesn't remember it. But whatever it was, for years I kept it with a small number of other ultra-precious possessions, like a shark's tooth and a thimble-sized ceramic caveman. Like most young boys, I didn't have much appreciation for precious stones. But this little rock was different. Why? Because it was green, and green was just . . . more mysterious than other colors.
I grew up in northern Virginia in a cow barn that my father converted into a living space in the early '60s. The tin roof of this barn was painted a deep, dark green: one that, in the summer months, blended perfectly with the equally rich greens of the trees that crowded around it. Virginia might not be the greenest state in the country, but it's certainly one of them, and in late August, driving south on Interstate 95 from wherever we'd gone for our summer vacation, it felt like the trees and the grass just kept getting ever and ever more green the closer we got to home.
Finally we'd hit the Washington Beltway, then the exit for McLean. I'd roll down the window and the sound of cicadas would flood in. As we got closer to the house that it felt like we'd been away from for so long, I'd always get the same feeling: a kind of half-pleasant, half-frustrating homesickness. Oddly enough, this homesickness didn't disappear when we finally pulled into the barn's gravel driveway. If anything, it just got stronger. Those green summer homecomings gave me one of my first intimations that there is a certain kind of yearning for home that can't be cured by going there. Or at least not to any of the homes we know here on earth.
Homesickness was what I felt when I looked at that little emerald-green rock my mother gave me. Green may be the most earthly of colors, but in the glassy depths of that magical little stone, I got a hint that it might just be the color of heaven as well.
Any decorator today will tell you that green is one of the most comforting colors, and ancient peoples knew this, too. From green Eden to the "green figs" of the Song of Solomon to the "green pastures" of Psalm 23 and the "green trees" that show up in prophetic writers like Isaiah and Jeremiah, the color green is one of the most consistent symbols of peace, plenty and consolation in the Bible.
Similar associations continued down through the centuries. The German poet Goethe, in his masterpiece Faust, wrote that the soul sought "to rise with mighty throes to those ancestral meadows whence it came." One doesn't have to guess what color those meadows were. Meanwhile Ireland, the Emerald Isle, has long been celebrated as the closest place to heaven on earth in part because of the almost supernatural greenness of the landscape there.
But the greens of the world's lore of otherworldly landscapes aren't made up of trees and grass alone. The mystical literature of ancient Iran describes a heavenly region called the Earth of the Emerald Cities. This earth above the earth is characterized by a luminous green light that radiates from the stones (emeralds, of course) of which the buildings there are made.
L. Frank Baum probably wasn't familiar with the writings of ancient Iran's mystical sages, but he was certainly in accord with them when he created the Emerald City—the capital of the Land of Oz. This city, wrote Baum, glowed with a green light so intense that its inhabitants (themselves also green) wore green eyeglasses to protect themselves from being blinded by it.
Some have claimed that Baum based his Emerald City on the White City of the 1893 Chicago World's Fair (which he did indeed visit when he was writing of Oz). Others think that by placing those green eyeglasses on Oz's inhabitants, Baum was making a jibe at the politicians of turn-of-the-century Washington, D.C., who by ignoring the country's financial hardships were seeing the world through green-tinted glasses.
But the most likely inspiration for Baum's Emerald City was neither Chicago nor Washington, but that most famous, and glorious, of all celestial cities: the one that an angel shows John of Patmos at the climax of the Book of Revelation. Like Oz, and like Iran's Earth of the Emerald Cities, the new Jerusalem is made up of jewels that give off their own light. The emerald is fourth in a series of 12 precious stones that garnish the foundations of the wall of this city.
Is green the only color in heaven? Of course not, any more than it is the only color on earth. But it is certainly no surprise to find those glowing emeralds appearing in the final pages of Revelation. For in the glassy, bottomless green of the emerald—a green that is at once completely of the earth and yet also completely above and beyond it—we get a particularly vivid hint of what heaven will be: a strange yet impossibly familiar place, where all our earthly homesickness will be remedied once and for all.