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The lady and red

Despite illness, an author stands out -- just like her subject

WALTHAM -- For all their overuse of the word ''passion," when it comes to clothing, Americans prefer not crimson, carmine, vermilion, or scarlet, but beige or pastels. We shy away from red. It's so declasse, so flossy, so vulgar.

But people didn't always feel that way, as Amy Butler Greenfield found out while working on her new book, ''A Perfect Red: Empire, Espionage, and the Quest for the Color of Desire." For centuries, the lust and quest for the source of a mysterious deep red dye known as cochineal fired the dreams and struggles of European colonial powers. In a different way, the dream of red colored Greenfield's own life, as she battled a life-threatening illness.

For millennia, the color red was identified with fire, desire, and power. It was the color of kings and the wealthy. But deep red dyes were hard to find. There was ocher and cinnabar, often used in inks and paints, but they didn't work well in dye for cloth and were fantastically costly. Then came the 16th-century Spanish conquest of Central America, and the conquistadors discovered an extraordinary red dye cultivated by Mexican Indians. They called it grana cochinilla, or cochineal.

Once imported to Europe, cochineal thrilled clothmakers and the wealthy consumers of rich cloth. They had to have it. But Spain controlled the source and the price, and cochineal became a more important commodity than gold. Sixteenth- and 17th-century English sea raiders would lie in wait for Spanish ships laden with it, bound from Mexico to the port of Seville.

While they lusted after cochineal and paid dearly to have it, most Europeans didn't know what it was, and the Spaniards guarded the secret like nuclear technology. Was it a mineral, like cinnabar? Or possibly a berry? In fact, cochineal is a tiny insect, Dactylopius coccus, which lives and feeds on the opuntia cactus, in southern Mexico. Dried and ground, it produced the deepest and most colorfast red dye to be found in nature.

Scholarly start
Greenfield, 36, is quiet-spoken and radiant, with green eyes. The day of the interview, she wore dazzling red over black. In her living room is a basket overflowing with red scarves she dyed herself, and on the coffee table, a small jar of cochineal, which she opened for inspection. To see the tiny brown grains, which look like coriander seeds, one understands the long frustration of European naturalists and clothmakers.

She grew up in Ticonderoga, N.Y., the daughter of teachers. After graduating from Williams College with a degree in history in 1991, she won a Marshall scholarship to Oxford. There she studied with Sir John Elliot, historian of imperial Spain. As she cast about for a subject for her master's thesis, Elliot suggested Spain's importation of chocolate from the New World. So Greenfield went to Seville and immersed herself in 16th-century documents in the great Archive of the Indies.

''I was going through the ships' registers," she said. ''When they came in, merchants would have to sign for [the cargoes] in the corner. Going through those pages day after day, I didn't run into much chocolate. We think of it as important today, but it wasn't to the great imperial planners. What I kept finding was the word 'grana,' or 'grana chochilla,' which is cochineal. Gradually I realized that I was seeing literally tons of this dyestuff being unloaded, and this fascinated me."

She finished her chocolate thesis in 1993, came home, and started a doctoral program on the Spanish empire at the University of Wisconsin. She and David Greenfield, an English mathematician, were married in 1995 and moved to England, where she intended to write her dissertation. But later that year, she became horribly sick. The diagnosis was lupus. The mysterious disorder, in which the body's immune system begins to regard the person's own tissue as a foreign invader, often causes rampant inflammation, pain, and weakness and can be fatal. It usually strikes women under age 30. She was 26.

''It came on like a steam train," Greenfield said, ''and for a while it wasn't clear that I was going to make it. I lost the ability to walk or use my hands. I couldn't feed myself, could barely chew, and couldn't lift a spoon. If it hadn't been for my husband, I wouldn't have made it." Her doctors told her that if one survives the first couple of years, the prognosis is fairly positive. But at first, she did not respond to treatment.

''They were telling me that if I lived to be 30, that would be great," she said, ''and it was at that point that I had an epiphany. Life doesn't always last as long as you want, and in my heart of hearts I knew I wanted to write books that people would read for pleasure, not a dissertation. It was a surprising thing, and yet it was absolutely clear to me."

Gradually, she improved. They moved back to the United States, to Waltham, in 1997, so she could be closer to her parents, now living in Vermont. ''I'm doing better," she said. ''Anyone who looks at my life from being perfectly well would find it extremely limiting. But from where I was, stuck in one room, in bed, not able to read books properly because you can't hold them and turn the pages, it feels like complete freedom." At the end of 2000, she notified the University of Wisconsin that she was giving up her doctoral program.

''About three months after that," she said, ''I found myself thinking about cochineal again, and it was red geraniums that did it. During the brutal winter of 2000-2001, I was housebound so many days. I found myself going in the kitchen, standing and staring at my geraniums, just looking at that color. I would lose track of time and it improved my mood. One day, while I was looking at them, I thought, 'What if that were it? What if that were the only color I had, if color were that rare?' It got me thinking about cochineal. I understood how people had risked their lives for it. It was easier for me to understand how hungry you could be for color, why it would be an object of great passion and desire."

A dream trip
She plunged into the cochineal book, using research she had already done and much more that she was able to do with help from near and distant libraries. ''I figured that as long as I had burned my boats everywhere else to follow this passion of writing," she said, ''I might as well go with what I felt really passionate about."

One thing was missing, though. Like the non-Spanish clothmakers of colonial times, she longed to see cochineal at its source, and proposed a trip to Oaxaca in Mexico. ''I had been dreaming about it," she said. ''I had seen it so clearly in my mind. I'm often writing from voices and pictures, and I have to feel it very strongly in order to write it. But my doctors said, 'That is something you should not do. You have an autoimmune disease and you're on immune-suppressing drugs. That is not safe.' "

For a long time, she could not type on many days, and her husband taught her to use speech-recognition writing software. By 2003 she had finished a full draft and felt she had improved enough to press her doctors again. They relented, if she would promise to go for only a week and be very careful. She said she felt like the Spaniards who had dreamed of finding the Fountain of Youth or El Dorado, the fabled land of gold. She and her husband flew to Oaxaca.

''It was more magnificent than I had thought," she said. ''I saw the great church of Santo Domingo. It's adobe and all gilded inside. They had that kind of money because they had cochineal. It was the first time I saw the opuntia cactus, bigger than I was, and I saw wild cochineal for the first time."

With the invention of artificial dyes in the 19th century, anyone could afford deep red fabrics. Cochineal, which by then was also cultivated in the Canary Islands and Java, lost its commercial value. As it did, red clothing became identified with vulgarity or sexual availability. Greenfield said, ''Many women said to me, when they heard I was working on this book, that they like to wear red but are afraid to, and the word they usually use is trashy, or cheap."

But whether we esteem or disparage it, red has undeniable power, and actual physiological effects. ''If you're exposed to a red room," Greenfield said, ''your heartbeat speeds up, your breath comes a bit faster, your eyes dilate. It acts on the system to make us more alert, and blue seems to do the opposite."

Amy Butler Greenfield does not seem now like a sick person, yet she still has arthritic pain, and all her work materials are on one floor, since, on some days, it's hard to get up and down stairs. But she found her El Dorado, and it wasn't a dream. Asked to name her favorite color, she answered that while she has always loved all strong colors, ''I would say it's red now. I couldn't get along without red."

David Mehegan can be reached at mehegan@globe.com.

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