Nature and the Green Man

Fall 2017
A “Green Man” carving by Pat Austin in the display gardens at David Austin Roses, Albrighton, near Wolverhampton, England. Photo by Simon Garbutt from

By Joyce White

Look deep into nature, and then you will understand everything better.
– Albert Einstein

I’ve always suspected there is some kind of magic in woods, fields and gardens. Why else have I always felt calmer, happier and healthier whenever I return from a long field and woods ramble or from a few hours spent on my knees in garden soil?

In childhood and adolescence I experienced relief and exultation from running through fields toward the woods. The feel of the woods was different from the feel of the fields, though, and required a walking pace and an alertness to the possibility of spotting the fairies I knew lived there.

Then, in adulthood, I learned that trees metabolize carbon dioxide and send oxygen into the atmosphere. That extra oxygen, I thought, must be the reason for the good feelings from a woods ramble. Now, in old age, I’m again convinced that something akin to magic, something more than extra oxygen, is involved in the positive feeling engendered by the connection to field and forest and fertile soil.

But I think it only seems magical to us in the so-called civilized world. Indigenous people everywhere, the so-called pagans, have tended throughout recorded history to be full participants in the world of Nature, not separate from any of it, honoring all of it. In pre-Christian Europe as well as in other parts of the world, pagan tradition held that trees were sacred. Forest groves were perceived as the dwelling place of gods, goddesses and a variety of nature spirits. Eventually the Green Man became the predominant symbol of the spirit of Nature – a way, perhaps, of making that invisible, intangible force tangible. The reverence for trees and the holiness of Nature was particularly entrenched among the people in the northern part of Europe and the British Isles. Therefore, those were the areas where early Christian priests waged the strongest war against the old beliefs. Over a few centuries, sacred groves were destroyed, and herbalists were often condemned to death as witches, all in the effort to control wild Nature.

William Anderson, in his 1990 book “Green Man: The Archetype of Our Oneness with the Earth,” says that the Green Man “signifies irrepressible life. Once he has come into your awareness, you will find him speaking to you wherever you go. He is the image from the depths of pre-history.” Accounts of sacred trees abound in myths from several parts of the world and so are considered to be an archetype, an eternal and widespread idea. The Green Man, a figure clothed in leaves of trees, appears to be a part of this archetype. Anderson suggests that, according to Carl Jung, archetypes such as the Green Man and sacred trees recur at different times and places, and that “the Green Man is rising up into our present awareness in order to counterbalance a lack in our attitude to Nature.” Anderson surmises that the Green Man evolved from – and is sometimes viewed as co-equal with – earlier beliefs in the feminine energy of the goddess, also a sacred symbol of the life force present in all of creation.

The Green Man of myth was supremely intelligent, Anderson explains, but also had the qualities of unconventional wisdom; a man of the wild woods clad in leaves. He is the intelligence underlying the world of vegetation, the guardian and revealer of mysteries of the Universe. Anderson suggests that a human figure – or just the head – clad in leaves may signify a union between humans and Nature. He believes that what we might call tree worship – “as though it were a willed choice of faith,” as someone might choose to be a Baptist or a Buddhist – was something quite different; that it was “a natural form of participation with the spirits of groves and forests.”

The European values that colonization brought to North America generally honored neither the natural world that colonizers claimed as their own nor the original inhabitants they displaced or destroyed. The holocaust that occurred on this continent has gotten scant attention compared with the Holocaust in Europe of WWII years. Among the indigenous peoples of the Americas, a variety of symbols of the spirit of Nature existed, but none that I’m aware of was as pervasive as the Green Man.

And guess what happened in Europe following the concerted effort to wipe out every vestige of paganism? While North America was being settled, battled over, wilderness tamed to fit European ideals, multiple images of the Green Man were being carved and incorporated into the architecture of many Christian churches! Anderson’s book is replete with photos of a variety of carved images of the Green Man, mostly of the head, shrouded in foliage. One example is Queen Anne’s Gate, c. 1704, in London with its keystones of the Green Man heads.

The values of the dominant culture have pretty successfully dominated Nature to the point of threatening the health of the planet. Still the spirit of the Green Man lives on and lends hope. Perhaps Anderson’s observation is true that the Green Man rises into awareness when a strong need exists, as now, to balance the assaults on Nature. I actually believe and experience the creative spirit of Nature as neither male nor female – or maybe both – but as a powerful force always available for humans who choose to work with that force.

I think the Green Man inspired the “back to the land” movement of the 1960s and ‘70s. I believe that same spirit underlies the success of MOFGA and Fedco in Maine and of all the people who choose to eschew the excesses of the consumer culture and grow or buy organic food. The Green Man spirit is alive in all those people who endeavor to protect what wild woods remain and in those who protest the poisoning of soil, water and air. That spirit is surely alive in those brave souls who have learned and continue to learn how to heal themselves and to help others heal with plants. So many such people in all these movements just go quietly about doing what they can to live their lives in harmony with the natural world that it is impossible to list them all. I feel a deep gratitude to them.

My friend Frank Robey roams the Maine section of White Mountain National Forest twice a day exploring and mapping as many details as one man and a dog can accomplish on foot. This heroic effort aims to prevent, or at least slow and diminish the scope of, a major logging project by the U.S. Forest Service. He expressed his pain at the prospect of two especially sacred areas in the forest being adversely affected by logging. He calls one “The Enchanted Forest” – 50 acres of hemlocks “deep and cool and dark, just the kind of area you’d expect fairies to inhabit and watch you as you walk by.” This area will be spared actual logging but is surrounded by stands slated to be logged, which will destroy the integrity of the area for years to come.

The second area, which he calls “The Cathedral,” is an impressive stand of older hardwoods – maple, beech and birch – that hasn’t been logged for many, many years. These trees are on a steep slope, and he describes them as soaring above you and giving the sense of a cathedral. Parts of The Cathedral are slated for logging. While these two areas are especially sacred to Robey, this whole forest bears a sense of holiness for him.

The idea that trees can speak, Anderson tells us, has a long history in Western literature, but apparently most of us in our “civilized” culture are missing out on that aspect of Nature, which is taken for granted by people who have a close connection with the natural environment. In a story I’ve heard but forgotten where, an Alaskan Inuit tells the American anthropologist, “Scientists come here and they test the soil, examine the plants, take samples from the trees, but they don’t know how to wake the plants up. Now, we do. Plants are talking to us all the time, but white people don’t know how to listen.”

Stephen Harrod Buhner in his book “The Lost Language of Plants” comments, “Many scientists have remarked with surprise that Luther Burbank, George Washington Carver, and even Nobel laureate Barbara McClintock all have said that it was the plants who told them what to do, who revealed the mysteries to them.” The only request from plants was that people need to care for them and treat them with respect if they want their help. Buhner states that plants have long been our teachers and healers. He adds that the Cherokee and Creek people understand that plants offered up remedies to heal the diseases of humankind.

I have known a few people through the years who understand the messages from trees, herbs and even rocks. Clearly there’s more to experience in this life than a literal way of thinking can comprehend. In her poem “Beans,” about growing green beans, Mary Oliver says:

I have thought sometimes that
Something – I can’t name it –
watches as I walk the rows, accepting
the gift of their lives to assist mine.

About the author: Joyce White gardens in Stoneham, Maine, and is a frequent contributor to The MOF&G.

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