The Green Man

The Green Man, and also sometimes the Green Woman, is a persistent figure in European folklore, although similar figures appear in other regions too. The Green Man, typically a face, surrounded by, or even sprouting, leaves, was a traditional carving found in churches. Yet the idea of the Green Man, a nature deity, is pre-Christian. He, or she, may represent the power of nature, of natural regeneration, and the foundation of the natural world on which we rely. He represents the cycle of nature, with leaves sprouting forth anew. In the story of Gawain and the Green Knight, written in the Cheshire dialect around the time of Chaucer, he is overlaid with Christian and chivalric symbolism but at root, literally at root, the story tells of the felling of forest, or of the fall of leaves in autumn, and the re-sprouting of trees after felling, or in coppicing, pollarding or hedge laying. That Green Knight can be none other than the Green Man.

My Green Man was noticed in Kenworthy Wood, itself a new stretch of woodland, regenerated even, on the south side of the Mersey as it flows, constrained by levies, through South Manchester. He is a natural pattern in the bark of a maple or sycamore tree, the moustache being one of the leaf scars made when the stem is young but remaining as it grows into a mature trunk. I cut out the face digitally from the photograph of the tree trunk and printed it onto watercolour paper. I then surrounded him with iconic leaves from the English woodlands, painting in acrylics, relying on leaves in our garden or from books. It was too early in the season for oak and hazel, and there was no elm to be had.

Leaves, clockwise from the top.

Holly Ilex aquifolium (upper leaves)

Holly is traditionally considered to be a plant with powers, which, since it is evergreen, persist in winter. Planted outside the house to protect against witchcraft, it was brought in to protect against demons and goblins. Holly was assimilated into Christian traditions (the thorns and the blood-red berries helped), especially over the Christmas period. And we atheists still bring leaves into the house to adorn the Christmas pudding. Its stems were favoured for walking staffs. Every winter, a flock of redwings, visiting here from Scandinavia, strip all the berries from our holly trees: first a scout or two come and then the rest of the flock.

English Oak Quercus robur

Oak has a particular association with the Green Man; it is oak leaves that are most commonly depicted in church carvings, surrounding him and sometimes coming out of his mouth. I has long been a tree of particular importance in Indo-European belief systems. It was associated with Thor, perhaps because oaks were often struck by lightening. It was valued for its timber, right up until the industrial age, and its acorns were of great importance for the feeding of pigs, allowed to forage in the forest, an important common right before the enclosures. The woodlands of cork oak in Spain and Portugal are pork-cork forests. Oak timber is hard to work when seasoned but pliant when still green. The trees, climax vegetation over much of England, are host to more kinds of insects than any other native tree.

Ivy Hedera helix

Like holly, ivy had magical powers, particularly during the shortest days of the year. It was always the associate of holly, being brought in to decorate the houses and churches. In early depictions of Father Christmas, he was dressed in green, not red, and wreathed in ivy. In the Highlands and Islands of Scotland ivy was thought to protect milk, butter and farm animals. Ivy flowers late, giving the bees a late feast, and the black berries are bird fodder over winter.

Hawthorn Crataegus monogyna

Geoffrey Grigson lists a whole page of local names, while we also know it as May and as Bread and Butter, on account of the taste and texture of the young leaves, a fine salad ingredient. It is Quickthorn because of its value for making a living fence, or hedge (quick meaning alive, as in the archaic usage, “the quick and the dead”). Its “quicksets” are its cuttings thrust into the ground. Throughout Europe it has been an important supernatural tree, perhaps due to the prominence of its red haws, the effusive May blossom, its thorns, and its ability to grow in most places. It also had a number of medicinal uses. As Thorn, it gave its name, like Ash, to one of the letters of the Scandinavian runic alphabet, still present in Icelandic, while as Huath it was equivalent to the letter E of the Celtic Ogham alphabet. In Ireland it is a “fairy tree”: we had one in an inconvenient place but no labourer would take it down. It was also known there as a famine food: “If all else fails, haws”, which taste rather like apples. A lump of the wood made a fine handle for my hazel walking stick.

English Elm Ulmus procera

Unlike the other classic trees of the English countryside (the oak and ash), the elm appears to have had little in the way of supernatural powers and beliefs associated with it. However, it was valued for its timber which resisted rot, and was therefore used for pipes, gutters, foundational piles, and coffins. “Was”, not only because other materials have superseded these uses but because of the devastation wreaked by Dutch Elm disease in the 1970s. I literally grew up “under the elms”, which were so prominent in the Worcestershire countryside before the disaster: a row of then lined our street, opposite the new houses, flanking a drainage ditch at whose edge we played, “under the elms”. As a boy I made a whistle out of an elm twig, and would have made a magazine rack at school from elm (I got as far as cutting out the pieces) had my wooodwork course not been cut short by our move to Ireland.


See above.

Holly (lower leaves)

The lower leaves are prickly but the upper leaves are not. The transition takes place between 3 and 6 feet, depending on the tree. It is as if the tree conserves its energy, only making spikes where they will be needed to defeat browsing animals.

Hazel Corylus avellana

Hazel was valued both for its nuts and its ability to produce strong poles when coppiced- cut down to ground level to regrow multiple stems. It was also used, often with willow, for making wattle hurdles, the infill of timber framed construction and also valuable fencing material. Like most other native trees it had sacred associations, still honoured today in its use for divining rods, a technology that might actually have a material basis. With its pagan associations it was a candidate for Christianisation, in its case via St Philibert, founder of Jumierges abbey in Normandy, where we went on bikes in 1979. From St Philibert we get filberts, though the English name for the nut is cobnut. Like Ivy and Holly, Hazel is a girl’s name but Hazel is occasionally a boy’s too.

Mark Burton

April, 2021

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