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Thursday, 19 March 2009

Trees, woods and the Green Man

Sue Clifford of Common Ground will give an illustrated talk on trees, nature and culture as part of the BARK! festival at Shaftesbury next month.

Sue's talk will be followed by Sean Couch, from Natural England, with a look at north Dorset's ancient trees. Both talks are on Sunday 19th April, from 7.30pm.

THEY grow bigger, live longer, fix their own energy, feed and shelter thousands even after they have died - we take trees for granted and yet our culture is full of ancient understandings and references. In this we share much with peoples across the world where the ancient tree is still the centre of the settlement, the crossroads where the market sets up, the shade where the moot is held and festivals happen. The gallows tree and the boundary tree still stand at the edge of many a parish, the names of many places reveal original particularities – locally Child Okeford (oak ford), Bagber, Todber (ber = bearu, Old English for grove or wood) for example.

The deciduous tree with its long learned trick of dying and coming back in the spring intrigued our forbears. It is just one more miracle of life we take for granted. As we face myriad perils of our own making, perhaps we need to renew our relations with the magic of the natural world.

Comes the time comes the man

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Amazed at the hue of him,

A foe with furious mien,

Men gaped, for the giant grim

Was coloured a gorgeous green.

(From Sir Gawain and the Green Knight, Anon. Penguin, 1974)

In this 14th century poem King Arthur's Yuletide meal is gate-crashed by the Green Knight; he strangely survives the sad loss of his head and, green head held in green hand, challenges Sir Gawain to offer himself for the same fate a year and a day later. So the annual struggle is played out, as the wheel of time circles.

The Green Knight may not seem to have much in common with the Cerne Giant, but both have been cast as the Green Man. Some see a holly club in the Cerne Giant's right hand perhaps an echo of the cyclical showdown with the Oak Knight.

The Green Man is seen most often as a face amongst or of leaves, carved in stone or wood, foliage flowing from his mouth, sometimes his ears and eyes. In cathedrals as widely dispersed as Norwich, St Davids, Lincoln, Exeter, minsters from Beverley to Wimborne, and churches from Kilpeck to Long Melford, Bishops Lydeard to Crossthwaite he appears on roof boss, pew end, misericord, tympanum, door arch.

The 20th century stained glass windows in Wessex Hotel, Winchester by John Piper and the oak, maple, hawthorn stone-garlanded faces in the 13th century Chapter House of Southwell Minster in Nottinghamshire reveal the staying power of this symbol, though early meanings remain obscure. Kathleen Basford, botanist, set some hares running with her book The Green Man (Batsford, 1978). She found foliate heads across Britain and Europe, and we now know that the form is found as far afield as India and Japan.

A natural champion

If you would rather, you can choose your champion from pub signs where he goes through many transformations from a wizard with a still in the forest depths (actually in London's East End), to leafy young gadabout (on the A358 near Taunton), club brandishing adversary, leafy head, hunter, archer or wild man of the woods.

Our most famous son, Robin Hood, relying on the generosity of the forest, remains its most natural champion, he is surely guardian of the groves. Puck, Robin Goodfellow, Herne the Hunter all have allegiance to oak or forest, and far from being the place of terror of Germanic fairy tales, Shakespeare mused "are not these woods more free from peril than the envious court…" (As You Like It)

The Green Man has been reinvented as shambling leafy figure to lead May Day celebrations (old and new) to greet the rising sun at Hastings and Rochester. The month of May seems to be his time, the moment of rebirth – "The trees are coming into leaf/Like something almost being said…" (Phillip Larkin).

The Green Man can be what we want him to be and in the last few decades he has emerged as a symbol of renewal, gathering an ecological role. The warp and weft of our folklore, literature and practical invention gathered over centuries from many cultures offers imaginative routes for us to rethink our relations with Nature.

As we quest to fix energy from the sun in less destructive ways, we have much to learn from the trees who make photosynthesis look easy - 6CO2 + 6H20 > C6H1206 +602 . Now you try it!

Green was understood in medieval times as the colour of the supernatural, but we need some very down-to-earth invocation of the Green Man in ourselves, reviving hope and building real understanding of how we and Nature can work together positively – rather than leaving the future to chance and having to "touch wood".

Sue Clifford, joint director of Common Ground

Source: Western Gazette Thursday, March 19, 2009

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