What the Green Man can teach us about our place in the world

Nina Lyon's new book, Uprooted, uses the Green Man to excavate a bigger question: humankind's relationship to nature.

Sign Up

Get the New Statesman's Morning Call email.

I recently looked into the face of a moth for the first time. I was running a writing course and my fellow tutor, who was a proper nature writer, had brought along a moth trap. It was a big, domed piece of apparatus with an extremely bright light inside it. You left it outside all night in the wood, and in the morning it was full of moths.

I had never taken much notice of moths, but that was the point of the exercise: neither had anybody else, but once you started paying attention to these tiny creatures, new worlds opened up. I stared into the great, round, orange eyes of this insect, this minuscule mystery, examining every white hair on its face, seeing its antennae twitch, and I wondered how it experienced the world. The human mouth-sound “moth” suddenly seemed inadequate to describe what I was seeing. Not only was the creature entirely alien to me, but the world it moved in, a world of senses so different from mine, was alien, too, though it was the same place. I hadn’t been paying proper attention to the possibility of other perspectives. I had been too wrapped up in my humanness.

This sense of perspectives beyond the human threads itself through Nina Lyon’s new book on the “Green Man”, which, it turns out, is not really about the Green Man at all, but about something bigger. It is an unusual, digressive and timely piece of writing that pulls on many threads, sometimes too many at once, but which ends up weaving them into a unique pattern.

One example. Two hundred pages in, Lyon is walking in an old wood on the Welsh borders thinking about Heraclitus, whose philosophy is usually summed up, slightly inaccurately, as “change is the only constant”. She wonders whether this reality – that everything is always in flux, in our own lives and beyond – brings about two “opposing and contradictory mood-drives” that most of us use to categorise ourselves: either “to mourn all change as loss, or to celebrate it as progress”. Maybe, she thinks, neither is necessary. If we lived through time on a greater scale, would the rise and fall of ecosystems and civilisations and individuals seem both more normal and less traumatic?

Perhaps. And yet, she suggests, we don’t need to live through time on a greater scale to see this. Instead of looking up, we could look down. At the level on which the moth lives, for instance, it is happening daily:

All these things are happening around us all the time, tiny births and deaths, the rise and fall of tiny realms, and we muster no emotion for them . . . Perhaps we are only inclined to perceive things that happen on our own scale, to perceive life as existing only on our own scale, in our own image. Perhaps the possibility of something like life existing on far larger and far smaller scales is too exhausting, or too unsettling.

What does this have to do with the Green Man? What is the Green Man, anyway? The term was coined by the folklorist Lady Raglan in 1939, to refer to the human heads surrounded by or entwined with foliage which are carved on so many old churches across Britain. Folklorists have argued ever since about whether Raglan caused more confusion than clarity by attempting to cram a wide diversity of images and meanings into a single term. Whatever the truth, the mystery of the Green Man remains. Everyone who has noticed him, it seems, has his or her own theories about who he is.

My own obsession with the Green Man goes back to my childhood. I collect carvings or drawings of green men wherever I find them; my house is scattered with the things. As I write this review, I am holding open a copy of the book with a Green Man paperweight from Norwich Cathedral. For my fortieth birthday, I had one tattooed on my shoulder. I am drawn towards them, to the Man/Nature union – or tension? – they represent, and to the questions they raise. What are they? Where do they come from? Why are these apparently heathen images found so often in old Christian churches? What are they trying to tell us?

I expected the book to answer some of these questions, but it doesn’t, exactly. The Green Man, Lyon suggests, is “the entry point to Faerieland and the Small Folk of British and Nordic myth”. It is a tantalising suggestion. But it soon becomes clear that it is not a biography of the creature, and for a while I found this frustrating. I could happily read 300 pages on the history of the Green Man, and I would like to know more about him than this book tells me.

But just as the meaning of the Green Man hides behind the foliage that sprouts from his mouth and eye sockets, it turns out that the true purpose of Uprooted is also hiding in the undergrowth, waiting to be discovered. The clue, I think, is in the title. What is it that has been uprooted? In a word: us.

Now, in our most material of worlds, the balance of power between man and nature had shifted. We had got better at having our way in the world, so much so that it seemed as if there wasn’t much world to be had . . . The fear of human technological power was of both its rampant erosion of all the resources that sustained us, and of the unpredictable backlashes that it might invoke.

What does a carved head in a church mean in this context? The answer is that, whatever it used to mean, it means something different now. Perhaps, Lyon speculates, the Green Man was originally a warning against the dangerous fecundity of sex. Or perhaps churches deliberately incorporated his image into their architecture to mark the union of God with His creation. Noting that the early Green Man carvings seem friendly, but he gets grislier and more frightening as the Middle Ages progress, she wonders whether an initially tolerant religion gave way to a dogmatic fear of nature, manifesting in an insistence that “the only otherworld was the one invented by the church”.

I have two theories of my own. The more likely one is that the early-medieval church incorporated much older folkloric images into its architecture because these images would have been familiar to a population still immersed in forests, folk myths and a belief in natural magic. This way, the church declared ownership over older and wilder beliefs. My second theory – less likely, but more fun – is that green men were not put there deliberately by the church at all, but were carved into dark corners by stonemasons for whom they had their own meaning. I especially like the idea that the many green men found in Norman churches were carved by English stonemasons, for whom these faces in the trees represented the anti-Norman guerrillas in the forest. The Green Man is so enticing precisely because he has become a photographic plate on to which we can imprint our own desires.

The true subject of Uprooted, however, is not the Green Man at all, but our relationship with the non-human world, and what its author is asking is whether that relationship can be different, at a point in history when it most urgently needs to be. But she does not frame the question as an environmental writer might frame it. She is not interested in how late capitalism can be made “sustainable”, or whether nuclear power is better than windpower. Rather, she is asking a bigger, and far more important, question: can we understand the world as a place that is alive? Can we begin to perceive and relate to other forms of consciousness, both in the tiny lives of creatures such as moths and, more controversially, in the planet itself? Can we do this with rigour and sensitivity, avoiding the Scylla of materialist scientism, in which nothing is real that cannot be laboratory-tested, and the Charybdis of New Age “woo”, in which anything you feel is real if you only believe?

The Green Man offers a human-scale way into this question; and Lyon’s journeys around Britain and further afield, poking into old churches and talking to folklorists, morris dancers, magicians and academics, are lively and often thought-provoking. Ideas are scattered everywhere, and much of the book’s wisdom is in its asides. There’s a terrific digression, for example, about the puritan-baiting pub scene in the film The Wicker Man, in which the islanders sing a bawdy song about the landlord’s daughter and she, “far from being slut-shamed into coyness or embarrassment, regards the whole thing as a pleasurable ritual”. There are also nuggets of thought on everything from witchcraft to rave culture, via the Mahabharata and the Unabomber manifesto.

But the book really comes alive when the big question is looked right in the eye. We first light upon it during another of the author’s many walks in the woods:

What if the pagan conceptions of the forest were about an idea of a mutual consciousness, so that while it might not be possible to literally feed the forest-god with an offering or sacrifice, the ritual itself might exist as an acknowledgement of the forest-god’s will, and of the goodwill of man? . . . All of the messy possible meanings of the many and varied green men, who may not have been called green men at all, seemed to me to be indicative of these sorts of meditations.

In all likelihood, our heathen ancestors would have taken the “consciousness” of the wider natural world for granted, as many tribal peoples still do. The notion that only human beings possess consciousness, and that the world is a machine to be bent to our will, is a peculiarly contemporary pathology, the results of which are becoming uncomfortably clear as floodwaters rise and the composition of the very atmosphere shifts and alters at frightening speed.

Lyon wonders if the Green Man is trying to tell us something about all this. Delving into alternative models of understanding, she alights on the notion of “panpsychism", the philosophical position which holds that consciousness is to be found in all matter. This is a new, semi-respectable academic word for a way of seeing that is much older than reason: the idea that the Earth is alive, and that we are missing something. It rises to the surface repeatedly throughout human history, even when the rationalists and the materialists believe they have succeeded in stamping it out. There is probably a reason for that. “If you want to bridge the apparent reality of the material world and its capacity to behave unpredictably,” Lyon writes, “it is a position that works.”

What links a strange carving in a thousand-year-old church to a modern academic discipline is the knowledge that, without a mutual relationship with the rest of nature, humanity is doomed: cut off, alone in the universe, striding bullishly down the wrong path. The Taoist, Buddhist, Shinto and Hindu world-views, Lyon writes, not to mention the world-views of countless modern tribes and probably all of our ancestors, held that “Nature in her broadest sense . . . was ensouled”. If you don’t like talking about souls, you can talk about consciousness instead. You can be a panpsychist or a pantheist, but whichever way you cut it, the threads on which the book pulls all converge towards the same conclusion.

In the end, Lyon writes, “the cult of the Green Man” is just one of many paths leading towards this different way of understanding. In a wonderful phrase, she describes it as a form of “folk metaphysics”: a way of probing the intimidating question of nature’s wider reality. After all these centuries, those old carven faces have something to tell us after all:

As long as you believe that humans are special, you cast all activity relating to life at large as an act of largesse on the part of humankind . . . What was needed was a renunciation of the Enlightenment idea of humans being special . . . We needed to get over ourselves and find ourselves again, our smaller selves, entwined with the selves of other things. 

Paul Kingsnorth’s novel The Wake (Unbound) was longlisted for the Man Booker Prize in 2014

Uprooted: On the Trail of the Green Man by Nina Lyon is published by Faber & Faber (287pp, £15.99)

This article appears in the 18 February 2016 issue of the New Statesman, A storm is coming