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30 January 2016updated 23 Jul 2021 6:30am

Don’t give up the hunt for the Green Man

Our interactions with trees nourish our inner life, even at the darkest times.

By John Burnside

Two surprise books arrived to brighten this bleak midwinter, during which we lost some talented people. Less noted here in Britain than the passing of David Bowie and Alan Rickman but a huge loss to poetry was the death of C D Wright, who once called herself:

. . . the poet

of shadow work and towns

with quarter-inch

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phone books, of failed

roadside zoos . . .

A poet of spiderwort and


hollyhocks against the

tool shed.

She was a poet of searching insights and great integrity, and she will be sorely missed.

The first addition to my library this Christmas – the Natural History Museum’s luxurious edition of John James Audubon’s Birds of America – was a family gift and wasn’t entirely a surprise, considering the number of hints that I’d dropped. The second was entirely unexpected. Nina Lyon’s Uprooted: On the Trail of the Green Man is the story of a search, not only for what traces of this mythic figure remain in these islands but also for an understanding of his significance in our time. Because of the circumstances in which I read the book – travelling, first around Germany, then returning to the east coast of Scotland – what came across most clearly was the importance of woodlands, forests and even single trees to the inner life of the human creature.

Many German cities enjoy both an abundance and a wide variety of trees: trees with character, trees that do not act simply as street furniture. In Berlin, this is heightened by the presence of the Grunewald, which, at 3,000 hectares of diverse forest, is the city’s playground and casts a kind of spell – the spell of deep woodland – on its residents.

Diversity is key. If the trees lining a leafy suburb or the banks of the Thames in central London are too uniform (London has historically relied heavily on plane trees), they are more susceptible to loss from disease. Many of us recall the impact of Dutch elm disease in the Seventies and Eighties. They are also less noticeable – and research shows that people feel better and live longer when they live in areas of high, diverse tree cover. Trees bring birds and birdsong, also a factor in the well-being of human creatures, as the American poet Robert Hass points out:

. . . In May

At the end of the

twentieth century

In the leafy precincts of

Dahlem Dorf,

South of the Grunewald,

near Krumme Lanke,

The northern spring begins

before dawn

In a racket of birdsong.

Trees also bring that most magical of events: the animal encounter. Foxes lope casually along streets in central London but more trees usually bring about more such meetings – with deer, badgers, smaller creatures and all manner of birds. Whether or not the Green Man may also be encountered on a tree-lined street, or at the dark edge of a park in Brighton (where some elms still grow), or Sheffield (considered the leafiest city in Britain), is an intriguing question. For most of us, though, the presence of this pagan spirit of the trees is something intuited, a matter of inexplicable sensations and irrational but palpable changes in mood and character.

Who knows what the Green Man is? Playful, anarchic, joyous, intensely alive, he may or may not be an individual entity, half hidden in the shadow of an ancient oak. As a principle, however, he is a more valuable deity than many and his role is more urgent than most, for what we need on our streets, in our parks and in the countryside is an abundance of non-commercial trees, safe haven for any wood spirit who happens to be out there and, more importantly, for whatever wildness of the human spirit persists.

Next week: Nina Caplan on drink

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This article appears in the 27 Jan 2016 issue of the New Statesman, Should Labour split?