Who is the Green Man?

Green Man at Rosslyn Chapel (Johanne McInnis)

The symbol of a face of a man surrounded by leaves, or with leaves coming out of his mouth or other facial orifices is prevalent in old churches. These faces are often fearsome in appearance with eyes glaring and vital, as if they be silent witness to our actions. While frequently found in abbeys, cathedrals and churches, carved into wood or stone and sometimes surreptitiously in later buildings, it is a pre-Christian symbol, and one that masons adopted.

Masons drew on many pagan themes and the symbol has been variously interpreted as relating to the Greek Pan; the neo-pagan Horned God; Nodens – a Celtic deity associated with healing, hunting and the sea; the Mesopotamian Tammuz who symbolized the triumph of life over winter and death; Osiris; Odin; Viridios, another Celtic deity of things green and flourishing; the Holly King and even Robin Hood. It is better understood, however, if it is seen relating not just to a person of myth or particular deity, but rather as an archetype.

Green Man from church in Kilpeck (12th century)

William Andersontheorises “An archetype such as the Green Man represents will recur at different places and times independently of traceable lines of transmission because it is part of the permanent possession of mankind. In Jung’s theory of compensation, an archetype will reappear in a new form to redress imbalance in society at a particular time when it is needed. According to this theory, therefore, the Green Man is rising up into our presence awareness in order to counterbalance a lack in our attitude to Nature” 

Hopetoun falls, Australia. (Photo by David Iliff)

In this light, the symbol can be seen not only as a symbol of Nature and the vigours of growth, but an awareness in human consciousness of the connection or lack thereof, with the Wild, the regenerative and creative forces of the biosphere, and in a broader sense, life on this planet. The question that arises is one of realisation –  can the human species recognise on a conscious level that our bond with Nature is troubled, and take heed?

A Brown Pelican from the Louisiana coast in the aftermath of the Gulf oil spill (Charlie Riedel)

Let us remember the words of poets2 – those who play with images and symbols, and who are no strangers to archetypes:


He is made one with Nature: there is heard

His voice in all her music, from the moan

Of thunder, to the song of night’s sweet bird;

He is a presence to be felt and known

In darkness and in light, from herb and stone,

Spreading itself where’er that Power may move

Which has withdrawn his being to its own;

Which wields the world with never-wearied love,

Sustains it from beneath, and kindles it above.


“The goal of life is to make your heartbeat match the beat of the universe, to match your nature with Nature.” ~ Joseph Campbell



1. William Anderson  (1990). Green Man: The Archetype of Our Oneness with the Earth, London.

2. Adonais: An Elegy On The Death Of John Keats by Percy Bysshe Shelley


738 days in a Californian Redwood

What does it take to prevent ancient forests being cut down? Emails? Petitions? Placards? Or direct action to offer one’s body as collateral? There are not many who wish to consider this possibility – some would say it’s too extreme, irrational or unreasonable, while forgetting the irrational act itself of the destruction of natural habitat. For Julia Butterfly Hill the decision to live 738 days in a 1000 year old redwood to prevent its destruction was not only a rational decision, but a decision based on her heart and her connection to an ancient form of life on this planet.

Julia Butterfly Hill (www.juliabutterfly.com)

While adopting ‘Butterfly’ as a name in childhood after a butterfly landed on her finger during a day hike and which stayed with her the rest of the journey, she underwent her own metamorphosis after a serious car accident at the age of 22. After a year of intensive therapy she regained the ability to speak and walk again, while contemplating her life “…the crash woke me up to the importance of the moment, and doing whatever I could to make a positive impact on the future.”

Julia speaking from the platform on the giant redwood (www.findhorn.org)

This change led her to Humboldt County in California where ancient redwood forests were being cut down by the Pacific Lumber Company. Not affiliated to any organisation at the time, however, she was the only one who volunteered to stay up for a week, 180 feet above the ground. On 10th of December 1997 Julia ascended ‘Luna’, the giant redwood and only came down the 18thof December, 1999. She lived on two 6 x 6 foot platforms and used Luna’s trunk for exercise, while hoisting up supplies and surviving 40 mile/hr winds and icy rain from El Nino, logger intimidation, helicopter harassment and a siege by the logging company security guards. The final agreement resulted in the protection of Luna and all trees in a 200 ft buffer zone, while money raised by Earthfirst! went to the logging company which donated the money to Humboldt University for research into sustainable forestry.

Giant redwoods (Crd637 – wikicommons)

While this story is significant and raised awareness to the only 3 % remaining ancient redwood forests, there were also powerful personal insights during this time of seclusion. “Initially I was just angry, but that anger was killing me. After a while I came to realise that I was up there because I love – I love the forest, I love this planet, I love the world.” And while listening to an argument by fellow protestors “I thought to myself, how in the world do we think we can end the clear-cutting on the planet if we’re so effective at clear-cutting each other? I realised in that moment that the outward landscape is a reflection of the inner landscape. It’s the wounds in ourselves that perpetuate the wounds on the planet.” And during one powerful storm her connection with the trees yielded “The trees that are too rigid are the ones that break, it’s the ones that are flexible and go crazy with the wind that make it through the storm. They told me, you need to bend like the trees in the storm. From then on I embraced life because I embraced death.”

Julia spreading her message (Gary Mattingly)

Julia has continued with environmental activism, while writing a book and speaking to audiences around the world. She has been the subject of several documentaries while also inspiring several musicians to write songs about her story and her activism.

Britain’s Trees

A land covered by ice and glaciers

Britain’s native trees have not always been present and rooted – they were scoured clean from the earth during the last ice age 20 000 years ago. Species migrated southwards until reaching the physical barrier of the Alps. As the ice retreated about 10 000 years later, trees recolonised the landscape. This was easier due to the land bridge connecting mainland Europe that was not yet covered by rising sea levels. After a few thousand years of growth, Britain would have been covered by magnificent woodland.

Ariundle Nature Reserve (scotland.gov.uk)

A few thousand years later, so about 5000 years ago, ancient peoples cleared small sections of forest for agriculture and livestock farming. These people had religions connected with nature and it is around this time (4000 to 5000 years ago), that Stonehenge was erected. Later, during the Iron Age, the Celtic priestly class or druids played a strong role in determining the inhabitants’ connection with nature and trees. It is thought the word ‘druid’ is derived from Indo-European roots meaning ‘oak-seer’ or ‘oak-knower’. Especially important trees in Celtic mythology and tradition were the oak, ash, apple, alder, elder and yew. Trees were sacred and had spirits, while forests were ruled by a single goddess.

Systems of thought connected to nature were more prevalent in ancient Britain (Wigulf)

The Romans brought more organized agriculture and farming, as well as increased deforestation. Roman expansion had already led to deforestation of the Mediterranean basin and resource pressure turned their eye towards Northern Europe and Britain. Naturally there were also political reasons for expansion, including punishment of the Britons for their aiding of the Gauls.

Deforestation continued and in 1086 William the Conqueror with his Domesday census found that less than 15 % of the natural forest remained across England. However, he did enact forest laws in order to sustain hunting grounds. During the middle ages Vikings also burned sections of forest as part of their campaigns.

The continuous demand for timber throughout history (ukscblog.com)

Deforestation continued with the industrial revolution and the rise of sheep farming, faster growing coniferous forests were planted and the ancient broadleaf forests continued their decline; this has been observed in the pollen record. After the First World War it was realised that Britain had nearly run out of timber, and further fast-growing species were introduced along with the creation of the Forestry Commission. Quick fixes often do not work in natural ecosystems, and this was too late for the wolf, bear, wild boar, beaver, lynx and elk.

Wolves were common in Britain (print by www.martinridley.com)

11.6 % of the U.K is currently covered by woodland, with England at about 9 % and Northern Ireland at 6.4 %. This is significantly lower than the European Union average of 37 %. While there are still pockets of ancient forests, trees in Britain have paid the price of industrialisation and war.

To the Root of it

With every perspective and experience there is a background story, an implicit context that we have constructed which often lies quietly in our consciousness. This context is not created upon birth, but woven with different strands gathered from our schooling and universities, our parents and friends, and inherited cultural systems of thought. It is this conception that provides us with a reference point in the universe and often dictates our course of action and our response to events. It is this conception which is at the heart of our relationship with what we see around us.

The deep ecologist Thomas Berry (1914 – 2009)

We owe acknowledgement to Thomas Berry, a Catholic priest and deep ecologist, for shining light on this context and how it influences our relationship with the living world. It was he who noted that seeking guidance to solve the current environmental crisis from our cultural and religious systems was problematic, as they were part of the original cause of the crisis. It was also he who said that we should look at our educational systems and examine what relationship with the earth is implicit in our textbooks and lectures, and question who we think we are and our place in the cosmos.

With a life dedicated to study and understanding this question, Berry argued that our rational, industrial society along with its amazing scientific insight, has broken the primary law of the universe; that being of integrity, and that every component member of the universe should be integral with every other member of the universe. Moreover, the value of the universe is expression shown by its various forms and members of that community, not just by one. While our self-awareness is significant in the context of the planet, as also noted by Teilhard de Chardin, it is our assumption of our primary position in the universe and as Berry phrases it, our “industrial coding” that arose in Western society that poses a threat to life on this planet and therefore, our own.

The Andromeda galaxy, one of the at least 100 billion galaxies in the universe

 We are losing 10 000 species a year (E. O. Wilson) and as Berry notes via rainforest specialist Norman Myers, this “impending extinction spasm” is likely to produce the “greatest single setback to life’s abundance and diversity since the first flickerings of life almost four billion years ago”. This is significant.

What is our relationship with other living things on this planet?

Berry suggests that we need to go beyond any transformation of our contemporary culture. He argues we should go back to our genetic imperative, the source of our culture. It is this genetic coding that gives our species their context and carries the deeper spontaneities of the development of our cultural codings. Here, our genes are considered to be more than a physical determination of our being, but rather “our richest psychic endowment, our guiding and inspiring force…”.  Our genes connect us with the Earth and the universe, with nature and all other species, and provides us with the “shamanic dimension of the psyche”. This paves the way for a non-rational experience of life and the re-enchantment of our perception of other living things, along with greater sensitivity. This enhanced connection with life is the vaccine for our current disease of complacency.

Wangari Maathai: A Green Vision within a Structure of Freedom

Wangari Maathai (Alan Dater and Lisa Merton)

With 7 billion humans on the planet it is easy to talk oneself into accepting one’s own perceived limitations along with the placing of governments, corporations and large institutions on a pedestal. However, some have seen the folly of this apathy and have come to realise themselves as agents of change. One such person, who died nearly 9 months ago, was Wangari Maathai.

A constant battle with President arap Moi. Moi was convicted of bribery in 2006

Born in a village in the highlands of Kenya in 1940, she studied well and ended up doing a masters in biology attained at the University of Pittsburgh which exposed her to the ideas of environmental restoration. Her education continued in anatomy in Germany and was completed at the University of Nairobi, where she was the first East African woman to receive a PhD. This was certainly an accomplishment in a male dominated culture, but there were further battles to be fought against President Daniel arap Moi when she campaigned for a parliamentary seat in 1982. She was denied her right to campaign on a technicality and ended up losing her university position and home.

Maathai and Senator Obama, Nairobi 2006. (Frederick Onyango)

This did not deter her, and she carried on working on her Green Belt Movement with a vision of greening Kenya as well as providing a source of employment for women. This was made possible through Norwegian funds from their Forestry Society and then eventually from UNEP, which allowed expansion beyond Kenya to form the Pan African Green Belt Network. Successful activism includes the prevention of a 60 story complex being built in Uhuru Park and the protection of Karura Forest, with further battles against Moi.

The movement, with its respect for the natural landscape and for individual freedoms, naturally progressed to a democratic movement which kept her continually in and out jail, along with hunger strikes and experiences of police brutality. She finally united the opposition to displace the corrupt government in 2002, and was awarded the Nobel Peace Prize in 2004 for “contribution to sustainable development, democracy and peace”. This was one person’s vision and determination.

Tending seedlings at the Tumutumu Hills nursery (Alan Dater and Lisa Merton)

The Green Belt Movement now has 3,987  supported community tree nurseries across Kenya which take care of more than 8 million indigenous seedlings annually for planting in degraded forest lands, private and public lands, sites of cultural significance and protected reserves. It has planted 47 million trees around Kenya.

“We cannot tire or give up. We owe it the present and future generations of all species to rise up and walk!” Wangari Maathai

Trees and Humans: Stories in Film and Literature

The tree is a powerful symbol in human consciousness and one that often manifests in our stories. There, they are often used in journeys or as a connection, as a source of wisdom or redemption, or a representation of the mystery and untamed in Nature.

The magic tree of Enid Blyton's enchanted forest

The magic tree of Enid Blyton’s enchanted forest

In Enid Blyton’s Faraway Tree series, a magical tree in an enchanted wood allows access to different lands, some pleasant and fun e.g. The Land of Birthdays, and others a nightmare for children e.g. The Land of Dame Slap, a horrid teacher. One must also return in time before the lands rotate, or else one waits another full rotation. Here the tree is similar to the conduit envisioned by shamans to access different worlds (The Meme of Trees), as well as there being a karmic concept of cycles, and consequence, if one stays too long in one land.

The Summer Tree

The Summer Tree, by Guy Gavriel Kay, is an important link between humans and nature

In The Fionavar Tapestry by Guy Gavriel Kay, the tree is a place of redemption and sacrifice, and one that can renew the spirit and allow contact with Nature. One who survives this sacrifice on the Summer Tree, the 3 days of being tormented by one’s self, without food or water, arises stronger, with powers and direct communication with the wildness of the land.

In Tolkien’s Middle-earth, trees, and especially forests, are embodiments of the mystery and power of Nature. Elves, who are more connected with natural magic, do not fear these ancient abodes and some make it their home. There are also Ents, tree-like creatures with a tonal language, having become the trees they herded. Large and incredibly strong, they protect the great forests and provide a face for Nature. The Ents, who are slow, but steady, have their anger roused by the deforestation by Saruman and the orcs, and wage war, showing a limit to their tolerance.

Tolkien’s Ents from Middle-earth

In M. Night Shyamalan’s The Happening (2008), people in cities and suburbia inexplicably fall dead leaving people fearful and confused. Terrorism is initially blamed, but the cause is traced to trees releasing a chemical in order to remove a threat (humans). Here, Nature is fighting back and this brings in similar concepts such as those mentioned in Lovelock’s Revenge of Gaia.

A scene from The Happening in Central Park

The Fountain (2006), by Darren Aronofsky, provides a surreal experience with the Tree of Life (inspired by the Kabbalah) an important symbol connecting the three periods (conquistador, the neuroscientist and the space traveller), as well as a paraphrase from Genesis 3:24, that eating from the Tree of Knowledge began human’s experience of duality and limitation.

The tree from Aronofsky’s The Fountain

In Terrence Malick’s visually stunning Tree of Life (2011), there are themes of existence and human suffering in a grand cosmology, while the large oak tree symbolizes connections between generations and the witnessing of family tragedy, while ever growing and being a source of life.

Malick’s Tree of Life: a source of life and connection, and continued existence

Even in ancient stories, The Epic of Gilgamesh, one of the earliest surviving works of literature from Mesopotamia, the hero has to overcome many obstacles, including a Great Flood, to reach a garden of jewel-laden trees where he leaves the physical world. In this ancient epic there is the same account of the flood myth as Genesis 6-8 as well as the account of Enkidu and Shamhat, similarly relating to Adam and Eve.

A tablet from the Epic of Gilgamesh, about 4000 years old

“The tree which moves some to tears of joy is in the eyes of others only a green thing that stands in the way. Some see nature all ridicule and deformity… and some scarce see nature at all. But to the eyes of the man of imagination, nature is imagination itself.”   William Blake

Creatures of the Forest

While we may consider that many trees make a forest, we should not forget that forests are ecosystems, and that there are many large and small players beneath the canopy. Interactions are too numerous to mention in detail and have evolved over millennia, but pictures can highlight some interesting characters.

The vast canopy, with a tributary of the Amazon

A jaguar having a scratch (Environmental Graffiti)

Emerald tree boa

Leafcutter ants

Howler monkey on a break (Environmental Graffiti)

Baby bear hanging on (Environmental Graffiti)

Tree frog (Ranitomeya summersi)

Baby 3-toed sloth (Environmental Graffiti)

Amazona oratrix

Amazon horned frog

The beady eyes of Tarsiers

Muliticolour treefrog (Ranitomeya benedicta)

Bengal Tiger

The well known anaconda

Amazon Morpho butterfly

Visions and Dreams: Natural Hallucinogens

Dimethyltryptamine (DMT), a natural molecule (Erowid)

Life, with its never ceasing experiments, has evolved with vast chemical complexity not only in the production of individual molecules, like proteins and alkaloids, but in the way that these messengers, regulators and controllers interact.  Harmala alkaloids are especially interesting as they appear not only throughout the plant kingdom, but are also present in the human pineal gland. Similarly for Dimethyltryptamine (DMT), which also induces psychedelic states, powerful visions and immersive experiences in humans. These are chemicals which are more familiar to the body than ethanol in beer, but are treated with the utmost respect (in their raw plant form) by indigenous tribes, especially in the Amazonia region.

Ayuhuasca often induces colourful and ecstatic experiences

Ayuhuasca preparation

These ritualistic brews are created from bark, leaves and vines in the forest, as is the case with ayuhuasca. This is normally under the watchful eye of the local shaman, although  now a dying breed, who manages the process and the interpretation of journeys. While journeys to different worlds in complete 3D environments with music, ecstatic kaleidoscopic colours and interaction with creatures and beings of the forest make good stories and for some, real life changing experiences, what is sometimes forgotten are the remaining questions. Questions such as: how do the shamans know which plants to use in the right combinations and so much about them? And why should these trees and plants cause such an effect on humans in the first place? Do the trees benefit at all from this interaction? Why did trees develop these molecules and why are they also present in humans? And how is it that some dream creatures and their characters are also known to shamans, indicating that experiences are not uniquely random?

The Amazon shaman

If one also thinks from an experimental design perspective, to run enough experiments including inescapable trials and deathly errors, and even considering the known 40,000 plant species in the Amazon region and various combinations thereof, how would one tribal shaman come to this knowledge of plants and trees and their effect on the human body, even considering a long shamanic lineage? Well, when this question has been posed to shamans they have answered quite simply and said “the plants tell us”.

This indicates that shamans have a different world view, one that all beings and living things can communicate with each other and have unique relationships. While this currently may be a fair jump for an urban westerner, what is more obvious and astounding than this shamanic perspective, is that ‘modern’ humans have very little or no conscious relationship with nature. It is this lack, this gaping wound in our awareness, that underwrites our apathy in the face of environmental destruction.

Ayuhuasca inspired vision

A Home in the Trees

A refuge in the garden (source: treehouse company)

Climbing a tree is a universal joy while growing up and constructing a tree house is a further source of fun, especially as an exclusive meeting place barring adults. Schemes for alien defense, gender battles and plots for world domination are often hatched, until we are told to come down or grow up, or when such an abode no longer inspires our imagination.

Nutritious Sago grubs are a delicacy

However, there are some people who are never told to grow up and climb down, and for whom the tree is an endless source of joy, shelter and essential part of family life. These people are the Korowai and Kombai tribes who live in the dense forest of West Papua in Indonesia, and until 1975 had hardly any contact with the outside world. A large portion of their life is spent 20 to 40 metres above ground in tree houses, and on notable occasions eating the nutritious delicacies of sago grubs.

The tree houses are constructed relatively quickly and provide a good defense against warring tribes, floods and biting insects. The pig is the local currency and a sacred animal, while ritual cannabilism was apparently practiced more in the past. However, once dead, the Korowai believe their souls travel to the underworld along a ‘Major Causeway’ and are welcomed by their ancestors. After a while there they can choose to reincarnate back into a child that is about to be born.

Korowai tree house

Home, sweet home

Constructing a tree house is begun by choosing a sturdy Banyan tree and then removing the crown. Thinner poles provide the framework while the bark of the sago palm is used for the floor and walls, and leaves provide roofing. Similar to most cultures, marriage normally initiates a new house.

For these two tribes, the tree is far more than a provision of shade and beauty, but a home and a source of comfort. Contact has been growing with the outside world, but I imagine there would be some confusion when describing current rates of deforestation and the behaviour of more ‘civilised’ humans.

Vistas of the forest: an old Korowai tree house

The Art of Trees

Namibian rock art by San people, giraffes, hunters and a tree.

As we became more conscious of ourselves and the landscape we inhabited the tree played a part in our early art. This could be representing their form as a background to a story, as in hunting scenes by the San in Namibia or early Mesopotamians, or possible use as a marker by Australian aborigines to signify a sacred site. Representation over the years has been influenced by the tree’s innate symbolism (The Meme of Trees) as well as their natural beauty.

Early Mesopotamian hunting scene in the forest. Stone tablet (2250 – 2150 BC)

Aboriginal carvings most likely showing a sacred site in the area, New South Wales, Australia. (http://www.australiangeographic.com.au)

Drawing trees starts early for most of us…

We start building links to our environment at an early age and all of us would have drawn a tree at pre-school or while scribbling with crayons at home. Those who chose a life in art have given us a vision of trees in many different ways, and I shall be sharing some of them below.

View of la Crescenza, 1648-50. Claude Lorrain, oil on canvas.

With its disciplined simplicity, Japanese ink paintings have often provided scenes of contemplation and harmony. Persimmon Tree by Nakamura Hochu, early 19th century

The vivid colour of Vincent van Gogh. Peach Tree in Bloom, 1888.

Gustav Klimt’s Tree of Life, 1908. “Ornament to Klimt is a metaphor of matter itself in a state of perpetual mutation, ceaselessly evolving, turning, spiralling, undulating, twisting, a violent whirlwind that assumes all shapes, zigzags of lightning and flickering tongues of serpents, tangles of vines, links of chains, flowing veils, fragile threads.” – Ludwig Hevesi, art critic

An example of American impressionism. Golden Afternoon by Childe Hassam, 1908.

The Three Sphinxes of Bikini, 1947. The U.S. conducted 23 nuclear tests at Bikini Atoll after WWII. This inspired Salvador Dali’s ‘Les Trois Sphinx de Bikini’. Is it a tree, a human head or a mushroom cloud?