Oh, the landscape is tired.
I took my camera up to the forest yesterday, looking for pictures of green shoots beginning to burst forth, but there was nothing there.
Well: almost nothing. The plants which were sending forth silvery folds were the most common and aggressive of all, the brambles.
It hasn’t hit its stride yet. Wild stuff, when it is rampant: there is something unsettling about a plant invading our space. John Wyndham chose Triffids as his demons; The Little Shop of Horrors cashes in on the same deep unease.
But there are much older incarnations of such misgivings; the figures of men which have been quite literally taken over by vegetation.
The Green Man is everywhere you look: as a name for our Public Houses, where a man can get ale to sup, or a bacardi and coke over which to flirt; carved in churches and secular buildings, not just in Britain but farther afield.
He is a sign of spring: of the rude fecundity of nature.
Mike Harding researched The Green Man: the symbol has never been out of fashion and artists love his unfettered wildness. He found that the figures fall into three categories: foliate heads, those completely covered in green leaves; disgorging heads, those which have plants growing out of the mouth; and the unsettlingly named bloodsucker head; that which has flowers and plants coming from every orifice.
But perhaps no representation of the green man is so strange as that in an account related by a gentleman called William of Newburgh.
William was a Canon, part of the Augustine tradition. He is estimated to have lived from about 1136 to 1198. And historians love him because he charted life during the Anarchy of Stephen’s reign.
The rest of us love him for quite another reason, I am afraid. Because William charted what he perceived to be possible, from a very mediaeval perspective indeed. And that included a few early vampires; also revenants – souls which returned from the dead. All recorded dead-pan, with the credulity of a time in which dark seemed to hide many mysteries.
And he also records – in the same level tones as the Times when it reports a session in Parliament – the day they found the Green Children.
In East Anglia, reports William, there was a village four or five miles from the monastery of King Edmund. It was called ‘Wulpet’. Or literally: wolf pit. This is because on the edge of the village were some ancient caves known, among the villagers, as the Wolfpittes.
One day, harvesters were getting the crops in, minding their own business, when two children came unbidden out of the caves.
And they were completely green.
They were wearing garments of a strange colour, and a material no-one recognised.
And as you can imagine, they were a bit stunned.
They wandered around the crops in confusion until someone had the sense to get hold of them and take them to the village, where they were kept for some days.
But here’s the thing: they were slowly starving, because they could not eat the food the villagers were bringing. Not for days.
Finally the villagers brought a pile of beans in, still on the stalk. The children rushed over. But rather than eating, they examined the stalk of the beans for a pulse; and when there was none, they wept bitterly, William recounts.
The beans proved to be something they could eat, however, and starvation was staved off for a spell.
I know, someone said; why don’t we baptise them? And they did. It didn’t help the boy much. He only survived a little longer. But the girl lost her green colour, and in time settled down and married a villager.
The girl learned English, and was able to express a little about her origins. She came, she said, from the land of St Martin, although she could not remember where that was, or how she got from there to England. One moment the pair were feeding their father’s flocks in St Martin, the next – after a cacophony which sounded like church bells – they were standing in English fields at harvest time.
“The sun does not rise on our countrymen,” she is heard to have said, ” our land is little cheered by its beams. We are contented with that twilight, which amongst you precedes the sunrise or follows the sunset.”
A story shot through with strange unease, this. Just like those foliate men, carved and chipped from stone throughout Europe.
We need the green man now, here in England: the land is tired and nature’s virility is long overdue.
But can we handle him when he arrives?