Veriditas and the vegetable soul

Bean Longpod by Charles Jones

"The word vegetable comes from the root that means the very opposite of immobile, passive, dull, or uneventful. Vegere means to animate, enliven, invigorate, arouse. Vegete means to grow, to be refreshing, to vivify, animate. From these roots come words such as vigil, vigilant, and vigor, with all their connotations of being wide-awake, alert, of keeping watch. 'The understanding...was vagete, quick, and lively," observed one critic in 1662. Ben Jonson described what he saw as desirable characteristics in woman, 'faire, young, and vegetous.' Such respect for the vegetable soul was not confined merely to a robust sensual life, but extended into the religious dimension. 'Man is righteous in his Vegetated Spectre,' proclaimed Blake when commenting about the beliefs of the ancient Druids. Elsewhere it was insisted that 'A vegetous faith is able to say unto a mountain, Be moved into the sea.'

"The downward pull of vegetables, of the vegetable soul, has also provided exemplary images of being placed, of being grounded, of having roots. For example, Jung said, 'I am fully committed to the idea that human existence should be rooted in the earth.' He bemoaned modern culture's lack of earth-based ancestral connections. As Henry Corbin put it, the past is not behind us, but beneath our feet. What better way to touch the ground than through cabbages, which the poet Robert Bly says 'love the earth.' The word root comes from the Indo-European root ra, meaning to derive, to grow out of. To be 'radical' is get back to the roots. Radish stems from the same etymological roots."

- Peter Bishop (The Greening of Psychology: The Vegetable World in Myth, Dream, and Healing)

Cabbages (Larry's Perfection) by Charles Jones

Good People, most royal greening verdancy,
rooted in the sun, you shine with radiant light.

Hildegard of Bingen (''Original Blessing'')

Potatoes by Charles Jones

"A cornerstone of Hildegard of Bingen's spirituality was Viriditas, or greening power, her revelation of the animating life force manifest in the natural world that infuses all creation with moisture and vitality. To her, the divine was manifest in every leaf and blade of grass. Just as a ray of sunlight is the sun, Hildegard believed that a flower or a stone was God, though not the whole of God. Creation revealed the face of the invisible creator. Hildegard celebrated the sacred in nature, something highly relevant for us in this age of climate change and the destruction of natural habitats.''

- Mary Sharratt ("Eight Reasons Why Hildegard Matters Now")

Peas by Charles Jones

"I'm a champion of subtley. The subtler something is, the more you have to pay attention, and that's a good thing. Remember, it's not always the big, loud species that are the best teachers. Sometimes it's the little, quiet, humble ones.

"Plants have the ability to transmit energy. Plants draw in and transform earth and water and nutrients and light and make their bodies out of them. Plants are a manifestation of these forces being woven together, and we humans have relied on them to sustain us since the beginning of our evolution. In cultures that are close to the earth I see a recognition of the power of plants to hold and draw energy and to move it along, thereby changing in a healing way. The plant world is constantly whispering to us, if we can hear it."

- Kathleen Harrison ("Women, Plants, and Culture," Moonwise)

Turnips by Charles Jones

Onions by Charles Jones

" 'Eating is an agricultural act,' as Wendell Berry famously said. It is also an ecological act, and a political act, too. Though much has been done to obscure this simple fact, how and what we eat determines to a great extent the use we make of the world -- and what is to become of it."

- Michael Pollan (The Omnivore's Dilemma: A Natural History of Four Meals)

Plums by Charles Jones

The photographs in this post are by Charles Jones, a Victorian gardener and photographer born in Wolverhampton, Staffordshire in 1866. His work was largely unknown (even to his family) until hundreds of his images were discovered in a suitcase at an antiques market in south London in 1982; since then his beautiful images of vegetables and flowers have appeared in major museum exhibitions and been published in a book, The Plant Kingdoms Of Charles Jones (1998).

More information on the artist can be found here, and additional photographs can be seen here.

McGreedy's Scarlet by Charles JonesA post related to the "roots" quotes in the picture captions: "Writing without roots" (Sept. 2014)


Guest Post: Days of the Dead

Dionicio Remembered by Stu Jenks

Today's Guest Post concerns the annual "Día de los Muertos" festivities in Tucson, Arizona. Started by a single artist in 1990, Tucson's All Souls Procession has grown into a weekend-long event with close to 100,000 participants, including numerous art instalation and altars and a pyrotechnic Finale.   - T.W.


Dancing skeletons
Tucson's All Souls Procession
photographs and text by Stu Jenks

Many in Western culture today seem to believe that we will never die. If we eat right, exercise and think good thoughts, we’ll live forever, and if not that, we’ll all die in our sleep, having been perfectly healthy the night before at the ripe old age of 107.

But we all know that’s not true.

Death is many things: The end of long suffering and illness; a sudden death due to accident, violence or overdose; a child dying far too soon; a peaceful transition from one life to the next; a quiet entering into the void; a life everlasting; or simply a great big dirt nap.

Any, all, or none of the above.

But one thing is not mysterious.

We will all die, every single one of us, and after we have died, friends, family, and loved ones will remember us, and most will miss that we are no longer around.

Annie Gordon by Stu Jenks

Leon's Mom by Stu Jenks

Tucson’s All Souls’ Procession Weekend is a remembrance of those who have died and the mysteries that surround them.

The weekend begins with an afternoon for children, and finishes with Sunday’s All Souls’ Procession and Finale -- when the Urn of full of prayers gathered from the crowd is spectacularly set alight -- leaving people stunned and awake, crying and smiling, somber and laughing, fearful and full of faith.

Prayers Received by Stu Jenks

Fire-swinger by Stu Jenks

Prayer Collector by Stu Jenks

Prayers for the Urn by Stu Jenks

Every one I know who has participated in a Tucson All Souls’ Procession Weekend, as a walker, watcher, or performer, has a story of being unexpectedly moved, shaken, or awed.

"I saw ghosts rising from that vacant lot. I swear I did," said one acrobat, pointing across the street toward where an old city graveyard once sat.

"I really miss my daddy, so I’m making this," said a five year old girl working on a mini-shrine of twigs and grass in Armory Park for her deceased father.

"I felt my mother’s presence beside me the whole way," said one middle-aged woman, waiting to watch the Finale.

Watching, Remembering by Stu Jenks

Honoring the Dead by Stu Jenks

All Souls Piper by Stu Jenks

"I was brought to tears by the sounds of the bagpipes," said a man in a kilt as we ascended from beneath the Fourth Avenue underpass.

"Every time I saw Lois’s face projected on that big wall, I burst into tears,” said a woman, who stood on the roof of a warehouse along the route.

These stories are at the same time both personal and universal.

Two Poi by Stu Jenks

Green Prayer Urn by Stu Jenks

Passel of Women and Urn by Stu Jenks

Lighting the Urn by Stu Jenks

The Urn Ignites by Stu Jenks

Prayers Burning by Stu Jenks

"What makes All Souls’ so amazing to me," said a long time walker of the Sunday Procession, "is we are all having this very personal experience while walking with thousands of other people, who are also having a very personal experience while walking with thousands of other people. It’s really hard to put into words."

Yes, it is.

Cross and Candle by Stu JenksImages and text copyright by Stu Jenks; used with his permission.  The photo titles are in the picture captions -- which can be viewed by running your cursor over the images.

A book of All Souls images by Stu and other Tucson photographers ecan be purchased here, with proceeds benefiting the Procession.


The dance of joy and grief

A young Mandrill (Equatorial Guinea) by Joel Sartore

Shaken by the news that the earth has lost 50% of its wildlife in the last forty years, I turn to the words of Terry Tempest Williams and the photographs of Joel Sartore. The following passage comes from a radio interview with Williams conducted by Justine Toms in 1994:

"I think about how, for all practical purpses, the Tahoe salmon are gone as we know them," Williams muses. "Less than a hundred years ago, according to the stories of native peoples [on the American west coast], you could walk across the backs of salmon to reach the other side of the river. Now we're lucky if we see one or two. What does that mean? What does that mean in terms of our idea of community? What does that mean in terms of the sustainability of our relations, deep relations?

Eurasian lynx by Joel Sartore

Kootenai River white sturgeon, Idaho, by Joel Sartore

Hawaiian geese by Joel Sartore

"So much more than ever before, I feel both the joy of wilderness and the absolute pain in terms of what we are losing. And I think we're afraid of inhabiting, of staying in, this landscape of grief. Yet if we don't acknowledge the losses, then I feel we won't be able to step forward with compassionate intelligence to make the changes necessary to maintain wildness on the planet."

Young female snowy owl by Joel Sartore

Warthogs by Joel Sartore

Toms responds: "You talk about the paradox of feeling the joy in what is still available and the pain of what we are losing. Let's stay with the paradox for the moment. How does it help us to stay there and feel both places?"

"I don't know," Williams answers frankly, "except that I believe it's a dance. And I believe that it makes us more human. I love Clarice Lispector when she writes in her book, An Apprenticeship, that 'what human beings want more than anything else is to become human beings.' If we don't allow ourselves to feel the full range of emotion -- deep joy and deep pain -- then I think we are less than who we can be."

Pygmy marmoset by Joel Sartore

How do we express, even use, this dance as writers, or as other kinds of creators? In "Last Days, Last Words" (Dark Mountain, Issue 3), John Rember advises:

"There's plenty to write about in this word, especially if you can keep existentially funny and honesty grief-stricken about it."

Nebraskan coyote pups by Joel Sartore

"You ask what gives me hope," says Terry Tempest Williams in a later interview. "Two words: forgiveness and restoration."

My heart beat faster when I read those words. They apply to so many things.

St. Andrews beach mouse by Joel Sartore

Pronghorn antelope by Joel Sartore

For further reading poised on that narrow ground between joy and grief, I recommend: The Rarest of the Rare: Vanishing Animals, Timeless Worlds by Diane Ackerman, Wild: An Elemental Journey by Jay Griffiths, An Unspoken Hunger: Stories from the Field by Terry Tempest Williams, Singing to the Sound: Visions of Nature, Animals, and Spirit by Brenda Peterson, Dwellings: A Spiritual History of the Living World by Linda Hogan, A Field Guide to Becoming Lost by Rebecca Solnit, Becoming Animal: An Earthly Cosmology by David Abram, Feral: Rewilding the Land, Sea, & Human Life by George Monbiot, and the books produced by The Dark Mountain Project. This isn't an exhaustive list by any means, just a good place to start.

The photographs here are from Joel Sartore's  Photo Ark project, sponsored by National Geographic. "For many of Earth’s creatures, time is running out,"  he explains. "Half of the world’s plant and animal species will soon be threatened with extinction. The goal of the Photo Ark is to document biodiversity, show what’s at stake and to get people to care while there’s still time.  More than 3,700 species have been photographed to date, with more to come."

I highly recommend Sartore's beautiful (and heart-breaking) book Rare: Portraits of America's Endangered Species, as well as his other works on endangered animals around the world. You can see more of his photographs, and buy prints of them (to support the Photo Ark project) on Sartore's website.

San Lucas marsupial frog by Joel Sartore

Coquerel's sifaka by Joel Sartore


Paying Attention: The Art of Holly Roberts

Man With Two Birds by Holly Roberts

Years ago I wandered into Etherton Gallery in the downtown arts district of Tucson, Arizona, and found myself surrounded by the work of photographer/painter/collage artist Holly Roberts. I'd never encountered her art before and it hit me with the force of a revelation: glowing on the walls with colors so rich, yet so subtle, I could have stood there forever.

I'm glad I first saw Robert's work this way, for the reproductions in books and online -- beautiful as they are -- don't begin to convey the power of the originals. Built up in layers of photography and paint, the images glimmer with an otherwordly light and contain hidden depths that reveal themselves slowly over time. Sometimes complex, sometimes simple as children's drawings, and filled with mythic and personal resonances, they touched the same place in me as good magical realist fiction: highlighting the mystery of the everyday world. I now own two of her marvellous pieces, the first major art purchases I ever made as a young woman.

Deer With Angel by Holly Roberts

Man With Cat Jumping by Holly Roberts

Roberts was born in Boulder, Colorado; studied painting at Bellas Artes de Mexico, the University of New Mexico, and Arizona State University; and now lives in New Mexico. Some of her early work relates to the period of her life when she lived on the Zuni Indian reservation, where her husband worked as a doctor. Her art appears in museum collections across the U.S. and is reproduced in three books: Holly Roberts: Works 1989-1999, Holly Roberts: Works 2000-2009, and Holly Roberts: Untitled 50.

Women With Child and Water"I work intuitively," she says, "painting an abstract painting before applying bits and pieces of photo fragments on the surface. What I am trying for is a painting that can stand alone but that won’t dominate the photo collage that is to follow. Once I start forming the story (made primarily from my own photographs), I allow the photos that I’ve chosen to inform the image, starting with only a vague idea of what it is that I am trying to build. The collage works best when the pieced photos make up something that they aren’t about literally, but rather have a metaphorical or poetic connection, either through subject or texture.

"The large concerns in my life are at the core of my work: the degradation of the environment, spiritual meaning in a world of polarized and extremist religions, the stress and fear of aging, the daily fears and anxieties of being alive in the world today. These collages allow me to continue to do what I have always done with my art: by processing the world through my eyes and my hands, I am able to make some greater sense of the confusion and beauty of the world around me."

Robert's more recent work is focused on collage, still working with photographs as a starting point. The following descriptions of her art art are excerpted from her art blog One Painting at a Time, which I highly recommend. The titles of the pieces can be found in the picture captions. (Run your cursor over the image.)

Horse Resting by Holly Roberts

"Two things helped shaped me as a child: riding my horse, bareback and alone, in the rural ranch land around my home outside of Santa Fe, New Mexico and the nature programs on the Public TV Station, PBS.  The shows portrayed a democratic world where nothing was either all good or all bad (except man). Yes, the lioness killed the newborn baby gazelle, but she had (adorable) cubs to feed. The programs seemed always to be about the struggle of the animals to survive, be it weather or predators or loss of environment. An episode in which drought causes the rivers to dry allowing the crocodiles to attack and devour antelope with the speed  of light as they nervously creep down the dry bank to drink is burned into my brain. One Coyote Turning by Holly Robertsminute you're just about to stick your nose in the dirty brown water for a needed drink, the next you're being pulled under the water, trapped in the jaws of a prehistoric monster. There is no easy street in nature.

"When I would go out on my long solo rides, I would look for evidence of what I'd learned from those nature programs. The country I rode in was mostly ranch land, so I would see cattle, but not much wildlife. But still, I was always on the lookout. Circling birds meant something. 'Vultures,' I would mutter, then urge my horse into a canter, searching for whatever was beneath the floating figures. Usually it was just crows flying around, but every once and awhile I would find something dead, most often a cow. I had hopes of finding much more exciting carrion, but it was alright when I didn't. I loved being in a world where mysterious and unknown things were happening, and to be a part of that world all I had to do was pay attention."

Fox With Fallen Eggs by Holly Roberts

DLA185

"I've always made images that combine people and animals, turning them into one being. I've never questioned these images, but I've also never known where they came from.  Now I'm excited by the possibility that it's a 10,000 year old subconscious remembering of being part of that older order when we were all mixed up together:  animals, humans, plants, the weather -- all that was alive and vital to our existence.  I imagine it to come from a time before there was a separation, before humanity created a civilization where we could distance ourselves from anything that was alive.  What I'm remembering is only a glimmer, but a glimmer none-the-less. And  I like to imagine that when people see these images, they may also have a bit of that same glimmer."

Fox With Hummingbird by Holly Roberts

Coyote With Thistles by Holly Roberts

"Several years ago, while driving down our quiet, semi-rural road, I noticed a dog trotting in the middle of the road.  It was about 10:00 in the morning, a typical, bright. sunny, New Mexico day.  Dogs, for the most part, don't run loose in our village, so I was curious to see who he was.  However, as I got closer, I realized it was not dog at all, but a coyote. Held firmly in his mouth was a large, fat hen, clearly no longer in the land of the living. The coyote moved to the shoulder to get out of my way, never interrupting his brisk, efficient trot. When I remembered that morning, I was glad I could bring the memory back to life: his insouciance, his pleasure, and most of all, the fact that he had been alive and well and taking such good care of his coyote business (of course it wasn't my hen)."

Mother and Daughter With Birds Leaving by Holly Roberts

In collage work, Roberts works primarily with her own imagery...but occasionally, as in the pictures above, she'll incorporate borrowed imagery as well. It can be a fine line between "borrowing" and "stealing," and she tries not to let her work cross that line; her intent is to marry "diverse images to make something completely new and original. I'm hoping that Rembrandt, were he to walk into the room which held Mother and Daughter With Birds Leaving would, in seeing the head of Agatha Bas that he had painted so many years ago, not be angry at me. Instead I hope that he would be intrigued in seeing how I had used Angela's head to tell a story about a mother who is about to lose her daughter to the outside world. He would understand that the birds spoke of the eventual freedom of the girl, but he would also see the snake-like figure at the top, and would know that as well as freedom there was also implied danger. He would see the pride, but also the sorrow, that the mother feels. He would see that, in so beautifully capturing the face of Angela Bas, he gave me the perfect mother to tell this story."

Quiet Horse by Holly Roberts

To learn more about Holly Robert's work, visit her blog and her website. You can also watch a short "Artist Talk" video of Roberts here.

Holly Robert's studio

Holly Robert's studio


Invocation

Terri Windling, Devon

This quote from Lewis Hyde's brilliant book The Gift has been running through my mind today:

"An essential portion of any artist's labor is not creation so much as invocation. Part of the work cannot be made, it must be received; and we cannot have this gift except, perhaps, by supplication, by courting, by creating within ourselves that 'begging bowl' to which the gift is drawn."

In stressful times, like the one I'm in right now, it's important to remember this. To stand quiet and still, soft as well as strong, receptive as well as active, open minded, open hearted. To "walk in beauty," as the Navajo say, breathe deep...then carry on.

The ongoing Life Stuff I've been dealing with lately is demanding my full attention again, and so posting will be sporadic for the next week or so. Thank you for your patience. The fairy-tale-like picture above, which I call "The Begging Bowl," was taken by my husband, Howard.


What it means to be a grown-up

Dorothea Lange

From Madeleine L'Engle's A Circle of Quiet:

"I am part of every place I have ever been: the path to the brook; the New York streets and my 'short cut' through the Metropolitan Museum. All the places I have ever walked, talked, slept, have changed and formed me.

"I am part of all the people I have known.  There was a black morning when [a friend] and I, both walking through separate hells, acknowledged that we would not survive were it not for our friends who, simply by being our friends, harrowed hell for us.

Dorothea Lange

Dorothea Lange

"I am still every age I have ever been. Because I was once a child, I am always a child. Because I was once a searching adolescent, given to moods and ecstasies, these are still part of me, and always will be. Because I was once a rebellious student, there is and always will be in me the student crying out for reform.

Dorothea Lange

Dorothea Lange

"This does not mean that I ought to be trapped or enclosed in any of these ages, the perpetual student, the delayed adolescent, the childish adult, but that they are in me to be drawn on; to forget is a form of suicide; my past is part of what makes the present Madeleine and must not be denied or rejected or forgotten.

Dorothea Lange

Dorothea Lange

"Far too many people misunderstand what putting away childish things means, and think that  forgetting what it is like to think and feel and touch and smell and taste and see and hear like a three-year-old or a thirteen-year-old or a twenty-three-year-old means being grownup. When I'm with these people I, like the kids, feel that if this is what it means to be a grownup, then I don't ever want to be one.

"Instead of which, if I can retain a child's awareness and joy, and be fifty-one, then I will really learn what it means to be a grownup. I still have a long way to go."

As do I, but it's what I strive for.

Dorothea Lange

Dorothea Lange

The images in this post are, of course, by the American photographer Dorothea Lange (1895-1965) -- best known for her work among migrants, sharecroppers, and displaced families during the Depression years, and among U.S. citizens of Japanese heritage forced to live (to our country's lasting disgrace) in internment camps during World War II.

"Art," said Lange, "is a by-product of an act of total attention." And she was a great artist indeed.

Dorothea Lange


Earning age

Isak Dinesen photographed by Peter Beard

From May Sarton's Journal of Solitude:

"In a period of happy and fruitful isolation such as this, any interuption, any intrusion of the social, any obligation breaks the thread on my loom, breaks the pattern. Two nights ago I was called at the last minute to attend the caucus of Town Meeting...and it threw me. But at least the compionship gave me one insight: a neighbor told me she had been in a small car accident and had managed to persuade the local paper to ignore her true age (as it appears on her license) and print her age as thirty-nine! I was really astonished by this confidence.

"I am proud of being fifty-eight, and still alive and kicking, in love, more creative, balanced, and potent than I have ever been. I mind certain physical deteriorations, but not really. And not at all when I look at the marvellous photograph that Bill sent me of Isak Dinesen just before she died. For after all we make our faces as we go along, and who when young could ever look as she does? The ineffable sweetness of the smile, the total acceptance and joy one receives from it, life, death, everything taken in and, as it were, savored -- and let go.

"Wrinkles here and there seem unimportant compared to the Gestalt of the whole person I have become in this past year. Somewhere in [my novel] The Poet and the Donkey Andy speaks for me when he says, 'Do not deprive me of my age. I have earned it.' "

Crofters Hands by Paul StrandPhotographs: Isak Dinesen (Karen Blixen, age 82) by Peter Beard, and "Crofter's Hands" by Paul Strand.


Embracing the bear

Photograph by Katerina Plotnikova

I've long used the term "embracing the bear" for those moments when I'm moving forward into something I fear, but don't want fear to stop me; thus I was intrigued to encounter the same phrase in Terry Tempest William's An Unspoken Hunger, where it has a slightly different, but related, meaning. In a gorgeous little essay on women and bears, Williams includes a description of Marian Engle 's Bear, a highly unsual, memorable novel which portrays a woman and a bear "in an erotics of place":

"It doesn't matter whether the bear is seen as male or female," says Williams. "The relationship between the two is sensual,Victorian illustration, artist unknown wild.

"The woman says, 'Bear, take me to the bottom of the ocean with you, Bear, swim with me, Bear, put your arms around me, enclose me, swim, down, down, down, with me.'

" 'Bear,' she says suddenly, 'come dance with me.'

"They make love. Afterwards, 'She felt pain, but it was a dear sweet pain that belonged not to mental suffering, but to the earth.'

William writes that she, too, "has felt the pain that arises from a recognition of beauty, pain we hold when we remember what we are connected to and the delicacy of our relations. It is this tenderness born out of connection to place that Black bear, artist unknown copyfuels my writing. Writing becomes an act of compassion toward life, the life we often refuse to see because if we look too closely or feel too deeply, there may be no end to our suffering. But words empower us, move us beyond our suffering, and set us free. This is the sorcery of literature. We are healed by our stories.

"By undressing, exposing, and embracing the bear, we undress, expose, and embrace our authentic selves. Stripped free from society's oughts and shoulds, we emerge as emancipated beings. The bear is free to roam."

Photograph by Katerina Plotnikova

"We are creatures of paradox, women and bears, two animals that are enormously unpredictable, hence our mystery," Williams continues. "Perhaps the fear of bears and the fear of women lies in our refusal to be tamed, the impulses we arouse and the forces we represent....As women connected to the earth, we are nurturing and we are fierce, we are wicked and we are sublime. The full range is ours. We hold the moon in our bellies and fire in our hearts. We bleed. We give milk. We are the mothers of first words. These words grow. They are our children. They are our stories and our poems."

Photograph by Katerina Plotnikova

The sublime images above are by the Russian surrealist photographer Katerina Plotnikova, based in Moscow. The pen-and-ink drawings are Victorian illustrations, artists unknown.

Other recommended bear fiction, in addition to Bear by Marion Engle: The Red Garden by Alice Hoffman (the woman-bear relationship in this book completely slays me), Her Frozen Wild by Kim Antieau, "Bear's Bride" by Johanna Sinisalo (in The Beastly Bride), "The Brown Bear of Norway" by Isobel Cole (in Black Thorn White Rose), Tender Morsals by Margo Lanagan, East by Edith Pattou,  Snow White and Rose Red by Patricia C. Wrede, and Ice by Sarah Beth Durst. There's also a magical story tucked into the stanzas of Theodora Goss's poem, "The Bear's Daughter," and a very beautiful children's book by Jackie Morris, The Ice Bear. Others?


Into the Woods, 5: Wild Folklore

Green Man by Brian Froud

The Green Man is a pre–Christian symbol found carved into the wood and stone of pagan temples and graves, of medieval churches and cathedrals, and used as a Victorian architectural motif, across an area stretching from Ireland in the west to Russia in the east. Although commonly perceived as an ancient Celtic symbol, in fact its origins and original meaning are shrouded in mystery. The name dates back only to 1939, when folklorist Lady Raglan drew a connection between the foliate faces in English churches and the Green Man (or "Jack of the Green") tales of folklore. The evocative name has been widely adopted, but the legitimacy of the connection still remains controversial, with little real evidence to settle the question one way or the other. Earliest known examples of the foliate head (as it was known prior to Lady Raglan) date back to classical Rome — yet it was not until this pagan symbol was adopted by the Christian church that the form fully developed and proliferated across Europe. Most folklorists conjecture that the foliate head symbolized mythic rebirth and regeneration, and thus became linked to Christian iconography of resurrection. (The Tree of Life, a virtually universal symbol of life, death and regeneration, was adapted to Christian symbolism in a similar manner.)

Green Man Carving

Oxford Jack-in-the-GreenThe Jack in the Green is a figure associated with the new growth of spring, fertility, and May Day celebrations. In a number of English towns (such as Hastings in East Sussex) the Jack pageant is still re-enacted each year. The Jack in the Green is played by a man in a towering eight–foot–tall costume of leaves, topped by a masked face and a crown made out of flowers. He travels through the streets accompanied by men (and now women) dressed and painted all in green, others dressed and painted entirely black, and children bearing flowers. Morris and clog dancers entertain the crowds while the Jack, a trickster figure (and traditionally lecherous) chases pretty girls and plays the fool. When he reaches a certain place, the Morris dancers wield their wooden swords and strike the leaf man dead. A poem is solemnly recited over his body,  and then general merriment breaks out as the crowd plucks Jack's leaves off for luck.

("The killing of a tree spirit,"  notes James Frazer in The Golden Bough, "is always associated with a revival or resurrection of him in a more youthful and vigorous form.")

Jack-in-the-Green

Tree men aren't unique to the British Isles; they can be found in folk pageants all over Europe. In Bavaria, for example, a tree–spirit called the pfingstl roams through rural towns clad in alder and hazel leaves, with a high pointed cap covered by flowers. Two boys with swords accompany him as he knocks on the doors of random houses, asking for presents but often getting thoroughly drenched by water instead. This pageant also ends when the boys draw their wooden swords and kill the green man. In a ritual from Picardy, a member of the Compagnons du Loup Vert (dressed in a green wolf skin and foliage) enters the village church carrying a candle and garlands of flowers. He waits until the Gloria is sung, then he walks to the alter and stands through the mass. At its end, the entire congregation rushes up to strip the green wolf of his leaves.

The Green Man's female counterpart is the Green Woman, or the Sheela-Na-Gig . . .

The Green Woman by Brian Froud

Sheela-Na-Gig carving

. . . usually depicted in stone carvings as a primitive female form giving birth to a spray of vegetation. Green Women are far less common than Green Men, being rather harder to adapt to Christian iconography or Victorian decoration -- and yet quite a few them appear in Romaneque churches built before the 16th century. Although Ireland has the greatest number of Sheela-Na-Gigs, they can be found throughout the British Isles, as well as in France, Spain, Switzerland, Belgium, and the Czech Republic.

Like the sacred "yoni" carvings of India, it was once customary to lick one's finger and touch the Sheela-Na-Gig's vulva for good fortune.

A Shrine for the Mother of Birds by Fidelma Massey

A number of contemporary artists have found inspiration in the ancient lore of the wood, including Brian Froud in Devon (creator of the Green Man painting and Green Woman drawing in this post) and Fidelma Massey in Ireland (creator of mythic sculpture like the magical tree-woman above, "A Shrine to the Mother of All Birds"). There have also been two international art series recently that have drawn their inspiration from the folklore of the wild: Eyes as Big as Plates (originating in Norway) and Wilder Mann (originating in France).

From Eyes as Big as Plates, Norway

Eyes as Big as Plates, Finland

The two photographs directly above, and the one directly below, come from Eyes as Big as Plates, an ongoing project dreamed up by artists Riitta Ikonen (originally from Finland) and Karoline Hjorth (from Norway). "Inspired by the romantics’ belief that folklore is the clearest reflection of the soul of a people," says Ikonen, "Eyes as Big as Plates started out as a play on characters and protagonists from Norwegian folklore. During a one month residency at the Kinokino Centre for Art and Film in south-west Norway, Karoline and I collaborated with sailors, farmers, professors, artisans, psychologists, teachers, parachuters and senior citizens. The series then moved on to exploring the mental landscape of the neighborly and pragmatic Finns."  The third chapter of the project has taken Ikonen and Hjorth to New York City this spring.

“This blending of figure and ground," explains the artists, "recalls the way in which folk narratives animate the natural world through a personification of nature. The slippage of elderly figures into the landscapes suggests a return to the earth, a celebration of lives lived, reinforcing the link between humanity and the natural world.” 

From Eyes as Big as Plates, Finland

The images below come from Wilder Mann, a photography series by Charles Fréger (based in Rouen, France), who spent two years traveling around Europe documenting the folk pageants and festivals of what he calls "tribal Europe." The resulting photographic exhibition just moved from New York to Switzerland, and the images have been collected into a stunningly beautiful art book. (You can see more of Fréger's photographs here.)

As Rachel Hartigan Shea explains in an article about the series, "Traditionally the festivals are a rite of passage for young men. Dressing in the garb of a bear or wild man is a way of 'showing your power,' says Fréger. Heavy bells hang from many costumes to signal virility. The question is whether Europeans — civilized Europeans — believe that these rituals must be observed in order for the land, the livestock, and the people to be fertile. Do they really believe that costumes and rituals have the power to banish evil and end winter? 'They all know they shouldn’t believe it,' says Gerald Creed, who has studied mask traditions in Bulgaria. Modern life tells them not to. But they remain open to the possibility that the old ways run deep.'"

Likewise, the mythic scholar Daniel C. Noel is struck by the masculine power of Green Man lore: "Whether the Green Man, is some sort of Jungian archetype 'returning' from a primeval past, a Celtic survival in the psyche, seems not as important to me as the metaphor he constitutes for men, and for the gender-embattled culture, in the present and future.  Whatever the metaphysics of this fascinating figure, it is enough that he is a green ideal and a good idea arriving from wherever to inspire us. We have needed a Father Nature for a long time, and never more urgently than now, when all over the planet, armored men, in or out of uniform, terrorize each other, women and children, and what remains of the wildwood." 

Photograph copyright by Charles Fréger

Let's give Henry David Thoreauthe last word today on why the wild and the folklore of the wild still matter: "Shall I not have intelligence with the earth?" he asks (in Walden). "Am I not partly leaves and vegetable mould myself?"

Photographs copyright by Charles Fréger

Photograph copyright by Charles Fréger

The art above: A Green Man painting by Brian Froud; a Green Man carving in a church near Birmingham; Jack-in-the-Greens in Oxford and the City of London (photographs from the "In the Company of the Green Man" blog);  a Green Woman drawing by Brian Froud; a Sheela-na-gig carving at a church in County Clare, Ireland; "A Shrine for the Mother of the Birds" by Fidelma Massey; three photographs from Riitta Ikonen and Karoline Hjorth's "Eyes as Big as Plates" collaborative art project, the first from Norway, the second two from Finland; and four photographs from Charles Fréger's "Wilder Mann" series: a sauvage in Switerland, three kurkeri in Bulgaria, a careto in Portugal, and a devil in St. Nicholas' retinue in the Czech Republic. All art works are copyright by the artists. 

Recommended reading... Nonfiction: "Gossip from the Forest" by Sara Maitland (published as "From the Forest" in the US), "Forests" by Robert Pogue Harrison, "Green Man" by William Anderson & Clive Hicks, Sheela-Na-Gigs" by Barbara Freitag, and "Meetings With Remarkable Trees" by Thomas Pakenham. Fiction: The Mythago Wood Series by Robert Holstock; "Forests of the Heart," "The Wild Wood," and  "Jack in the Mist" by Charles de Lint; "In the Forests of Serre," "Winter Rose," and "Solstice Wood" by Patricia McKillp;  and "The Green Man: Tales from the Mythic Forest," a Datlow-Windling anthology. For children: "Grumbles from the Forest" by Jane Yolen & Rebecca Kai Dotlich and "Into the Forest" by Anthony Browne. Poetry: "The Forest" by Susan Stewart. Art: "Wood" by Andy Goldsworthy and "Wilder Mann" by Charles Frer.

Today's post goes out to mythic maskmaker's Shane & Leah Odom; and to Charles de Lint, who brough Green Men to Bordertown.