And November goes,
With the last red berries
And the first white snows.
With night coming early,
And dawn coming late,
And ice in the bucket
And frost by the gate.
The fires burn
And the kettles sing,
And earth sinks to rest
Until next spring."
This poem brings to mind the end of the gardening season, when all visible signs of life are gone from most plants. In reality, many plants are still actively growing - we just can't discern it as easily. Energy is being stored in root systems, and new buds and shoots lie just beneath the surface. Seeds have been dropped, and lie in wait for the right conditions for sprouting. Tubers, such as garlic and spring bulbs, are actively enlarging in preparation for early spring.
In ancient times, the end of the harvest was a terrifying event for most peoples. Agrarian societies would fear that their stores of food would not be sufficient to last until spring. They would also be worried that conditions in the spring would not be favorable for fast growth. Survival was dependent on the whims of nature. Therefore, in many cultures, the coming of winter included rites and ceremonies that would ensure the "rebirth" of the earth. Sacrifices were often made, and attempts to explain the death/rebirth gave rise to many versions of a dying and then resurrected god. For example, Osiris, in 2500 BC, was an Egyptian god of vegetation and resurrection. He was killed, brought back to life by Isis, his wife, impregnated her, then died again. It must have been a comfort to those ancient Egyptians to know that life goes on! and on!
The energy of nature - with its cycles of growth and death - was personified in folklore around the world as a figure known today as the Green Man. This mythical figure, with various names and forms, was central in many parts of the world as a keeper of herbal tradition, protector of the wild, and reminder of the forces of nature. Osiris is often depicted as green-skinned, green being the color of rebirth. Lady Raglan, an anthropologist, first coined the term "Green Man" in 1939, and related that traditional figures such as Jack-in-the-Green, Robin Hood, and King of the May were all variants on this theme. According to John Matthews in his book The Quest for the Green Man, "he embodied the unfolding cycle of greenness and growth, the realm of fields, forests and hedgerows upon which all life depended". The Green Man is also thought to be the Green Knight encountered in the tale of Sir Gawain and the Green Knight. In this medieval tale, the Green Knight appears and challenges the knights of the Round Table to a duel. Sir Gawain accepts, cuts off the Green Knight's head, which is then magically re-attached, symbolizing the end of the growing season but the promise of renewal.
The spirit of the Green Man has been illustrated in many carvings and sculptures around the world. He is most often depicted as a "foliate head" with leaves or other flora either comprising his facial features, or springing from them. He seems human, but not human. Examples of the Green Man abound, from a temple in Hatra (now present day Iraq) to the Templar Church in Rosslyn, Scotland, which has over 100 green men figures.
The Green Man is now associated with ecology and concerns for the environment. John Matthews calls him "a challenger who demands that we look again at our connection with the world around us". As Kermit would say, "it ain't easy being green", but we need to heed the Green Man and be partners with the planet and preserve and protect our natural world. We want to ensure that there will always be a spring.
Here's to being green,
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