England’s Dreaming: In pursuit of the Green Man
Ostensibly, Uprooted: On the Trail of the Green Man details author Nina Lyon's attempts to uncover the roots of Britain's enduring Green Man mythology. I say ostensibly, because the book quickly veers off from any sort of prosaic history of the green man into a meandering travelogue that sees Lyon wander around the folk festivals and sacred sites of the UK and Germany, uncovering pagan roots of modern society, whilst attempting to resurrect some sort of cult of the Green Man herself. Rather than offer the strait jacket of inarguable conclusions, Lyon is more interested in presenting knotty paradoxes, with the Green Man proving a nebulous rogue, shifting out of reach time and again. In the end he offers all sorts of things to all sorts of people, from a vicar reviving the Pagan hued Celtic Christianity to eco-warriors seeking to advocate for the English countryside – and the strength in Lyon’s writing is her ability to allow numerous interpretations to co-exist – what you end up with is The Green Man as an impressionist painting rather than a mug shot. I got hold of Nina to talk about the idea of history as narrative, paganism informing Britain, and, memorably, hippies debating whether their cat should be vegan…
I’d kind of assumed that Uprooted was going to be a more prosaic examination of the history and culture of The Green Man, but it isn’t that at all-
No, it’s not. I never really set out to write anything authoritative about it because that doesn’t really interest me to be honest. Also, it’s a completely pointless exercise with The Green Man- what’s interesting about it is that everyone has been making it up as they go along, and there is no single thread of authoritative history to it. It’s just a disparate set of beliefs and practices that people have acquired over the years and that’s really what I thought was interesting about it. So as a subject matter, it happened by accident. It was just a way of exploring these ideas and stuff that I found interesting.
I found it quite funny that you, very quickly, dispatched of the writings of Lady Raglan who was seen as the authority on the Green Man. She gets a pretty short shift doesn’t she.
Yeah, well she just made it up. She wrote that very short piece at a time and a place when people were feeling very receptive to it. It was when there was a renewed interest in folklore and you had all of this amateur anthropology going on, where people were coming to these completely un-researched conclusions about stuff. It just struck a chord and somehow that was then taken to be an authoritative account, because in some ways it was old enough to be seen as historical, and because it was historical it was then seen as truthful. But that was never the case. So in a way it’s a very pure, very modern cult of The Green Man, that has sprung up on the basis of something that has no credible historical basis. But I thought it was more interesting, rather than less interesting, for that.
You’re not very romantic about the history of it. It seems to me that any point you raise, you challenge from as many different stand points as you can, which often leaves little sense of conclusion. People really like conclusions in our world, and you seem really reluctant to offer any- I find that quite appealing, but at times it must drive you a bit crazy?
I think if I had had really deep paths of investment in it, I probably would have been really disappointed by it, but instead I found it interesting. I think your point that people like a conclusion is completely true, and if someone is looking for an authoritative history on The Green Man, then they’re going to be disappointed. But actually, if they’re looking for that they’re going to be disappointed anyway, because it doesn’t exist.
If it can be said to be anything, to me the book could be said to be an argument in favour of what you call animism; the idea that there is a spirit imbuing things and that The Green Man is a representation of that.
Yeah very much so. At the end of the book there is this fantastic email from this guy who responded to a post in a newsletter asking for people who were interested in The Green Man to get in touch. It just nailed everything that I thought about it. In its modern incarnation The Green Man has come to be a way of creating this anthropomorphised version of animism in stuff that’s around us. That was the only overall story that everyone could agree on.
I think another interesting feature of it was the constant reference too the closeness of the Christian church and a deeper pre-Christian tradition across Europe. You talk about the Holly and Ivy carol- I didn’t know that the original lyric in there was about the playing of the many Gods. I found that fascinating.
Not so long ago David Cameron was describing England as a Christian Nation, which I found quite a funny concept because so much of Christianity is based on very esoteric and strange practices.
Absolutely. When you look at the way that our conception of Christianity has been adapted and moulded, not least by the promotion of the Church of England, which was done for entirely political reasons. The idea of what it is exactly the Christianity entails, falls apart at the seams very, very quickly.
Was there anything that surprised you in the research of the book?
Oh yeah, loads of things. I found Celtic Christianity unexpectedly interesting and it offered a way into understanding how some of the early bits of animism become included in the early preconception of the Christian church. I thought that was very rich, and I found the more liberal wings of the Church of England were seeking out bits of the old Celtic lithogy.I think people have maybe got a more animist new age conception of spirituality into the church, I thought that idea was interesting and it could go full circle.
When I read the bit about Celtic Christianity I was quite excited by it, so I looked it up, and I found some arguments saying that Celtic Christianity is often more of a reflection on the concerns of the time- there was a suggestion that this kind of animist, beautiful thing that appeals to a post-rave world, didn't necessarily ever exist. Personally I don’t actually know if it really matters if it ever existed or not, as often the stories that people tell are just as interesting as any 'true' history.
Yes, quite. Because of the stories that people tell, I don’t think it’s possible to come to black & white conclusion of what early unrecorded Christian practices would have been like, simply because they are unrecorded. Also you’ve got the authoritative voices of whatever church dominated at the time who are going to be the ones that have the written history, which makes it very hard to know what else is going on out there. If you trawl the Internet you can find all sorts of Christian websites that claim that new resurgence of Celtic Christianity is actually Satanism in disguise. There’s a lot of information out there and I find it very difficult to draw conclusions blindly about any of it. I think the fact that the new interest in it, and I suppose the romanticisation of it, reflects the concerns of our time and that’s really interesting. I think it’s highly likely that we cherry pick retrospective fragments of text and ideas as having value and being important because it reflects stuff that we care about now.
A vicar that I interviewed showed me pieces of lithogy that had been derived from the Celtic Church. I think he had a bit on a romantic attachment to it, although he was very self aware about it. I think that’s exactly how it works.
Something that I got from the book was that it was the idea that history is often presented as fact, despite very much just being a selection of stories –
One of the oddities of the English language is that history and story are slightly different words to us. We don’t use the same word for both, like most other European languages do. I think this gives off the false sense of the authoritative nature of history that it is somehow factually correct, in a carved in stone way, in a way that a story isn’t. A story is made up, but history is right. The reality is that they’re pretty much the same thing most of the time and as you say, they’re completely moulded by the tastes and the concerns of the times and the individual characters and whatever their particular agenda is.
I get the sense that you enjoy being a bit iconoclastic. There’s a bit where you’re talking about a techno album that was released on Traum Records and you talk about folk music at the same time, and a lot of people wouldn’t be able to get their head around this going from one to the other. You even talk about the hippies in the Scottish commune being outraged by the idea of techno.
I had a really brilliant argument over lunch one day about that. My boss absolutely hated electronic music and he played in the village band and was a flutist. You’d have these really intense exercise conversations, that were basically fights, but very polite ones, over lunch at this long kitchen table in a commune where we’d debate whether or not the cat should be vegan.
It was hilarious!
The poor cat!
The ended up not being vegan, thank God. One of the cats was a prolific mouser and people were getting really troubled about it.
Hahah! Hippies man… I squatted for years so I spent a lot of time with people who’s views seemed to be completely out of step with any sort of engagement of what nature wanted to do. I loved them though. I think a vegan cat is probably the best example of that I’ve ever heard. There’s a bit in the book where you’re trying to start a tree cult and you meet some people on a team-building weekend. Is that true?
The people in the woods?
Yeah, it was a fleeting meeting. I’m not great at selling ideas at the best of times and they really didn’t want to be there and it was all quite weird and awkward.
You’re a bit mean about them as well and I started to think about them, and how it would seem to them in this situation. I could sort of see why they might be a little bit nervous if their mind is shaped by modern horror films.
Exactly! I probably seemed a bit heinous at the time actually. It’s a really weird spot because it’s on this old railway line that once used to run all the way from Hereford to Beckham and it’s this thin strip of woodland. Because it’s on an old railway line and is well drained, they decided to build this massive climbing frame apparatus next to it that was the Outward Bound centre. So I sometimes have this weird experience of going to bring some logs back in the wheelbarrow through the woods, but you can hear a distinct clank of people up there. So over the short time that I’d been in the house over the spring, I was really struck by this idea of people that were imported from the real world into this quite weird and unnatural environment and it rarely seems to be the case that they’re having much fun.
I don’t think that if you transplant city workers to the middle of the countryside and tell them all to engage with their fellow office workers that they’re going to enjoy it, really.
It just the oddity of that kind of situation. Everyone that has chosen to move here from London or Bristol, and that is a substantial chunk of our population, is really smug and pleased about it. But every so often you see the teenagers being forced to climb the mountains with their parents, or kids on D of E, or people doing kayak trips that have been imposed on them by work or their family and they all look utterly miserable. You have to choose to be here for it to work.
There’s a quote here that I pulled out that I think sums up the strange mix of the esoteric and the pragmatic and really characterises the book. It’s just towards the end and is where you say, ‘if I’d been more organised I could have done a proper ritual, but I wasn’t in the mood and needed to get back to get the washing in before it got dark.’
That just made me laugh, as the book is a pragmatic or grounded take on something that is often a little bit airy fairy.
Yeah, and that’s the reality that actually we’re rooted in this ordinary banal world and we’re constantly trying to weave meaning into it to romanticise it and to make it feel special. That’s what lay lines are about. People need to have a way of mapping where they are on the planet that is more special than, just here. I mean, first I think it’s important to be able to laugh at your own philosophical and spiritual pretentions. And secondly, it’s just how it is.
The washing has got to get taken in.
Yeah. I could go on a psychogeographic foray up a mountain and have all these deep thoughts about it, and then I’d go to pick my kids up from school. That’s reality.
So at the conclusion of the book did you feel changed at all? Did you feel like the journey had any greater impact?
I got interested in the idea of enchantment and that you can escape the banal headspace, such as emails and going shopping and all of those bitty tasks that make up a working day. There are moments that you can be transported out of that and into a more magical space. I don’t mean that in a deep-rooted metaphysical sense, I mean it in that you can imagine the world in a richer way and you can encounter it in a more direct way and you have a sense with of this heightened connection with reality, that isn’t there most of the time. I learnt to get better at that, but beyond that I wouldn’t make any great claims.
Well that is quite a big thing anyway though, it seems to me. That’s the sort of thing that can have a deep and profound effect on your life.
If you were a spiritually minded person, you would call that a spiritual experience. It’s really important for me to distance myself from that because as soon as you tag something as spiritual, it somehow makes it unreal. I think that you need to keep it grounded and see how it fits in to an ordinary reality for it to have an authenticity. Otherwise it’s like 'I’m a prophet and I’m special and you may follow the same practices as I do', but it’s not like that. We find those ways into it in our own way and often in can be framed in quite an ordinary and unlikely environment. It’s really important not to lose sight of that.
I like that idea of intertwining things that could seem as esoteric with the everyday existence. It’s always seemed very appealing to me. I’ve often wondered why people felt the need to go, ‘I’ve been to India and I went to an Ashram and it was full of people getting really holy and spiritual.’ I just think, well you’re going to go back to wherever you’re from anyway afterwards, I don’t get why you need this guy in a white robe pronouncing what is essentially fortune cookie bollocks to make you think that it is something special going on. You just need to be able to find it in Lewisham, or wherever.
Lots of people find that kind of energy in gardening. There are lots of very unglamorous ways of doing it that actually really work. I think it’s a big feature of our capitalist world that we feel the need to spend great loads of money and go to great effort to be seen to seek it out in those very formalised and institutionalised ways and I don’t think that it works terribly well.
No, I’m sure it doesn’t. So what have you got coming next? You probably finished this quite a while ago now, so I’m sure you’ve moved on already?
Well I wrote it in exactly six months and I put it to bed quite a long time ago actually. I’m working on another book now that is about the notion of the uncanny and it’s working on quite similar lines. I’m trying to explore what we mean by strangeness, where we find it and where it lurks. When you called I was about halfway through the first chapter. So that’s what I’m doing for the next six months.
Uprooted: On the Trail of the Green Man by Nina Lyon is available from Faber from March 3rd, 2016