Punk Religion by Nina Lyon
March 9, 2016 | by Faber Social
On 3 March, Faber Social published Uprooted: On the Trail of the Green Man by Nina Lyon, a provocative, wry and searching investigation of the Green Man and our relationship with it today. Having completed the book, Nina here looks back at this ancient, complex symbol, in the context of ritual and religion.
It isn’t a solstice or an equinox, and there is nothing unusual going on with the moon tonight, and it’s February and cold so there is no strong argument in favour of a bonfire. It is a Sunday, though, and I have an insistent feeling that we must go for a walk. I feel this with a religious sort of fervour; if asked to define it further I might say that it is necessary in order to wake up physically, and that in an animated state it becomes possible to perceive things more immediately and to think about them more clearly.
But there’s a bit more to it than that and I only realised this recently. Over the course of a conversation with non‐churchgoing friends about family and our religious heritage, every atheist and agnostic at the table admitted to missing the ritual of church, the introspective space that was set aside and unlike the rest of daily life. We came out, one by one, as serial attenders of Christmas carol services: you can love the ritual without necessarily loving the institution, and its ancient seasonal underpinnings pre‐date the Christian church anyway. How do we fill that gap now?
At some point in the process of writing Uprooted the walk zealotry began. I have dragged my children, my partner and assorted family and friends on walks that show little concern for weather or appropriate footwear, are over‐ambitious given time and light considerations, and that are simply unsafe – my younger child nearly got blown off a snow‐drifted mountain ridge a few weeks back. We tend to mark the solstice and the other old festivals with a bonfire in the woods, affairs lacking in solemnity and heavy on burnt marshmallows.
These things feel important. They mark out a sense of place or points in time whose scales are bigger than our own. This idea of the limits of the human sphere and the way that we get stuck in a vision limited to the human scale was what first provoked me to write the book.
Two years ago we had just had a wave of floods very like those that hit the North of England in particular this January. This year, the Welsh borders where I live didn’t do too badly; that winter, roads crumbled, schools were closed, and much of the infrastructure we take for granted stopped working for days at a time.
One day I drove down the road that had been worst affected locally – the one that was always closed, so that if you lived in certain villages along it you could be stranded on quite a regular basis as floodwaters rose – in a spirit of speculation. I had a sort of idea that I wanted to go for a walk around Kilpeck Church, one of the most ancient in the area, and that doing so might be enlightening. I had seen the Wye burst out across the breadth of its whole valley twice that week, and had lost electricity several times and nearly lost heat at home, but hadn’t yet managed to drum up a sense of awe.
We use ‘awesome’ in a throwaway fashion these days and I am more guilty than most of doing so. Awe is something else. It is fearsome and fearful. It acknowledges the presence of a greater power than our own. What would the parishioners of the twelfth century have made of it? At Kilpeck I saw the Green Man above the doorway and decided to get to know him better.
The adventures that followed did not turn into a firm attachment to the Green Man. This is mostly because I don’t think the Green Man exists, which will sound like a pretty contentious thing to say given that I’ve just written a book about it.
But I don’t think that the Green Man exists in much the same way that I don’t think that God exists, in the dogmatic anthropomorphised version we know so well from Sunday school; I see the Green Man as a set of images that have a particular resonance today and that must have had a particular resonance in the past, about which we can only speculate.
The Green Man, for me, works better as the face of speculation rather than a suppressed or long‐forgotten god. The speculation is where the magic happens: it is the bit where prophets find the secrets of the cosmos and where entirely normal people find enchantment in the world around them. There is no written record of the Green Man: his name came from an under‐researched paper by an amateur folklorist. He is singularly lacking in doctrine. When people adopt him, it is for their purpose and vision alone.
There is a political edge to him too, though. At a time when human impact on the rest of the life around us is making our common existence more precarious than ever, Green Mannish interests have something to say about redressing that balance – more, I’d argue, than the sort of human‐oriented stewardship arguments we got from the religions of the book. Memes choose their moment; empty church pews will fill with something else in time, something that tends beyond the bricks‐and‐mortar materialism of our tech‐obsessed age.
A friend recently interviewed me about Uprooted for a magazine article. We were driving down the Golden Valley, retracing some of the trips in the book, and she described the Green Man as ‘punk religion’ as though this were obvious. Our relationship with the notion of religion was wildly different: hers inherited from a tradition of Vedas and vitalism, mine more a thing that existed in the deadening strictures of institutions with too much power. I immediately, though grudgingly, had to concede that she was right. It is about engaging with the life beyond our own, the limitless lives of all the other things around us, and finding a common magic to it all, which I hope to find now, at least for a moment, on the mountain.