When we think of nature as paradise, we envision our ideal first home, the Garden of Eden, in all of its natural loveliness. For many people, this world is lost to earth and only to be found “up there,” in heaven. To such believers, the idea that earth itself is chock full of divinity constitutes heresy.
Imagine my delight when, in a book by two theologians called Saving Paradise:How Christianity Traded Love of This World for Crucifixion and Empire, I discovered that from the earliest Christians right down to Medieval times, church art depicted Jesus in an earthly paradise of flowering meadows and friendly animals.
In recent years a the concept that God is both within and transcends nature has been revived by theologians like Matthew Fox (Original Blessing ) and Rosemary Radford Ruether (Gaia and God: An Ecofeminist Theology of Earth Healing). Farmer Andrew Kerr has recently called this belief terratheism: “Terratheism brings God to us, to our life here in this world. Terratheism tells us that God is an intimate of ours.”
When the Norwich Cathedral was built in 1006 CE, Christianity still retained elements of earth-centered spirituality. On my last research trip to East Anglia with my husband Henry (who, alas, died soon after), we went to see the Green Men along the ceiling beams of the cloister. Each was carved and painted differently; most of the faces sprouted foliage and showed a variety of peculiar expressions. Henry loved making slides for my lectures on archetypes. In an instant, he had his camera out and was flat on his back, oblivious of the well groomed Brits streaming past him to attend service.
These Green Men, enjoyed by monks and nuns during centuries of contemplation, represent the presence of the divine in nature. Many of them radiate a mysterious wisdom and wry humor that we don’t often associate with religion.
“As cosmic man or the personification of the intelligence in the tree of life,” explains William Anderson, “the Green Man is the point at which truth is manifested in creation, whether as life, light, song, words or the figurative forms of art.”
The Green Man can be found over England in pub signs; in the United States, he is more likely to be an ornament in somebody’s garden.
Here is one the Tapestry House Garden in The Road to Beaver Mill, the third volume in my Infinite Games series:
“But William was standing in a circle of fresh thyme and basil, mint and pennyroyal, from which a gleeful eye suddenly winked at him.”
“Come away,” chuckled Denis, “won’t do to let our enemies know he’s still here. Cheers you up something wonderful, does our green man!”