All things Green Man & the traditional Jack-in-the-Green

Green Man’s Life Cycle – by Phil Townsend

greenman greenson Greenman greenfather

My thanks to Phil Townsend for allowing us to reproduce this extract from a larger article that was published in ‘Woodcarving’, issue 39, 1998. For those who would like to visit this wonderful sculpture it is still in good condition and can be found close to the main drive through Hamsterley Forest, nr. Barnard Castle, Co Durham.

From childhood I recall a fascination with storybook illustrations where semi-human features seemed to appear in tree trunks, knotty eyes where branches had been shed, noses from stubby cut-off limbs, mouths within wrinkled folds of bark. These tree faces were often old and knobbly but appeared friendly and helpful to the travellers beneath their leaves. Often you had to look hard for the faces. Sometimes you just imagined an odd combination of knots, bark and branches looked something like a face.

In real life trees that seem capable of expression are found mainly among the broad-leaved species. Conifers are mainly straight up and down and rather boringly regular, especially when seen in ranks in forestry plantations. Such mystery and imaginings are found among plantations of spruce and fir come not from individual specimens but from the density of the planting, the maze-like quality of losing your bearings with it all looking much the same in any direction. Walking through the ranks you glimpse along an aisle of trees which then closes to become a solid wall before opening into the next aisle. It’s “now you see it, now you don’t”. These memories and observations were drawn on as a basis for a sculpture which was to have echoes of these elements. When it was first proposed to create a Green Man sculpture in Hamsterley Forest, part of the Great North Forest in County Durham, a suggestion was made to carve a single detailed image in the traditional form onto as large a butt of a tree as could be found.

But such a carving, though large in most contexts, would lack the presence required of this archetypal figure when set in his natural habitat, the forest. Also the traditional depiction of the Green Man as a gloomy and rather forbidding figure did not seem conducive to promoting a love and understanding of nature, but rather generating fear and lack of regard for it. On a practical level the idea of creating a single united image across the faces of several spatially separate tree trunks had been shown to be feasible in the well known sculpture by Colin Wilbourn on the banks of the River Wear in Durham, called The Upper Room. It seemed possible to take the idea a step further by carving an image that was seen then lost as you moved, only to be replaced by another. Now you see the Green Man, now you don’t. A scale model of trees set in a triangular formation showed that at a given distance about one third of a trunks surface was visible, so it became possible to create three Green Men, each one registering only when looking towards the apex of the triangle. But what were these three to look like?

There is much the Green Man could condemn his human cousins for (the felling of six trees in their prime for mere sculpture, perhaps?). But in a place like Hamsterley Forest where growing numbers of people come to appreciate the beauty and bounty of the woodland, this is where the Green Man would be most at peace and might cast a benign eye on the passer-by. Folklore and tradition would have it that the Green Man is always young and vital, but we know in all nature there has to be a process of growth, maturing, and decay so regeneration can take place. The cyclical manner of all life should not, I felt, bypass an image so central to its core, and so was formed this sculpture of the Green Man’s Life Cycle, Greenson, Greenman and Greenfather. 

The grand fir (Abies grandis) logs used in the sculpture were felled in Hamsterley forest, having achieved a great height by the roadside on the hill above The Grove. Apart from its size, grand fir has other desirable properties: it is straight and cylindrical in growth, has a much lower resin content than most other conifers, and has few branch knots on its lower trunk. Eight logs, all from trees about 50 years old, were delivered to the site where I selected the six best and debarked them. I decided to sink the logs into the ground to a depth of 4ft to ensure stability. Each log weighed around a ton and a half, which, combined with their 16ft length made the business tricky, especially as their position in relation to one another had to be accurate to within 1 inch or so for the carving of the work.

One of the best aspects of sculpting in public is you get to meet all sorts of people, a refreshing change from the isolation of studio work. A lot of passers-by were understandably confused by the disjointed appearance of the sculpture, which was also partially obscured by the scaffolding, and I heard the words “totem poles” offered as an explanation many times. Whenever someone showed real interest I took the opportunity to explain, but was not always understood. I heard one teenager, to whom I had described the three stages of the life cycle, calling to his father, to come and see the “mid-life crisis face”! There were some visitors not so welcome at the sculpture site: Hamsterley forest plays host to myriad insects and at different times I was plagued by flies, midges 2inch long wood wasps, and flying ants which would spend a whole day swarming over two thirds of the carving. Last year was also a bumper year for butterflies and literally hundreds converged on the clearing.

The term unveiling was accurate as we had a large green Great Forest banner slung just below the eyes of our Green Man which was released by a famous resident of Teesdale, Miss Hannah Hauxwell. There was quite a turnout. I was especially pleased to see children from four local primary schools who had been involved in the early stages of the project. They were entertained by a professional story-teller with his own version of the legend of the Green Man. This was followed a couple of days later with an enjoyable story-telling walk on the theme of The Magic of the Trees, culminating at the sculpture site with a talk from that contemporary ‘green’ man, David Bellamy, who linked legend to current environmental problems in his own inimitable way. Everyone agreed this was a fitting climax

Phil Townsend is a professional sculptor who lives in County Durham. Primarily he designs and makes outdoor sculpture, mostly in native hardwoods and a wide variety of stone – materials that sit easily with both the natural environment and the man-made.

You can see more of Phil’s wonderful work on his website at: http://www.sculptedart.co.uk/

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