The Green Man by Polly Howells
Updated: Feb 24, 2022
This post is a chapter from Polly Howells forthcoming memoir.
“She loved him green and smelling of the sea.
And winters she chased him, laughing, through ancient fields.” Anonymous
“The force that through the green fuse drives the flower
Drives my green age.”Dylan Thomas
I have known the Green Man since I was seven, when he walked out of my closet in the
Shore Cottage in Kittery Point, Maine.
It wasn’t actually my closet; it was my half-sister Toni’s closet. She was away visiting
her father in Syracuse, New York, something the divorce agreement between Mother and her
father mandated that she do for a month every summer. I was sleeping in her room. My parents
put me there because my own room looked out over the harbor, and the blinking white light in
the red lighthouse kept me awake. My parents had tried to block the light, setting a screen up in
front of the window. But I stayed awake and watched the light as it snuck through little holes in
the screen. Toni’s room faced away from the water, up Lawrence Lane and into the trees. I
remember there was a storm, and the trees swayed madly that night, the night before I met the
The closet took up the whole white wall across from my bed; it must have had four doors.
He came out of the one that was closest to the bedroom door that led into the little brown hall. It
was early morning; the light was beginning to come up. He was long and lean, completely green,
with no clothing unless he was wearing a full-body suit that covered his face as well. No facial
features and no sexual characteristics. I screamed.
Father came. He said, “Don’t worry, it was only a dream. Go back to sleep.”
I was convinced my father was wrong. I was sure this man was real, and that he had
really stepped out of my closet. I have never had a dream, before or since, that I believed so
The Green Man has been with me all my life. I have worked to understand what he
represented, why he appeared just then. At times, I have thought that perhaps he was one of the
somewhat androgynous Howells men – my father, uncle, grandfather, or great-grandfather. He
has been an important figure for me, a touchstone.
Somewhere along the way I discovered that he is an archetypal symbol – a powerful
image that resides in human civilization’s collective unconscious. He has appeared as a carved
head all over the world, from as early as 400 A.C. In Western Europe he is a holdover from the
days of the Druids, who worshiped trees, and continued to be celebrated in the songs and stories
of Sir Gawain and the Green Knight, and Robin Hood, after the Celtic lands became Christian.
But he can be traced even further back, to the Roman Bacchus and the Greek Dionysus, and to
the Egyptian god Osiris. He is also a Christ figure, linked to the renewal of spring. Over the
years I have learned that this was a very big character who came up in my life when I was very
young. On a trip to England and Wales in 2002 we looked up Green Men in the churches. There
are many of them, located high up, in corners, rather insignificant unless you know what you are
looking for. Most of them have leaves dripping out of their mouths, which my Green Man
decidedly did not.
I should explain that the Green Man’s color, when he came out of Toni’s closet, was almost
as surprising to me as the fact that he appeared at all. Since I first learned the alphabet, I have
seen letters in color – consistent colors that have never changed. This is a somewhat rare
neurological condition called “synesthesia", in which different sensory pathways are linked to
one another. For me, only consonants are colored – vowels are mainly neutral – colorless or
white – and whole words are colored according to their first letter. And because the colors of the
names in my immediate family fell on opposite sides of the color wheel, from the very first I saw
colors as gendered – well, gendered if you let me identify with my father and be a boy! My
mother’s name, Kay, was green – as was “Mummy” – and Toni’s was brown (her last name is, in
fact, Brown). Mummy and Toni were colored in earth tones, but my father’s name, Jack
Howells, was blue and red, as was my name, Polly Howells; J, P, and H are all on the blue-red-
purple axis. Sky colors. I didn’t know then about the Greek pantheon of sky gods – mostly male
– and earth gods – mostly female – but when I learned about them it made sense, because my
family world was already divided that way.
All this is to say that when I came upon the Green Man, he was an anomaly. Green was
definitely feminine in my color constellation. Green was the color of grass, the color of growth,
the color of vegetation, the color of the feminine. Yet here was something quite green and
definitely masculine. I don’t know how I knew, but I knew. No breasts, no hips, straight up and
down. All man.
For about ten years, from the late nineties through the first decade of the 21st century, I
attended a leadership training called Body/Soul Rhythms led by Jungian analyst Marion
Woodman, voice specialist Ann Skinner, movement specialist Mary Hamilton, and
mythographer Paula Reeves in Ontario, Canada. The training consisted of a series of week-long
experiential workshops and five-day seminars. In these all-woman gatherings, we learned about
Jungian theory, worked with our dreams, did body and voice work, put the energy of the
unconscious material that emerged onto paper, and created papier-mâché masks on our own faces– masks that expressed the energy that was coming up in our bodies and souls.
At one of these gatherings, in the year 2000, I dreamt of a sacred temple, where an
elderly man sat alone, wearing a mask. He was dead, turning to dust. Imagining him physically
inside my body, I coughed very hard to get the dust out of my lungs. Later, during our mask
work, at first I thought I was making a mask of this dead king. I had painted on a sheet of paper
what I saw in my dream and put this painting on the wall. He was gray, very gray, and sad, with
thick gold lips. I wrote under him, “The king is dead.”
But when I looked at my white, undecorated papier-mâché mask, the face that looked back
at me didn’t look old or dead at all, and what suddenly came to me was the Green Man of my
childhood dream. So, I painted him a light, true, green and put three leaves and a tiny bell on his
forehead. That was all. And there he was.
What happened next was astonishing. I fell in love. I sat with my Green Man on my lap and stroked his face. I didn’t want to move, I didn’t want to write. In fact, my hand wouldn’t write. It was weak and shaking. I was totally in the sensate experience of touching my mask and loving the feel of my creation. I had painted him green inside and out, and I turned him over and over in my hands. I asked people around me, “Isn’t he the most beautiful thing you have ever seen?” I didn’t feel that I was bragging because it didn’t feel as though he was mine. It felt as though he had come to me from somewhere else – as though he was in me and of me but not by me.
And then I “got” it! The Green Man who walked out of the closet that day, so long ago, was not my father, my uncle, my grandfather, or my great god-writer-great-grandfather. He was me. He was inside me even then, but he was too big for me to contain. In this intensive I had
allowed him to be a part of me – he was in my spine – and at the end of the weeklong experience
he and I went outside in the trees and touched the world. I felt totally alive and free.
When I got home and back to my normal life, I had a rather severe pain in my left
shoulder, something I had never before experienced. My chiropractor prescribed an X-ray,
which showed five upper vertebrae literally twisted to the left. I had no memory of any physical
injury, at the intensive or thereafter. But I took it as proof, if I needed it, that the Green Man was
indeed a part of me, living in my spine.
Nature is more than bucolic. Nature is also wild, messy, unbridled – acid. I had a dream
in my twenties of a butterfly packed in bucolic acid. The green man had unleashed some new,
uncontrollable forces in my spine. Four chiropractic sessions later the pain was gone.
At the end of our Body/Soul Rhythms training, I began to lead similar Body/Soul workshops
with my friend Janice Rous. We ran these several-day workshops once a year. We didn’t make
masks for the first few years, but after we took on a third facilitator, Jean Esther, we became
bolder and began to instruct our participants in mask work. I have brought my Green Man mask
into the workshop a few times to demonstrate what happens when one wears one’s mask. It is an experience of losing your known self and inhabiting an entirely different being. In recent years, when I have donned my Green Man mask in front of people, they have witnessed – and I have felt -- his sadness. His eyes go down at the corners. His face looks old and worn. He is
exfoliating a bit. He is the feminine in the masculine, and he is sad. He has reason to be sad.
The world has yet to reclaim the feminine. But he is enormously dear to me, and I have followed
him to wonderful, unexpected places.
My reconnection to the Green Man of my childhood dream actually changed my life,
although I had no idea at the time where he would lead me.