Nina Lyon, © Billie Charity
Uprooted: On the Trail of the Green Man by Nina Lyon is the Caught by the River Book of the Month for March. (Faber & Faber, paperback, 304 pages. Available here for the special price of £12.50.)
Anna Wood reviews.
Who among us hasn’t thought of starting a cult? Our current society is, after all, surely not the best we can do. Nina Lyon’s book is subtitled ‘On The Trail Of The Green Man’, but the Green Man is really a mcguffin that prompts and gives a running thread to Lyon’s research into whether her idea for a foliate and slightly muddy sex cult might work. More prosaically, she wants to develop “a more practical way of understanding the things that modern-day scientism sometimes doesn’t.”
The book begins with a perilous and almost-revelatory drive through wind and rain in the Wye Valley – it’s a rich joy to read, almost the opening to a gothic novel. Prompted by that drive, and by the Green Man carvings she’s seen in churches over the years, Lyon begins to dig into the history of the mysterious leafy-headed creature. We read about Lady Raglan, who coined the term in Folklore magazine in 1939, and how the Green Man is a name retroactively applied to myriad leafy mascots across the centuries and the continents. (My favourite – mainly because I like the name – is Baphomet, who may or may not be the horned man depicted in a Garway church Lyon visits.) As she digs she talks about Aleister Crowley, leylines, dowsing, Knights Templar, sheela na gigs, Lord and Lady of Ale and the Lord of Misrule, Samhain, Sir Gawain, William James and the Society For Psychic Research and (of course) The Wicker Man – a pretty full house of paganish and witchy-wyrdy references. (She’s satisfyingly arch about Crowley, and about the “type of visionary who fancies himself as Lord Summerisle”.)
Lyon tentatively suggests free love and monotheism to a few acquaintances in her Welsh borders hometown, and she builds a “sacred grove” in her garden. She also brings in philosophy and anthropology – from Spinoza to The Golden Bough, Derrida and Deleuze. I think she intended this as a balance to the anecdotal and often magicky input from friends scattered through the book, but she mentions so many hefty names, and often so briefly (on one page we have Spinoza, Schelling, Schopenhauer, Nietzsche and Hegel, though we learn little from any of them) – it sometimes feels more like cramming for an exam or name-dropping than edification. There can be a curious tone-deafness in her writing, too. When talking about abuse in the Catholic church, she mentions “sexually wayward priests” which is an oddly euphemistic way to describe them. On a trip researching witch hunts in the Rhineland, she writes, “Some of the stories have the effect of making Germany’s more famous genocide look moderate.” Really? Lyon also seem to include unabomber Ted Kaczynski among her rollcall of Green-Mannish thinkers, which is almost but not quite funny. There’s sometimes a mania for oversimple categorising – at one point she neatly explains the difference between ‘festival’, ‘parade’ and ‘carnival’; she divides festival crowds into two types – kagoule-people and non-kagoule-people; she slips into snobbery when talking about a group of office workers she meets in the countryside who, she decides, “sat at desks with headsets on” and “valued effective air-conditioning and the Friday cake round.” There are a few too many statements that sound nice and tidy but which at the very least need more critical scrutiny: “Madness is dancing to the tune others don’t hear”; “The middle aged are not supposed to be sexual, and we are disgusted when they are”; “We tend to consume word-based music, which is really words with a bit of music added to them for effect”.
More often, though, Lyon delicately mixes mood, information and humour, as in: “May, the blossom of the hawthorn, smells of sex and death. This is neither hyperbole nor poetic licence: it contains a substance called trimethylamine that appears when bodily tissues and sexual fluids decompose.” In the most lyrically lovely passages, there is a good plain curiosity about the land around us, the people and stories and history and possibilities. Her accounts of running through soggy woodland, swimming in the sea, climbing a yew tree – these are worth a million references to Spinoza or Schopenhauer. Often there’s a wonderful steeliness threaded through the writing too, and a sense of wonder at the world that Lyon evokes with an elegant lack of hippy-dippiness:
“A frog leapt in front of me on the path. It did not flinch or jump away when I bent low to get a better look, and I wondered if it was a tame frog, given to teasing people chasing witches in these parts. I didn’t kiss it, or use it for a spell; nor did I make a concoction from the vast orange slugs that were everywhere, like a curse or a biblical plague. All I did was walk, and watch the hares that emerged in the clearing, shaking the water from the long grass, and the mist ascending further until it tickled the tops of the forested hills, which turned pink as the sun dipped behind them.”
And tied up with those vignettes is something more radical, more subversive, I think. The heart of the book might be a scene in the middle, where Lyon tries to convert two HR managers to her nascent tree-loving cult. It begins like a comedy sketch, with Lyon comparing herself to a clumsy Jehovah’s Witness and the managers nervously trying to back out of the ‘sacred grove’ they’ve stumbled into. But, almost as she writes the words, Lyon seems to realise that she isn’t joking – but she can’t work out how to tell these two people that they are corporate slaves, complicit in their own slavery, and that they should really be spending more time with trees. (And how could she tell them, without sounding completely ridiculous?) The effect is moving, unsettling, quite powerful.
In the final pages of the book, almost as a counterbalance to those nervous people in the grove, she meets a stranger at her dad’s allotment who tells her about his long runs through the local woods and how he communes with the trees. She in turn recounts his experience to us, and it doesn’t sound ridiculous at all: “These woods were old woods, beautiful broad-leaved woods, and as he ran through them he felt as though he could hear the things the trees were saying, which were not words so much as vibrations, and he found himself extending his runs so that they looped around every track he could find, and off them, no longer seeing them as runs at all but as running meditations in which he found an eternal, inexpressible truth.” By the book’s end you might want to join a tree cult – or, more accurately, you’ll begin to suspect you’re already a member.