Green Man as Memento Mori for a Dying Planet

As a woodcarver it seems almost inevitable that one will eventually carve a Green Man. When I was first learning how to carve I subscribed to the video carving lessons expertly produced by Chris Pye, and he has created some of the more appealing Green Man carvings I have seen. Following his inspiration I have tried to design a Green Man carving on several occasions, and have each time been unsatisfied with the results. I began again recently by first doing some research into the history of this motif, going back before the figure became a popular emblem of the newly pagan and environmentally conscious folks of the late 20th century, to the medieval origins of the figure as it first appears in European churches.

I first became aware of the Green Man motif in my medieval art history class I took in college in the 1980s. Both the Green Man and the Sheila-na-Gig are interesting examples of pagan emblems seemingly snuck into the religious contexts of medieval churches, and that is what I was taught about them – that they were pagan symbols that crossed over from earlier times into the Christian landscape. Many of the more popular books about the Green Man focus on the Jethro Tull Songs from the Wood type of interpretation of the motif – that he represents the balanced connection of man with nature. He is seen and celebrated as a symbol of the renewal that awaits us when we learn to live in balance with nature – as an ancient pagan ideal that endured the Christianization of Europe and has emerged again to guide us. This view of the symbol is due in large part to the original study published in 1939 by Lady Raglan – she coined the name “Green Man” and linked the motif to “Jack-in-the-Green, Robin Hood, the King of May and the Garland.” Her theory endures, and every source that celebrates the symbol of the Green Man as an environmental hero references her work.

When you look at earlier examples of the Green Man carved in stone, one thing that stands out is that the vast majority of them are more like gargoyles than tree spirits. They have beast-like faces and distorted features, with various forms of plants and leaves issuing from their mouths, as well as eyes and ears. My first impression of this symbol was that of a memento mori – a reminder that earth will eventually reclaim us, the plants will grow over our bones. I could easily imagine someone in the early centuries travelling through the woods and coming across a long-forgotten skeleton with plant life growing through the gaps – the green of life reclaiming them after death – and having this be the inspiration for the emblem. We don’t really know how they first became a staple of the stone carver’s art in medieval Europe, or even what that symbol meant to them, but when you start to look at the range of images gathered from various sources across the centuries, it is not as easy to automatically associate the archetype to the modern interpretation.

In Kathleen Basford’s book The Green Man she provides a very thorough exploration of the motif, and her conclusion is this: “Not only would a Jack in the Green make nonsense in this strictly monastic church but the derelict head, invaded and taken over by vegetation, is an image of death and ruin rather than that of life and resurrection. It is, indeed, a ‘thing of sorrow’. That suits it best.”

It is not like the Jack in the Green version of the Green Man is a bad archetype for us as humans to have – he has merrily accompanied us through the decades as our awareness of the environmental impact that our living on the earth has exacted from nature. He has been a good guide and inspiration for quite a long time, but his message has not fully succeeded. We are in a place now as humans on this planet where we are collectively and more rapidly warming the planet to a point of no return. How then do we continue to embrace this symbol?

It was with this kind of thinking that I set about trying to design a Green Man again. In my research I discovered a grainy image of a foliate head from Tewkesbury Abbey, in Gloucestershire, England. The skull-like head issues forth two branches of rough and wild looking leaves – its eyes without expression. Additionally, it is a skull without gender, and in this version of the motif we can no longer assume that a man alone can represent this symbolism. This suited my feeling about this motif exactly. I used this version as the starting point for my design, and I finally felt I could carve this symbol in a way that would feel true to me.

It seems to me that now, more than ever, we need to embrace the historic aspect of this symbol – as a warning, a reminder, that death is waiting. If we allow ourselves to reimagine the Green Man in this way, as an evolution of the symbol that better meets the needs of our time, then the Green Man becomes a memento mori for our dying planet – the planet we ourselves are killing. It is a warning that we are on a path of destruction, and that unless we embrace the natural world around us, we will be reclaimed by it – made extinct by our own doing.


 

Research sources:

I consulted the following sources in writing this article:

Basford, Kathleen. The Green Man. New York, D.S. Brewer, and imprint of Boydell & Brewer, 2009.

“A New View of ‘Green Man’ Sculptures.” Folklore, vol. 102, no. 2, 1991, pp. 237-39. JSTOR, www.jstor.org/stable/1260962.

“The Foliate Head.” Folklore, vol. 79, no. 1, 1968, pp. 59-61. JSTOR, www.jstor.org/stable/1259297.

Negus, Tina. “Medieval Foliate Heads: A Photographic Study of Green Men and Green Beasts in Britain.” Folklore, vol. 114, no. 2, 2003, pp. 247-61. JSTOR, www.jstor.org/stable/30035102.

Raglan, Lady. “The ‘Green Man’ in Church Architecture.” Folklore, vol. 50, no. 1, 1939, pp. 45-57. JSTOR, www.jstor.org/stable/1257090.

Young, Francis. “The Myth of Medieval Paganism.” First Things, www.firstthings.com/article/2020/02/the-myth-of-medieval-paganism.

The Promise of Spring

Imbolc has always held a special significance for me among the cross-quarter holidays. It may have less of an established awareness among those in the US, and is seems like a quieter and more contemplative mark of the passage of time through the cycle of the year, but there is a lot of interesting tradition beneath that quiet exterior.

I was reminded of this recently when I stumbled upon a podcast called Brigid in Folk Tradition. Blúiríní Béaloidis / Folklore Fragments is a National Folklore Collection Podcast produced at University College in Dublin, Ireland, and has a series of very interesting topics they have explored, including this one on the complex history of Brigid. Have a listen and you will be ready for the day that brings the promise of spring.

 

The header artwork on this post is an excerpt from my painting, Imbolc, available by clicking HERE.

After Solstice: The Path of the Deer

When I lived in the North Country of New Hampshire, every winter I would go out into the woods in hopes of finding deer antlers. The accumulation of snow is always lighter among the trees and the January weather usually provides a warmer spell with plenty of sunshine, so I would head out into the woods behind the house and hike up to the knoll where the deer and moose would yard up in the winter. The pine woods were thick, and previous winter’s downed trees made the passage difficult, but if I followed along the edge of the fields and then along the overgrown stone walls I could work my way through the pines to the higher ground where the maple and beech trees thrived. I followed the footprints in the snow that the deer left, leading me along the easiest path to navigate.

From year to year I noticed that the deer followed the same pathways, not just through the woods where it was  matter of navigating through the trees, but in the open fields as well, where there was nothing to constrict their movement. I followed their pathways and their crescent moon shaped imprints formed into a runic message that said “This way is safe,” and “I have traveled here before you, all is well.” Their hoof prints pressed into the snow spoke a language of reassurance read by the deepest part of the brain, where the instinct for survival constantly burns with the need for its message: “I was here, my mother walked here before me, you are wise to follow our path.”

I made these solitary trips into the woods with the thought of finding antlers, shed every winter, but I never actually found any. Some creature, a porcupine perhaps, or a family of mice, discovered them before me and gnawed them away, finding enough nutrients in them to survive the winter: the deer’s excess their salvation. It was better then that I never found them. What I did find was the nourishment of the crisp clean winter air, the sunshine on my face and the resulting restful sleep at night that came from my winter outings.

I also learned the language of those paths and benefited from their comfort. Following them through the woods was instructive, a physical pattern of what well-formed instinct can manifest. I was spending too much time and mental energy in my life building false pathways – confusing intuitive instinct with the fear-driven wanderings of the anxious mind. The former leads one clearly along the way, among friends. The latter is a pathway easily predicted by predators, and if you follow it long enough you may miss the footprints shape-shifting into those of coyotes, leading you to their dens.

I live in the city now, but every year at this time the shift in the weather and the angle of the sunlight reminds me of those trips into the forest. The symbolism I found following the path of the deer has been a faithful talisman, and I remind myself of its lesson often, when I feel myself being led off the trail. I see it before me in my mind, a clear path leading steadily through the thick forest up to the top of the knoll, to an opening in the trees – south-facing and embracing the thin winter sunshine. The spaces between the beech trees are dotted with the bowl-shaped imprints in the snow left by sleeping deer. It is a place where we find the peace of mind to rest, and to sleep soundly through the gradually shortening winter nights.

About the illustration: Hand painted on Strathmore 500 Mixed Media paper with watercolors and gouache, 5 1/2″ wide by 3 3/4″ high.

Strange Jewels Found, Finally

It was over 20 years ago that I began a series of paintings on paper, inspired by Irish myth and the early medieval manuscripts of Ireland, the first of which were reproduced into a line of blank greeting cards. As I continued to make paintings I looked into having fine art prints made and found it was a complicated and expensive process that would have required investing thousands of dollars to offer even a small line of prints – something completely out of my reach. Over the years I have tried using a few different online services that do the printing and fulfillment, but it has never been what I imagined would be a good fit for my artwork.

A few months ago I decided to look into it again, inspired by some of the successful illustrators I follow on Instagram, and made a plan to make a dozen or so of my earlier paintings available as limited edition prints. In setting out it was important to me to have prints that matched the original paintings in color reproduction and the feel of the paper, and also to be able to sell them in a price range that was affordable. I had a few test prints made, and it was hard for me to even tell the original from the print, so I decided it was finally time to do this.

I have spent the last few months preparing image scans and having prints made – I have 14 images now available as signed and numbered, limited and/or open-edition prints. I am so glad to have finally achieved this long-desired goal that I first dreamed about almost 20 years ago, and even more excited to be able to make some altogether new paintings into limited edition prints in 2020.

I’m not sure why it took two decades for me to do this creative thing I had so long wanted to do, but I think this quote gets to the heart of it:

“The universe buries strange jewels deep within us all, and then stands back to see if we can find them. The hunt to discover those jewels––that’s creative living.” ― Elizabeth Gilbert, Big Magic: Creative Living Beyond Fear

This is a lesson in patience, or perhaps procrastination, but a lesson nonetheless for me about creative living – the continued hunt within for the creative path. It is also a lesson in the power of setting goals, and the reward of experiencing the satisfaction of step-by-step seeing it come together as a completed creative thing. These lessons are likely not that obvious to anyone outside of my busy brain, but if it does mean anything to anyone, I hope is an inspiration to keep at whatever you love doing no matter how long it takes to actually get it done.

Below is a slideshow of the artwork available as prints in the Ninth Wave Designs Etsy shop:

 

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Sciath Fia Bairr: Stag Shield

In 2017 I spent several months working on a carving of a stag wreathed in runes. It was inspired in part by a painting I did several years ago called Crainn na hÉireann: The Trees of Ireland  which can be seen on the Paintings gallery page. That painting itself was inspired by a poem from the medieval Irish saga Buile Suibhne – The Frenzy of Suibhne. Within this ancient tale there is a poem that sings the praises of the trees of Ireland, and another that celebrates the stags of the glens. The painting I did focused primarily on the trees, so for this carving I took one of the small stag elements from that painting and expanded upon it to develop the design for this shield.

The poem about the stags begins: “O little stag, thou little bleating one, O melodious little clamourer, sweet to us is the music thou makest in the glen.”* To the left is shown the central medalion of the original painting that became the basis of the shield design – you can see the similarity of the details and posture of the stag, which measures only 2” across.

The design features a rearing stag with a border that features carved runes from my invented runic alphabet. I wanted the texture of language surrounding the shield, without it being something that would be readable – the words formed by the runes have meaning, but that meaning is concealed. The border features oak leaf and acorn medallions, a visual reference to a part of the poem: “Thou oak, bushy, leafy, thou art high beyond trees.”*

The shield is carved from a single piece of Honduran mahogany, and measures 22″ in diameter and is 1” thick overall. True mahogany wood is a joy to carve and holds the carving details very well. The oil and wax finish brings out the warm reddish brown glow of the mahogany wood.

Below is a gallery of images taken throughout the process of creating this carving. Each image includes a description – click on the first image to launch the slideshow and use the arrows to navigate through all the images.

 

 

*Poem quoted from: Buile Suibne (The Frenzy of Suibhne) being  The Adventures of Suibhne Geilt  by J. G. O’Keeffe, published by the Irish Texts Society in 1996.

Acanthish Column

One of my favorite projects that I had the opportunity to work on in 2017 was a carved walnut column for a friend’s house in Canterbury, NH. He provided me with a turned column of black walnut that was made from a tree he had salvaged many years ago, so by the time it came to me to carve it was dry and stable. The size and shape of the column was determined by the niche on the exterior of his home, and I designed something to wrap fully around the column. The design inspiration started from plant forms in Norwegian Stave Church portal carvings, and I adapted them into an original design loosely based on acanthus leaf patterns – thus the title Acanthish. The pattern repeats, flipped, and it fully connected around the diameter of the column.

Once the pattern was transferred and drawn onto the column I used a Dremel router bit with a depth attachment that I glued 1/4″ wooden strips onto, like a sled, to help keep the depth even on the curved surface. The column was mounted to the bench using two Veritas carving vises, attached to the center of each end, which allowed the column to spin, but also allowed for it to lock firmly in place while carving. Once all the little recesses were routered to the same depth I move the column from the workshop onto the carving bench, where I would carve the remainder of the project using only hand tools.

The pattern consists of three spiraling motifs along the length, for a total of twelve motifs around the full column. I worked on each section at a time and slowly worked my way up and down the column, turning it as I made progress. The video at the bottom of the page shows the finished column turning around, and gives a better visual on how the pattern flows around the column.

The Acanthish Column is now at home atop a custom built granite wall at the top of a hill in Canterbury, with an expansive view of the lovely New Hampshire landscape that surrounds it. The combination of the dark wood and the deeply cut pattern makes for a dramatic affect as the light moves across the carving from morning to evening, that subtlly changes as the seasons pass.

I documented the carving process extensively on the Ninth Wave Designs Instagram account, and I have put together a gallery of those images here to show the details of that process.

Tower and Stars: Carving A Family Shield

I recently completed a commissioned carving of a large shield with a family emblem consisting of a tower with three stars. It is one of the larger sized commissions I have done, measuring 19″ wide by 25″ high and 2″ inches thick – carved from a single piece of old growth Honduran mahogany. I purchased the board from someone who had stored it in an old warehouse since the 1980s, and it was difficult to tell at first what it would look like – rough sawn and covered by decades of dust. I hand planed the board, as it was too wide for my planer, and the glow of the warm grain that emerged from the dingy exterior was a very welcome sight. This turned out to be one of the more beautiful pieces of mahogany I have carved, and I feel honored to have been able to create something from such a magnificent old tree.

The shield is more of what I would call heraldish than heraldic – I started by looking at traditional depictions of heraldic castles and towers but did not adhere to the strict rules of heraldry when creating the design. I incorporated a high level of detail in the stonework of the castle – something I knew the mahogany wood would be particularly suited to. The beveled edge of the shield features a dovetailed meander, another design detail borrowed from traditional heraldry, but adapted to add movement and interest to the border of the carving. Additionally I carved a fine rippled texture into the background, to catch the changing light and to compliment the texture of the tower stones.

The oil and wax finish on this piece brought the mahogany wood to life – it is always a magical transformation that brings out the deeply hidden beauty of the wood grain. Now it is in its new home, and I am happy to have had the opportunity to create this celebration of family history.

Alchemical Aviary Oracle Cards

I recently completed the Alchemical Aviary oracle deck and made the short video below showing the cards in their box. The deck consists of 13 hand painted cards in a repurposed copper and brass box. I painted the cards from my own designs using watercolor pencils and acrylic inks on Bristol board, cut to reflect the shape of the box. I discovered the box in an antique shop nine years ago and I found it very compelling, and I started working on this deck then, completing two of the cards that I wrote about previously HERE and HERE. Early this spring I decided it was time to work on this project again, painting the 11 remaining cards and completing the card sleeve and box decorations.

The Alchemical Aviary oracle cards represent the 12 stages of the alchemical process, using bird imagery to symbolize the journey from base matter to gold. The title “Aviary” is used in the archaic sense, referring to a bestiary book or manuscript containing images of birds only. I created this set of cards to explore the alchemical process as it applies to the psychological aspects of the symbols – as visual focal points to use as tools for understanding. Several of the bird symbols are traditionally used to represent the aspects of the process, and others I chose to replace more traditional representations of the stages of the work.

Below is the video of the completed project and a gallery of images taken during the process of creating the cards. I am currently exploring the possibility of reproducing these and offering a limited number of sets of cards, once I work through the logistics. I am also working on writing the descriptions that go with each card, to make a small booklet to accompany the printed cards.

I have thoroughly enjoyed working on these, and have ideas for more projects like this!

 

For in That Book Is Your Soul

The first post I wrote when I restarted the Ninth Wave Designs blog nine years ago included this quote from Carl Gustav Jung:

“I should advise you to put it all down as beautifully as you can — in some beautifully bound book. It will seem as if you were making the visions banal — but then you need to do that — then you are freed from the power of them. . . . Then when these things are in some precious book you can go to the book & turn over the pages & for you it will be your church — your cathedral — the silent places of your spirit where you will find renewal. If anyone tells you that it is morbid or neurotic and you listen to them — then you will lose your soul — for in that book is your soul.”

I read it again recently and it surprised me – in a splash-of-cold-water-in-the-face kind of way. I was looking back on the blog to see when it was exactly that I started working on the alchemy-themed oracle cards that I am finishing up now, and came across the quote. Sometimes it takes the perspective of time, of looking back through the filter of the collection of events that have passed over months and years, to see things more clearly – only then can you see the way forward. Through that filter it was like reading Jung’s quote fresh for the first time, and the meaning was clear and complete.

The background noise of life has reached a level of distraction that has been hard to manage lately, for all of us I’m sure, and it has been interfering with my ability to hold the focus of clarity that creative work requires. These words from Jung snapped my mind back into sharp focus, and I see now what I have been doing all along, and what I must continue to do. Reading it brought a cascade of images to mind of all the drawings and paintings that I have committed to paper between the pages of my sketchbooks and watercolor notebooks through these unsettled times, created with a sense of urgency and necessity about them – and now I see why. These creations have been the silent places of my spirit, and it has given me a sense of renewal, just as Jung promised. I feel fortunate that I have so many blank pages in these creative books that are yet to be filled, they represent an investment in the continuation of an essential creative process that involves nothing less than saving my soul.

If you keep this same kind of creative practice between the pages of your notebooks and sketchbooks, take a moment to pause and honor that process, and recognize it for what it is:

your church;

your cathedral;

your place of renewal;

because in that book is your soul.

Here is a glimpse into mine:

 

 

 

Icon of the Great Bear

This original wood carving is inspired by the constellation Ursa Major, the Great Bear. I designed this piece to reflect a feeling of reverence for the sacredness of nature, a religious icon if you will, to the vast beauty of the night sky, and a celebration of the patterns that we find there. In star lore the Great Bear is a fearless mother to Ursa Minor, and her familiar ladle-shaped pattern is among the first constellations that we learn to recognize as children. She watches over us from the heavens, just as she does her own Little Bear.

In designing this carving I started with a traditional Gothic arched frame to evoke a feeling of spiritual art from an earlier time. The border features stars interspersed with runes that spell out a secret prayer to the stars above. The runes I use are not historic runes, but ones I invented to use in my artwork, as a way to invoke the feeling of an ancient and forgotten language. They have true meaning, but it remains hidden, to allow the viewer to ascribe their own experience and meaning to the work.

The photos in the gallery below document the process of creating this carving. I started with a 1″ thick piece of butternut wood sourced locally, and used a band saw to cut out the Gothic arched shape of the outline, which measures 9″ wide by 15.75″ high. I used a router to take down the background levels, and the roughed out carving at this stage is shown in the first photo. From this stage forward, all the carving work is done using hand tools – files, various gouges and carving knives. This carving is finished from the tool, without using sandpaper, so the individual cuts from the sharp carving tools leave a subtly rippled texture to the wood. I sealed the wood with linseed oil and then painted it using oil paints, using glazes to allow the wood grain to show through the colors around the frame. Gold and silver metallic effects were painted on and then it was given a coating of beeswax to finish the piece.

I feel that as humans we need to be constantly reminded of the sacredness of nature, and reawakened to the spiritual mysteries that can be found there. We are not meant to be spiritually separate from these experiences, but our culture and civilization have divided us from this essential aspect of our humanity. I created this piece to remind myself and others that the stars can be our church and all of nature our religion if we let ourselves remember how we felt as children when we gazed at the night sky.

The Icon of the Great Bear wood carving is available for purchase in the Ninth Wave Designs Etsy store – click HERE to see more information.