The Green Man’s Guide to Life


Eight days after my husband’s death, I had my first dream as a widow.

I walk up a wooden staircase and see a giant man sitting naked in a claw-foot porcelain bathtub with water up to his waist. His bronze hair looks like foliage. Water droplets cover his pale jade body. ”

What’s with your skin?” I ask.

“It lasts one year,” he answers.

He is the Green Man. I will live in his house for a year.

When I woke up, a surprising whisper of hope softened my sorrow. I recalled statues of a man’s face surrounded by foliage on garden walls and vaguely remembered the Green Man was a mythological god of vegetative growth and rebirth. I trusted he would help me survive the raw intensity of grief, although I had no idea how.

A friend loaned me William Anderson’s book, Green Man: The Archetype of our Oneness with the Earth. The cover showed a sculpted male face from a 13th century village church in England. His leafy hair reminded me of my dream man. I poured over images and detailed information about a vegetative god who symbolized the cycle of life and the birth of spring in pre-Christian Northern Europe. Artisans had carved and painted his face in decorative details in Christian cathedrals, secretly bringing the old pagan image into the new order. He emerged from swirls of leaves. Vines or branches grew out of his mouth or curled around his ears. Sometimes he appeared with the Virgin Mary or Mother Earth.

My dream came in mid June, a time of bursting color on my land. After the dream, my enthusiasm for nature and the world of plants — things I’d always loved — grew stronger. I balanced my inner gloom by focusing on uncurling leaves, wildflower buds and growing shoots of pines. The plants in my fields and forest lived lavishly despite mortality — and because of mortality.

“Live now,” they said. “You will find your way into life.”

When I couldn’t stand the deep ache of sorrow, I went outside. I noticed the height and growing tips of hundreds of trees my husband and I had planted and found wildflowers in the woods where we’d once removed piles of tires and rusted cars. I walked the trails we had opened along the streams and smelled the pungent scent of invasive garlic mustard as I pulled it from the forest floor. I felt life’s push and the shortness of the season that would soon be followed by death, then waiting, then rebirth and another spring.

Rebirth? My husband’s? Mine? I didn’t try to unravel my knotted views of reincarnation. Instead, I witnessed the lives of plants and their friends, the birds and butterflies. They were enough.

I walked through fields of purple lupines that June and purple asters in September. The maples reddened and the oaks turned gold. I was part of the ever-changing earth.

That winter, I followed animal tracks on my snowshoes and found jade moss hidden under snow. I walked to the red oak where my sons and I had built a cairn in my husband’s memory and left offerings of acorns, pine cones and tears. I watched lengthening days and learned from Nature’s patience. The Green Man’s hand was everywhere.

The next spring, yellow trout lilies bloomed as they always had. Bluebirds returned to claim their nesting boxes. Green shoots of grass pushed through overnight. I inhaled the musty earth and listened to bird call in the canopy. I visited lupines in the fields, violets in the forest, and returned home to tend my vegetable garden.

The Green Man did not evict me after one year. He let me stay to walk the trails and learn from flowers and trees. The dream was a gift that guided me back to Life. Fresh possibility followed bitter winter. My husband was gone, but the plants cycled on and I lived with them, grounded and guided by the Green Man and his verdant earth.

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  1. A beautiful story of renewed life after the loss, Elaine. I see in your story how connecting to the cycles of the earth and growing things brought you through the worse part of grief and beyond. For me, when my husband died, it was listening to my dreams and to meaningful coincidences that followed, that led me to understand that I wasn’t alone; was, in fact, supported by an intelligent and loving universe. For another it might be music, or art, or meditation. The point is to listen to the soul messages that come as gifts from the ‘spirit of the depths.’ Messages that when heeded, as you were able to do with the the green man symboligy, show us the way out of the Dark Wood. Thank you for sharing your journey so eloquently and from the heart. Hugs, Jenna

  2. Jenna, thanks for your beautiful comment. The Green Man was a perfect image since I always turned to my woods or garden when I needed to soothe and heal myself in hard moments. In the case of Vic’s death, that need went on a long time. I had another wonderful dream soon after the first Green Man dream. A man in a green shirt was building a new path. I was grateful some part of me knew where and how to make a new path into life.


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