Jim Harrison’s Green Man

Green Man carving, circa 12th c., from Church of St. Mary and St. David in Kilpeck, England. Wikimedia Commons.

Jim Harrison portrait by Andy Anderson, from Dead Man’s Float.

In Jim Harrison‘s final book of poetry, he includes a piece on the Green Man. This figure appears repeatedly over the centuries in European and Euro-American literature and art. His exact origin is unknown and interpretations of his symbolism vary greatly. Historically, from certain Christian perspectives, he represented the base world, Paganism, and the devil itself. From more mystical Christian perspectives, he represented the Holy Spirit and the life God breathed into all that lives. The best known manifestation of the Green Man may be in Arthurian tales, particularly in the 14th c. Middle English “Sir Gawain and the Green Knight” (author unknown), wherein his meaning is as ambiguous as ever. In the 1990’s he was romanticized by poet and so-called “Men’s Movement” founder Robert Bly. Today, he receives positive attention from many neo-Pagans. Regardless, the Green Man is most often associated with “nature,” wildness, and similar concepts. Certainly, this is the association Harrison has in mind. In his poem, titled simply “The Green Man,” the figure embodies knowledge of how one should live in the non-human world. But if we consider the poem in the context of Harrison’s other non-fiction work, we might argue that his Green Man embodies knowledge of how one should live always.

Illustration of the Green Knight (holding his severed head), from the original manuscript containing Sir Gawain and the Green Night. Wikimedia Commons.

“The Green Man”

Since early childhood I believed
in a door in the forest. I looked for it
for more than a half century
and it evaded me. The Green Man
lived there, part tree and part human.
Keeping his distance he told me a lot.
Walk mostly sideways in the wilderness
to confuse those who would track you.
When outside, sleep with your eyes open
And see the coyote pup approach out
of curiosity, the small bear resting
against a stump a hundred yards away,
a warbler standing on your toe singing.
When I lost he howled at me from a tree, “Wrong way.”
I dreamed where he lived, high on the steep
bank of the river concealed under a thick drapery
of tree roots but I skidded on my tummy
down into the river, a sign to give up.
There was a stinking wolf den close by so my dog
wouldn’t stay with me. The Green Man, alone, forever.

Jim Harrison, Dead Man’s Float (Copper Canyon Press, 2016), 54.

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