The Green Man (a Parable)

Giuseppe Arcimboldo, Vertumnus, (detail), 1591, Skolkoster Castle, (Sweden).

The anteroom to the Green Man’s palace chamber was large but spartan. The floors were broad oak-boards, and the walls were covered with paper that resembled willow boughs. Around the room were wrought-iron sconces, the wallpaper behind them darkened by candle smoke. There were two doors in the room: a tall one leading to the royal chamber and a short one opposite. Both were heavy oak and coffered, the latter polished by the hands of generations of courtiers. The Green Man’s secretary sat at a high desk in the middle of the room, furnished with an inkwell, stamp pad and stamps. There was nothing else in the room except a low bench upon which sat a dejected Petitioner.

The Petitioner was pale and lean from years of worry about the welfare of his family. Lately, he was anxious about an additional responsibility: presenting to the Green Man a list of community needs. He was honored that the elders had given him this job, but after almost six months of fruitless visits to the palace, he despaired that his petition would ever be accepted. Each morning, he presented it to His Eminence’s secretary, and each afternoon it was returned to him. “Too much,” was the Green Man’s single, oracular utterance, transmitted by the secretary. What did it mean, wondered the Petitioner? Was the cost too high or the scope too ambitious? Or had the villagers by now submitted so many petitions that the patience of the Green Man was exhausted? There was no way to know unless the Petitioner was granted a royal audience, and so far, that was forbidden.

Six more months passed and still he waited. In the meantime, conditions in the village grew more dire. The fires that in past years intermittently plagued the town now arrived punctually every October, followed by floods in January. Few homes were spared, and no one felt safe. Even the cats and dogs were afraid; they ran off to live in packs down in the moist valleys or up in the cooler highlands. Most villagers couldn’t afford to live where their former animal companions did!

Community members tried their best to adapt and improvise solutions to these recurring disasters but so far, nothing worked. For example, they cleared the flammable dry grass and brush around their homes and dug broad firebreaks in the forest, but burning embers, blown by hot, dry winds, still landed on their roofs and porches and set them ablaze. They had no better luck controlling floods. They regularly repaired the dike and religiously removed debris from concrete channels, but when the heavy storms arrived, the dike leaked again and spillways were overwhelmed, inundating homes to the first or even second floors. The rains also washed away the soils needed for planting, thus compounding a housing crisis with a food crisis. If this constant burning and flooding continued much longer, they would be homeless and hungry! The Petitioner himself grew more wan by the day, not so much from lack of food as from despair.

Nobody in the village knew why it was getting hotter, but a few among them said it all started when they began, a few generations earlier, to mine and burn the soft black rock and gooey tar that was plentiful in surrounding hills and dales. Like Prometheus, the scolds said, the Gods were punishing villagers for the heat and light they stole from the sun. But that was ridiculous, said others. The black rock and brown-black tar didn’t come from the sun, it came from the earth! And the smoke it produced when ignited was like a burnt offering to propitiate the gods and the Green Man.

The petitions themselves were entirely reasonable. They contained requests for labor, materials and know-how to build new and deeper water channels, fix the leaky dike, and excavate a big, water catchment lined in concrete. To tackle the fires, they needed an annual crew of trained loggers to thin the forest and collect flammable snags, logs, branches, dried grasses and leaves. In addition to that, and just to be safe, they wanted a Community Center made of fire-resistant concrete. Was that really too much to ask of the rich and powerful Green Man?

But day after day, week after week, and month after month, the Petitioner received nothing but rejections, or to be more specific, notes saying “Too much.” So, each night, the elders and he got together to edit their petition and reduce their request. First the concrete lined catchment basin was cut. Then the expanded, concrete lined channels. After that, they cut the proposed annual budget for brush clearing. Then they reduced the crew of trained loggers and foresters to just a handful, and finally even eliminated the gathering of branches and the raking of leaves from the forest floor.

But even the most scaled down of their requests was determined to be “Too much.” After five years of frustration, the Petitioner resigned his post and the village elders gathered to assess the situation. The forests were by now a diverse community of tall and short trees, shrubs, vines and native grasses. The branches and foliage were so dense in places, that hardly a breeze could pass through it. The concrete water channels were cracked and broken, exposing ever-widening gaps though which grew an assortment of water loving plants: irises, milkweed, spider lilies and hibiscus. The old dike was breached, and river waters spread widely between the homes (by now raised on stilts) to create seasonal wetlands populated by cypress trees, water birches, cardinal flowers, canna and frog fruit. The periodic floods deposited rich silt on formerly depleted farmlands.

Without support from the Green Man, the villagers could no longer afford to buy or maintain the tools they needed to mine the black rock or collect tar, so instead they used wood for fuel, easily harvested from the forest floor. Every time they took out a log, a tree grew up in its place to grab the newly available sunlight. And since the steel and concrete community house was now a pipedream, they did the best they could by building a barn – also raised on stilts — made of timbers with a roof of slate. Inside, they laid down a broad, oak floor and lined the walls with hand printed wallpaper that resembled larkspur. During the day, light was provided by big, multipaned, colored glass windows, and at night by candles made from wax collected from the many bee-hives found in nearby meadows. Dogs and cats regularly came round to various houses to receive handouts of food – it was becoming hard to get rid of them. An open-air market in the center of town sold fruits and vegetables harvested from the fertile fields and orchards. The former Petitioner sold apples and pears from one of the market stalls; he’d put on a little weight since his days at the palace. The fires and floods at last seemed to be in abeyance, he thought — no thanks to the Green Man!

Stephen F. Eisenman is emeritus professor at Northwestern University. His latest book, with Sue Coe, is titled “The Young Person’s Guide to American Fascism,” and is forthcoming from OR Books. He can be reached at