The Green Man Liveth
By Jim Dodson
When we lived in Maine, my witty wife used to say she always knew when spring was becoming summer because a large shrub would be passing the kitchen window on its own power.
In fact, this simply meant that her gardening-mad husband was busy moving either a large shrub or a small tree in his faux English, Southern-style garden in the woods, trying to find a more suitable place for a plant that probably had no business growing in the big woods of central Maine to begin with.
Despite rumors to the contrary, there is actually such a thing as springtime in Maine. If you pay close attention, you can experience all two or three glorious days of it before it’s officially declared summer. Or, as I took to calling it over the two decades we lived there, the start of Luggage Rack Season. That’s when the tourist occupation begins, and the price of local inns and shore dinners nearly triples, and locals essentially hide out and avoid town center until mid-September.
Just between us, I must have killed half a dozen perfectly innocent Eastern redbud trees — my favorite, a true herald of springtime in the South — by hauling them discreetly into the Pine Tree State to plant on a forested hilltop that was at least two zones colder than suitable. Over those years, despite my occasional acts of sentimental arbor-cide, I managed to build a fairly impressive 2-acre landscape garden that never failed to surprise and even impress those rare souls who found their way up our dirt road into the forest — the remains of an abandoned village road that became our driveway in a vast hemlock and birch forest.
Truthfully, I expected to live forever on that wild and beautiful hilltop, whatever “forever” means, and even wrote a book about my version of the beautiful madness that propelled me on a year’s amusing journey through the wider world of horticulture. My sojourn included a month of seeking rare species with renowned North Carolina plantsman Tony Avent and several of his plant hunter pals in the remotest parts of South Africa. As adventures go, stalking the smallest hyacinth on Earth or the wild pelargonium in its native habitat turned out to be a personal primer on the majestic power of nature and akin to being in an Indiana Jones film with plant geeks. I came home cut and bruised in places I didn’t even know I had — but one happy and wiser backyard gardener.
This spring I began the ambitious restoration of a 70-year-old garden in the Greensboro neighborhood where we moved last fall. With reluctance fueled by keen respect for the house’s original gardener — an old family friend and classy lady named Mama Merle — I removed several ancient boxwoods and azaleas that had seen their better days and saved a grand old Washington hawthorn from being strangled to death by English Ivy.
In place of traditional shrubs, desiring a “cleaner” look to the house, I planted ornamental grasses and 15 flowering trees that included Japanese maples, red and white dogwoods, Natchez crape myrtles, junipers and, yes indeedy, a pair of gorgeous Eastern redbuds in honor of their fallen kin. I finished this work in time to be rewarded with a front yard in bloom.
The backyard was the bigger challenge, a jungle of Mahonia shrubs and ivy gone wild. After tearing down an old pergola, I spent several afternoons cutting down and digging up the giant Mahonia bushes (my vote for the worst plant on Earth, and I have the arm wounds to prove it) in order to begin a Japanese garden beneath the ancient white oaks, dogwoods and Carolina silver bells that Mama Merle planted years ago.
As summer dawns, the Japanese garden is beginning to come into its own, a shady oasis of cool blue plantings and gravel pathways waiting to provide sanctuary when the furnace blast of midsummer strikes the Piedmont. To give my secret garden a proper anthem, I even managed to hang a set of the largest wind chimes I could find from a high branch of the great-grandfather oak that presides over this sylvan retreat. When the breeze stirs, I swear I sometimes hear the first three notes of “Amazing Grace” as I climb the rickety wooden steps to my writing studio over the garage. Because its windows look out over this small kingdom of trees, I call it the “writing tree house.”
Trees of almost any sort, I’ll admit, fascinate and endlessly attract my attention. For years, whenever I traveled for stories here and abroad, I routinely sought out municipal and private green spaces and couldn’t possibly tell you how many hours I’ve spent making notes, reading books, wandering or simply woolgathering though the winding paths of great arboretums and botanical gardens from Brooklyn to Battersea, Portland to Paris.
I loved living in a thick Northern forest, and I love the fact that the towns and cities of my native Piedmont offer a diverse abundance of glorious old trees in neighborhoods and parks of the Triad. Whenever and wherever I tool around the region, I often have to simply stop and admire them.
Maybe I’m just a wild and wooly Green Man in training.
The philosopher Plato believed that the gods and human souls inhabited groves of trees after death. This notion may have given rise to the mythical “Green Man” figure who showed up enigmatically carved into the stone or wood of churches and cathedrals across medieval Europe, commonly a whiskered old gent’s weathered face — maybe gentle, maybe not — gazing upon the passing world from a shroud of leaves and limbs and vines.
“Unlike with dragons, lions, centaurs, mermaids and other images of Christian iconography,” notes a website devoted to the famous mystery man of the woodlands, “we have no old tales or medieval literature to satisfactorily explain the meaning of the Green Man. The origins of the phenomenon are lost in the mists of time, and he has waxed and waned throughout history in both his presence and his influence, although never quite disappearing.”
I say long live the wild Green Man in all of us who believe that old trees and new gardens keep us young at heart and hearing notes of an Amazing Grace when the summer breeze stirs in the trees.