Am I plant blind? It’s definitely possible never to notice the wondrous activity of plants beneath bark, beneath soil. Maybe the same could be said for turning a blind eye to images of plants, right under our noses. Even though I’ve been researching the symbol of the Green Man and trying to understand the human yearning to connect with the vegetal world for some years now, I failed to notice that some prime examples were visible much closer to home.

That’s why, on a freezing cold day in June last year I was on my way to Lithgow, over the Blue Mountains, west of Sydney.

But let’s back up a bit. The Green Man is a carved stone architectural symbol. It is an intimidating foliate-faced gargoyle and there are thousands of them decorating old pubs, churches and meeting halls across the UK and Europe. It didn’t even cross my mind there would be any in Australia, let alone on the family church that I was forced to attend each year as a child, against my will. Why did I not see them? Maybe what matters is that eventually I did see the Australian Green Man …and he looked eerily familiar.

The Green Man’s carved features sit high on the outsides of churches and cathedrals, but also on internal bosses and columns. They have leaves as beards, eyebrows and hair. Some have foliage coming out of their mouth and ears. Some have leaves as cheeks. They emerged in the first century BCE as images of folkloric and pagan belief systems – representations of the forest. These early examples were intended to ward off evil: they were pagan images of worship and signs of bacchanalian revelry. In Europe and Britain, where most early examples of the Green Man exist, the pagan associations were of appeasing or honouring nature. This was a mollifying or imploring of Mother Nature to bring good seasons, without pestilence or flood.

Surely, I thought as I headed out of Sydney, even in contemporary Australia with droughts, floods, bushfires, mice plagues and the Covid epidemic, we could do with some help from the Green Man?

Driving west, I remembered why I don’t like the Blue Mountains. Their Romantic vistas, the sublime cliffs and heart-starting trail walks have a special mysterious energy that makes me slightly uneasy. When I have visited other sacred places, such as Uluru, there is a positive energy – it’s so strong and exquisitely beautiful there that it stopped me in my tracks a few times when I walked around its base. But the Blue Mountains elicits a different experience for me. I have wondered if there were brutal massacres of Aboriginal groups, the Gundungurra and Darug tribes. While there isn’t evidence on public record of massacres across the Great Dividing Range, the strange melancholic atmosphere hangs heavy in the blue mist from the eucalypts that gives these mountains their name.

The Green Man has its own fair share of bad juju. Back in medieval times, Nature was an entity of significant power and independent sovereignty. The correlation between humans and nature was more immediate, more seasonal and more connected to solstices and moon patterns. Pagan activities were important dates in the calendar and, with the rise of Christianity in the early centuries AD, there was a tolerance and even an appropriation of such images as the Green Man into the church. They were considered benign (not a threat to the Church’s influence and messaging) and ensured the influx of new Christian recruits. As Mark Olly explains, Europe was consumed by the year-long myth where the god of nature rises in power in midsummer then declines, and the goddess rises to power in spring to bear fruit, mate with the god of nature in spring (May day) and then declines. The goddess is the Earth Mother and the god takes various forms such as the Green Man. Green Man, its name adapted from Jack in the Green or Foliate Face by Lady Raglan in 1939, has also been connected with concepts of fertility and abundance.

Norwich Cathedral in England features several carved icons; there are nine faces sprouting oak, maple, strawberry, buttercup or gilded hawthorn leaves. Fran and Geoff Doel, in their work, wonder whether these Green Man images were benign forest spirits or a Christian embodiment of the fearsome devil. Richard Mabey interprets one of Norwich’s foliate faces as being a ‘gigolo’ and another as a ‘diablo.’ He refers to them as ‘symbolically sinful’ and ‘undoubtedly having a theological status.’ Mabey traces scholar Kathleen Basford’s research into eighth century theologian Rabanus Maurus’ interpretation of Green Man’s leaves as sins of the flesh from lustful and wicked men. Mabey dubs Basford’s interpretation of the image ‘admonitory’.

Australia, however, has very few examples of the Green Man for us to interpret as devils or anything other, and it is possible to argue that during the colonial period, Australian nature was a force to be fought back by settlers, controlled and dominated, rather than revered or feared. Perhaps our scrub was seen as something impenetrable and aggravating rather than an abundant entity to be worshipped. Our early colonial images of interaction between human and nature were concerned with pioneering, such as grand vistas of unending Romantic landscape (eg. John Glover), or of braving the bush, or sitting by a campfire with billy tea or barely surviving endless desert lands.

The few Australian instances of the Green Man include one carved on the Adelaide Jail and one on St Peters Cathedral in Adelaide. A pamphlet, entitled ‘Jack-in-the-Green in Tasmania’ 1844-73 was written by Keith Leech in 1989 and published by the Folklore Society Library. However the thread ends there…so far.

It’s my contention that Green Man might be exactly the kind of plant-human image Australia needs to draw awareness back to the tentacular relationship between human and plants in the twenty-first century. As a warning sign against the catastrophic risks and independent power of Mother Nature, as an expression of the close connection between humans and plants, the Green Man might be a reminder of contemporary divisions between humans and nature. The Green Man reminds me that city-dwelling humans have never been so detached from the vegetal world (green spaces) as they are today.

The drive from Sydney to Lithgow means getting down the other side of that Great Dividing Range which separates the mild coastal regions from the arid plains and deserts beyond. After the well-known lengthy ascent, there is that jaw-clenching descent into the valley on the other side. Drivers would be forgiven for holding their breath as the massive multi-car trucks rattle past. Bell birds start echoing as you pass this point of the mountains, culminating in high decibels just as your ears fog up with the lower air pressure. Although I have always loved the pinging resonance of the bell bird, on this particular day, it sounded like a death knell because the search for a Green Man is unmistakably a repetition of colonial processes (re-colonising) and it was dredging up aspects of my family’s history that did not align with my own eco-feminist approach to life.

Although Australia has a dearth of Green Man stories or interpretations, a study of those we do have could leave space for a new discussion of the Green Man in an Australian context. Perhaps it is possible to approach a decolonised framing of the hybrid human-plant image – a new interpretation that doesn’t seek to eradicate the Green Man altogether but recalls its fearful and apotropaic power to ward off evil. A new hybrid image would most likely resist European and British conventions, such as bacchanalian boozer, or as image of Christian God or as fertility symbol. As mentioned, there are multiple interpretations of the meaning or significance of the Green Man symbol (evil or naughty, benevolent or sinister). However, the basic principle of a hybrid plant-human image might be useful at a time when the idea of Nature constructing human life, rather than the reverse, seems to be out of reach.

Decolonising strategies around vegetal life do not necessarily require an eradication of colonial stories or imagery – but a better understanding of the damage of those colonial structures, many of which have not died away. This is partly because it would be very difficult to erase all botanic gardens, all herbarium collections, all androcentric plant-naming processes, all hierarchical Latin naming processes – all high-end colonial praxes. However, it may be possible to engage instead with counter-narratives. In this case, a new hybrid image could provide an alternative story to the Green Man’s rich nature-centred heritage that also refers to the current apocalyptic experiences of being human. The question, that caused my driver’s head to start aching, was what kind of plant-human hybrid could do the work that the Green Man once did – that connected humans with the vegetal world in kinship (where vegetal and human activity are enmeshed) and in a networked and multiple way (where all subjects in a given ecosystem are led by seasonal cycles and vegetal time)?

Before working out a suggestion, I needed to think through the beginning of this Green Man family mystery. Back in 2014, I was only just learning about the Green Man and other human-plant crossovers. I remember attending a particularly antagonistic environmental humanities conference in Canberra. There was ferocious debate between the eco-humanities presenters about human-plant relations and weeds. The pro-weeders believed that all vegetal matter existed on an equal ontological register – and therefore have equivalent status and value – and that exterminating weeds was a form of human exceptionalism. That is, killing weeds is bad. Then, the pro-weedkillers railed that protecting species and restoring compromised eco-systems requires the use of herbicides and is an ethical means of biodiverse longevity. That is, killing weeds is good.

These conflicting positions made logical critical sense but the animosity surprised me.

Despite the confusing pugilism , this conference was important for me. First, I met Michael Marder who is a Professor of vegetal philosophy and who ended up being series publisher of my plant-human monograph. Second, I met scientist Monica Gagliano that day, with whom I have since co-written papers, created video interviews and symposia regarding plant communication and plant blindness. This is the beauty of generative vegetal activities – they grow! Gagliano’s truly ground-breaking laboratory research into plant behaviour has influenced my writing (eg. Feminist Plant) on how art and narrative can mediate plant science in order to improve human-plant relations. But Gagliano was also receiving some heated antagonism during her conference presentation, because attendees were uncomfortable with the implications of her work– if she could prove plants associatively learn, remember and make decisions, how do we make sense of that agency? After all, plants do not have brains or souls. This raised all kinds of philosophical, ethical and religious questions about plant life that caused alarm then, and still do. What, now, are humans to make of vegetal life? How can we re-engage with plants in an equal and respectful way?

I knew I was witnessing the local Australian variant of heated debates raging all over the world about native versus alien plant species, within this context of changing philosophies around plant life. It was exciting, to be honest. These were animated arguments about how to deal with the impact of invasive species, conservation of native species and whether a plant could be both native and invasive, and how humans need to change their perception of plants and nature more broadly as being merely at the instrumental service of humankind.

With respect to the Australian Green Man, I started to wonder whether this gargoyle visitor from a European culture was an unwanted, introduced and alien species too? If they were mostly ignored in Australia as a reminder of past European masteries, could it follow that the extant Green Man images were continuing a colonial dominion over more truthful and culturally appropriate imagery, both Indigenous and non-Indigenous?

Soon after this conference full of tense debate, I started researching and writing about interesting human-plant co-species, from robotic plants – which I have termed robotany – to radical human interventions into plant life via artworks (The Plant Contract). I began to follow the Green Man across Europe and vaguely noted that I hadn’t seen any in Sydney, but a few emails to architecture history friends was as far as I got. Then, as I pondered Monica Gagliano’s plant communication work, its implications for re-thinking human exceptionalism and returning to pre-Judeo Christian relationships with nature, the strange and very personal childhood memory that had sent me on this drive to Lithgow was triggered.

Six years later, it was time to face the gargoyles. The arrival into Lithgow always brings mixed feelings for me. I was regularly dragged to the family get-togethers at the Hoskins Memorial Church and I felt the weight of having no agency as a child, of melodramatically having ‘no life’, of the humiliation of not having anything better to do. These teenage feelings were exacerbated by the gloomy outskirts of Lithgow. The area has been plagued with unemployment, poverty and poor mental health and, back in the early 1980s (when I was at my most lugubrious and most resentful of the Lithgow trips), the economy was already dire.

These economic challenges are common to regional areas now, but Lithgow has always been hard-hit. The Hoskins family took over the Lithgow steelworks in 1907 at a time of low profits and enormous debts and they went on to recover and then prosper from its activities. The steelworks included two open hearth furnaces, as they made puddled and wrought iron. There were rolling mills and scrap yards, boilers and extraction of iron ore deposits. However the steelworks managed to survive industrial disputes, poor quality machinery and having to make their own coke for the furnaces, until closure and a relocation of the business to Port Kembla in 1928. the year that the Hoskins Memorial church was built.

Every year there were huge family reunions at the Hoskins family church and its grounds. Hundreds of Hoskins descendants congregate for a service and then catch up over a vast afternoon tea. For at least ten years, my mother forced my siblings and I to go, and we hated it. It was boring. And cold. We hated church. We hated the claggy scones and watery cream, the smell of talcum powder and sickly perfume. It was all really annoying.

Over the last thirty years of adulthood, I have managed to avoid the ongoing family reunions at the Hoskins church. This in part was due to my uneasiness of what I knew to be true. My ancestors had been a dominant (social, economic and environmental) force in the Lithgow community. They had profited from their time there and had ‘survived industrial disputes’ (from a note in the archives). Surviving industrial disputes naturally suggests that workers were not happy with their conditions at best and were potentially exploited or underpaid at worst. Surviving poor quality machinery sounds alarm bells to me as well. Machinery that are not adequately maintained cause accidents for workers. As someone who works, writes and creates artworks as an eco-activist, trying to redress capitalist environmental crimes against everyday people and lands, this family heritage is discomforting. I have even been warned by a colleague against writing about it today. But I am. It’s important for me to face the facts of my ancestry: I’m certain of this.

What I’m not sure about, however, is how or why I suddenly wondered if there were Green Man gargoyles at Lithgow. Had I unconsciously noticed the Green Man gargoyles high in the church years before and not made sense of what I saw? What made me ask after this church in the context of Green Man, out of the blue? Surely it was an old memory, locked deeply, of gazing up at the church roof, bored by family duty? Had I run off from my parents and sulkily sat on a far wall, to wait out the excruciating afternoon tea, and glanced upwards?

Either way, I was here to face them. Once I arrived at the church, I parked just outside. It was built of exquisitely beautiful sandstone – I’d forgotten how stunning the church is. I took a deep breath and determined to look straight into the faces of my own family’s Green Man gargoyles. It was always bitterly cold in Lithgow and Covid-19 restrictions were not helping the atmosphere of closure and melancholy. I took up my binoculars and walked around and around the tower. With my neck craned, I gazed at them. So rare in Australia. The Lithgow examples are more human,than plant, compared to other Green Man gargoyles. The faces are all slightly different from one another but seem connected in terms of family resemblance.

The eight stone Green Man gargoyles leered down from the Hoskins church tower, above which there are four small spires and one soaring central spire. Charles Hoskins, known as the Australian ironmaking captain of the steel industry, commissioned Loveridge and Hudson stonemasons to include the Green Man. All that the extant family knows is that Guildford Hoskins, the eldest son of Charles, died at Eskroy Park in 1916 at the age of 29. He lit a cigarette, unaware there was a gas leak close by, and caused an explosion that killed him. His father determined to build a Presbyterian church in his memory and by 1928 it was complete. The architect commissioned was John Barr of Sydney, the supervising contractor was J. Halliwell, the stonemasons were from Loveridge and Hudson, under the direction of old Thomas Loveridge himself.

I kept staring up and realised that each of the eight Green Man gargoyles looked exactly like my own grandfather Alan Crago, grandson of Charles Hoskins. Alan was much-loved but grumpy and shouty. My memory of my grandfather is that he drank a bottle of whisky every day and smoked at least a pack of cigarettes …but he was a very clever and informed man, who cared for orchids in a glasshouse in the back garden. He was frightening, as a young child, I’ll admit it. Now, here he was, up there, as a Green Man with a face to scare off any individual.

The curious mystery of why there were Green Man gargoyles on our family church started to eat away at me. When I got home after the trip, my mother helped me to email various people and dig out the archives. We rang and researched some more. There seemed to be no satisfying explanation. There was no family lore or gossip as to why the Green Man image was incorporated on this one church. I visited the Registrar General Office in Sydney CBD and the St Johns church in Darlinghurst, where stonemason Loveridge oversaw all the gargoyles on these buildings, the former numbering over forty, but none are Green Man. There are fierce animals such as lions and strange monsters – but no human faces with foliage.

It is less than likely that Loveridge stonemasons intended the Lithgow Green Man to represent God (the male face) issuing forth the universe (plant foliage), as many conject was the intention of the original ecclesiastic Green Men gargoyles. That is because the eight Lithgow Green Man faces have foliage for hair and beard but no leaves emanating from the mouth. There doesn’t seem to be any connection between the characteristics of the Green Man and the local Lithgow environment, which is rocky and scrubby, compared to the never-ending greenery of English landscapes. Through my mother, an excellent amateur sleuth, I have approached relatives, now, who have researched our family history and referred to the two books and archive charting its development. We still do not know why the family chose the Green Man. The coincidence of researching the Green Man and then finding eight rare examples soaring high on the square tower of our family’s Lithgow church is difficult to understand. But as a scholar in the environmental humanities, specifically in Plant Studies, it does make sense that eventually some far-flung memory was activated.

In Revealing the Green Man, Mark Olly presents Green Man in an interesting way. Pre-Gothic Norman and Viking noble societies of Britain were no doubt the commissioners of the greatest wave of Green Man, as the originator of all beings. Olly believes the Roman woodlanders across Britain were responsible for a resurgence of the image. Not so much a fear of the unknown and unknowable great expanse of nature – the endless wood – but more in response to fear of ambush and attack by hidden humans (prescient of Robin Hood style tales of hidden swordsman). Olly suggests that after the Romans withdrew, a new swathe of woodlanders arrived, known as ‘verderers’ or ‘foresters.’ This guild of skilled woodsmen was firmly established by the tenth century AD.

In addition to being a source of cheeky revelry or an image of fertility or even a figure of skilled craftsmanship, we can now consider the Green Man in the context of an epoch of androcentric and anthropocentric disconnection from Mother Nature. At a time of disconnection from the power and independence of plant life, I was starting to see the Green Man as having potential as a future spokesperson for difficult issues of environmental demise and lowering biodiversity.

Author William Anderson made a connection, in his book on the Green Man, between the ecclesiastic gargoyles and the concept of later twentieth-century environmental fear. This encompasses a reparative approach to the beleaguered state of environmental care across the globe. Anderson argues that Green Man, in an age of low biodiversity and a lack of connection to seasons and wilderness, is the perfect re-emerging icon to raise awareness for environmental issues. The idea being that our inactive politicians and climate deniers need a good fright! Anderson’s aesthetic-of-care approach, which I champion, suggests better ways of ensuring biodiverse futures and places pressure on local, state and federal governments to stop land-clearing and extraction industries.

In my book, The Plant Contract, I took up Anderson’s idea and argued that when leafy foliage emanated from the Green Man’s mouth, as evidenced in some of the stone-carved Green Man gargoyles across Britain and Europe, it represented as a ‘speaking in tongues.’ The idea was that non-human elements that had the power to speak represented a diabolical condition. Nevertheless it could also be described as an effort to speak and to sincerely communicate.

With reference to those Green Man images that had foliage bubbling or extruding from the mouth (rather than or in addition to ears or hair), the concept of ‘babble’ has multiple meanings. It reminds me of the more-than-human hybrids of human and plant, for which there are several references in literature such as the comic book series The Swamp Thing, or Hope Hodgson’s contagious fungi story The Voice in the Night 1907or John Wyndham’s The Day of the Triffids 1951 where humans have been overcome by plants, poisoned by plants. It even reminds us of mortal fears of dying and having plant roots and tendrils wrap around our decomposing flesh. The idea of plants extruding from Green Man mouths, then, is a warning, an apotropaic symbol to turn from evil and towards the light. There is also the interpretation of the babble of madmen, where words are spoken indistinctly or without meaning.

A few days after I had driven back over the mountains (always a much faster trip on the way home, almost as if the demons of the past are pushing me back to where I came from), I told one of my sons about my trip. When he asked what I’d learned, I said the Green Man carvings look like all our relatives. His response? ‘Oh, so we all look like gargoyles – that’s just great!’ Putting aside our family trait of looking like ugly monsters, it was also interesting because I have always considered the Green Man as more plant, than human. I had never considered that each stonemason has some human in mind as they carve, but of course they do. After all these years of not seeing my family Green Man gargoyles, I now see them keenly.

Once I’d had a bit of time to think about the gargoyles I’d seen, I realised it was time to re-evaluate the Green Man. It was time to also develop a new plant-human hybrid image to lead us through difficult environmental times – a figure that speaks for the bush, that lets the bush babble from its mouth, that resists ambushes and hidden dangers.

Could a new Green image be created as a symbol to political leaders under the spell of capitalism and extraction industries profits? Could the legacy of the Green Man fuel new plant-human hybrids? The Green Man, like the early Australian convicts, were ‘transported’ to Australia from England. With that concept of transportation comes a significant swathe of cultural and social problems, not least the idea that only the criminals, the social outcasts, the thieves and scumbags (and witches) were transported to faraway Australia soon after 1788. Post-colonial or decolonial Green Man interpretations need to pay respect to First Nations custodianship and to the multiplicity of human-plant relations that exist today and it would heed the history of Australia’s true people and land. I have recently been involved in a project that goes some way to finding a place for new images of plant-human connectedness. It is not a hybrid plant-human creature, but my history and my research story are enmeshed in its trees and shrubs and ground cover.

In windswept dead-end Barlow Street in Haymarket, Sydney, six members of the eco-feminist and environmental activist group, the Dirt Witches eco-activists built a forest. We planted it in January 2021 and it is a micro forest right in the heart of the city and made of native species. All plants that we have grown there, mostly from Indigigrow nursery in La Perouse are part of the critically endangered eastern suburbs banksia scrub which has over fifty species that grow and root together as a community. Originally there were 5300 hectares of Banksia scrub from La Perouse to Manly but now there is only 210 hectares. The aim of this Dirt Witches collaborative group is to campaign for environmental justice and action on climate change. The micro-forest creates the layers of a natural ecosystem in the middle of our urban environment. It connects us with the original scrub, as we begin to learn how it cooperatively grows. The micro-forest connects people in the street and locals who are unused to seeing greenery, let alone endangered scrub, in the concrete jungle. Whilst the micro forest is not a Green Man, it works towards the same goals. A warning, a fearfulness of climate-changed natural phenomenon, an apotropaic symbol against human hubris.

I’m proud to be a member of the Dirt Witches group of women. Maybe those early visits to Lithgow, bored and resentful, with wistful glances up at the Green Man gargoyles (though not understanding or processing what I saw) were part of the journey from child to eco-witch. Now is the time to make better decisions about land clearing and extraction industries. As soon as you start walking that path of envisioning better protection of Australian lands, it immediately becomes clear that our greatest knowledge bank and source of cultural power is Aboriginal community members. There are also multiple other cultural stories to unfold around human relations with nature – and they are already making their voices heard (eg. Red Room). These stories may not be the babble from the mouth of the Green Man but they may have the right cultural intent and the right expression to effect environmental and social justice change.

The Dirt Witches forest is growing stronger each day. It has a more-than-human multiplicity, an element of the hedonistic witchy virility, of something ‘other’. It is a copy of the original Eastern Suburbs Banksia Scrub but it speaks in tongues to the remnant bush several kilometres away. While the Green Man epitomised the crossover between plants and human stories, for me, the Green Man was also an image that characterises sincere human efforts to join the complexities of the vegetal world. To become plant! There is a personal connection with the merging of human and plant, added to by concepts of climate change and issues of eco-crisis that are closing in. I’m happy to say that I can now truly see the eight faces of the Lithgow Green Man and I revel in the fact that those ugly faces look like me.

Works Cited

Anderson, William. Green Man: The Archetype of our Oneness with the Earth. Harper Collins, London, 1990
Centerwall, Brandon. ‘The Name of the Green Man,’ Folklore Vol 108 (1997): 32
Doel, Fran and Geoff. The Green Man in Britain. The History Press, Stroud, 2010
Gibson, P. and Gagliano, M. “The Feminist Plant: Changing Relations with the Water Lily.” Ethics and the Environment, Vol 22, Issue 2, 2017.
Gibson, Prudence. The Plant Contract, Brill, 2018.
Gibson, Prudence ‘The Plague,’ Art and Australia
Hayman, Richard. The Green Man. Sussex: Shire Publications, 2015.
Hoskins, Cecil. The Hoskins Saga. Halstead Press, Sydney, 1969; Hoskins, Donald. The Ironmaster: The Life of Charles Hoskins. University of Wollongong Press, Wollongong, 1995
Hoskins, Donald. The Ironmaster: The Life of Charles Hoskins. University of Wollongong Press, Wollongong, 1995
Mabey, Richard. The Cabaret of Plants. London: Profile Books, 2015, 99.
Negus, Tina. ‘A Photographic Study of Green Man and Green Beasts in Britain’. Folklore 114.2 (2003): 247-61, 247.
Olly, Mark. Revealing the Green Man, Moon Books, London 2016, 99.
Raglan, Lady Julia. ‘The Green Man in Church Architecture’. Folklore 50.1 (1939): 45.

Published July 19, 2021
Part of New Nature: What does it mean to write about nature in 21st century Australia? A new wave of Australian nature writers write about Country, landscape, ecology, and biosphere.   All New Nature essays →
Prudence Gibson

Dr Prudence Gibson is an academic at the School of Art and Design, University of NSW...

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