Walkabout with Montrose: Nature Boy

Human beings have always been in worshipful awe of nature, and for good reason, it’s a powerful force. Throughout time, man has tried to personalize nature by creating powerful beings that embody its power, nurturing, as well as destructive capabilities, and its caprices. So we’ve got Gaia, spirit of the earth, Mother Nature, and various gods and goddesses of thunder, harvest, the sea, animal life, and plant life and the forest. One of the oldest and most enduring of these embodiments of nature is the Green Man. He first appeared as architectural ornament in ancient Rome, and has always been depicted as a male face surrounded by, or made out of leaves. Sometimes branches or vines may shoot from the mouth, nose, eyes or ears, and often these tendrils spout flowers or fruit. The Green Man symbolizes renaissance or rebirth, through the cycle of growth each spring. He is a personification of the integral relationship of man and nature. Folklorists, who have devoted much research into this symbol, have devised three categories of Green Men: the Foliate Head completely covered in green leaves, the Disgorging Head, which spews vegetation from its mouth, and the Bloodsucker Head, which sprouts vegetation from all facial orifices. Very Wes Craven, and of course, we’ve got them all here in Brooklyn.

Although the Green Man is a pre-Christian and pagan symbol, it became very popular in European Medieval architecture, especially in churches, abbeys, and cathedrals, where examples can be seen dating back from the 11th century. Green Men appear often in the Italian Renaissance, on fountains, and other decorative work, often in bronze and other metals. In Victorian England and here in America, the Green man made a big comeback in architectural ornament used everywhere, starting in late 19th century Revival movements; Gothic and Renaissance Revival, as well as in the Arts and Crafts and Queen Anne styles. We find excellent examples in facades here in Brooklyn. He is depicted in terra cotta, brownstone and limestone. The stone carvers who created them gave our Green Men great personality in the features. We have benign and majestic Green Men, angry and demonic faces, Green Men with ascetic Celtic faces as well as African features, and all kinds of vegetation are used with great imagination. My examples are from Crown Heights, Prospect Heights, Bed Stuy and Park Slope, but he can be found in other neighborhoods too. So give a nod to the Green Man as you pass him, your tomatoes and flowers will thank you.

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