“He is the spirit of the rebirth of nature. He is the chucked pebble that ripples out into every tree ring. He is a green outlaw and he is everywhere, like a Che Guevra poster”. (Deakin, p.111)
The Green Man lives in the margins. In the corners; the places we overlook. A painted boss high on the roof of the nave; a stone carving on a porch spandrel; a figure concealed as a misericord. And even if we see him, he resists knowing. A face concealed within leaves and vines that entwine him or spout from his eyes, nose or mouth. Sometimes shy; sometimes pitiful; occasionally demonic. Why is he here? The theories that try to classify him are many yet our green man playfully eludes understanding. A symbol of the rebirth of nature or the Tree that bore Christ or a fragile promise of ecological survival? Possibly all, possible none – the only thing we know is that we will never know.
And this perhaps is the fascination. A figure seemingly out of place and thriving in the liminal. The green man is confined to the edgelands or the threshold and perpetually poised betwixt and between definition. In a teasing article, Richard Rottenburg explores his fascination with a bar in a small Polish border town. Its function changes through the day – from café to restaurant to nightclub – and not only do the clientele shapeshift accordingly but their puzzling heterogeneity “generated for me a peculiar feeling of classifactory uncertainty. Who are these people? Why are they sitting here of all places, and in this combination? What is happening here?” (Rottenburg, p.93). Such classifactory uncertainty is a characteristic of the liminal persona in rites of passages – as Victor Turner notes they are no longer classified and not yet classified. Borders here are permeable, porous, fluid.
Maybe this perspective helps liberate our green man from cloister, porch and chapel and place him (and her) all around us. Even in the corridors, receptions and offices in which we work. Look around you. Are there people that spark the same curiosity that transfixes Rottenburg? They don’t seem to fit the organisation; they seem out of place, out of time. Perhaps you’re even one of them. The character in a narrative that often runs like this…”Do you know Sarah/Jules/Mark/Cathy…could never work out how they ended up here…they’re so different…interesting to know though…some great ideas”. It’s a story I’ve often heard and one that’s thoughtfully probed in Marianne Cantwell’s recent TEDEx talk.
So is this the real power of the organisational green man? For Rottenburg and his German colleagues, classifactory uncertainty has emancipatory potential. Such fluidity provides an “outlook on future, better times” (p.96). Boundary crossing becomes, as Klapcik observes, “complex, covert, and disorderly”. And this transgression creates a “weird domain” (Turner, p.42), a ludic, subversive space where initiates are “taught that they did not know what they thought they knew”. Ideas, innovation, creativity, oblique insights – these are all gifts our organisational green men bestow upon us.
In a study of how stories that uphold or violate corporate values affect the behaviour of new joiners, Sean Martin cautions that not “all deviance is necessarily a values violation” (Martin, p.1720). Innovation often involves playing or subverting established ways of doing things. So, perhaps he concludes, we can encourage more innovative behaviour by “sharing narratives in which members deviate from the norm but are rewarded for it”. Or, to put it another way, let us celebrate the green man. Let us liberate him from the corporate foliage and lure him from the secluded undergrowth of the organisational shadowland. He is both everything and nothing; our past and our future; and, undoubtedly, our unlikely saviour. For, as Roger Deakin beautifully observes, the “leaves flow from him like poems or songs”. (Deakin, p.110)
Deakin, R. (2007). Wildwood: A Journey through Trees. Hamish Hamilton
Doel, F. and G. (2010). The Green Man in Britain. The History Press
Klapcsik, S. (2012). Liminality in Fantastic Fiction: A Poststructuralist Approach. McFarland & Company
Martin, S. R. (2016) ‘Stories about Values and Valuable Stories: A Field Experiment of the Power of Narratives to Shape Newcomers Actions’, Academy of Management Journal. Academy of Management, 59(5), pp. 1707–1724.
Rottenburg, R. (2000) ‘Sitting in a bar’, Studies in Cultures, Organizations and Societies, 6(1), pp. 87–100.
Turner, V. (1982). From Ritual to Theatre: The Human Seriousness of Play. PAJ Publications.