Amy Elizabeth was looking for bluebells. They always bloomed in May, covering the slopes of the Surrey Hills in a soft electric blue and magically lighting up the shadows cast by the branches of trees. Soft, inviting, calm, inspiring, with a waft of sweet perfume. She had wandered a little way away from her family in her search, but she could still hear their voices from the other side of the slope she was exploring. She soon found a small clump of bluebells. One or two outliers, right beside the trodden path. Then, a dozen steps later, a multitude, covering the whole slope. As far as she could see, and exclusively for her.
She hesitated before calling the others; she delighted in being alone in nature, breathing deeply, with the heady mix of the sights and smells all to herself. She was about to shout out to the others to come and share her find but suddenly her attention was diverted by a noise from the opposite direction of her group, something deeper in the forest. A rustling of leaves. The faint sound of a tread on soft earth. Then a whisper, almost a mumble on the slight breeze. She thought she heard the words “Morpeth”, and then “Norwich”: towns she had enjoyed visiting with her family. But perhaps her ears played tricks. She peered through the branches. She thought she saw a large shadowy object in the distance, moving slowly from tree to tree. Her senses were alive, but she was not afraid. There seemed no hint of menace or threat in the forest. On the contrary, she was intrigued, eager to find the source of the sounds.
She followed a winding path; the earth was soft underfoot and branches thick with new leaves cast shadows over her path, with bluebells spreading out either side. She came across a fallen old beech tree, and with banked earth either side of her path she had to crawl underneath. Still determined to find the source of the noise, she got on all fours and crawled under, taking care not to bump her head or spoil her hair with earth or twigs. Her hair, long, dark, and shiny, was very important to her. She got through without a problem, pausing just to shake off any offending leaves from her hair. Then she looked up. There, no more than fifteen paces in front of her, was a large figure, perhaps three metres tall. He was looking down, a faint smile in his hooded eyes, and whispering softly to a leaf springing from a twig near his head.
This was a remarkable figure. Half man, half tree. His head was large, made larger by a huge mass of curly, unruly hair, which reached almost to his shoulders. His body was in proportion to his height. Broad, muscular shoulders, powerful looking arms and legs, large feet without socks or boots planted firmly on the forest floor. He was dressed in soft green jacket and trousers. The fabric was woven, tough and worn. But perhaps the most remarkable feature of this figure was the face. It was gnarled and worn, like an old oak. It was imposing, with hooded eyes that seemed to see and understand everything. It was at the same time a face that carried a wry and warm smile. The most amazing feature of this face were vines, which seemed to emerge from the ears of this huge figure.
“Hello, and what is your name young lady?” The voice was deep and rough, but warm and non-threatening.
“My name is Amy Elizabeth,” said the girl, in a quiet, confident voice.
“Well, that’s extraordinary,” came the reply. “I meet so few people with two names. You see my name is Green Man. So, I’m like you, you see, two names. And…”
“Before we get into all that, and start discussing the history of names, I would like to know what you are doing here,” Amy Elizabeth cut in, afraid that otherwise she would lose the whole day in idle chatter.
“Well that,” said the Green Man, “is quite a story.”
“And I would very much like to hear it,” she replied. “But I don’t have all day, not even all morning for that matter. So, I suggest you get on with it, so I can hear it before my family arrive.”
“Then I suggest we make ourselves comfortable,” said the Green Man. “Why don’t you climb up on the old beech tree and sit there. That way we’ll be closer to the same height, and I won’t have to shout. I will stand beside you and lean against this fine oak.” He indicated a big branch of the oak tree. “I will use this branch for support. That way any bird or forest creature who wants to talk to me, can perch on the branch and communicate without difficulty.”
Amy Elizabeth raised her eyebrows at the thought of small birds talking to this green giant. She said nothing, out of fear of stopping the story that was about to unfold.
“I am the Green Man. Some have called me “Jack the Green,” and some have even thought I was Robin Hood. But his is quite another story.
I am the guardian of the forest. I have been charged, from the start of all creation, with the task of ensuring that the forest thrives and stays healthy. The forest is home to many plants and creatures.
It provides shelter and food for them. So, in addition to caring for the trees, I need to help maintain a good relationship between all the living things that exist here. It is a really important job. You see, trees literally bind everything on the Earth together.”
“Do you have to do this all on your own?” Amy Elizabeth chipped in.
“No. I have responsibility for the wonderful Surrey Hills. But there are others elsewhere, many others, who help in many ways.”
“Do they all have two names?” Amy Elizabeth had a wry grin on her face.
“No, not at all, some have….” The Green Man stopped in mid-sentence. Partly because he realized he was being teased, and partly because a robin was saying something in his ear.
The Green Man finished the conversation with the robin. Then turned again to Amy Elizabeth. “You are so sharp, young lady, you might just cut yourself! I will have to be careful about what I say to you. But to continue with my serious story, there are many like me all around the world. There are others too, in the Surrey Hills, who care for the water, and try to keep fire under control. Perhaps we will talk of them later.”
“Have you had your job long?” Asked Amy Elizabeth. “I must say, by the condition of your clothes, it may be time you retired.”
By now, the Green Man had learned to ignore Amy Elizabeth’s little jokes.
“I started my work nearly three hundred and seventy million years ago” said the Green Man. I have been guardian of the forest ever since. There have been many, many problems along the way. But I’m happy to say, that up until recently, I have been able to help overcome them all.”
Amy Elizabeth noted a change in the Green Man, as he said these words. A sadness overcame his face. She was about to ask what it was that had happened recently, when a squirrel descended from the oak, dug an old acorn out of the Green Man’s hair, and whispered a few words in his ear. She was sure that she would hear of “recent problems” later. So, once the squirrel had departed, and the Green Man had wiped a tear from under his eye, she allowed the story to continue.
“Oh yes, where was I? Problems to overcome from the start. That’s it. Did you know,” he said “that tree like plants first emerged from the water three hundred and seventy million years ago. That’s when I arrived. And straight away, we started trying to build forests. The first problem to solve was that the stems of the plants that emerged, were weak and floppy. You see, they were used to living in the water. So, they had nothing like the strength or size of this huge oak, that I am leaning on. It took me a long, long time to work with these plants, and build their strength, and make them strong and robust like the forest you see around you.
In all this work, I was sharing my experiences with other guardians of the forest, all around this wonderful planet of ours. If we hadn’t worked as a team, I don’t know what kind of state we would be in now. As time went by, living things began to use the trees as a home, and play their part in the development of the great forests. Like spiders, insects, centipedes and millipedes, who also helped to regenerate the forest around trees that had died and fallen.”
Amy Elizabeth shuddered at the mention of spiders. Spiders falling into her hair was her worst nightmare. She was determined, however, not to show her fear to the Green Man.
“Animals and birds too made their home here. I learned to speak their languages, to show them that I was their friend. That way, I could show them the best places to live, and help avoid overcrowding in any part of the forest. Keeping all their food supplies in balance is very important you see. Yes, balance in everything, that’s my motto. Balance in everything.”
And then,” said the Green Man thoughtfully, a frown on his brow, “mankind appeared in the woods.”
“You say that,” said Amy Elizabeth “in a way that makes me think that perhaps you don’t like mankind so much.”
“There are many things that happen on this planet that at first, perhaps, you don’t like so much. The thing is, I have had to learn to accept changes as they happen. Then find out the good things that come with the changes, and make the very best of them.”
There was a pause after the Green Man said these words. Both he and Amy Elizabeth were deep in thought for a few moments. A ray of sunlight broke through the overhanging branches, throwing illumination on the Green Man’s face, at once friendly and careworn.
“I have worked with mankind from the start. When I first saw man, I reminded myself of something my old friend Eleanor the Invisible told me; “Do not be inhospitable to strangers. They may be angels in disguise.” So, I showed mankind the best timber to cut, and how to shape it to build shelters. Mankind hunted for food in the forest. I talked to them about keeping things in balance. Not hunting animals or gathering berries in a way that caused the destruction of the very things that provided them food. At the beginning of every new year, I work with the trees and plants in the forest to make sure Spring arrives. When the new leaves and plants arrive, and flowers like your bluebells blossom, I help organise big celebrations with mankind in the Surrey Hills.
I have worked with mankind long and hard to combat disease in the woods. Yes, disease among the trees is a major problem. Ash and box are having problems right now. I have shown mankind how to plant new trees where old trees have fallen or been cut down. It is so important to keep a mix of tree types in the forest. This increases resistance to disease. It’s also better to plant new trees that are native to the area. Bringing in new trees from outside the Hills can bring in disease. Use fire with great caution and respect. Fire is a great gift to mankind, offering warmth and light. Wrongly used, most especially in the forest, it is a terrible threat. Can you imagine the destruction? The suffering and death among all living things? Worst of all, some fires are man-made. So, I tell all humans “Be careful with fire in the forest. Do not idly throw lighted matches around. Do not bring your cooking fires into the forest!” And most of mankind does listen to me, and sees the sense of my words.”
“So,” said Amy Elizabeth, “I think we should all congratulate and thank you for your marvellous work. All of us. Trees, plants, insects, birds, animals, mankind. We should all thank you for a job well done and listen to your wise words.”
“Your thoughts are kind,” replied the Green Man. “But I think your thanks are given too soon. You see, there is one problem that neither I, nor any of my friends across the planet, have been able to solve. It is a serious one too.”
“When I first saw you, in the distance, across the field of bluebells, I heard you muttering some things that I could not hear perfectly. Was it this problem you were talking about?” asked Amy Elizabeth.
“I’m not sure,” said the Green Man. “What do you think I was saying?”
“I think you were saying the names of two towns I have visited. Both have lots of trees near them, so maybe it makes sense. What I think I heard was “Morpeth and Norwich.””
The Green Man reflected for a few seconds, pulling on one of the vines that came from his ear. Then “No I wasn’t saying the names of towns. I was saying “No more gifts. No more gifts. Please, no more gifts.”
“No more gifts,” said Amy Elizabeth. “What kind of a story is that?”
“It is a sad and frustrating story,” replied the Green Man, “and it’s about the serious problem we were talking about. I am almost embarrassed to speak of it.”
“Please tell it to me,” said Amy Elizabeth. “I may be able to help. Unless of course the story concerns people with two names.”
The Green Man ignored the teasing, and his face remained glum as he started describing the problem. “For a long time, kind people have given me presents at the Spring festivals. Not many presents, but always much appreciated. A flower garland for my hair. A new woven shirt. Then, about ten, or perhaps fifteen years ago, people started leaving me presents on the forest floor. Sometimes hanging on tree branches. Cups for me to drink from. Beautiful, printed boxes for me to store things in. Shiny decorations for the twigs on the trees, or the flowers. Of course, I gathered the presents, and took them back to the place where I shelter.
I try to gather them all up, but there are so many. I hardly have room to store them all anymore. And the forest begins to look untidy. I’m sure it’s not good for the plants and animals. I don’t want to seem ungrateful, but I really need the present giving to stop. All I know is that a lot of the cups left for me seem to be presents from American visitors. I am sure that the boxes for storing my things are made in Italy. The shiny decorations I think come from energetic dog walkers! It’s all too much! No more gifts please. No more gifts.”
The Green Man was almost in tears. Amy Elizabeth stopped the story. “Can you show me examples of these gifts, please?”
The Green Man nodded. From a pocket, he produced one of the cups he had talked about. He reached around the back of the tree and found an example of a “beautifully printed storage box.” Then he looked down, and saw a shiny piece of decoration, lying half covered by bluebells. He summoned a squirrel, who ran down, picked up the decorative material in its teeth, then presented it to Amy Elizabeth.
She examined all three items. She smiled, more in embarrassment than amusement.
“Here’s the thing, my Green Man friend,” she said. “This cup isn’t a present from a visitor from America. It says “Americano Coffee” on the cup. Someone has drunk the coffee and thrown the cup away. The storage boxes aren’t for your things, and they are definitely not from Italy. They are empty pizza boxes people have left in the forest. And the shiny decorations from energetic dog walkers? I’m sorry to tell you they are simply empty hot dog wrappers. Not presents to decorate the forest.”
The Green Man’s jaw fell. His head dropped. Two more acorns fell from his hair.
“I hate to tell you, but all these things are not gifts at all. They are rubbish that has been thrown away,” said Amy Elizabeth.
The Green Man was distraught. “Rubbish” he cried. “Thrown away in this beautiful forest! The slubberdegullions!” he shouted.
Amy Elizabeth, anxious to break the thunderous mood of the giant, asked the obvious question. “Whatever is a slubberdegullion?”
“A nasty, dirty fellow who would wilfully destroy beauty,” roared the Green Man. “I will catch them all and hang them up in the trees!”
“Now, now,” said Amy Elizabeth. “Your anger will solve nothing. We don’t want to stop people coming to the forests and having a good time there. We just want them to take their rubbish home with them. I have a solution to suggest.”
The Green Man stopped shouting and looked at Amy Elizabeth carefully.
“First, I will gather my family and my friends, and clean up the forest with you. We will find everything the slubberdegullions have left. Then we will load it into my dad’s enormous four-wheel drive, and we will take it to the proper place for re-cycling.”
“That’s wonderful,” said the Green Man. “But then the slubberdegullions will be back with more rubbish!”
“That’s the next part of my campaign. We are going to make you a Surrey Hills SuperHero on social media. You will become a famous giant who stops people from throwing litter. You will become an influencer to stop littering.”
The Green Man cut in quickly. “I don’t like this social media thingummy. I will have none of it.”
The reply was instant. “There are many things that happen on this planet that at first, you don’t like so much. The thing is, you have to learn to accept changes as they happen. Then find out the good things that come with the changes and make the very best of them.”
The Green Man knew he had met his match.
“Here is what we will do. First, we will agree a date when my family, and all my friends, will come back, and clean the forest with you. And right now, I will take a picture of you with my brand-new iPhone, that I’m sure you already detest! By the miracle of modern technology, I’m going to make your photo a little less frightening. I’m going to give you a super new cape. The cape is going to be a be in green, a bit brighter than the one you wear today. The cape will be trimmed with the electric blue of my favourite flower. I will trim your hair and beard, even your vine leaves a little. I will post the photo on social media. Don’t worry, it will still be you. You will become a Surrey Hills SuperHero leading the whole world in a fight against litter in the forest.”
The Green Man looked as though he had a thousand questions.
“Don’t worry. It will work. Everyone will listen to a three-metre giant who has been around for millions of years. But now, I must go. I can just see my cousin coming down the path. I have to crawl back under the beech tree.”
“Make sure no spiders or creepy crawlies fall into that lovely hair!”
Amy Elizabeth knew she had made a friend who really understood her.
She crawled through, stood up and looked back. The Green Man had disappeared. Walking towards her was her cousin Matt.
“Where have you been?” said Matt. “I’m sure I heard you talking to somebody.”
“I’ve just been admiring the bluebells”
“What bluebells?” said Matt, with a grin.
“Oh Matt. You are such a boy!”
“But seriously Amy Elizabeth, who were you talking to?” replied Matt.
“Check out my Facebook post Matt. Then you’ll know.”