Of Farms and Fables combines the efforts of professional and non-professional artists by engaging artists in farm work and farm workers in storytelling and acting. The result will be an original performance in October of 2011 which will engage performers and audience in dialogue about local agriculture, farming, and the future of small family farms in Maine.

Friday, August 6, 2010

The Green Man: a vindication for talking rabbits (Cory)

It's not my week for a blog post, but I spent the morning at the library and am full of thoughts.

The "fables" part of our project is still a bit of a mystery to all of us, but we've read and talked about a few fables over the past couple of months; and considering that the only sharply defined ethnic/cultural subgroup on the farms is that group of Puerto Ricans we call The Guys on Jordan's, we've wanted to take a look into Puerto Rican folklore to see what we could add to our working library. The University of Southern Maine library happens to have a copy of The Three Wishes by Ricardo Alegría, which I spent a pleasant hour reading.

A lot of the stories were more familiar to a girl raised on Hans Christian Anderson, Æsop, and the Brothers Grimm than I had anticipated. The book's intro cites the main cultural influences as Spanish, Mongolian, and African, and stocks stories with your standard princes and princesses, clever rabbits, evil stepmothers, good-for-nothings (Lazy Peter, here), and the town simpleton (the charmingly moronic Juan Bobo, on whom more in a moment). Religion is a relatively strong presence, with the Devil starring in a number of the tales and one young girl surviving live burial under a hot chili plant thanks to the blessing of the Virgin Mary.

One of the early stories features three equally strong, handsome, and brave princes, who are brothers and all in love with the same princess. She can't choose between them, so her father sends them out to bring back something valuable -- the one whose gift is most valuable will have his daughter. The princes (who bear no animosity towards one another, despite their romantic predicament) split up and each finds a valuable item with magical properties; when they rendezvous, they find out that the princess is dying. Each contributes his magical item to the cause, and the three of them together manage to do what none could have alone: save the princess's life. Because each of the brothers' items was equally instrumental in saving the princess, the king can't decide who should marry her, and everyone in his kingdom is split into three factions over the issue. The tale is open-ended; we never find out who actually marries the princess. In fact, we as listeners are asked to decide which brother we'd support.

Remarkable and relevant to me in this tale are the lack of rancor among the brothers (we're told, in fact, that they love one another dearly), and the spirit of teamwork it lauds. Most tales like this end with one brother ultimately turning out to be judged the cleverest or strongest or just, in some way, "best." But these three brothers are a symbiotic triptych. Having spent the summer with three dynamic families whose farms depend completely on the family members' willingness to contribute massive amounts of their time and their unique talents, that's a sentiment I can appreciate.

There were the usual "talking animal" stories, of which I've noticed I've grown extra skeptical since Eddie trashed Charlotte's Web and Disney movies at our last Kay-Ben story circle. But then there were Juan Bobo stories.

Juan Bobo is a Puerto Rican stock character. The first paragraph of "Juan Bobo, the Sow, and the Chicks" (Juan Bobo, el puerco, y los pollos) sums him up pretty well: "Well, sir, once upon a time, in a long-ago town, there lived a widow and her son Juan. As the boy did strange things and was a bit of a fool, people called him Simple John, or Juan Bobo."

In "Juan Bobo, the Sow, and the Chicks," Juan Bobo's mother goes to church to hear Mass, leaving him to take care of the animals. While she's gone, Juan Bobo hears the sow groaning -- and thinks she's upset because she wants to go to Mass, too. He also hears the chicks crying -- and thinks they're upset because they want to sleep in a tree. The havoc that results? Juan Bobo dresses the pig in his mother's fine clothes and sends her off to church, and he skewers all the chicks on a stick and hangs them in the tree so they can sleep. The sow heads straight for a mud pit to try and roll the uncomfortable clothes off of her, and the chicks, of course, are dead as doornails. "That day," the story ends, "Juan Bobo received a whipping that he still remembers."

That's a story that does just the opposite of Disney sentimentalization. Juan Bobo makes the mistake of attributing human motivations and desires to animals, and he -- or at least his bottom -- pays dearly for that mistake. That's a story I can imagine some of our farmers telling. But...the "talking animal" stories came from the same culture, a culture with a strong tradition of farming. I wondered for a while how to reconcile the Bensons' dismissal of talking Disney animals with the longevity of these tales. Their point about the way that turning animals into furry people causes all sorts of wrongheaded notions among laymen about animal feelings and animal rights is a persuasive one, but the staying power of old "talking animal" fables ought to indicate there's something pretty potent about them.

In the folklore section I happened across a book about the Green Man by William Anderson. I'm sure you know the Green Man, even if you don't know you know him, and no, he doesn't sell canned green beans. This is him:

and, this is him:

and, so is this:

He has a long history, during which he's made the transition from pagan icon to staple of church and Christian symbolism, and I found myself getting sucked into the book -- into page after page of Green Man images, into analyses of what the Green Man has represented through the ages and what he came to represent at different times. Encased in, and often regurgitating through mouth and even other orifices, leaves and vines and assorted greenery, he's (naturally) associated with nature, and man's relationship with it. But the relationship is far from simple for the Green Man. Is he "one" with nature? Tortured by it (as his expression, especially in regurgitating mode, sometimes seems to express)? At odds with it? Nurtured by it?

The Green Man is also a symbol of creativity. Writing of the connection between Khidr (a Muslim figure) and the Green Man, Anderson says:
[Khidr] is the voice of inspiration to the aspirant and committed artist. He can come as a white light or the gleam on a blade of grass, but more often as an inner mood. The sign of his presence is the ability to work or experience with tireless enthusiasm beyond one's normal capacities. In this there may be a link across cultures...
"The ability to work or experience with tireless enthusiasm beyond one's normal capacities," hm...another one of those things that both artists and farmers have probably experienced...

There's lots more to say (like a whole book's worth, at least) about the Green Man, but at the least he got me thinking about symbols. They're important and powerful things. And as we sit here and interpret a Green Man carved into a cathedral arch six centuries ago, hundreds of years before the name "Green Man" was even a twinkle in a scholar's eye, we are putting words to many things that the sculptor probably wouldn't have thought to name, though he was certainly expressing them. Symbols mean something to us, but it isn't always easy to express what. If it were, we wouldn't need the symbols.

So -- talking animals. When a rabbit and a tiger are friends, and what that means is that the rabbit's always playing tricks on the tiger because he's so damned clever and the tiger, after being duped every time, gets angry and tries (but fails) to eat the rabbit -- well, that's a little bit of a stretch to think that's the way a real rabbit and a real tiger would behave. The rabbit and the tiger in the story are symbols for certain kinds of people and for certain kinds of friendship. Like the Green Man that pops up in church architecture all over Europe and across other cultures, taking different forms and guises, with expressions varying from pensive to somber to downright threatening -- so, too, the clever rabbit/ant/coyote/spider of myriad folktales; so, too, the powerful but dull tiger/lion/wolf/bear. The meanings of these symbols aren't always clear, in large part because they're not always clear-cut. They express something inexpressible about human interaction, something perhaps a little too embarrassing or emotional or rooted in truth to people the tale with humans.

I think the Disney criticism holds. Disney animals aren't symbols. As you watch Thumper in Bambi or read Watership Down (which is, for the record, one of my all-time favorite books), you aren't revisiting a tried-and-true two-dimensional character. The narrative redefines for you what an actual rabbit is, instead of allowing you to interact with a nebulous accumulation of understanding around the symbol "rabbit" that has naturally evolved, gaining depth with each passing year, each telling of a tale. Disney animal characters are (or are meant to be) three-dimensional. The depth in a symbol isn't character depth; symbols are two-dimensional. The depth lies instead in the complexity of the symbol's associations. And those are cultural and develop organically over time.

And finally, this is the section that pulled me into Anderson's book.
We think of the Green Man as a visual image, as an object sculpted in stone or carved in wood, but the emotions he expresses transcend the form and their vitality is equally powerful when transmitted through the dance or the dramatic rituals of folk custom and in the rhythms and melodies of poetry and song. We do not only look at his leaves and blades of grass: we hear them singing and speaking to us; we touch and smell and taste his vegetation and his fruits. When an affection for a particular plant or tree is aroused in us we are linked through an emotional bond, more subtle and immediate than the effect of scent, to the greater world of vegetation of which the plant or tree is a part. It is a deep, wise world, one to which we can only respond because we possess it in our own natures and in the instinctive symbolism of the soul, in the tree of life that forms the spinal column, in the roots of our feet and legs, in the branches of our arms, and in the flowering and fruiting of our thoughts and feelings in the crown of the head.
It's a little hippy-dippy even for me -- and yet, yes; several times this summer I've felt a shadow of that connection with the growing things, the earth around me; and I hope that a touch of the Green Man graces next summer's play.

The Green Man goes modern: this is a recent interpretation, the Whitefield Green Man.