Throughout my adolescence, I searched for a role model or an archetype to which I could relate. My search led me through the teen traps of anorexic pop divas and shallow cultural icons that left me with a feeling of lonely otherness. Just as my body refused to conform to artificial standards of size and shape, my personality resisted being reduced to a cliché — whether bad girl, romantic, sporty or city chic. Being a woman seemed to mean paring down or altering who I really was at the core.
The older I got, the more I realized how often we sell ourselves short by expressing only fragments of our authentic nature. This was especially evident in my mother, as she tried desperately to pretend she was only a mother and no longer the brilliant artist and musician. I saw her grow more bitter the longer she suppressed her passions and dreams, sure that being a mother somehow implied that she would be neglecting her womanly duty if she pursued her gifts while raising her children. I also watched my best friend turn off her heart and her feelings in order to further her career. She thought if she just worked a little harder, was promoted a few more times, she’d finally find the self-worth she’d been so urgently seeking — that she’d finally be equal to the men with whom she was competing tooth and nail. I remember her tearfully admitting to me that she deeply missed her husband, but that depending on a man was a form of weakness she could not allow herself. I promised myself that no single part or aspect of who I really am would ever overshadow or subsume the other.
What neither my mother nor my friend could see was that women are multifaceted whole beings, not one-dimensional paper dolls of mother, wife or career woman. I realized that I was not unfeminine in my adventurousness and tenacity, nor was I too feminine in my sentimentality and emotional nature — not unnatural but utterly natural, a unique expression of woman. I came to understand that all the roles and aspects I expressed were equally me, not disparate contending parts. Wearing a knife atop a lacy dress. Cuddling and playing with my infant daughter, while ready to fiercely defend myself and my loved ones. Nurturing delicate flowers from seed to blossom, yet capable of taking a life to provide our dinner. We are each strands and elements of the infinite expression of what it means to be woman and, at the same time, an alliance of many beautiful pieces coming together to make us who we really are, to make us most whole.
In the haphazard sprawl of dandelion and the clinging beauty of ivy, I saw the face of the Green Woman. As the feminine face of nature, she is best known as Sheela-Na-Gig, her delighted face and spread legs still adorning the stonework of many ancient churches in England and France. She can also be found crafted as a distinctly female body emerging from a tangle of vines and foliage. The image of the Green Woman and the history of the goddesses that embody her were my first glimpse at a powerful femaleness I could look to for inspiration in my quest for identity and place.
I found her everywhere I looked, not just in the wild places I hitched to and hiked in, but in the weeds erupting from sidewalk and roadside, in botanical gardens and city parks. I saw her when I gathered wild greens for my salad from abandoned ghetto lots and reveled in her beauty from under the oaks lining suburban streets. Part of the power of the Green Woman is in the way she adapts and thrives in even the most unlikely places, teaching us how to best remain our own essential selves, even when we feel out of place or oppressed by pressure to conform to what passes for “normalcy”.
In her I found the power and magic of the herbs, and first understood the beauty of healing through the bittersweet touch of the plants. It was when I remembered to touch ground, listen to the murmur of leaf, stem and flower that I was able to remember who I truly was.
The Green Woman is fecund creation, the inspirited source and conduit of life, but she is also the disruptive force of the hurricane. She is not just one aspect of destruction or creativity but many, sometimes embodying seeming contradictions in a single place and moment in the same way that dying, decaying plant matter is also new life in the form of vibrantly healthy soil.
The Green Woman’s complex and constantly evolving nature provides us with a positive and flexible way of seeing ourselves beyond the destructive or self-limiting perceptions we may have taken on over the years. Beyond the institutionalized virgin/whore syndrome, where every woman is either a devoted housewife and mother or else a home-wrecking rebel. Beyond even the more modern stereotypes of cold-blooded corporate-ladder climber or angry feminist. Past labels and into who we really are at our cores: the intrinsic magical beings that cannot be defined by personality quizzes, marital status or societal pigeonholes.
The Green Woman is as constantly changing as the seasons and as steady as the turning of the planet on its axis. She fosters delight and deep grief, fierce protection and unsurpassed tenderness. We, as women, embody all these aspects, in varying proportions through a myriad of expressions, as seen in classic goddess archetypes such as Artemis, an unclaimed woman and midwife; in the Norse hearth goddess Frigga’s deep devotion to home and children, with an unmatched wisdom that allowed her to guide family and followers; and in the Finnish bear goddess Mielikki, who roamed the far northern woodlands as a wild creature, fiercely loyal to both mate and home.
The Green Woman is at once both an ancient archetype and a primal life force that is constantly creating and recreating herself through the cycles of birth, bloom and fermentation. In this column I want to explore the facets of what it means to me to follow the archetype of the Green Woman as an herbalist, wildcrafter and wise woman. I will share my personal stories and understandings as well as my questions. Throughout my writing I will weave in plant lore and uses, recipes and experiences. Some of my entries here will be long and others will be quite short, but each will flow naturally into an organic form all its own just as the Green Woman ebbs and shifts into each of her forms and faces.