Viriditas: the Green Mist

I love this time of year, when the land is stirring again and plants, insects and birds return in a rush of colour and music. Yes, autumn is enchanting with its mists and ambers, but it is a time for farewells. Spring is full of greetings. I go out each morning to meet plant-friends I haven’t seen since the year before. I drink water of cleavers, nibble hawthorn leaves, cook nettle soup and begin the process of medicine making, renewing an apothecary depleted by winter’s ills. More than anything, I love to stand in the sun and breath in the rich cocktail of phytochemicals released by the unfurling leaves and blossoms, enveloped in the rising green mist.

The Green Mist‘ is a tale collected by 19th century folklorist Marie Clothilde Balfour in the Lincolnshire Carrs. It describes the healing powers of the returning vegetation in the spring. The green mist is awaited by the rural folk and greeted with offerings of bread, salt and ‘strange words’. A young girl in poor health wishes to her mother that she might survive until the green mist rises, to ‘wake the spring with thee’ – believing the green mist will make her strong again. The idea that there is healing, not just in the consumption of medicinal plants with specific constituents, but in the verdant power of vegetal growth is widespread in pre-modern culture.

Viriditas, a Latin word with the classical definition of ‘greenness, verdure, viridity’ and ‘freshness, briskness, vigor’ was adopted by the 12th century abbess, Hildegard von Bingen, to express the divine in nature. The saint and sibyl of the Rhine used the term frequently, extending it from the realm of plants to the human body to describe our ability to heal, grow and thrive. To Hildegard, viriditas, the very breath of God, imbued all living things. In choosing a word belonging to the vegetal realm to express spirit, rather than more traditional metaphors of breath, fire, or light, she may have been inspired by her homeland. The lush surroundings of her first monastic house at Disibodenberg are located between two rivers and the ruins of the monastery are still full of verdant life, so green you can almost taste it on the air.

The ruins of Disibodenberg

In a temperate regions, the greening of the land brings with it a great rush of energy that can be experienced with all the senses. Hildegard would have been familiar with the burbling sound of rising sap, the fresh, raw scent of blossom and volatile compounds, the taste of green shoots and pot herbs, the delicate softness of young beech leaves and of course, the colour green. Green so intense, after the greys and browns of winter, that it leaves an after-image on the retinas. The still-transparent green of new leaves that filter the light beneath the canopy, turning the woods into an underwater world imbued with shades of a single colour. In these bio-regions, green seems to be the source of life itself.

Foragers and gardeners, whose eyes are trained not only to differences in species of plants, but the varying states of individuals, will have a whole internal palette of greens: the green that indicates the right time to gather young bramble leaves or nettle, the green that suggests lime or hawthorn leaves are still tasty and tender, the green that differentiates a flourishing plant from a dying one. This attention to colour helps herbalists to select those plants which have the greatest medical potency. Why do we pluck one leaf and not another? Because it expresses a greater viriditas.

On an esoteric level, those who work deeply with plants may experience a sense of euphoria or even ecstacy during the rising of the green. The licentious traditions surrounding May Day in Britain encourage humanity to imitate the fecundity of the green folk, to engage with and embody this surge of life-energy in the plant kingdom. We dress as flower queens and jack-in-the-green and dance around tree trunks (may poles) bedecked with greenery. Even the dew is held to have rejuvenating properties at this time of year.

In astrology Mars, and Aries which has its ingress at the Spring equinox, represent the potency and drive of human life, the red of blood and passion. Venus demonstrates the equivalent force in the vegetal. Her sacred month in the Roman calendar was April and she rules Taurus, into whom the sun enters as the temperate North blossoms. To the philosopher Lucretius, Venus was a personification of the creative force itself. At Pompeii she was worshipped as Venus Physica, Venus of nature (physis), from the root φυίω – to grow. Hildegard von Bingen’s treatise on natural philosophy was entitled Physica and as the middle ages progressed this term became fysike (physick) – the healing arts. Our very concept of medicine is bound up with Venusian generation.

In our own century, researchers in east Asia have begun to demonstrate that human health is improved by exposure to landscapes dominated by plant life, such as forests. One Korean study looked at the anti-inflammatory, anti-tumorigenic and neuroprotective properties of terpenes absorbed from forest air. Studies from Japan have demonstrated that shinrin-yoku (forest bathing) can increase the body’s immune response and help to prevent cancer. Although there has, as yet, been little interest among orthodox medicine in the West, as these studies provide explanations that satisfy a materialistic world view the concept of ‘ecotherapy’ may gain wider acceptance.

In healing we seek the power to regenerate ourselves. What more potent source of the regenerative power can we access than that of the plant world as it comes back from the death of winter? Our bodies are not walled off from the natural world, we are permeable, and as the green mist rises we inhale, absorb and imbibe viriditas.

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