Like so many myths, the story of The Green Man begins with disturbance. The forest surrounding the cabin where I’m living with my son and husband has been torn open. Last week, loggers came for trees marked with blue blazes—a hundred hardwoods with trunks too thick to wrap my arms around. Using bulldozers and chainsaws, strangers cleared entire swaths of our ridge, leaving little but churned mud and splintered stumps in their wake.
I stand with my 23-month-old son on our deck, surveying the wreckage, after the loggers haul away the casualties on enormous, flat-bedded rigs. Piles of discarded branches litter the edges of the devastation, and beyond them hover brethren with broken limbs and oozing gouges. It is unclear, as of now, who will survive and who succumb to their wounds.
“Sad trees,” my son says, and I want to cry.
On the Sunday following the massacre, my husband, son, and I venture into territory that is no longer familiar, accompanied by our 8-year-old niece and 5-year-old nephew. My husband, who grew up in this community of rural homesteaders, carries an ax. He has promised to make the children “cudgels” out of saplings downed by the bulldozer’s treads, and as we walk, he delivers a playful disquisition on which personalities are best suited for cudgels and which for swords.
Our boots sink into the soft, linear impressions left in the soil. I lament not only what’s been lost, but what is sure to come next: an invasion of multiflora rose, Persian olive, and honeysuckle—invasive species that will quickly crowd out native ground cover. The children scurry over the wreckage like ants, searching for slender trunks with hearty root balls. Soon enough, my husband has fashioned three clubs out of the collateral damage left by the loggers.
And what uses might these children have for hand-hewn weapons? A cudgel can knock apples out of a tree or make blossoms rain from flowering branches. A cudgel can douse unsuspecting companions with an eruption of creek water. A cudgel can drum the ringed surface of a tree stump with a satisfying thwack. And when you pass through the territory of mysterious and magical creatures, a cudgel can make you feel safe.
My husband first introduces the children to The Green Man on the way back to the house. During our slow procession down the gravel lane that weaves through our community, he turns to them with his brow furrowed.
“It’s good you have your cudgels,” he says in a low voice, “because The Green Man is probably really upset about all of this.”
“The Green Man?” my niece and nephew ask, wide-eyed.
He tells them about a forest-dwelling being who is seldom seen by humans but who watches them from the trees. He blends in with the leaves because he is green. Little is known about him except that he is wild and dangerous.
The children want to know more, of course.
I think about last summer, when our tales of blood-thirsty wood trolls scared them so badly that they refused to play outside (unaccompanied by an adult) for months, and I resolved not to stoke their fears into the same incapacitating dread this time around.
“What if people are afraid of The Green Man just because he’s green?” I ask.
I’m also preoccupied with events unfolding far from this rural hamlet in Appalachian Ohio, events that disturb me even more than the razing of my beloved trees.
“What if he’s actually nice and means us no harm?” I say.
Fear of The Black Man is a potent and insidious force in this county and the whole country. A week ago, in Central Park, when a Black man asked a white woman to leash her dog, she called the police and screamed that an African American man was threatening her life. Six days ago, in Minneapolis, a white police officer asphyxiated a Black man beneath his knee—even though that man was handcuffed and pleading for air, even though bystanders were begging him to stop. These occurrences are neither exceptional nor disconnected.
When I see my niece and nephew’s blue eyes searching the shadowy edges of the clearcut for the monster my husband has created, it strikes me that The Green Man has entered their worlds on the same morning they learned about the murders of George Floyd and Breonna Taylor. When I ask my niece and nephew why those people were killed, my niece searches for the word she heard her mother use, the shape of an R on her lips.
“Racism?” I ask.
“Yes, that,” she says, striking down a cluster of daisies with her cudgel.
“What does that word mean?” I ask.
She can’t remember.
Sometimes, I worry about raising my son here. This hill country is full of danger. There’s no shortage of wildernesses to wander off into, ponds and creeks to drown in, and tics to spread Lyme disease—not to mention, poison ivy, wasps’ nests, and sharp and rusty farm equipment. But I’m less concerned about those perils than how to explain the unremarkable hatred that lives in this place. Its roots go deep, and its seeds drift as imperceptibly as pollen. This county, whose name is derived from the language of a people driven from it more than two centuries ago, is 97 percent white.
Is it enough to teach these children about the idea of racism and to speak the names of the lives it has claimed? I worry that despite the efforts our white family is making to educate them about prejudice, racism, and oppression, they will fear Black and brown people because we have made our home in place populated by people who look like us.
Even after my husband leaves for his blacksmith shop, the children can’t stop talking about The Green Man. They want to know what, exactly, he looks like. I tell them he has mossy, green hair and that his skin can change color, taking on the patterns of leaves or bark, sort of like a chameleon’s. They want to know what he eats, and I explain that there’s a lot we don’t know about The Green Man, and maybe that’s why people are afraid of him. They want to know if his home was destroyed when trees came down, and if so, where he will go. I tell them I don’t know. Then I have an idea.
“What if we write him a letter?” I ask. “We could put it in a waterproof container and leave it in the woods.”
My niece and nephew commit to the project immediately. We spend the next two hours strategizing and composing.
In the top section of a sheet of paper I’ve folded into thirds, my niece writes: “Dear Mr green man, I want to be your friend. I do not want to hurt you. Some of your woods was cut down Please fell safe.”
My nephew, with a little assistance from his big sister, fills the next section, printing his name and the words “friend not foe Pleas do not hurt us” in large, loopy letters.
I see my own desires reflected in their words. They know that I want them to befriend The Green Man. They want to please their peace-loving aunt, whose every question and suggestion have pushed them toward openness. But I could have just as easily primed them to hate and fear him. If I’d suggested creating totems or talismen to warn him away, they would have undertaken that project with comparable eagerness. And what if I’d asked them to help me lay a trap that could injure The Green Man or to lure him with food laced with poison? Would they have resisted or paused to consider why we were plotting violence against a creature who’d never harmed them—one they didn’t even know existed a few hours beforehand? I’d like to think so, but I’m not sure.
We place the letter in a plastic yogurt tub, along with a blank piece of paper and a pen for The Green Man to respond with. Then we return to the far edge of the destruction, where maples, hickories, oaks, and sycamores resume their familiar arrangements. The children scan the woods nervously.
“We mean no harm, Green Man!” my niece shouts, peering into the treetops. “This is a message for you. Please don’t hurt us.”
She lays the container in a semi-circular chunk of bark and arranges it in the lap of a tree.
As we leave, the children grip their cudgels, ready to bludgeon their imagined fears. What would it take, I wonder, to drown their good intentions in terror? A crackling leaf. A shifting shadow.
That afternoon, and again the next morning, we check the container, but our note and the blank sheet of paper remain undisturbed. My hope is that this will infuse the endeavor with just enough doubt to increase suspense. Absence, after all, makes the heart grow fonder—or maybe, in this case, the mind more curious.
When the children report our doings to my husband, he feigns surprise and alarm that we would attempt to make contact with The Green Man. He also speculates that we placed the container too close to the road and to The Green Man’s recently destroyed habitat. The Green Man will have sought safety deep in the woods, he tells the children, so if we want a response, we’ll probably need to plant our message in wilder territory.
I suggest that we relocate our message to a neighbor’s land, where a stream cuts through a cool, dark hollow. I give the children the day to think about it. That night, my niece suggests that I put the container in the stretch of woods between our houses—a slope with a dense canopy and fern-laden floor.
Later, I consider how I should represent The Green Man in his response to the curious children. Should he sound old and wise? Gruff? Kind? My husband suggests that I write something ominous or threatening, like, “I am watching you, and I am hungry.”
I have something else in mind, a plan to use this game of make-believe for a higher purpose than entertainment. But in order to do that, I can’t completely vanquish the children’s fears—not yet, at least.
First, I draw The Green Man’s self-portrait: a tall, rangy man with a shaggy beard, bags under his eyes, long arms, and striated skin. Then, using my left hand, I scribble:
Green Man sad.
Green Man hurt.
Green Man angry.
Green Man hungry.
I smear mud and leaf juices on his note and on the original letter before crumpling them and sealing them inside the container.
Later, I feel unsettled about the way I have constructed The Green Man. Something about his primitive appearance and his halting diction seem wrong. I remember stereotypical representations of early Native Americans (“You Kemo Sabe. Me Tonto. Me take care of you.”)—and I wonder if, in trying to portray The Green Man as different from us, I have unwittingly painted him as simple, savage, and unevolved.
In the morning, images of civil unrest dominate my newsfeed. Over the last few days, in cities across America, hundreds of thousands of protesters—Black, white, and brown—have taken to the streets. They have marched, carrying signs bearing George Floyd’s name and image. They have laid in intersections and in front of capitol buildings, chanting “I can’t breathe.” Some have set fire to police cars and government buildings. Some have smashed windows and raided the aisles of corner stores. The National Guard has been mobilized. People have been shot and killed—by police, by each other.
Reading the details and clicking through photographs, I feel conflicted—relieved not to be staring down a cop in riot gear, rinsing pepper spray out of my eyes, or inhaling smoke or tear gas. But I’m also ashamed to be comfortably watching from afar. I want to do something—something more than preaching against white silence in a Facebook post.
I talk to my mother on the phone while my son romps around our deck, banging our trashcan lid with his cudgel.
“I feel so much grief,” I tell her, my eyes stinging.
“I feel a lot of fear,” my mother says.
My first instinct is to tell her she has nothing to fear. But then I remember that she is a 64-year-old white woman, living alone, a mile from downtown Orlando. I suspect that the throngs of bodies flashing across her TV screen scare her because she spends little time in the presence of people who aren’t white. I wonder if, in her head, images of violent protests conflate with incidents like the one that happened a few years ago, just blocks from her house: A white woman pulled into her driveway, and when she got out of her car, three Black men held her at gunpoint and robbed her.
I am no stranger to the fear that I presume my mother is feeling right now. Years ago, the first time I brought my husband to Orlando, he decided to go for a run. I warned him not to cross Colonial Drive, the dividing line between my parents’ wealthy, predominantly white neighborhood and a poor, predominantly Black neighborhood. He laughed and headed in the direction I’d warned him against, and I pursued him in panic. It’s hard to remember what I thought might happen—that he would get shot? robbed? beat up? heckled? It didn’t occur to me, then, to think about what might befall a Black person who dared to run through my parents’ neighborhood.
I want to convince my mother, as I have become convinced, that the fear she is feeling right now matters less than the fear that Black, brown, and indigenous Americans live with every day of their lives. Their fears of white people are underwritten by daily headlines: another Black mother robbed of her son, another brown woman robbed of her beloved, more Native children robbed of their father. Her fear—white fear—is a far more dangerous weapon than the bricks and baseball bats some rioters are wielding.
I do not speak these words, my tongue tied by our history. The last conversation we had about race did not go well. I was home for Thanksgiving when she mentioned, in passing, that Robert E. Lee Middle School—whose namesake my father and brother share—had been renamed College Park Middle School.
“I think it’s ridiculous,” she told me.
I responded with a lengthy diatribe about the racist glorification of Confederate icons and recasting of the Civil War as a “states’ rights” conflict. I asked her to imagine what it would be like, as a Black student or teacher, to have to walk, every single day, into a building that bore the name of a man who fought for the enslavement of Black people.
“It’s about time,” I said, and she burst into tears.
Today, I resolve to listen. I’m relieved when she repudiates some of the racist posts she’s seen on Facebook. After the conversation, I text her some anti-racism resources I’m not sure she’ll read. But it doesn’t feel like enough.
With my son strapped to my back, I make my way past the scabbed earth surrounding my house, past the site of our quest for cudgels, and over the lip of the ridge. Birdsong echoes through the forest as we wind through a lush green carpet of May apples, waterleaf, and wild mustard. Long gone are the morel mushrooms we collected in late March, but the ferns have begun to send up fertile fronds studded with cinnamon-colored spores. Little sunlight reaches the forest floor here. It’s perfect Green Man territory.
Several hundred yards later, I nestle our message-in-a-yogurt-tub into the gnarled roots of a toppled and half-rotted tree.
I fetch the children, directing them into the woods through an opening in the brambles behind their parents’ garden. Signaling trepidation, I move slowly and say I wish their uncle came along. My niece freezes.
“I’m scared,” she says. “Maybe we should go get him.”
“It’s okay,” I reassure her. “We’re almost there.”
I take the lead, and a few feet later, gasp.
“What?” the children demand, clutching their cudgels.
“The yogurt container,” I say, pointing to the conspicuous white tub ahead of us. “That’s not where I left it.”
“Whoa!” my son proclaims, untainted by his cousins’ fear.
“I don’t want to get it,” my niece says. “You do it.”
I trot to the container, grab it, and return it to the children. I want them to think I’m uncertain—maybe even a little afraid—because I want them to see what it looks like to choose the possibility of friendship over safety and comfort. I also hope they’ll notice that their fears were unfounded.
My niece plucks the tub from my hands and tucks it under her shirt. “Let’s go!”
“Don’t you want to see if there’s anything in it?” I ask.
“When we get out of the woods,” she calls over her shoulder.
The children tromp up the slope as quickly as they can, their blond heads bobbing as they scamper over fallen trees and branches.
We take shelter in their play area, beneath the porch on the side of their house. Crouching, the children pry open the lid and squeal when they see the crumpled pages within.
“He wrote back!” my niece said.
They marvel at the portrait.
“His fingers are pointier than I thought,” my nephew remarks.
“Look, there’s green on it,” his sister says. “Maybe that came from his skin.”
She reads the note aloud and looks at me with raised eyebrows.
“Do you think he ate a cat or that he wants to eat a cat?” I ask.
Without missing a beat, she replies, “I saw Roberto, Brun, and Goober this morning, so he didn’t eat one of our cats.”
“Whew,” I say. “Thank goodness.”
“I don’t think he wants to eat a cat,” she says. “I think he’s just really hungry.”
The letter is too good to keep to ourselves. We head inside to share it with their parents and to plot our next move. I suggest that we give The Green Man something to eat, since he’s hungry.
“Meat?” my nephew suggests.
I shake my head. “Meat goes bad pretty quickly. What about some seeds or nuts or dried fruit?”
Their father hands me an open package of crackers, which we put in the container.
“And he says he’s hurt,” I continue. “What do you think happened?”
They speculate that maybe a tree fell on him.
I point to The Green Man’s self-portrait. “Maybe that mark on his hand is a cut,” I suggest. “Maybe we should give him some bandages.”
We add to the container two Band-Aids with the words “This is for a cut” written on one of their wrappers in silver Sharpie. Then we compose our second note to The Green Man.
My niece, in collaboration with her little brother, writes, “Dear Mr green Man, Are you Ok? You said you were hurt is it a cut? Or is is habitat? or your heart? Well even so, I’m sorry.”
I add to the note, “Thank you for responding to us Green Man. We are sad about the woods too. And we are sorry you’re hurt. We want to help. Here is some food and some bandaids. Is there anything else you need? If you have to eat a cat, please don’t eat one of our pets. But the feral cats are okay.”
As I write, my son turns his concentration to a toy chainsaw that my nephew has decided to give him. I point out that the toy might scare The Green Man, since his home was just wrecked by a bunch of chainsaws. At my nephew’s urging, I add a postscript to the note explaining that my son’s new toy cannot hurt him or the trees.
Then, we venture back into the woods and place the yogurt container in the crook of a tree strung with monkey vines, its bark flaking off in thick sheets.
That evening, I return to the forest. Strands of golden light slip through gaps in the canopy. The undersides of the leaves ripple and shimmer like water. Twigs snap beneath my shoes. Suddenly, I can hear myself breathing, and I am overcome by the eerie sensation that I am being watched. I look behind me, wondering if one of the neighbors might be nearby. Then I look into the treetops.
For a fleeting moment, The Green Man feels real. Even though I have helped invent him, I sense that anything is possible. I am once again the child who believes in ghosts, angels, and elves.
Then, a loud crack startles me, and the spell breaks. I laugh when I see the cottony tail of a deer flashing through the trees.
I know there are some people who might question what I’m doing, filling my niece and nephew’s heads with stories of The Green Man. Why lie to them? Why manipulate them? Why deliberately inject fear into their idyllic little lives? Because stories are powerful.
All over the Internet, I am seeing calls for white people to teach their children about racism. My niece and nephew’s parents are doing that. But my niece’s reaction to the word racism reveals how hard it is for abstract concepts to take hold. Our lessons can also unintentionally communicate that racism is a bad thing done by bad people in places far away from here. My hope is that my niece and nephew’s encounters with The Green Man make the concept of the unknown and potentially frightening “other” concrete.
I think that adults sometimes forget the power of play—and its complexity. Play isn’t always about having fun. It’s about curiosity and discovery. Play probes the nature of fear, helping children figure out what to be afraid of and how to react when they encounter threats. I remember how my siblings and I took turns, as kids, folding each other up in the pull-out couch, testing how long we could endure confinement and near-suffocation. Once, I jumped off the roof of my garage and fractured my ankle. Often, my friends and I hid from each other and then surprised our unsuspecting victims with a blood-curdling screech. More than once, we attempted to contact the spirit world and became giddy with terror.
Play can also offer our first experiences of normalizing racism. Expressions like “Indian burns” and “Indian giver” encouraged me to sympathize with colonizers. Games like “cowboys and Indians” and “cops and robbers” further misrepresented Native and Black Americans as shady, violent “others,” and white men as “good cops.” I learned early on to say “that’s so gay” to refer to stupid, undesirable things and “that’s so ghetto” to mock anything associated with Black street culture.
Play is our teacher. What I’m curious about is how play can prepare white children to live in a global, multicultural world. What kinds of games might enact an antiracist response—one that begins to teach them how to recognize their innate biases and culturally conditioned prejudices? That is what I am trying to figure out in my experiment with The Green Man.
The yogurt container is exactly where we left it. I remove its contents, crumble one of the crackers into the bottom of the tub, and drop a sliver of a Band-Aid wrapper inside. Then I set it back where I found it and continue homeward.
“I don’t think I want to write anymore letters to The Green Man,” my niece tells me the next morning, when I arrive at her house.
“Why?” I ask.
She sighs and picks at her pink, tulle skirt. “He doesn’t sound like a good person.”
“What are you basing that on?” I ask.
“Don’t believe everything your uncle tells you,” I say.
I try to convince her that it’s worth the risk. “What if he’s really interesting?” I ask. “What if he’s lonely and needs a friend?”
She tells me some story about a boy chasing a ball into the water and drowning—a reminder that not all risks are worth taking. It’s a fair point.
Finally, reluctantly, she agrees to accompany me and my son back to the yogurt tub. Her brother grabs his cudgel, but hers is missing, so she finds a croquet mallet and brings it along.
“Think how many times we’ve walked through the woods before,” I say. “Remember when we went morel hunting this spring? Don’t you think he would have hurt us by now if he wanted to?”
As we cross into one of the paths cut by the loggers, I notice an abundance of new branches on the ground. I look up to see if a tree fell but can’t tell. Maybe wind blew them off in the night.
“Does it look like there are more branches here today than yesterday?” I ask.
The children look around.
“No,” they both reply.
A creak sounds from a nearby treetop. I look up to make sure we’re not standing below a severed branch that could fall at any second.
“Shhh! Listen!” my son cries out, as if on cue.
Everyone is feeling on edge, but we enter the forest.
“That’s not how I left it!” my niece exclaims when she sees the tub.
She runs over to it and finds the man-shaped figurine, made from sticks, grass, and flowers that I assembled that morning.
“It’s The Green Man,” her brother announces.
We show the stick doll to my husband when we intersect him in the road a few minutes later.
“I wouldn’t take that into my house, if I were you,” he tells the children.
“Why?” they ask.
“It could have powers. It could actually be The Green Man and come alive.”
I roll my eyes at my husband.
“I am NOT putting that in my house,” my niece announces.
As the children discuss where to leave the stick doll, I’m reminded how much easier it is to reinforce prejudice than to dismantle it. They place it, gingerly, under the apple tree.
The next morning, the children come to my house to write their third letter to The Green Man. I’ve asked them to come up with questions they have about him. I want them to want to get to know him. My nephew refuses to play along.
When I ask him what questions he has, he says, “I already know The Green Man is as tall as Dipdop.” Apparently, his grandfather (Dipdop) has spoken of decades-old encounters with The Green Man.
“Isn’t there anything else you want to know?” I ask.
He shakes his head.
I wonder if my husband, who is skeptical about my attempts to turn The Green Man into a moral exercise, is right. Maybe my efforts to control this endeavor are turning it into something uninspiring and dull.
“I do want to know if he ate Roberto, though,” my nephew says. “Ask if he ate a black and white cat.”
Apparently, one of their cats has been missing since a neighbor’s dog chased it yesterday.
“Okay,” I say. “We can ask that.”
My niece acts as scribe as we compose the letter together:
Dear Mr Green Man, Thank you for the sculpture. Why are you sad? What can we do to help? We want to know more about you. Would you be willing to tell us some things about you?
- How old are you?
- Where do you go during a storm?
- Are there other green men around, and are they your friends?
- Do you like other animals as friends?
- What is it like to live in a forest?
- Where do you get water?
- Do you need more food?
- Did you eat are cat?
She signs the letter with a heart and a flower. We put it in the tub, along with an orange and a drawing of a leaf my niece has made, and we set off once again. I am pleased to see that my niece has abandoned her weapon. My nephew still carries a cudgel, but he seems more interested in using it to make maple saplings sprinkle the morning’s rain on our heads than wielding it as a weapon.
“Maybe The Green Man is in Hawaii,” my nephew suggests.
“Hawaii’s across the ocean,” I say. “How would he get there?”
My nephew shrugs.
I say, “Maybe we could ask him if he ever travels in our next letter.”
My gut clenches when my mother calls that afternoon and announces, “I’m going to do something you probably won’t approve of.”
“What?” I ask her, anticipate another dinner party or trip to the beach with friends—flagrant dismissals of social distancing guidelines.
Instead, she tells me that she and a friend are going downtown to join the protests.
“I just feel sad for those who have suffered,” she says. “And I feel sad for us—sad for our ignorance.”
She wants me to help her figure out what to write on her sign.
I am shocked. I’m also proud. I wish I could march beside her.
We discuss what her sign will say. She wants it to say something positive, something focused on unity. I talk about the importance of amplifying Black voices and acknowledging Black struggles. We settle on a simple message: Love and Solidarity.
“Can I ask you something?” I say. “The other day, when the protests were really getting going, you said you had a lot of fear. What changed?”
She replies, “Well, when I said that, I was scared about the general direction of the country. There’s so much rage and anger. We are so divided.”
After a pause, she concedes that she did feel afraid of the protests after a curfew alert popped up on her phone. She tells me that something about seeing people in the streets reminded her of the civil rights protests that happened in Chattanooga, Tennessee during her childhood.
She tells me I should talk to her older brother, that “he missed half a year of classes because they were forcing integration, and there were violent protests all around his school.”
She reflects on how frightening that childhood moment felt and the fact that her parents did little to allay her fears.
I have never heard any of this before.
I tell my mother about my worries for my own child, my niece and nephew, and myself. Those of us here in rural Ohio rarely have the chance to connect across races, I say, and segregation breeds fear.
“When you’re out there today, ask the people you meet to share their stories and experiences,” I tell her. “I wish I could be there to hear what they have to say.”
“I will,” she says. “Thank you for that.”
Later, I wish I’d taken my own advice and asked more about her story. How old was she the year her brother missed school? What exactly did her parents say about the protests? Did race relations feel different when she moved to Florida? What were the demographics of the high school she went to—the same one I graduated from—while she was there? Did she have black friends, then? What was our neighborhood like in the 1970s? And how was it that she and all three of her siblings managed to shirk, to one degree or another, their parents’ old-school, southern racism?
A couple of days later—the same day that my niece and nephew receive a long letter from The Green Man—my husband’s mother and I prepare to attend a protest in the court square of our county seat. I deconstruct a Huggies diaper box and sketch the face of George Floyd and the words “He was somebody’s child! Somebody’s father! He was somebody! Black Lives Matter” on the blank cardboard. My mother-in-law uses a thick black marker to write “NO JUSTICE NO PEACE” on her sign.
My niece is curious about the march. We were planning on bringing her and her brother with us until we heard that the Ku Klux Klan had plans to show up too. She wants to know more about the picture of the man on my sign, and I explain that he’s the man we spoke about earlier in the week. I describe exactly how he died. I tell her that he is not the only Black man to be killed by a police officer and that many Black people live in fear that the color of their skin will get them arrested, hurt, or killed.
My mother-in-law casts a glance in my direction that says, Don’t get carried away. You’ll give the kid nightmares.
My niece wants to know why anyone would hurt someone just because they are Black. I struggle to answer this question, knowing that my struggle is nothing compared to that of the mother who must explain to her Black child that his skin color could get him killed.
“Have you ever unfairly judged someone you didn’t know, someone who isn’t like you?” I ask my niece.
She shakes her head.
“You haven’t thought someone was bad or been afraid of them because they were different?” I ask.
“No,” she says, scrunching her nose.
“What about The Green Man?” I ask.
She blinks, and her face falls. “Oh.”
In the weeks and months following the protest, something unexpected will happen—not to the children, but to me. A creative energy will hum within my body and light up my brain. Fences that justify my inaction will dissolve. I will begin to walk down paths that I previously felt too frightened, ill-equipped, or unqualified to take.
I will reach out to the organizers of the protest I attended—two young women of color I do not know. After exchanging messages, I will meet one of them in person. We will share stories over mugs of beer, and together, we will form a grassroots racial justice organization.
As part of that work, I will begin researching the lynching of Henry Howard—a Black man who was hung from an elm tree in this county’s court square, nearly 135 years before I marched around it, chanting “Say their names!” I will reach out to the Equal Justice Initiative, seeking to get a historical marker that tells Howard’s story—a story with unsettling similarities to the recent murders George Floyd, Ahmaud Arbury, Anthony Huber, and so many more.
This research will lead me to a 99-year old Black woman who grew up in this county. She will tell me how, as a girl, she was told about the jeweler on Main Street who displayed Henry Howard’s pickled toe in a mason jar—an image that put terror in her heart. She will tell me about the fear she felt in her childhood when the Ku Klux Klan marched through town and her parents hurried her indoors—a fear not too different than the one she feels now about her grandchildren and great grandchildren getting pulled over by white cops.
I will realize that I was wrong to believe that in this rural county, I and the children I love are doomed to lead segregated lives. I will wonder what else I’ve been wrong about.
I will help a friend organize a fundraiser to buy more books by Black authors for the public library in the college town where we teach. I will redesign my fall course to focus on race, racism, and anti-racism.
I will look back and marvel at my failure of imagination. Not long ago, I felt impotent—incapable of contributing more to the fight for racial justice than the occasional post on social media and infrequent arguments with family members.
I will invite my colleagues to join me in composing a commitment to antiracist action on behalf of our department. I will ask my supervisor to make these actions a priority for our department, and she will suspend all committee assignments so that we can do just that.
I will see that my work is only beginning. I will see that I have much to learn. I will find fellow travelers in unexpected places.
Late at night and early in the morning, I will write the children letters from The Green Man. The muscles of my left hand will ache from the strain of it. Outside my house, grass will spring up in the ruts the bulldozers left. Beside our house, the stump of a tulip poplar will send up shoots that sprout impossibly large leaves. Wingstem will grow chest high in the open tracts where trees once stood—yellow flowers swaying, as if in prayer, over the mending earth.
Lucy Bryan is a writer, adventurer, mother, teacher, and lover of alpenglow, fungi, tiny streams, big trees, native wildflowers, campfires, homegrown vegetables, thunderstorms, and tents. She splits her time between Ohio’s Appalachian Plateau and Virginia’s Shenandoah Valley, where she teaches writing at James Madison University. Her essays have been nominated for the Pushcart Prize and listed as ‘notable’ in Best American Essays. Her nonfiction and fiction have appeared in Earth Island Journal, Terrain.org, The Other Journal, Quarterly West, Superstition Review, and The Fourth River, among others. She holds a B.A. in journalism from the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill (2005) and an M.F.A. in creative writing from Penn State University (2011).