In October, Esau and I were ambushed by burrs in Riverside Park.
Esau, the Burry Dog
The Burry Man of Scotland
In the wake of the Terrible Burr Attack, I researched burrs and discovered … the Burry Man.
Every year on the second Friday in August, the Burry Man walks through the town of South Queensferry in Scotland. Early in the morning, he dresses in flannel undergarments and a kind of balaklava with holes for his eyes and mouth. With his arms held out to the side, he stands patiently as attendants cover him with thousands of sticky burrs that he has himself collected. He takes hold of two staves decorated with burrs and flowers.
Then he spends the day walking through the town, guided and supported by two helpers and led by a boy ringing a bell.
Whiskey through a straw
At each pub along the way, the Burry Man is given whiskey which he sips through a straw inserted into the mouth opening of his burr-covered head. He cannot sit, turn his head, relax his arms or use a bathroom until the suit is removed at the end of the day.
“The task of being Burry Man is extremely demanding,” says the Edinburgh City Museum, “requiring stamina, a strong bladder, an indifference to the discomfort caused by more penetrative burrs, and a conviction that this custom should not die out.”
Portrait of a Burry Man
The Burry Man has been walking for centuries. The earliest documentation of the ritual dates from 1687, but the custom’s pagan roots probably reach back hundreds of years earlier.
What is the Burry Man and why does he walk? No one knows. One theory posits that he originally served as a scapegoat, carrying the town’s ill fortune and evil deeds in the burrs. He may have been driven away at the end of the day, or even killed as a sacrifice.
Another theory connects the Burry Man to the Green Man, a plant-entwined nature figure that some scholars trace back through the Middle Ages to ancient fertility gods.
Saint Mary's Church in England
Although clearly rooted in paganism, the Green Man appears frequently on churches and cathedrals throughout Britain and western Europe.
Le Mans Cathedral, France, c. 1240
The Green Man sprouts on many English pub signs.
And if you look closely, you may spot the Green Man right here in Manhattan
Happy Green Man on Riverside Drive
Meanwhile in the parallel universe of Gotham City, Batman’s nemesis, Poison Ivy, is surely a fine example of a Green Woman
Poison Ivy, Batman's enemy
Once a mild-mannered botanist from Seattle, Dr. Pamela Isley, aka Poison Ivy, is now a ruthless eco-terrorist. Part-plant and part-human, her veins run with chlorophyll instead of blood.
Poison Ivy battles Batman high above Gotham
Pure fantasy? Maybe not. Elyssia chlorotica is a sea slug that uses photosynthesis to make its own food. But animals don’t do that. Only plants do. Right?
Who goes there? Animal or vegetable?
Not so fast, Mr. Smarty Pants.
E. chlorotica is … well, just listen to the scientists on this one. Zoologist John Zardus recently told Science News, “This could be a fusion of a plant and an animal — that’s just cool.” Or as another biologist said, ““Steps in evolution can be more creative than I ever imagined.”
Another distant relative of the Green Man is Robin Hood, the socialist nature boy who stole from the rich to give to the poor.
Robin Hood as The Green Man
Robin Hood’s familial relation to the Green Man may pass through Robin Goodfellow, or Puck, a member of the often malevolent faery tribe that ran rampant through the British Isles.
Later writers tried to blunt Robin’s proto-Marxist arrows by claiming he was not a commoner but a nobleman driven to criminal activity by the misdeeds of King John, Richard the Lion-hearted’s evil usurping brother. Yeah, right. Like Shakespeare was the Earl of Oxford and Depression-era outlaw Pretty Boy Floyd was the Queen of England.
(As Woody Guthrie so eloquently put it in his song about Pretty Boy Floyd:
Some will rob you with a six-gun
And some with a fountain pen.
But that’s another story.)
Whether or not Robin’s green suit connects him to ancient fertility gods or their diminished descendants, the faeries and brownies, it certainly serves a pragmatic purpose as excellent camouflage for a wanted man trying to escape detection in the forest. And for more extreme camouflage, check out Robin’s buddy with the animal ears below.
Robin shoots with Sir Guy by Louis Rhead, 1912.
Extreme camouflage brings us to the strange tale of Moss Man.
The hapless Moss Man after his arrest
When employees at an Oregon rock and gem museum discovered a man-sized hole in the wall, they called the Sheriff. Deputies arrived at the scene with a tracking dog who led them into the woods behind the building. The Sheriff reports that the dog became “very interested in a particular piece of ground. The dog then bit the ground that in turn cried out in pain.”
That particular piece of ground was Moss Man, a would-be thief wearing a ghillie suit, a plant-like camouflage outfit worn primarily by hunters and Army snipers.
Inspired by dreams of Sniper School, Esau plays war games in Riverside Park.
I've got that squirrel in my sights.
Do ghillie suits hold the answer to the Pacific Northwest’s legendary Sasquatch?
Just another guy in a ghillie suit?
Odd word, “ghillie.”
The New Oxford American Dictionary defines ghillie as “a man or boy who attends someone on a hunting or fishing expedition.” The word is Scottish in origin, which brings us full circle to the mysterious Burry Man.