The hound and I hope your holiday weekend has been good. We'll be back on Tuesday.
Spring is truly here, at long last. The earliest flowers in our garden have done their work to wake the land from sleep: the primroses and grape hyacinths, the purple aubretia climbing up the stone walls, the columbines that have seeded themselves and run riot on the hillside. The cherry trees have burst into bloom, with the apple and plum trees soon to follow. The woods behind the studio are golden with wild daffodils, which in turn will give way to the smaller pleasures of cranesbill, sicklewort, and bluebells.
The movement of the landscape through its seasons reminds me of the energy and vitality to be found in cycles and circles...and as someone who works in the narrative arts, I find that I need that reminder.
Narrative, in its most standard form, tends to run in linear fashion from beginning to middle to end. A story opens "Once upon a time," then moves -- prompted by a crisis or plot twist -- into the narrative journey: questing, testing, trials and tribulations -- and then onward to climax and resolution, ending "happily ever after" (or not, if the tale is a sad or ambiguous one). In the West, our concepts of "time" and "progress" are largely linear too. We circle through days by the hours of the clock, years by the months of the calendar, yet our lives are pushed on a linear track: infant to child to adult to elder, with death as the final chapter. Progress is measured by linear steps, education by grades that ascend year by year, careers by narratives that run along the same railway line: beginning, middle, and end.
But in fact, narratives are cyclical too if we stand back and look through a broader lens. Clever Hans will marry his princess and they will produce three dark sons or three pale daughters or no child at all until a fairy intervenes, and then those children will have their own stories: marrying frogs and turning into swans and climbing glass hills in iron shoes. No ending is truly an ending, merely a pause before the tale goes on.
As a folklorist and a student of nature, I know the importance of cycles, seasons, and circular motion -- but I've grown up in a culture that loves straight lines, beginnings and ends, befores and afters, and I keep expecting life to act accordingly, even though it so rarely does. Take health, for example. We envision the healing process as a linear one, steadily building from illness to strength and full function; yet for those of us managing long-term conditions, our various trials don't often lead to the linear "ending-as-resolution" but to the cyclical "ending-as-pause": a time to catch one's breath before the next crisis or plot twist sets the tale back in motion.
Relationships, too, are cyclical. Spousal relationships, family relationships, friendships, work partnerships: they aren't tales of linear progression, they are tales full of cycles, circles, and seasons. The path isn't straight, it loops and bends; the narrative side-tracks and sometimes dead ends. We don't progress in relationships so much as learn, change, and adapt with each season, each twist of the road.
As a writer and a reader, I'm partial to stories with clear beginnings, middles, and ends (not necessarily in that order in the case of fractured narratives) -- but when I'm away from the desk or the printed page (or the cinema or the television screen), I am trying to let go of the habit of measuring my life in a strictly linear way. Healing, learning, and art-making don't follow straight roads but queer twisty paths on which half the time I feel utterly lost...until, like magic, I've arrived somewhere new, some place I could never have imagined.
I want especially to be rid of the tyranny of Before and After. "After such-and-such is accomplished," we say, "then the choirs will sing and life will be good." When my novel is published. When I get that job. When I find that partner. When I lose ten pounds. No, no, no, no. Because even if we reach our goal, the heavenly choirs don't sing -- or if they do sing, you quickly discover it's all that they do. They don't do your laundry, they don't solve all your problems. You are still you, and life is still life: a complex mixture of the bad and the good. And now, of course, the goal posts have moved. The Land of After is no longer a published book, it's five books, a best-seller, a major motion picture. You don't ever get to the Land of After; it's always changing, always shimmering on the far horizon.
I don't want to live after. I want to live now, moving with, not against, life's cycles and seasons, the twists and the turns, the ups and the downs, appreciating it all.
Today, I walked among spring's first flowers, chose a few to bring back to the studio -- where they sit on my desk in a pickle jar, glowing as bright as the sun and the moon. At my desk, I work in a linear artform, writing words in a line across a ruled page -- and the flowers remind me that cycles and seasons should be part of the narrative too. Circular patterns. Loops and digressions. Tales that turn and meander down paths that, surprise!, are the paths that were meant all along. Stories that reach resolutions and endings, but ends that turn into another beginning. Again. Again. Tell it again.
Once upon a time...
As the final stretch of my Secret Project goes on and on, I'm worried that I've been neglecting readers of Myth & Moor. So here's my plan: While I'm finishing up the work at hand (which I truly hope won't be much longer now), I'll also post some photographs each day, taken on my usual rambles with the hound...but leave it to you to supply the words to go with them in your comments, discussions, and poems. (I know full well you are up to the challenge!)
For those of you who like to start the day with a good read, I'll include a recommendation with each post. Today, I recommend Kate Harloe's interview with George Saunders in The Rumpus. The piece is so terrific that I can't pull a single quote out for you -- it really ought to be read in full, for Saunders has wonderful things to say about writing, revision, respect for readers, and the value of "bold compassion" in the age of Social Media and alarming politics.
Like many, I am feeling battered by the daily headlines, and so I'm taking a few days off the internet to ground myself, and to meet some rather importants deadlines that sailed right passed me while other parts of my life required attention. I'll be back on Monday or Tuesday, once the last of these overdue commitments have been honorably discharged.
Be kind to yourself in the meantime. Between the shootings in Florida, and the shooting of MP and social justice activist Jo Cox over here, it's been a very, very rough week for everyone, and for the LGBT and feminist community in particular.
"I feel that art has something to do with the achievement of stillness in the midst of chaos," Saul Bellow once wrote. "A stillness which characterizes prayer, too, and the eye of the storm. I think that art has something to do with an arrest of attention in the midst of distraction."
I wish you stillness.
For last year's post on the folklore of foxgloves, go here. For the folklore of foxes, go here. The charming fox paintings are by American artist Julianna Swaney. The foxy photograph is by UK wildlife photographer Richard Bowler.
"When I am constantly running there is no time for being. When there is no time for being there is no time for listening." - Madeleine L'Engle (Walking on Water)
I'd been looking forward to a solitary, calm, work-focused week while my husband was up in London...but it turned into one of crisis-management instead, the quiet of my creative voice drowned out by a louder chorus of life's demands. The stress level rose in my studio, and by Friday Tilly had clearly had enough. Normally if I'm too busy or tired for our morning walk she accepts it with good grace, but this time she would simply not give up. She stared and stared. She tapped my knee with her paw, eyes wide, her intention clear. She walked to the door and back, over and over, and then tapped me on the knee once more. And so, at last, I gave in, closed down the computer and laced up my boots.
I followed her out the garden gate, through the woods and onto Nattadon Hill, carpeted now with bluebells and swaths of stitchwort like little white stars.
Work fell away. Words fell away. Heart-ache and worry slowly fell away too. We climbed, and climbed, the air tasting of flowers, and I grew a little lighter with every step. Re-discovering, as Madeleine L'Engle would say, time for being. And for listening.
An hour later we came back down, following the path through wildflowers and bracken back to the studio. The problems pressing on me hadn't solved themselves, the work on my desk hadn't disappeared, and I wasn't magically flooded with new insight and energy for tackling both those things...but it was better. A subtle, almost imperceptible change, but it was enough.
As long there are moments of beauty on the hard, dark days, I know that I can keep on going.
And that you can too.
The Madeleine L'Engle quote is from Walking on Water: Reflections on Faith & Art (Wheaton Literary Series, 2001). The poem in the picture captions is from Where Many Rivers Meet by David Whyte (Many Rivers Press, 2004). All rights reserved by the authors.
Although it's still too cold to feel like spring, the wildflower season has begun. The bluebells are unfurling, and soon our woods will be a Faerieland carpeted in flowers.
Bluebells are especially loved by the faeries, and as such they are dangerous. A child alone in a bluebell wood might be whisked Under the Hill and never seen again, while adults can find themselves lost for days, or years, until the faery spell is broken. Other names the plant is known by: Faery Thimbles, Wood Hyacinths, Harebells (in Scotland, for they grow in fields frequented by hares), and Dead Man's Bells (because the faeries are not kind to those who trample willfully upon them).
Bluebells in the house can be lucky or unlucky, depending on where in British Isles you live. Here in Devon, it's the former: a bouquet of bluebells, picked with gratitude and tended with care, confers the faeries' blessings on the household and "sweetens" spirits sagging after a long winter. Love potions are made of bluebell blossoms, and a bluebell wreath compels the wearer to tell the truth about his or her affections. Despite this association with love, bluebells in Romantic poetry are symbols of loneliness and regret; while in the Victorian's Language of Flowers they represent kindness, humility, and a sense of wonder.
In Some Kind of Fairy Tale, Graham Joyce captured the uncanny magic of a bluebell wood:
"The bluebells made such a pool that the earth had become like water, and all the trees and the bushes seem to have grown out of the water. And the sky above seemed to have fallen down to the earth floor; and I didn't know if the sky was the earth or the earth was water. I had been turned upside down. I had to hold the rock with my fingernails to stop me falling into the sky of the earth or the water of the sky."
(Graham's faery novel for adult readers is both magical and sinister, and highly recommended.)
Wild violets are often associated with the Greek myth of Persephone, for she was out in the fields gathering the flowers when Hades abducted her into the Underworld; they are flowers of change, transition, transformation, and the cycle of death-and-rebirth. In the Middle Ages, the violet represented love that was new, uncertain, changeable or transitory; yet by Victorian times, in the Language of Flowers the violet was a symbol of constancy.
Here in Devon, old country folk are wary of bringing violets (and snowdrops) into the house, for this will curse the farmwife's hens and make them unable to lay. Dreaming of violets is lucky, however, as is wearing the flowers pinned to your clothes...but only if the violets are worn outdoors. Take them off at your doorstep and leave them for the faeries, alongside a bowl of fresh milk.
Primroses guard against dark witchcraft if you gather their blossoms properly: always thirteen or more in a bunch, and never a single flower. On May Day, small primrose bouquets were hung over farmhouse windows and doors to keep black magic and misfortune out, while allowing white magic to enter freely. Primroses were braided into horses' manes and plaited into balls hung from the necks of cows and sheep as protection from piskie mischief on May Day and Beltane. Hedgewitches made primrose oinment and infusions for "women's troubles" (menstrual cramps) and "melancholy" (depression), while oil of primrose, rubbed on the eyelids, strengthened the ability to see faeries. Primrose wine was a courting gift, proclaiming the giver's constancy -- though by Victorian times, in the Language of Flowers, primroses symbolized the opposite, so a gift of them demonstrated how little you trusted a fickle lover's fine words.
"Flowers lure us into the present moment by the miracle of their beauty," writes Judith Berger (in Herbal Rituals, a lovely book about medicine plants through the four seasons). "Watching and waiting for a particular plant to bloom gives birth to patience within us. We slow our rhythm down in order to fully experience the process of flowering; expectancy and excitement deepen hand in hand with our patience. As we observe, we come to see that the full unfolding of the flower petals is the culmination of an unhurried dance in which the flower senses and responds, moment by moment, to the environmental conditions which surround and penetrate it. These conditions include termperature, moisture, light, and shadow, as well as the more subtle influences of sound vibrations, heartful care, and respect.
"In Buddhist poetry, there is a verse which reads: 'I entrust myself to the earth, the earth entrusts herself to me.' To entrust is to place something in another's hands with the confidence that what has been given will be cared for."
On this cold wet day, after a long hard winter, I entrust myself to the woodland's flowers. Bluebell, primrose, stitchwort, pink campion: they're all emerging now despite the weather, bursts of color and joy in the rain-soaked hills. They are not waiting for a "perfect" day to bloom, and neither must I await the "perfect" time to write, or paint, or to pick up the reins of daily life once more. Recovery from a long illness is not like stepping through the door into bright sun; there is no clear line between "sick" and "well," only the deep, invisible processes of healing, slowly unfolding day by day. To wait for strength, ease and "perfect" pain-free hours is to wait for life to begin instead of living.
This is life. This is spring. Cold, wet, and grey...but full of wildflowers.
Words: The passages quoted above are from Some Kind of Fairy Tale by Graham Joyce (Doubleday, 2012; winner of the 2013 Robert Holdstock Award), and Herbals Rituals by Judith Berger (St. Martin's Press, 1998). Pictures: "Bluebell Faery," "Harebell Faery," and "Primrose Faery" by Brian Froud, from Faeries by Brian Froud & Alan Lee (Abrams, 1978). All rights reserved by the authors & artist.
by Denise Levertov
Elves are no smaller
than men, and walk
as men do, in this world,
but with more grace than most,
and are not immortal.
Their beauty sets them aside
from other men and from women
unless a woman has that cold fire in her
called poet: with that
she may see them and by its light
they know her and are not afraid
and silver tongues of love
flicker between them.
The poem above is from Poems of Denise Levertov: 1960-1967 (New Directions, 1983); the poem in the picture captions is from The Journal of Mythic Arts (2006); the exquisite pencil drawings are by my friend & neighbor Alan Lee, who first introduced me to the Devon woods. All rights reserved by the authors & artist.
This has been a good year for the foxgloves, which started their bloom early in June and are still brightening the woods and hills....
Folklorists are divided on where the common name for Digitalis purpurea comes from. In some areas of the British Isles the name seems be a corruption of "folksglove," associating the flowers with the fairy folk, while in others the plant is also known as "fox fingers," its blossoms used as gloves by the foxes to keep dew off their paws. Another theory suggests that the name comes from the Anglo-Saxon word foxes-gleow, a "gleow" being a ring of bells. This is connected to Norse legends in which foxes wear the bell-shaped foxglove blossoms around their necks; the ringing of bells was a spell of protection against hunters and hounds.
Foxgloves give us digitalin, a glysoside used to treat heart disease, and this powerful plant has been used for heart tonics since Celtic and Roman times. Botanist Bobby J. Ward gives us this account of early foxglove use in his excellent book A Contemplation Upon Flowers:
"An old Welsh legend claims to be the first to proscribe it, because the knowledge of its properties came to the meddygon, the Welsh physicians, in a magical way. The legend is loosely based on the early 13th century historical figure Rhiwallon, the physician to Prince Rhys the Hoarse, of South Wales. Young Rhiwallon was walking beside a lake one evening when from the mist rose a golden boat. A beautiful maiden was rowing the boat with golden oars. She glided softly away in the mist before he could speak to her. Rhiwallon returned every evening looking for the maiden; when he did not find her, he asked advice from a wise man. He told Rhiwallon to offer her cheese. Rhiwallon did as he was told, the maiden appeared and took his offering. She came ashore, became his wife, and bore him three sons.
"After the sons grew and the youngest became a man, Rhiwallon's wife rowed into the lake one day and returned with a magic box hinged with jewels. She told Rhiwallon he must strike her three times so that she could return to the mist forever. He refused to hit her, but the next morning as he finished breakfast and prepared to go to work, Rhiwallon tapped his wife affectionately on the shoulder three times. Instantly a cloud of mist enveloped her and she disappeared. Left behind was the bejeweled magic box. When the three sons opened it, they found a list of all the medicinal herbs, including foxglove, with full directions for their use and healing properties. With this knowledge the sons became the most famous of physicians."
Foxglove is a plant beloved by the fairies, and its appearance in the wild indicates their presence. Likewise, fairies can be attracted to a dometic garden by planting foxgloves. Dew collected from the blossoms is used in spells for communicating with fairies, though gloves must be worn when handling the plant as digitalis can be toxic. In the Scottish borders, foxgloves leaves were strewn about babies' cradles for protection from bewitchement, while in Shropshire they were put in children's shoes for the same reason (and also as a cure for Scarlet Fever). Picking foxglove flowers is said to be unlucky. Here in Devon and Cornwall, this is because it robs the fairies, elves, and piskies of a plant they particularly delight in; in the north of England, foxglove flowers in the house are said to allow the Devil entrance.
In Roman times, foxglove was a flower sacred to the goddess Flora, who touched Hera on her breasts and belly with foxglove in order to impregnate her with the god Mars. The plant has been associated with midwifery and women's magic ever since -- as well as with "white witches" (practitioners of benign and healing magic) who live in the wild with vixen familiars, the latter pictured with enchanted foxglove bells around their necks. In medieval gardens, the plant was believed to be sacred to the Virgin Mary. In the earliest recordings of the Language of Flowers, foxgloves symbolized riddles, conundrums, and secrets, but by the Victorian era they had devolved into the more negative symbol of insincerity.
A lovely old legend told here in the West Country explains why foxgloves bob and sway even when there is no wind: this is the plant bowing to the fairy folk as they pass by. The spires of foxgloves growing on our hill mark it out a place beloved by fairies, a land filled with riddles, secrets, and stories. I walk its paths, listen to the tales, and then do my best to bring them back to you.
(For the folklore of foxes, go here.)
Art above: Pages from The Country Diary of an Edwardian Lady by Edith Holden (1871-1920), "Foxglove Fairy" by Cicely Mary Barker (1875-1973), "Girl With Foxgloves" by Samuel McLoy (1831-1904), "Foxglove" by botanical artist Christie Newman, a page from Flora Londinensis by English apothocary & botanist William Curtis (1746-1799), "Foxgloves" by Kelly Louise Judd, and "Rosie" by wildlife photographer Richard Bowler; all rights to the contemporary pieces are reserved by the artists.
In the fairy tale of "The Wild Swans" by Hans Christian Andersen, the heroine's brothers have been turned into swans by their evil stepmother. A kindly fairy instructs her to gather nettles in a graveyard by night, spin their fibers into a prickly green yarn, and then knit the yarn into a coat for each swan brother in order to break the spell -- all of which she must do without speaking a word or her brothers will die. The nettles sting and blister her hands, but she plucks and cards, spins and knits, until the nettle coats are almost done -- running out of time before she can finish the sleeve on the very last coat. She flings the coats onto her swan-brothers and they transform back into young men -- except for the youngest, with the incomplete coat, who is left with a wing in the place of one arm. (And there begins a whole other tale.)
This was one of my favorite stories as a child, for I too had brothers in harm's way, and I too was a silent sister who worked as best I could to keep them safe, and sometimes succeded, and sometimes failed, as the plot of our lives unfolded. The story confirmed that courage can be as painful as knitting coats from nettles, but that goodness can still win out in the end. Spells can broken, and gentle, loving persistence can be the strongest magic of them all.
I grew up with the story, but not with Urtica dioica: "common nettles" or "stinging nettles." I imagined them as dark, thorny, and witchy-looking -- and although they're actually green and ordinary, growing thickly in fields and hedges here in Devon, nettles emerge nonetheless from the loam of old stories and glow with a fairy glamour. It is a plant that heralds the return of spring, a tonic of vitamins and minerals; and also a plant redolent of swans and spells, of love and loss and loyalty, of ancient powers skillfully knotted into the most traditional of women's arts: carding, spinning, knitting, and sewing.
According to the Anglo-Saxon "Nine Herbs Charm," recorded in the 10th century, stiðe (nettles) were used as a protection against "elf-shot" (mysterious pains in humans or livestock caused by the arrows of the elvin folk) and"flying venom" (believed at the time to be one of the four primary causes of illness). In Norse myth, nettles are associated with Thor, the god of Thunder; and with Loki, the trickster god, whose magical fishing net is made from them. In Celtic lore, thick stands of nettles indicate that there are fairy dwellings close by, and the sting of the nettle protects against fairy mischief, black magic, and other forms of sorcery.
Nettles once rivaled flax and hemp (and later, cotton) as a staple fiber for thread and yarn, used to make everything from heavy sailcloth to fine table linen up to the 17th/18th centuries. Other fibers proved more economical as the making of cloth became more mechanized, but in some areas (such as the highlands of Scotland) nettle cloth is still made to this day. "In Scotland, I have eaten nettles," said the 18th century poet Thomas Campbell, "I have slept in nettle sheets, and I have dined off a nettle tablecloth. The young and tender nettle is an excellent potherb. The stalks of the old nettle are as good as flax for making cloth. I have heard my mother say that she thought nettle cloth more durable than any other linen."
"Nettles have numerous virtues," writes Margaret Baker in Discovering the Folklore of Plants. "Nettle oil preceded paraffin; the juice curdled milk and helped to make Cheshire cheese; nettle juice seals leaky barrels; nettles drive frogs from beehives and flies from larders; nettle compost encourages ailing plants; and fruits packed in nettle leaves retain their bloom and freshness.
"Mixing medicine and magic, a healer could cure fever by pulling up a nettle by its roots while speaking the patient's name and those of his parents. Roman soldiers in damp Britain found that rheumatic joints responded to a beating with nettles. Tyroleans threw nettles on the fire to avert thunderstorms, and gathered nettle before sunrise to protect their cattle from evil spirits."
The medicinal value of nettles is confirmed by Julie Bruton-Seal & Matthew Seal in their useful book Hedgerow Medicine:
"Nettle was the Anglo-Saxon sacred herb wergula, and in medieval times nettle beer was drunk for rheumatism. Nettle's high vitamin C content made it a valuable spring tonic for our ancestors after a winter of living on grain and salted meat, with hardly any green vegetables. Nettle soup and porridge were popular spring tonic purifiers, but a pasta or pesto from the leaves is a worthily nutritious modern alternative. Nettle soup is described by one modern writer as 'Springtime herbalism at one of its finest moments.' This soup is the Scottish kail. Tibetans believe that their sage and poet Milarepa (AD 1052-1135) lived solely on nettle soup for many years until he himself turned green: a literal green man.
"Nettles enhance natural immunity, helping protect us from infections. Nettle tea drunk often at the start of a feverish illness is beneficial. Nettles have long been considered a blood tonic and are a wonderful treatment for anaemia, as they are high in both iron and chlorophyll. The iron in nettles is very easily absorbed and assimilated. What cooks will tell you is that two minutes of boiling nettle leaves will neutralize both the silica 'syringes' of the stinging cells and the histamine or formic acid-like solution that is so painful."
Nattadon Nettle Soup
Melt some butter in the bottom of the soup pot, add a chopped onion or two, and cook slowly until softened.
Add a litre or so of vegetable or chicken stock, with salt, pepper, and any herbs you fancy.
Add 2 large potatoes (chopped), a large carrot (chopped), and simmer until almost soft. If you like your soup thick, use more potatoes.
Throw in several large handfuls of fresh nettle tops, and simmer gently for another 10 minutes.
Add some cream (to taste), and a pinch of nutmeg.
Purée with a blender, and serve.
If you happen to have some truffle oil in your pantry, a light sprinkling on the soup tastes terrific.
Nettles, folk tales around the world agree, have long been associated with women's domestic magic: with inner strength and fortitude, with healing and also self-healing, with protection and also self-protection, with the ability to "enrich the soil" wherever we have been planted. Nettle magic is steeped in dualities: both fierce and soft, painful and restorative, common as weeds and priceless as jewels. Potent. Tenacious. Humble and often overlooked. Resilient.
And pretty tasty too.
The illustrations for "The Wild Swans" above are by Nadezhda Illarionova, Susan Jeffers, & Yvonne Gilbert. The Nettle Coat is by Alice Maher. Related posts: "Swan's Wing," "Swan Maidens and Crane Wives," "When Stories Take Flight: The Folklore of Birds," and "The Folklore of Food."