Speaking the language of the grasses
Tunes for a Monday Morning

Wildflower season

Gate

I love the spring months here in Devon, when wildflowers turn the woods and fields and hedgerows into Faerieland, scenting the air with their perfume and the echo of ancient stories....

Bluebell wall

Bluebells are especially loved by 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).

Oak mother

Bluebells and rain

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.

Bluebell path

Devon Bluebells

Bluebell Faery by Brian Froud

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; as is The Limits of Enchantment, a fine novel rich in the folklore of plants and hares.

Devon bluebell wood

Harebell Faery

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.

Wild violets

Wild violets

Milk for the faeries

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.

Primrose Faery by Brian Froud

Primroses

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.

Primroses in a bunny jug

Blue sicklewort (also known as bugle, bugleweed, middle comfrey, and horse & hound) is related to the mint family, and has longed been used as a medicinal herb. The foliage contains a digitalis-like substance, which causes a mild narcotic effect when ingested. In folklore, too, it's a medicine plant, associated with the healing of the body and of hearts broken by sorrow. Once, during a time of great sadness, I felt myself compelled to keep visiting this patch of blue sicklewort in the woods behind my studio. I'd sit on the ground with my coffee thermos and notebooks, finding a strange kind of comfort there. It was only later that I discovered the plant's traditional use as a healer of heartbreak.

Blue sicklewort

The wild orchid is another flower associated with faeries, particularly those who delight in seducing mortals in the woods. It is a plant associated with faery revels, amours, and sensuality. The dried root was a faery aphrodisiac.

Wild orchid

The old folk of Devon still know pink stichwort as "piskie" or "the piskie flower." Anyone who dares to pick them (as I do) is in danger of being piskie-led.

Pink stitchwort

Foxglove, with its long pink and white spires, has long been associated with the faeries. Some scholars believe that ''fox'' is a corruption of ''folk,'' and that the name thus means ''the gloves of the Good Folk'' (the faeries). Foxglove used to be known as goblin's gloves in the mountains of Wales, where the flowers were worn by hobgoblins. In Scandinavian lore, foxglove is associated with both foxes and faeries, for the faeries taught foxes to ring the bell-like flowers in warning when hunters approached.

Devon foxgloves

In her lovely book Botanical Folk Tales of Britain and Ireland, my friend Lisa Schneidau writes:

"I was lucky. I was a little girl growing up in 1970s Buckinghamshire with a mother and grandmother who loved wild plants, and six fields of ridge-and-furrow, green-winged orchid meadow behind our house. I remember when the moon daisies were nearly as tall as me, when we picked field mushrooms from the fairy rings and fried them for breakfast, when I could run through the middle of ancient hawthorne hedgerows and travel by secret ways down to the magic old willow tree over the pond. I remember the carpets of cowslips, the endless butterflies, the quivering quaking grass, and the blackberries in autumn....I inherited an insatiable curiosity for plants of all kinds and, with a vivid imagination as always, I wanted to know the stories: why? what? how does it feel to be a green living plant, a meadowsweet compared to a bee orchid?"

Foxgloves

"Flowers lure us into the present moment by the miracle of their beauty," writes another friend, Judith Berger (in Herbal Rituals, a beautiful 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."

Through the gate

VioletAnd so in the changeable days following winter -- now warm, now cold, now wet, now dry -- I entrust myself to the flowers of our hill: bluebell, primrose, blue sicklewort, white and pink stitchwort, red campion. They all emerge whatever the weather, bursts of color and joy in the rain-soaked hills. They do not wait 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 again after illness knocks me flat during the winter. Recovering one's health is not like stepping through a gateway 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. Bright and beautiful yesterday. Cold, wet, and grey now. Tomorrow, something else again. But full of wildflowers.

Literary and medicinal plant lore

Plant lore books

Hound and flowers

Words: The passages quoted above are from Some Kind of Fairy Tale by Graham Joyce (Doubleday, 2012), Botanical Folktales of Britain & Ireland by Lisa Scheidau (The History Press, 2018), and Herbals Rituals by Judith Berger (St. Martin's Press, 1998). The quotes in the picture captions are from a variety of sources, including Discovering the Folklore of Plants by Margaret Baker (Shire Classics, 2008), A Contemplation on Flowers: Garden Plants in Myth & Literature by Bobby J. Ward (Timber Press, 2009) and Hedgerow Medicine by Julie Bruton-Seal & Matthew Seal (Merlin Unwin Books, 2008).  All rights reserved by the authors.

Pictures: The paintings, by Brian Froud, are from Faeries by Brian Froud & Alan Lee (Abrams, 1978). All rights reserved by the artist. Parts of this post first appeared in 2016, but this version has been expanded with additional photographs, quotes, and plant lore.

Comments

A lovely post. I can almost smell the bluebells. Have recently finished Graham Joyce's 'Some Kind of Fairy Tale' and remembered the piece quoted. A wonderful read.

Yes, this was lovely. Violet Lore was particularly sweet for me, and seeing Tilly as she grows with a new spring, to approach Crone.

Scots Blue Bells


Hear the Deadman's Bells all ring
Heralding another spring,
sending off another man.
Catch me, all the fairies sing--
If you can.


Hear the Deadman's Bells all chime,
Stating sternly your end-time.
Well-man's warning, ill man's bane
ringing out in song and rhyme,
Cue cold rain.


Hear the Deadman's Bells all toll,
Capturing an old man's soul
Woman's birth pangs, childish cough,
Birth and death an equal goal
See them off.


©2019 Jane Yolen all rights reserved

When Graham sent me a copy of the book and I saw that he'd quoted me in one of the chapter headings, I thought my heart would burst. His early death was such a tragedy. He still had so many stories to tell.

This reads like a classic from a book of folklore poems, chants, and spells, not a piece newly written. After all these years, I still don't know how you do that, Jane!

Old soul?
Party trick?
Or just having you as Muse?

Thanks, Terri.

xxJane

Hi Terri

This is so gorgeous as were the rest of the posts this week, just catching up now on reading them after a hectic week with family and business routines. I love the sayings and the photos. I, too, want to seek the language of grasses, flowers and woods. As William Wordsworth once wrote in "The Tables Turned, "one impulse from the vernal wood, can teach us more...".

When we get back to nature, leave the digital maze behind and reconnect with our primal roots and instincts, allow imagination to shape shift our voice and emotional self into another being or creature, allow us to cast a different shadow. Thank you so much for all you do and these fantastic writings poems and essays. They both enrich and mesmerize.

Seeking The Language Of Grasses, Flowers
And Woods

Come, lay down your laptop
and turn off your plastic cell.
Listen as the wind shakes
fern, toadstool and flower bell

that grows within the greenwood.
A tremble of shade and scent.
The fox has dissolved into shadow
and leaves some of the tall grass bent

as she slinks back to her burrow
carrying secrets of the night
and whispers from the cloven pine.
With her, you wild soul takes flight

along a pathway where time
becomes the wheel on which you spin
thoughts and dreams of who you are
opposed to where you've lately been

in this blue maze of screens and text.
You have forgotten how to run
with stream water in your veins
and bones kindled by the evening sun.

Once you were fox, wind and light
knowing old tales etched in bark or stone.
Mistress of this timbered house
with instincts you're striving to re-own
__________________________________

Take care,
My Best
Wendy

Hi Jane

I agree with Terri, I don't know how you do it! Your writing is magical and always
enlightens, startles or enchants. Love how you define those bells and combine the process of life within their echo as well as the frame work of nature. This one haunts in the most delicious way!

Thank you for sharing,
take care
Wendy

Awww shucks.

Now if could ony still sing, though with a voice coach I have increased my range from half an octave toa shaky two!

That's hard work.

Jane

This line especially "A tremble of shade and scent." Hard to do in a tightly rhymed poem. Thanks for the shot in the arm!

xxJane

Thanks so much Jane

For taking the time to read and review my poem, I deeply appreciate it! And I must also thank you so much for recommending that , a few months ago, that I submit work to the lit journal, Coffin Bell. I did submit five poems and I heard recently, they have accepted all five for publication in their upcoming July issue!

So again, thanks so, so much!
My Best always,
Wendy

Once again you ladies remove me from my suburban home and deposit me straight into toe green wood. Thank you for that.

I saw that quote too. I meant to comment about it at the time. I must look up his other books.

The Limits of Enchantment and Facts of Life are two other favourites of mine.

Its a bittersweet thing, though mostly sweet, watching her grow into her Elder self. (The bitterness comes only from wanting to arrest time so that we never lose her.) Yet she's still capable of surprising me daily with goofy acts of sheer puppyness.

What a beautiful Call to Arms, Wendy. Or rather, a call to lay down our arms (or at least our phones and computers), and return home to the land that birthed us.

Thanks so much Terri!

I really appreciate your kind words and interest in this poem! We need, at times, to get away from the digital world and reconnect with those we love and the landscape that we love and that as you say "birthed us".

Again, thank you
take care
Wendy

I will look them up as soon as I can. Please, can I ask you to stop recommending such interesting literature and music? I am running out of space and money.

Wahoooooooo!! Smart people.

xxJane

Living in a tiny house, I sympathize with the space problem! And the money problem too, so thank heavens for libraries and inter-library loans.

Congratulations!!!! (And I'm not a bit surprised that they took all five.)

That's exactly what I want Myth & Moor to do, so thank you for letting me know it's working.

Thank you Jane

So much! I deeply appreciate your continual interest in my work and your encouragement!

Take care,
My Best always
Wendy

Thanks so much Terri

Your kind words and encouragement are so deeply appreciated!!!!

Take care
My best always,\
Wendy

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