The myths we make, the stories we tell

Bluebells 1

In her early memoir Plant Dreaming Deep, May Sarton (1912-1995) recounted the experience of buying and renovating a late-18th century house in a tiny village in rural New Hampshire, where she crafted a life dedicated to poetry, nature, and solitude. At a time when selfless commitment to marriage and family was still the standard measure of a woman's virtue, Plant Dreaming Deep celebrated the pleasures of independence, self-reliance, and living alone. 

Its author, mind you, was not a hermit. Sarton's days were amply stocked with friendship, romance, travel, adventure, and the international web of connection arising from a long literary career. She spent time with lovers and friends in Boston, she taught, she travelled around the country giving readings...but she did her best work in solitude, and work was her priority.

Bluebells 2

A woman living alone and unmarried by choice, privileging her writing over other social bonds, was rare enough when Plant Dreaming Deep was published in 1968 that the book caused something of a stir. "Sarton chose the way of solitude with all its costs," wrote feminist scholar Carolyn Heilbrun (in an essay published in 1982), "and heartened others with the news that this adventure, this terrible daring, might be endured."

This was a message that many in Sarton's generation hungered for and Plant Dreaming Deep was a popular success, appealing particularly to women who had given up their own creative work after marriage and children, and who had little solitude themselves. They romanticized the life she led, imagining a tranquil idyll of poetry and music and flowers from the garden -- not the hard labor and professional ups and downs of life as a working writer.

Bluebells 3

Sarton herself came to feel that she'd painted too rosy a picture of her sojourn in the country -- and so her next memoir, The Journal of Solitude, aimed to set the record straight. In this volume she recorded her doubts, her creative struggles, her professional frustrations, her poignant loneliness. The woman who emerges from this text is prickly, moody and exasperating, compared to the narrator of Plant Dreaming Deep, but also thoroughly human. Sarton's rigorous honesty throughout the book is astonishing, brave, and unsettling.

Bluebells 4

I recently dipped into these two volumes again, re-reading Sarton's reflections on solitude in light of the global pandemic that has isolated so many. Like Sarton, I have a taste for solitude, so days of semi-isolation are easier on me than on those of a more extroverted stamp -- but solitude chosen freely is a different beast than solitude imposed by crisis. My temperament is generally steady, and yet I, too, have been strangely moody of late. My heart soars as spring unfolds around me, plunges with the horror of the daily news, rises in my peaceful studio, and falls again as the world crowds in. Each day I ground myself in work, finding strength and purpose in language and paint; each night that ground crumbles underfoot as worry and fear move through my dreams.

In Plant Dreaming Deep and Journal of Solitude, Sarton acknowledges both aspects of self-isolation: the deep pleasure and concomitant pain of retreating from the wider world. It's the mixture of the two that makes this time, for me, feel so surreal.

Bluebells 5

Plant Dreaming Deep

In Plant Dreaming Deep, Sarton reflects on the difference between an "isolated" and "quiet" life, in words that echo my initial experience of the current lock-down:

"In that first week [in the farmhouse] I felt I was running all the time. There were hundreds of things I had in mind to do, things about the house, things about the garden, besides the spate of poems that had been pushing their way out. But I imagined that, as time went on, this state of affairs would calm down and I myself would calm down, to lead the meditative life, the life of a Chinese philospher, that my friends quite naturally imagine I must lead here, way all alone in a tiny village, with few interruptions and almost no responsibilities.

"But in all the eight years I have lived here, it has not yet become a quiet life. It is a life lived at a high pitch. One of the facts about solitude is that one becomes as alert as an animal to every change of mood in the skies, and to every sound. The thud of the first apple falling never fails to startle the wits out of me; there has been no sound like it for a year....The intense silence magnifies the slightest creak or whisper.

"But more than any such purely physical reasons for staying on the qui vive, there are inner reasons for being highly tuned up when one lives alone. The alertness is also there toward the inner world, which is always close to the surface for me when I am here, so it may be a mouse in the wainscot that keeps me awake, but it may just as well be a half-formed idea. The climate of poetry is also the climate of anxiety. And if I inhabit the house, it also inhabits me, and sometimes I feel as if I myself were becoming an intersection for almost too many currents of too intense a nature."

Bluebells 6

In Journal of Solitude, she speaks of the darker side of seclusion: the fears that arise, and the courage required to overcome them and keep on making art:

"I have said elsewhere that we have to make myths of our lives, the point being that if we do, then every grief or inexplicable seizure by weather, woe, or work can -- if we discipline ourselves and think hard enough -- be turned into account, be made to yield further insight into what it is to be alive, to be a human being, what the hazards are of a fairly usual, everyday kind. We go up to Heaven and down to Hell a dozen times a day -- at least I do. And the discipline of work provides an exercise bar, so that the wild, irrational motions of the soul become formal and creative. It literally keeps one from falling on one's face....

"We fear disturbance, change, fear to bring to light and to talk about what is painful. Suffering often feels like failure, but it is actually the door into growth."

Journal of Solitude

By acknowledging both sides of solitude, Sarton helps me understand why my experience of pandemic self-isolation varies so widely from day to day, or even hour to hour. The joy I feel as the world slows down, and the deep anxiety that this produces, are just two sides of the same coin.

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Knowing this, I'll continue to value the quiet hours the lock-down gives me -- and make my peace with the fretful, fearful dreams that are part of it too. 

Make a myth of your life, says Sarton. Learn what hardship has to teach you, and use in your art.

 I am making myths, and telling stories, and trying to do just that.

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Words: The quotes above are from May Sarton's Journal of Solitude (W.W. Norton, 1973). The poem in the picture caption is from Sarton's Letters from Maine (W.W. Norton, 1984). All rights reserved by the authors estate. Pictures: The bliss of bluebells.


On snowdrops and hope

Devon Snowdrops

We've been deluged by storms throughout this last month -- fierce wind with rain alternating with hail, and snow blanketing the higher moor -- but I'm trying to hang on to the sense the great wheel of the seasons has begun to turn. One token of the change is the emergence of flowers: shy primroses in the corners of our garden, wild daffodil shoots in the hollow of the woods, and the small white bells of snowdrops glowing bright against mulch and moss.

The Snowdrop Fairy by Cicely BarkerIn his beautiful book The Moth Snowstorm, Michael McCarthy writes:

"I can think of nothing more extraordinary and exceptional than the annual rebirth of the world; and in fact, there are a specific number of markers of the rebirth, of the earth's reawakening after winter, dates in the natural calendar if you like, which for me are occasions of joy almost as much as the solstice is, and which I celebrate in heart.

"The first of these is the appearance of snowdrops. Small white lilies that sprout up and flower in midwinter, even in the bitter cold -- perce-neiges, snow-piercers, they're aptly called in French -- would be notable anyway, but I've long been equally fascinated by snowdrops for their cultural resonance. They are closely associated with a major feast of the Christian church which follows Christmas, although while the world and his wife cannot remain ignorant of 25 December, indeed, cannot get out of the way of the Yuletide juggernaut, I doubt if one person in a thousand could tell you today what Candlemas is.

Snowdrops in the hedgerow

"Celebrated on 2 February, it marks the purification, under Jewish religious law, of the mother of Christ, forty days after his birth. (It also commemorates the presentation of the infant Jesus in the temple.) But Candlemas long meant something else as well, in practical terms, especially in the Middle Ages: it was the day when everyone in the parish brought their candles to be blessed by the priest. This was so that they could become -- that splendid word -- apotropaic, that is, they could ward off evil spirits; and after a procession, and the blessing, the candles were all lit and set before the statue of the Virgin Mary. Imagine: on a typical murky February day, in a medieval church that was gloomy anyway, this must have provided a spectacle of that left the deeply pious onlookers spellbound; it must have been the brightest moment, quite literally, of the whole year. (You can get a feel for it if you visit Chatres, and come across the luminous flickering throng of candles in front of the Virgin's statue in one of the cathedral's dark corners.)

Snowdrops in the churchyard

The Chagford village church

"But another source of brightness was also closely associated with Candlemas, and that was the snowdrops, for they were the flowers of the feast. It is easy to see how they were perfect for it, flawless symbols of purity that they are. Once called Candlemas bells, it is not hard to imagine what pleasure must have been taken in gathering them, or in merely having them growing by the church, on the day itself; and even now, although you can find great swathes of snowdrops in woodlands or along river valley floors, especially in the West Country -- stirring sights, whole sheets of blossoms turning the ground white in all directions, nature with all its flags flying -- many of our best displays are still associated with the old faith, clustering around churchyards and ancient religious foundations, ruined abbeys and priories, where hundreds of years ago they were planted with Candlemas in mind.

Snowdrops and gravestones

"All of this has greatly drawn me to them, yet even more than their delicate beauty, more than the traditions which cluster around them, I am most taken with the timing of their appearance, with their place at the start of the calendar -- above all, with the first sight of them in any given winter. I can remember, for example, a walk with my children, a few years ago, through a wood on an icy late January day, and the path through the bare trees took a turn and suddenly there they were, the first of them, a small clump poking through the leaf litter, a small splash of brilliant white on the woodland floor's dull brown canvas, and I smiled at once, as if suddenly meeting an old friend: Hi, how are you?

Snowdrops in the woods

"I was filled with emotion; I was filled with joy, I would say now. I wasn't sure then why the feeling was so strong, but that evening I sat down and worked it out: here was the earth, still firmly under the lock and key of winter; here was I, huddled inside my coat, adjusted to the cold hard season as if it would last forever; and here they were, the first visible sign of something else. They were the unexpect but undeniable notice that the warm days would come again, and I realised what is was that made me smile: here against the dead tones of the winter woodland was Hope, suddenly and unmistakably manifest in white."

Hound in snowdrops

The white bells of snowdrops

Pictures: Snowdrops in the woods, the hedgerows, and the village churchyard. The painting is "The Snowdrop Fairy" by Cicely Barker (1895-1973).

Words: The passage quoted above is from The Moth Snowstorm: Nature & Joy by English naturalist Michael McCarthy (New York Review of Books edition, 2015). The poem in the picture captions is from Twelve Lilts: Psalms & Responses by Scottish poet Diana Hendry (Mariscat Press, 2003). All rights reserved by the authors.  


Nature and beauty

In the tangled heart of a wet winter wood,

in the rustle of leaves,

Today, one last passage from The Moth Snow Storm: Nature and Joy by Michael McCarthy, accompanied by some photographic time-traveling: a journey through the woods behind my studio from winter to spring and back.

McCarthy writes:

"It is a peculiar property of the earth that it offers us beauty as well as the means to survive, but it is also a wondrous property, and it greatly moved us -- as behaviourally modern humans, anyway. Hence over about forty thousand years we have steadily formalised our appreciation and our celebration of it, in what we have come to call art, from Lascaux to Leonardo. Until, that is, the last century. In the last hundred years or so, with the advent of modernism, a new artistic philosophy for an industrial age (and also for a world whose optimism had been irreparably fractured by the First World War), many of our society's high cultural elites have consciously rejected the primacy of beauty, seeing its veneration as outmoded and complascent, and holding that the true purpose of art should be to challenge preconceptions; and they have largely forgotten all about, or simply ignored, where beauty comes from in the first place, which is the natural world. 

"In more recent decades the process has gone even further, and beauty has become suspect.

in the silence of moss,

in the damp and the dark

"[...] There is no denying that the veneration of the beauty of nature, which Wordsworth made the fount of his philosophy, has largely ceased to figure in high culture since modernism contemptuously swept it aside; and modernism's triumph was of course comprehensive, in painting and sculpture, in music and in poetry. In the early part of the 20th century, for example, there was a substantial group of English poets collectively known as the Georgians who wrote extensively about nature and were read by large audiences; some were quite good, some were not, but all except one were consigned to lasting oblivion by T.S. Eliot's The Wasteland in 1922 and the modernist revolution which followed (the exception, of course, being the wonderful Edward Thomas, who was anyway very much more than a 'Georgian nature poet'). We retain the legacy of those attitudes. So beauty in general and the natural beauty of the earth in particular have gone largely unsanctioned as objects of relevance by the cultural elites of the 20th and now of the 21st century, and we hear little of them from those quarters; and yet, of course, many ordinary people who do not feel they must be aligned with prevailing cultural modes of thought have been drawn to the beauty of nature as much as people ever were, and I am one of them.

in the cold and the clear,

"Let me tell you about a wood. Five times in one week, I went to this wood. Five separate trips, on five successive days. And each time, after the first time, I stopped at the gate, I paused before entering. I savoured the moment. It felt like the minute before sex, with a new lover who is making ready -- the elevated heartbeat, the skin-prickle, the certainty of impending pleasure -- but it was even more than that, it was the anticipation of a sort of ecstasy, at beholding what the woods contained, hidden in its depths, which was something truly exceptional, as exceptional as a crashed flying saucer, I found myself thinking....Each time I stopped at the gate I said to myself, I know what is in there....

A gate swings open. Enter, my dear.

BluebellsIt was a blue.

It was a blue that shocked you.

It was a blue that made you giddy. 

It was a blue that flowed like smoke over the woodland floor, so that the trees appeared to be rising out of it, which was not solid like a blue door might be but constantly morphing in tone with the light and shade, now lilac, now cobalt, a blue which was gentle but formidably strong, so intense as to be mesmerising: at some moments it was hard to believe it was composed of flowers. But that was the beauty and the joy of the bluebells, their floral richness and their profusion, a dozen blue bell-heads nodding on every stem, a hundred thousand stems pressing together in every glade until it ceased to be plants, it was just an overwhelming incredible blueness at the bottom of a wood....

Cross over the threshold, the bridge, the stile,

slip through that small secret door in the hill,

into the green, and into the blue,

"In that wood, in that spring not long ago, for five days in succession I was struck dumb by the beauty of the earth. For five days I went back purposely to look at that colour, that living colour, because when I accidentally came across it, it was at its peak, and I knew that soon it would fade. Day after day after day after day after day. And I told no one. I think I was...what? Ashamed? No, not at all; but I am influenced by prevailing cultural norms as much as the next person, and I suppose I felt that declaiming about five successive days of bluebell-peeping would be regarded as eccentric? Or something? Yet I was drawn back there ineluctably, to glut my senses on colour. Without telling a soul. It felt almost like being a part of the underground....

into Faerieland, clever child, foolish child.

Where magic lives,

and where you shall live too,

forgetting your world for a year and a day,

"For if the beauty of nature is not high in official cultural favour, as we set out into the 21st century, it still holds its magnetism for countless unpolemical minds, with a force that strongly suggests it is rooted in our underlying bond with the natural world, and that culture is being trumped by instinct. That is certainly the case with me.

and only then will you find your way home,

"I do not care a fig that modernism may have cast beauty aside, and that the legacy of that rejection may be with us today; to me, the beauty of the natural world retains its joy-giving power and its importance undiminished by artistic, cultural or philosophical fashion -- indeed, its importance is increased immeasurably by the fact that now it is mortally threatened."

pockets full of faery gold that has turned into leaves. And sorrow. And poems.

Pictures: Winter, spring, and winter again on our Devon hillside. Words: The passage quoted above is from The Moth Snowstorm: Nature and Joy by Michael McCarthy (New York Review of Books edition, 2015), which I highly recommend. All rights reserved by the author. The little poem/tale in the picture captions today is mine. 


The folklore of foxgloves

Summer pathway

Foxgloves on the path

I'm finishing the week's discussion of wild plant lore with two relevant posts from the archives. Here's the second....

Foxglove spires

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.

The Country Diary of an Edwardian Lady by Edith Holden

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 Foxglove Fairy by Cicely Mary Barkermeddygon, 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."

Foxgloves among the flowers in a cottage garden by Jessie Willcox Smith

Foxgloves in summer

Foxglove by Christie Newman

Foxgloves shedding blossoms

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  Foxglovebewitchement, 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.

P1210991

Foxgloves by Kelly Louise Judd

Rosie the Fox by Richard Bowler

For the folklore of foxes, go here.

Tilly and the foxgloves

Pictures: Pages from The Country Diary of an Edwardian Lady by Edith Holden (1871-1920), "Foxglove Fairy" by Cicely Mary Barker (1875-1973), foxgloves among the flowers in a corrage garden by Jessie Willcox Smith (1865-1935), "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. Words: The Bobby J. Ward passage quotes above is from A Contemplation on Flowers: Garden Plants in Myth & Literature (Timber Press, 2009). All rights reserved by the author and artists.

More foxgloves: Foxgloves on Nattadon Hill and Foxglove season.


The folklore of nettles

Spring is the time to harvest nettles...

Nettle path at the bottom of Nattadon Hill.

As we've been discussing the folklore of wild flowers and herbs, I thought I'd add two relevant posts from the archives to finish off the week. Here's the first...

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 ''The Wild Swans: Picking Nettles by Moonlight'' by Nadezhda Illarionovagraveyard 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.

Wild Swans by Susan Jeffers

The Wild Swans

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.

Nettles

Nettle Coat by Alice Maher

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.

Nettle patch

''The Wild Swans'' by Susan Jeffers and Yvonne Gilbert

Nettles, ragged robin, and piskie flowers

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."

Nettle hunter at work

"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.

Foraging basket

"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."

Fresh nettle tips

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."

Evening sunlight through the kitchen window.

Here's our family recipe for Bumblehill Nettle Soup, which is easy to make and delicious:

First, pick your nettles by pinching off the fresh leaves at the tip of the plant, leaving the plant itself intact. It's best to do this in the spring when the plants are young and the vitamin content at its highest, before the flowers appear. Rinse your nettle tips in cold water, and cut off any woody bits or thick stems. You need to wear gloves while you handle them, but once the nettles are cooked you can safely eat them without any stinging.

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 leaves, and simmer gently for another 10 minutes.

Preparing nettle soup.

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.) Use the left-over nettles for tea, sweetened with honey.

Nettle soup and tea

You can also throw young nettle leaves into pancake, crepe, scone, biscuit, and bread recipes -- just rinse them, chop them, and blanch them in boiling water (to get the sting out) first.  Below, for example: savoury squares of nettle-and-herb flatbread with sea salt, and sweet nettle pancakes.

Nettle-and-herb flatbread

Nettles, herb Robert  and piskie flowers

Nettle pakecakes on the breakfast table

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.

Fresh nettles

''The Wild Swans The Princess and her Swan Brothers'' by Donn P Crane

Pictures: The illustrations for "The Wild Swans" fairy tale are by Nadezhda Illarionova, Susan Jeffers, Mercer Mayer, Eleanor V. Abbott, Yvonne Gilbert, and Donn P. Crane. The Nettle Coat is by Alice Maher. Words: The quoted passages are from Discovering the Folklore of Plants by Margaret Baker (Shire Classics, 2008) and Hedgerow Medicine by Julie Bruton-Seal & Matthew Seal (Merlin Unwin Books, 2008).  All rights reserved by the artists and authors.

Related posts: Wildflower season, More folklore of the wild flowers, The folklore of food, and, for more on the Wild Swan fairy tale, Swan's wing. I've written about my personal connection to the fairy tale in "Transformations," but I must give you fair warning that this essay is a dark one.


Wild healing

Lords & Ladies

Another fine book I'd like to recommend is Emma Kennedy's The Wild Remedy: How Nature Mends Us. In this beautiful diary enriched by nature drawings, paintings, and photographs, Emma recounts the ways that immersion in nature helps her to live with chronic depression, records her encounters with the flora and fauna of the Cambridge fens, and discusses the science underpinning her thesis: that being in nature produces physical and neurological change in the human body.

Bank Vole by Emma MitchellIn the book's Introduction she writes:

"Of course, I am not the first to have noticed the consolation of walking outdoors. Literature is peppered with references to striding in the countryside as a means of easing melancholy, inspiring creative thought and hastening recovering. The 19th-century Danish philosopher, poet and theologian, Søren Kierkegaard, exalted a daily stroll: 'Every day I walk myself into a state of well-being away from every illness; I have walked myself into my best thoughts, and I know of no thought so burdensome that one cannot walk away from it.' Elizabeth von Arnim wrote one of my favourite novels, The Enchanted April, in the 1920s, and her feelings on walking through the countryside echo my own: 'If you go to a place on anything but your own two feet you are taken there too fast, and miss a thousand delicate joys that were waiting for you by the wayside.' "

Lords & Ladies

Woodland triptych

A few pages later she notes:

"Joint research from the University of Madrid and the Norwegian University of Life Sciences published in 2007 showed that simply seeing natural landscapes can speed up recovery from stress or mental fatigue, and hasten recovery from illness. Studies published in 2017 from the University of Exeter have demonstrated that the presence of vegetation in an urban landscape diminishes levels of depression, anxiety, and perceived stress levels in city dwellers, and the same raft of work showed that time spent outdoors alleviates low mood....

Bluebells in a Devon wood

"Research aimed at understanding the Shrinrin-yoku phenomenon [the practice of 'forest bathing' in Japan] has show that walking in green space has a direct positive effect on several systems in our bodies. Blood pressure decreases, levels of the stress hormone cortisol drop, anxiety is alleviated and pulse rates diminish in subjects who have spent time in nature and particularly among trees. Levels of activity in the sympathetic nervous system, responsible for our fight or flight response to stress, drop away and the activity of a particular kind of white blood cell called natural killer (NK) cells, which can destroy virally infected and certain cancerous cells, increases when humans spend time in a woodland environment."

Lords & Ladies

The science is still progressing, Emma writes, "but I'm fascinated by the idea that the balance of the chemistry of my brain, and my hormonal and nervous systems, are changing as I linger among trees and plants, and that this can impact the tone of my thoughts and my mental health. I have felt the curative effects of my surroundings as I walk in a wild place numerous times, and it is reassuring to know that there is something I can do to help myself on dark days."

Hound in a Devon woodland

Wildflowers around a badger sett

Wild Remedy

"At no point would I suggest standard treatments for this condition can be replaced by dawdling near a dog rose," she adds; "I rely on antidepressants and talking cures to prevent my illness from becoming overwhelming, but depression varies in its grip on my mind, depending on the season and on daily stress levels. I have found that the basal level of respite provided by antidepressants and therapy is sometimes insufficient to prevent my thoughts falling down a well. It is at these times that I find walking among hazels and hawthornes can help to dial down cortisol levels and cause the shift in neurotransmitters that I need to fend off the black dog."

(Sorry, Tilly. She doesn't mean you, dear.)

Woodland creature

Lords & Ladies among the Bluebells

Although my own health problems are physical rather than neurological, the two are inextricably linked, of course, and much of this gentle, artful, informative book spoke to me on a personal level. I, too, find healing among the trees. Thus I recommend Wild Remedy to all who travel through illness of one kind or another...and since, sooner or later, that is all of us, this book is for every reader who loves, or might come to love, the natural world.

Wild Remedy

Woodland wanderer

Words: The passages above are from Wild Remedy: How Nature Mends Us by Emma Mitchell (Michael O'Mara Books, 2019). The poem in the picture captions is from Jay Griffith's unusual and brilliant book on her journey with bipolar disorder, Tristimania (Penguin, 2016). All rights reserved by the authors. Pictures: Emma Mitchell's artwork from Wild Remedy, and photographs from my own rambles through the Devon woods. Every year I wait for the Lords & Ladies to appear in a certain place, and they never fail to warm my heart -- it's like catching up with old friends. (Americans may known the plant best under the name Jack-in-the-Pulpit.)


More folklore of the wild flowers

Wildflower path

Following on from Friday's wildflower post...

As the woods and fields, green hills and hedgerows continue to burst with color and bloom, here's a little more of the wildflower lore that's rooted in the land below our feet. I love knowing and passing on such things. "Re-storying" the land is, I believe, an important part of re-wilding the land, re-wilding our culture, and re-wilding ourselves.

In the springtime, writes herbalist Judith Berger,

"the earth herself seems overtaken with desire to create for the sake of beauty and joy, unveiling at an astounding rate those creations which were conceived and protected in winter's ground-dark womb. Young, delectable leaves shoot up out of the soil, becoming clorophyll-rich as they soak up the food of the sun's fire. Food and medicine plants carpet the ground abundantly, delighting the eyes and tastebuds with a palette of green hues and an array of distinctive earthy flavors. Daily, as light seeps into the unfurling leaves, the plants grow greener and greener with the blood of the sun. As we ingest these plants, we increase our inner fires and pulse with the blood of life, thus inspired to move through our days with the same abandon as the maiden goddess of spring."

Stichwort, buttercups, hound, and sun.

Stitchwort (below), appears in Devon in two distinctive colors: white and pink. Greater stitchwort, with its white star-like blooms, also goes by the name star flower, thunder flower (because picking it will cause a storm), Mother Shimbles, snick needles, and snapjacks (due to the popping sound made by its seed pods as they ripen). Lesser stitchwort, with its small pink flowers, is known as piskie, or piskie flower, here in Devon -- though in fact both kinds of stitchwort are under the special protection of the piskies (our local faery folk). They zealously guard the flowers against hedgewitches, who use them for making medicines and charms of protection against piskie mischief -- including a salve that heals the "side stitches" caused when mortals are hit by elf-shot.

White stitchwort

Pink stitchwort, nettles, ivy, and ferns.

Stickwort often grows among stands of nettles -- which is certainly one way to protect it from being picked. Nettles themselves are a wonderful plant (despite their sting), prized by witches, cunning men, herbalists, and wild food foragers. In Celtic lore, thick stands of nettles indicate that there are faery dwellings close by, and the sting of the nettle protects against faery enchantment, black magic, and other forms of sorcery. Historically, nettles have had a wide variety of uses, from making medicines to making cloth. "Nettle oil preceded paraffin," notes folklorist Margaret Baker; "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." Today, many of us still harvest the tender top leaves of nettles in the spring. Rich in iron and vitamins, they are an excellent tonic for the immune system when cooked in soups and stews, or brewed for tea.

(For a lengthier discussion of the folklore and use of nettles, go here.)

Following her nose

Speedwell

Germander speedwell ( above), also known as birds-eye or angels-eye, is a flower associated with vision, with magical oinments allowing mortals to see faeries, and with healing afflictions of the eyes -- whether medical or caused by witchcraft. Although largely unmentioned by modern herbalists, it was once considered a valuable plant in hedge-lore here in the West Country. A tea made from its leaves and flower petals is said to be good for coughs (when brewed at strength), or settling the nerves (when brewed more delicately),  while also fostering clarity of vision, focus, and purpose.

Wildflower path

Welsh poppies

According to Welsh folklore, wild Welsh poppies (above) don't flourish outside Wales itself, but in fact they can be found throughout the West Country, and in parts of Ireland too. Although the Welsh poppy (Meconopsis cambrica) is somewhat different than the opium poppy (Papaver somniferum), it too is associated with sleep, dreams, the spirit world, and various forms of divination. Yellow poppies must never be brought into the house -- they will cause headaches, storms, or lightning strikes -- but wild poppy seeds placed under a pillow will show a young man or maid their future lover's face, or give the dreamer the answer to any question posed while falling asleep. The seeds can also be carried in one's pocket, or strewn in a circle around one's home, to provide protection from faery enchantments, especially those that cause confusion or memory loss.

Through the meadow gate.

Cuckoo flowers and buttercups

The cuckoo flower (above) is said to herald the first cuckoo of spring. It grows in damp, grassy meadows and bogs, its petals tinted pink or lavendar, and is also known by the names lady's-smock, milkmaid, May flower, and fairy flower. Associated with the revels of May, hedgewitches used various parts of the plant for love potions and fertility spells -- as well as for the opposite: charms intended to keep love and fertility at bay. Cuckoo flower teas and tonics restored appetites diminished by poor health, while also aiding digestion, treating survy, and easing bowel complaints. The leaves, when young, are edible, tasting peppery, like cress.

Buttercups

In the folk tradition of the West Country, buttercups (above) are a benificent plant -- associated with the sun, yellow butter and the dairy, and ease in domestic labor. On May Day, farmers rubbed the udders of their cows with buttercup flowers to increase the yield and richness of their milk; this also protected them from theft by faeries -- who were always eager to improve their herds of fairy cattle by interbreeding with cows from mortal fields. Buttercups are toxic to ingest so medicinal use of the plant is limited, although some old herbals suggest that a poulstice made of the crushed flowers and leaves is helpful in relieving colds, coughs, and bronchial complaints. "Buttercup water," made by infusing the flower petals in water heated by the sun, was used to bathe sore eyes, and "sweeten" the complexion. Buttercups are part of Rananculus family, related to spearwort, crowfoot and lesser celandine. It was once believed that swallows fed their young on a diet of these flowers, giving them prophetic abilities and clear sight.

White stitchwort and hound on Nattadon Hill

Red campion in the bracken and briars.

Red campion (above and below) -- also known as ragged-robin or robin flower -- is associated with Robin Goodfellow (or Puck), a faery Trickster who is charming, sly, amoral, and rather dangerous to encounter. In some parts of country, the picking of campion is discouraged, for this invites the faeries' attention -- but here in the West Country, it's a lucky flower. Campion in the house represents the faeries' blessing, provided it's been picked with care and respect. Red campion is not edible, and its herbal use is limited -- but the roots have been used to make a soap substitute, and the flowers for charms and spells to ward against loneliness. 

Hedgerow flowers

In Norse myth, wild columbine (below) is the flower of Freya, goddess of love, sensuality, and women's independence; in Celtic lore, too, it's a flower associated with women and their Mysteries. Columbine's primary use in hedgerow medicine was as an abortificant: its seeds were ground and mixed wine and other herbs to produce this effect; and then used with wine and a different set of herbs to restore the woman's strength. Also known as Granny's bonnet, lady's shoes, sow wort, and lion's herb, the flower is linked with both the dove and the eagle, with peace and war, and the balancing of opposites: strength in fragility and fragility in strength. Columbine was used for spells invoking courage, wisdom, and clarity in making choices. 

Wild columbine

Herb Robert (below) is a modest little flower, but it's become one of my favorite sights in the hedgerows...and in our garden too, where it kept appearing in spaces that I'd intended for other things. At first, I confess, I pulled it out as a troublesome weed, until its gentle persistence caused me to look a little closer at this tiny wildflower. I learned that the plant was once much prized by herbalists (and magicians!) in medieval times; and that herbalist today hail its ability to boost the immune system (precisely the thing I most needed). In folklore, according to Margaret Barker, herb Robert is known as "the plant of equality, all its parts being equal and harmonious." It's also another faery plant: its appearance in the garden betokes the blessing of the particular spirits who "quicken" all green living things. The great mystic and herbalist Hildegard of Bingen extolled the virtues of this humble flower, recommending its use (in a powdered form, eaten on bread) to strengthen the blood, balance the mind, and ease all heartbreak.

Herb Robert

Valerian (below) is another that has moved itself from the hillside to our garden, rooting firmly in a sunny front slope. "Valerian's botanical name (Valerianna officinalis) comes from the Latin word valere, 'to be strong,' " writes Margaret Baker. "It is said to be a witch-deterrent, to provoke love, and to be a telling aphrodisiac. In the West of England a girl who wore a sprig would never lack lovers." Well. You can't beat that.

Pink valerian

In her lovely book Herbal Rituals, Judith Berger envisions the springtime as the Goddess in her maiden aspect:

"In Hebrew the word for life, chai, is also the root of the word meaning wild she-animal, (chaiya), and this is how I see the spring: as a wild, untamed maiden bounding over the dark earth, her footfall touching all life with more life. Hair flying behind her, she leaves in her wake a trail of color, scent, and nourishment, her mood of wicked delight spreading across the ground like green fire. Roused by her passion, the green nations leap toward the sun, brimming with sheer joy, until everywhere we turn our heads we find life unfolding, changing shape, and blossoming, each form in nature dripping with beauty and transformed by the nurture of sun, rain, earth, and air."

Welsh poppies

Above, the Lady of Bumblehill (a statue made by my friend Wendy Froud) stands in our back courtyard with flowers at her feet. The flowers change a little every year, as Welsh poppies, foxgloves, columbine and other plants self-seed and move about the land.  I love these untameable flowers...and so does Tilly. Here she is at just ten weeks old, mesmorized by a hawkweed's bloom. Entranced by its colour. Scenting its magic. And listening closely to its stories.

Tilly and her flower

The passages quoted above are from Herbals Rituals by Judith Berger (St. Martin's Press, 1998) and Discovering the Folklore of Plants by Margaret Baker (Shire Classics, 2008).  All rights reserved by the authors.


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.


Speaking the language of the grasses

On the hill with the hound

Looking at Meldon Hill from Nattadon Hill

From Red by Terry Tempest Williams:

"I want to write my way from the margins to the center. I want to speak the language of the grasses, rooted yet soft and supple in the presence of wind before a storm. I want to write in the form of migrating geese like an arrow pointing south toward a direction of safety. I want to keep my words wild so that even if the land and everything we hold dear is destroyed by shortsightedness and greed, there is a record of participation by those who saw what was coming. Listen. Below us. Above us. Inside us. Come. This is all there is."

Hillside joy

I recommend "Mishkos Kenomagwen: The Teachings of Grass," an inspiring talk by Native American biologist Robin Wall Kimmerer, author of two excellent books: Braiding Sweetgrass and Gathering Moss.

Meadow flowers

Meadow dog

More meadow flowers

Hound in the buttercups

P1590077

The passage above is from Terry Tempest William's essay collection Red: Passion and Patience in the Desert (Pantheon, 2001). The passage in the picture captions is from Anne Michael's Infinite Gradation (Exile Editions, 2018). All rights reserved by the authors.


Wild daffodils in the woods

Wild daffodils

Hound and daffodils

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 will soon run riot on the hillside. The cherry trees are preparing to bloom, with the apple and plum trees 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.

Picking wild daffodils

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.

Drawing by Helen StrattonNarrative, 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.

Daffodils

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 Drawing by Helen Strattonlong-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.

Guardian hound

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.

Hound at the woodland's edge

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...

Wild daffodils on my desk

Words: The wondeful poem in the picture captions is from Bitter Angel by Amy Gerstler (North Point Press, 1990); all rights reserved by the author. Pictures: The fairy tale drawings are by Helen Stratton, a British illustrator born in India (1867-1961). Photographs: A coffee break in the woods behind the studio, with hound and daffodils.

Related posts: Storytelling and Wild Time, The Wild Time of the Sickbed, and On Time, Technology, and a Celebration of Slowness.