Thursday, 30 April 2015

Nearby Wild

Today, I made the short walk from my home on a busy London street to the little community centre café where I like to write. It is a journey of no more than four minutes and yet today, and everyday, I saw wonders. A few days ago I found some greater celandine growing from under a fence. The bank opposite my house, beloved of local foxes and honeybees and far too steep and awkward for the council to mow, is a wonderland of green alkanet and red campion. Sometimes I find sun spurge, herb robert, common vetch. If I had gone in a different direction I know that I would have found self-heal, grape hyacinths, lesser celandines, red deadnettle. I often hear people, especially in London, say that they are sad not to live somewhere with more 'nature' and that they are looking forward to getting away to the countryside. I say that these people aren't really looking. Maybe when we are warned not to step on the cracks in the pavement it is a really a nudge to remember to look down at our feet where there is magic to be found. So, this is just a little mini-blog to share some pavement wonders.

Today, just outside my door, I found...

A baby nettle, which I was very excited to see as I have never noticed one in the garden before. A new green companion has come to visit!


Spanish bluebells, wildly in flower and smelling of honey; controversial to some but beautiful to me and a perfect reminder of home. When I first came to see this house bluebells were flowering in the garden so their appearance always reminds me of that day. Today, they were being visited by honeybees.






Just now this tiny front garden, which is allowed to just do its thing, is a mass of bluebells, white deadnettle, goose grass, green alkanet, dandelions, and this French lavender, which I spotted had just come into flower.


I planted this at a time when the garden was particularly healing to me and its thriving is a little message of hope. Somewhere in the riot of green there are also rosemary, mint, and the tiniest of strawberries.

Crossing the road, I came across some shepherd's purse growing by the fence. 


This little plant can be found almost anywhere. Other folknames for its small self are witches' pouches, poverty weed, mother's heart, and poor man's pharmacy. A member of the mustard family, its tiny heart-shaped seed pods can be used as a sort of 'wild pepper' when ripe. It is also a strong astringent and, in the First World War, it was used to combat internal and external bleeding. In keeping with this theme, it was used preventively as a protective charm against bleeding. Additionally, the seeds were worn as amulets by teething children and it was said that eating the first three shepherd's purse plants one saw would protect against diseases for the rest of the year. Powerful for such a tiny, and often overlooked, plant! 

Next, I found a horse chestnut tree in flower. It amazes me that, no sooner have their tender leaves unfurled (reminding me of a baby bird just emerged from an egg or a butterfly from a chrysalis), than they suddenly send up a mass of candle-flame flower spikes! It is only in the last few years that I have realised just how beautiful the flowers are; a reminder to look carefully even at the seemingly familiar.




And so, four minutes later, I reached my destination and went for a stroll in the garden before settling down to write. I spent some time watching a mistle thrush with the sun on my face before finding...

May blossom; perfect for Beltane eve! I buried my face in the pale flowers and breathed them in.



I walked through a gateway of sunlit green...


And found a single perfect English bluebell...



A small confession:

'Nearby Wild' is an evocative and wonderful phrase, which I have to admit to having 'borrowed' from the lovely people at http://nearbywild.org.uk/, who are encouraging us all to plant 'mini meadows' and notice the nature all around us in our local areas. Please visit their new website for inspiration and to give them some support. 

Wednesday, 29 April 2015

On Joy

A small world of loveliness

I suffer from depression and have for many years. The worst thing for me is that it is joyless and sucks the life and colour out of every experience. I feel that I am underwater or looking out at everything through the refraction of bottled glass; that I cannot see or be seen, or at least not as I truly am. Just a hair's breadth away from the ordinary and the everyday, I exist in netherworld devoid of almost any sensation, other than the haunting feeling that it shouldn't really be like this, that this isn't real. And then there is joy. It may seem strange to suggest that there are moments of bliss amongst the pain and yet that is just how it is. I remember life and I remember joy. I remember and I keep remembering.

And so here are some of the things that bring me joy, even through 'bottled glass';

Everything that is green and growing, the phrase 'weed wife', which I aspire to be, anything that grows in the cracks between the pavement or under fences, and definitely anything that is described as a 'weed', the concept of foraging and wild food and the fact that I have so, so much to learn about both.

Lying in bed listening to the rain fall outside, getting caught in the rain and coming home for a hot bath, sunshine after rain, the smell of rain, and the pulsating energy of all that is green after rain has fallen. Today, I saw blue sky reflected in a rainy pavement and felt a little heart-skip of joyousness.

Everything about bees, especially the emergence of the first bees of the year; this year it was a tawny mining bee, then a hairy flower-footed bee, and that I have only learned of the existence of both in the last year. Once, when I had stopped to open a lock gate, an ashy mining bee landed on my hand and stayed for a bee-while; that memory brings me joy. Honeybees, bumblebees, bees' bottoms, the busyness of bees, bees covered in pollen and with full pollen baskets, bumblebees wearing white deadnettle flowers as bonnets.

The shimmer of blue on a crow's wing and the intelligence of its eye, the beauty of magpies, the thrill of a woodpecker on the bird feeder; the other day a mating pair came to visit ~ my first ever sight of two woodpeckers at the same time, chiffchaffs, sparrows, wrens, the bouncing-bullet flight of blue tits, the feistiness of robins, the beauty and power of swans, the thought of long migration, starlings; feathers, murmuration, attitude.

Dandelion clocks.

That there are owls bring me joy, as does the word 'crepuscular'. So many words; anarchy, grace, rebellion, wild, weave, lunacy (lunarsea), flibbertigibbet, sloven, whore, hag, and hedge. It gives me joy to know words, to taste them on my tongue, to play with meanings and sounds and syllables. Books that teach me words, and daisy chains of words, that I had never dreamed of are a joy, daisy chains.

Children bring me joy; their honesty, their innocence, their tears, and their anger, their love of glitter and mud.

Mosses and lichens, and fungi, Paul Stamets, my favourite mycologist, and the thought that I might one day realise my dream to become a librarian mycologist lock keeper. The wonder of tardigrades! Geology is one of my joys; beloved chalk landscapes and clear chalk streams, granite, the soft~as~butter kindness of sandstone, the ancient strangeness of gneiss, the stones of Callanish, fens and moors and marshes, estuaries.

A glimpse of a heron, the flash of a kingfisher, floating the day away, woodburners, cups of tea, autumn leaves, winter days of sun and frost, watching a tree, or a wood, or a landscape, move through the cycle of its seasons.

Being brave brings me joy; braveness in the small things that feel big to me. Being loved and loving, the touch of Simon's hand in mine, his hugs, his dancing, his drumming, his smile, his silly songs, his absolute bravery in the face of himself, Stefi Queen of Cats, feeling looked after, waking in a sun-filled room with buttermilk curtains.

Nettles, cowslips, comfrey, lesser celandines, snowdrops, stitchwort, and poetry, the wild tangle of hedgerows, and words, and folktales. Orchards and wildings, crab apples and fallen fruit, the hunter spirit of dragonflies, the wildfire of foxes, the generosity of badgers.

Sunlight through the huge umbrella leaves of butterbur on a hot and hazy summer day. 

Good company; of friends, sisters, of root and fur and wing. Music; folk, classical, heavy metal. How The Levellers have somehow accompanied me through more than half my life. Tea shops, community, chai latte, glass jelly moulds, old-fashioned enamel mugs, a whistling kettle, the lovely things that people send me, my vast and ill-considered jug collection. Goddess.

Where I live brings me joy; South London; green and earthy, pie and mash, Greenwich Park, greater celandines appearing from under a fence, spring flowers in a riot on the Green, two ancient pear trees; one in a secret woodland, Mycenae House, Cross Bones Graveyard, The Borough, The Liberty, Southwark Cathedral, beautiful wasteground covered in dog daisies.

Baths, knitted patchwork blankets, dark chocolate with ginger, honey and ginger ice cream, green ginger wine, walking barefoot, birdsong, the sea.

Communication brings me joy; Twitter and Facebook and writing, weaving my own bright web, feeling heard. Wales and the Welsh language, finding feathers, communing with crows, bus drivers who are kind, people who care, the wild tapestry of London and how it gives those of us who live here the opportunity to do just that.

Bugwoman's Wednesday Weed, my tiny front garden filled with bluebells, deadnettle, lavender, green alkanet, and bees, that I know where harebells grow only a few minutes from my front door, that I have found Fly Agaric in the woods, that there is a community orchard nearby where I sometimes lie under a hawthorn tree and let the blossom tickle my bare toes. That sometimes these things have saved my life when nothing else could.

There are many things that bring me joy and they do save my life, sometimes literally in moments of the most numbing tiredness or fierce despair; I might just catch a reflection of blue in a rainsoaked pavement and take another step. It has recently been proven that microbes found in dirt are natural anti-depressants, and that definitely brings me joy, but nature gives us even more than that. Two years ago I went through a period when I could barely get out of bed until, one day, an ordinary little urban tree near my home called me out, just asking me to walk far enough to touch its bark. It was a gentle and polite request. I decided to do as I was asked. The little tree is only five minutes from my front door, the bark was smooth and silver-grey, an ant was exploring its small landscape, it saved me. There is nothing that the earth cannot heal.

Life is full of joy. I remember.

Inspiration:

Many have written about the healing power of nature. Here are just two...

Ecologist, Ryan Clark, has written recently about depression and how nature helps him in his blog; https://ryanclarkecology.wordpress.com/2015/04/25/the-natural-connection/

and Richard Mabey has written movingly of his own journey with depression in his book, 'Nature Cure' http://www.theguardian.com/books/2005/feb/05/featuresreviews.guardianreview2




Tuesday, 28 April 2015

An Intoxication of Bluebells

   
Pond Wood, April 2014. 

                                                             The bluebell is the sweetest flower
                                                             that waves in summer air;
                                                             its blossoms have the mightiest power
                                                             to soothe my spirit's care...
                                                             (Emily Bronte)

Writing this I have realised that the fragile beauty of bluebells shines a bright light on my perverse nature. Always drawn to the underdog, I insist on preferring carrion crows to 'show-offy' ravens and have often ignored bluebells altogether. Voted our favourite national flower in 2002, and currently leading Plantlife's new national wild flower poll, they are just too popular and too pretty and I wilfully refused to be swept away by the beauty of their shimmering cobalt sea. But I have to admit to having become intoxicated by bluebells. I have much to be grateful to them for.

In 2014, I met my love, Simon in a bluebell wood in Kent whilst attending a shamanic weekend. Having recently been through a bereavement, I felt that the land had called me there and that the bluebells, which flowered very early that year and smelled so powerfully of green and honey, were offering me healing. I spent much time sitting in the middle of an expanse of bluebells letting the land 'see' me and allowing bees and other flying things to hover in front of my eyes. I went for a walk and found a jay's wing feathers scattered electric-blue across the woodland floor. Everything was the blue of ebb and flow and letting go and love came in. We should never underestimate the power of seemingly delicate bluebells to unlock magic. As Peter Marren writes, No woodland scene has the power to move the heart more than a bluebell wood in May” and so it was.

Born new each year, bluebells are often a sign of the oldest of the old undisturbed land. Almost 50% of the world's bluebells can be found in the UK and they are an indicator of ancient woodland, many bluebell woods dating back to at least 1600. The Elizabethans knew them as 'jacinths' and used their bulbs to make stiffening starch for ruffs. Earlier still 'glue' from their stalks was used to stick pages in books and feathers on arrows; our relationship with the bluebell tribe has been much more than just aesthetic. Appearing in hedgerows or bracken they are a vestige of woods long since vanished. No wonder that their hanging heads are sometimes said to be symbols of sorrow and regret.

Pond Wood, April 2014

Indeed, the folklore of bluebells is 'edgier' than we might have imagined. Like all of our oldest native flowers, they have myriad folk names; cuckoo's boots, crowstoes, granfer griggles, goosey ganders, wood bells, bell bottles, but many; fairy caps in Wiltshire, fairy bells and fairy thimbles in Somerset, fairy cups and fairy ringers in Dorset, give a clue to the tales about them which are so often linked to the world of faery. But these faeries are not the sweet little creatures with petal hats that we find in our familiar fairy stories. These are tricksters and charmers. It was said that faeries used bluebells to trap passers by, particularly children, and it was considered dangerous to try to walk through a bluebell wood as the flowers were so intricately entwined with enchantments that one might become 'pixie-led'. We might smile now at such superstitions but it is never easy to tear ourselves away from the hypnotic beauty of a carpet of bluebells in a dappled woodland, seeming as they do to almost pulsate with ethereal voltaic light. It is a struggle not to get lost in glamoury, such is the seduction of the vision. Other traditions suggest that wearing a bluebell wreath would compel the subject to tell nothing but the truth, that someone hearing the ringing of a bluebell would soon die (hence the sometimes-name 'deadman's bells'), and that if a flower could be turned inside out without it becoming torn then true love would be won.

Their scientific name, hyacinthoides non-scripta, comes from a Greek myth that Apollo accidentally killed a young man called Hyakinthos; where his blood fell wild hyacinths grew and the markings on their leaves appeared to spell out the Greek word for 'alas'. Bluebell leaves, in contrast, are unmarked and so 'non-scripta', meaning 'no writing', signals that they are a different flower. Despite their scientific name distancing them from death, bluebells are in fact extremely poisonous and contain at least fifteen active chemical compounds, which may provide them with protection against foraging animals. Their water-soluble alkaloids are being studied for their medicinal qualities but they also contain glycosides, called scillarens, which are similar to those found in foxgloves and can lower the pulse rate and cause nausea, diarrhoea, and vomiting. At higher doses they can cause cardiac arrhythmia and electrolyte imbalance. Existing on the edge between love and death, joy and sorrow, grief and gratitude, the bluebell tribe establish a poison sea that reminds us to respect even the ostensibly inconsequential, to acknowledge that the sweetness and the sting can exist in one small being.

Oxleas bluebell, April 2015
Just as they are said to be able to entrap humans, bluebells possess a woodland like few other plants can. They respond to the light and so flower in April and May, before trees are fully in leaf. They deter most competitors both through their poisons and through sheer force of numbers. It is important that they have this collective strength as it takes at least five years for a bluebell to grow from a seed to a bulb and then to flower. They are under threat through habitat loss, from their bulbs being uprooted for gardens, and from the grazing of sheep, cattle, and muntjac deer. Bluebells are protected under the Wildlife and Countryside Act 1981 and it is now an offence to trade in their seeds or bulbs, with a breach attracting up to a £5000 fine per bulb. A further threat to our own native bluebells comes from hybridisation. The Spanish bluebell, 'hyacinthoides hispanica', is a native of the Iberian peninsula and was introduced to the UK as a garden plant, possibly as long ago as the 17th century. It can be distinguished from the English bluebell by its larger, paler flowers, erect stem, broader leaves, and blue anthers (the English bluebell has creamy white ones). It is also said to have very little smell, although this has not been my own experience. The Spanish bluebell interbreeds very successfully with the English variety, creating fertile hybrids, and the latter is now considered a threatened species. In a recent study by Plantlife, one in six of the bluebells found in the broadleaved woodlands surveyed were found to be hybrids.

I have mixed feelings about our often sentimental efforts to preserve 'purity' in nature when nature itself has no such attachment; hybrids can often be stronger and afford plants greater protection against changes in environment. It is telling that the bluebell is dedicated to our St George, the Palestinian saint of the English, who has connections to so many lands and peoples. The English have always been hybrids. I had an interesting conversation about the subject with Norma Saunders, of the Dawn Chorus Educational Initiative, who commented that, "Human society seems strive for a purity that is not sustainable in the face of climate change. I love Ruddy Ducks & Sycamore trees & oppose the eradication programmes for so many species. They are living beings & deserve respect & a chance of life & after all, adaptation via natural evolution may be key to survival. However, I love English bluebells...they are so much nicer in delicacy, colour & scent than the Spanish ones &, as an indicator of ancient woodland, they carry the spirit of British woodlands. But I fear that the Armada will win this time...I see no way of preventing the interbreeding. The contamination of isolated bluebell woods, however, serves as an illustration of the huge range of travel of pollen & the dangers of GM crops...perhaps this sad example which indeed unbalances the chain of biodiversity is a gentler, vital message that we must heed in the case of science meddling with open pollinated communities." Bluebells, like all our green allies, are great teachers. In the meantime, Spanish bluebells do seem to flower at the same time as our native variety and I have seen bees collecting from them so hopefully, whatever happens, the niche of the bluebell tribe will continue to be occupied.

Writing this piece I began to reflect on what it might be like to experience 'bluebell consciousness'. They feel to me to have a collective consciousness much like that of bees, and with similar worlds which are both visible and veiled. Above the surface are the mass of flowers with which we are so familiar and yet, beneath the woodland floor where the work takes place, secret things are stirring. As Alfred Lord Tennyson wrote in 'Adeline', "How the merry bluebell rings to the mosses underneath...". The bluebell bulb has contractile roots, which draw it deeper and deeper into the soil and there they connect with a web of arbuscular mycorrhizae; symbiotic soil fungi which helps the bluebells take up phosphorous and water over a greater area than the plant could do alone and, in return, receives food. Each mycorrhizae may create a surface area several hundred times that of its host and forms a vast network of communication. And what of our own place in this ancient warp and weft? Nothing in nature is just an 'object'. Everything is a system in constant movement and often we discount our own place in that movement. Such is the intoxication and enchantment, both visual and olfactory, of the flowering of a bluebell wood that, perhaps, they offer us an invitation to weave ourselves back in. How must it feel to that great and complex structure of flower, and fungi, and leaf to have our collective joy and appreciation added to it? How many of us send out the energy of our hearts into that space just before the haze of bluebells begins to shimmer in an immense common yearning for the year to move forward into summer? How must it feel to be loved so deeply? Perhaps we can ask the people of the bluebell tribe and, sitting in a bluebell wood full of green and honey, how could I not be ready for love to come in?

Pond Wood, April 2014.

References: 

'England in Particular: a celebration of the commonplace, the local, the vernacular, and the distinctive', Sue Clifford & Angela King, Hodder & Stoughton, 2006.

The Poison Garden website ~ bluebells

Further investigation: 

The Dawn Chorus Educational Initiative works to further the cause of the wild, including wild flowers. Find them at http://dawnchoruseducationalinitiative.org.uk/

Common Ground is a wonderful charity which explores the relationship between nature and culture, including our relationship to our iconic bluebell woods. Find them at http://commonground.org.uk/





Monday, 20 April 2015

An Intimate Journey with Heron

'Her Wild Wings', 2012

It all began with Sheela-na-Gig, as many of the best things do. Before her I hadn't thought much about herons. I remember my friend Jack telling me once that he had been walking along the riverside at Richmond and had come across a crowd of people all looking up into a tree. He asked one what they were doing and they replied, “Shhhhh, there are pterodactyls nesting there!”. And that is herons; even from our perspective where birds are so completely 'other', herons are even more 'other' than that. And yet they have become trusted companions and allies on my journey through life and have moved beneath many of my most powerful experiences.

And so it is with Sheela-na-Gig who was my way into the mysterious world of the heron spirit. I remember that during my first year of priestess training I didn't think about her much. I loved her image, challenging as she does so many taboos. For those who are unfamiliar with her, Sheela-na-Gig, in Gaelic Irish Síle-na-Géige, is usually found depicted in stone carvings in churches and other buildings, particularly in Ireland and Great Britain. She has the drooping breasts of an old woman and holds open her exaggerated vulva, challenging our preconceptions about the risk of being revealed and around sexuality and age. She is often carved over doors and windows and was said to ward off evil spirits, although some have suggested that she represents female lust as 'sinful and corrupting'. Others believe that carvings of her are the remnants of a pre-Christian fertility or Goddess religion but really no one knows. Truly she is a being of the hedge, challenging our boundaries and our edges. And, for all those things, I loved her but she was always fixed, made of stone like the carvings that depict her. Just writing this I have realised that herons are a bit like that; so still that they appear like statues, and then shocking us when they suddenly move. When I felt Sheela-na-Gig move she was like a tsunami; a great wave of feeling, teaching me to breathe into and out of any pain that I was in, teaching me not to turn to stone. And heron is her bird.

The heron is a hunter of the edge places; fresh or salt, clear or muddy, edges that are neither water nor land. Like Sheela, she is a liminal-dweller, a watcher in the between places, and she guards the gateways between life and death. In Irish Gaelic her name is Síle na bPortach; portach meaning 'bog', and port a place of refuge or a haven. She is our protective wing and our place of safety in those misty in-between places that unsettle and frighten us so deeply. She is sure-footed and wild eyed, showing us the way, and she has a beak that can cut through our self-deception like a rapier. I once wrote a fragment of a poem about depression that called on heron for her ability to walk surely through the seemingly unsure places of the mind and the heart...

                                                        I know the safe way through the fen
                                                       Because I have so often fallen
                                                       Into the maddening mire of mind
                                                       that calls me on false paths home
                                                      
                                                       Now, I am heron-footed;
                                                       stepping surely on the boundary
                                                      between madness and creativity
                                                      She is my haven, my portach, my rest

                                                      ('On the Sweet Track', a fragment, 2011)
                                                       
                                                
After my 'tsunami moment' with Sheela-na-Gig I saw herons a lot. My mum and dad were elderly and unwell and I was spending much time travelling to their house by train. Often I would see herons by the trackside and each time they reminded me of Sheela and prompted me to breathe and to remember that no moment, no matter how distressing, is frozen in time. I learned to let emotion move through me, rather than attaching to it and becoming subsumed; heron knows how to pick her way through those watery places of feeling and I was grateful to her.

Kathryn Price NicDhàna, in her wonderful article on 'Sheela-na-Gig and Sacred Space', notes that in Celtic mythology the heron, the crane, and the stork, are interchangeable and that the word corr is often used to describe all three. Most usually translated as crane, corr is said to be a female guardian of the Underworld and a companion of beings who bridge the space between life and death, most often old women. I was powerfully shown the truth of this when I was visiting Carmarthen in 2002 with a group of priestess sisters. I was reflecting deeply on reclaiming the dark aspect of the goddess Rhiannon at the time and had found three dead baby birds who had sadly been knocked out of their nest in the local village when the gutters were cleaned. They had been left on the pavement and, as small birds are companions of Rhiannon, I saw this finding as a message about her connection to death, rather than just being the Love Goddess that she is often portrayed as. I decided to gather up the dead babies and take them to the river where I released them into the quickly running water as a blessing on their journey. The next day we visited Rhiannon's waterfall and I found a stone with markings that looked like a heron's foot, reminding me that I was working with the goddess's death aspect. That day, the children found a dead mouse and, having been inspired by my story of the baby birds, made a 'shroud' for it from a large green leaf tied up with grass and launched it from the top of the waterfall as a sort of 'burial at sea'! I'm not sure why we so often think that children have a problem with death...

In 2004, my dad suffered a stroke and began a slow journey of recovery during which it seemed to me that he inhabited a shadow world between living and dying. He had always been a sensitive man and often heard voices in the hospital telling him jokes, which seemed to keep his spirits up. Eventually, he was moved to a rehabilitation unit and one day I was sitting on the side of his bed when he said, “Oh, you've turned into a heron!” By then I had been working as a priestess in the liminal spaces for some years and found his vision deeply affirming. From that time I began to more consciously walk the heron path.

                                                           But heron comes to show the way
                                                                through misty marshes of the mind
                                                           The edge of love, the edge of fear
                                                           The connection we were born to find

                                                            And when Crone Mother finally calls you
                                                                  to rest and change in dreaming womb
                                                            I will rejoice that you are with Her
                                                           But always feel you left too soon

                                                                                I call to you my joy, my father
                                                                                      as priestess, to the Blessed Isle
                                                                              As daughter call you ever homeward
                                                                                      to stay with me for just a while

                                                            (From 'Northern Star: for my father', 2004)

In the winter of 2010 I was renting a small house in Glastonbury, Somerset. It was a time when my creativity felt as dry as dead leaves but I enjoyed the little house just on the edge of the Somerset marshes and loved hearing owls calling at night. One day, feeling particularly stuck, I went for a long walk and was amazed to see a huge bird flying towards me. At first I couldn't work out what it was but then saw that it was a heron. Seeing its wide powerful wings something unlocked inside me and, having never really drawn before, I began to draw and paint herons; something that I love to do and, in reality, the only thing that I have ever been able to draw! Somehow herons are just in my blood.

'Heron's Winter Dreaming', 2010

'Heron Guards the Gateway', 2011

'Heron Sleeps with Standing Stones', 2011

In 2011, I met Will and began living part time on his boat in which we travelled the Kennet and Avon Canal and River Thames. My story with Will is one for another day but it was a time when I was able to more deeply connect with herons in their natural environment. We would see them every day; sometimes hunting in the shallows, sometimes flying on their wide ungainly wings; always hauntingly, perfectly 'other'. Although I loved Will and the boat, it was a period of bone-crushing despair; journeying both with the challenges of life on the water, which was hard but beautiful, and with his debilitating mental illness, which was a trap for us both. Clinging to every glimpse of her storm-winged beauty, heron taught me the power of patience and of knowing just the right moment to strike for quicksilver morsels of happiness amidst the grinding heartache of trying to get Will some care in a world that seemed to have lost its compassion. Each time I went to the boat I would put on a heron pendant as a symbol that I was stepping into my 'water gypsy' self and, often, I would find heron feathers on the riverbank. When I finally found the courage to fly myself free I threw my pendant into the deepest water I could find, needing to sever my attachment to the river and its heron dreaming, and offered a heron feather and some woad-dyed wool to our fire until they were ashes. Heron knows about letting go.

'Heron Offering', 2013

'Woad-dyed Wool for the Ancestors', 2013

I asked heron to show me how to hunt my freedom and she answered but she is never easy and it remained a path that needed careful negotiation and sure-footedness through many mires. There were many tears; hers is the path of deep emotion. In 2014 Will died suddenly and I was privileged to help midwife his beautiful soul into the Otherworld; another story for another day, but a reminder that heron, guardian of the Underworld, continued to work her strange magic in my life. Somehow, she was part of the enchantment that drew us together and she was part of the enchantment that set us both free; like the Crone whose energy she carries, she asks a lot of us. Will once told me that he had never really noticed the herons before I was there; that I made the river beautiful for him.

                                                        He left just as the snowdrops came
                                                        He could not hope to hope again;
                                                        Could not bear to let 
                                                        the fragile spears break through
                                                        his frozen faith, for life to rise,
                                                        a spark to catch,
                                                        and then to let him fall
                                                        and fall again,
                                                        as winter turned to green.
                                                        He felt unseen,
                                                        yet heron saw him fly away,
                                                        kingfisher caught his soul
                                                        and made it fire, set him free
                                                        and silver salmon mother swam him home...

                                                        (For Will, 2014)

There are times when heron has appeared when I was least expecting her. Once when I had an opportunity to do some smithcraft and she appeared from the fires in the bracelet that I was making; perhaps the heron feather that I had offered to the fire on the riverbank was emerging from the flames...

'Heron Forge', 2013

...and once in 2012 when I made my own drum. As part of the making we used our hands to cover the drum hoop with red ochre, so often a symbol of life in death and a substance which I had used to mark both my mum's and dad's bodies before their burials. Having painted the hoops, we stretched the deer skins we had chosen across the frame and, somehow, my drum skin became marked with red ochre. The marks looked to me like an old, old woman, both in profile and looking straight at me and, for some reason, I thought of heron. 

'Heron Grandmother Drum', 2012

That night, lying in the yurt, I had a dream that an ancient ancestor, a grandmother of the Heron Tribe, beautiful with deeply wrinkled skin, storm-grey eyes, and hair falling in long grey plaits, came and looked me straight in the face. It felt like love and a challenge and even now when I close my eyes I can see her. She is my teacher and yet, like heron, she often disappears into the river mist. And she is always silent. When Will died and we walked in procession after his coffin I knew that the Heron Tribe were with me; they are the death-walkers and they know about Life.

'Storm-wing Heron', 2012

And finally for now, in December 2014, my drum-making sisters and I all had sacred tattoos carved on our skin. Some had chosen their designs before we met for a weekend of deep journeying together but I decided to wait for inspiration. The symbol that came was an antlered heron foot, which has deep meaning for me and continues my journey both with the heron spirit and with She~Who~Is. These are just fragments of a story that moves through my life, through every breath, and deep beneath my skin. For now, I will say that I remain sure-footed in walking the heron path. I will trust her to show me where to put my feet. I am grateful.

'With Grandmother Heron Drum', 2012


'Antlered Heron tattoo', 2014




Tuesday, 14 April 2015

In Praise of Goosegrass

(Image: AnRo0002, Licensed under Wikipedia Commons)

A few mornings ago my love and I saw a small spring wonder. We were sitting in his living room, drinking tea no doubt, when the rose bush just under the window began to quiver. He crept up to the window, peeked out, and exclaimed that there was a tiny bird pecking insects from the stems of the plant. We were entranced, enchanted, enraptured. “What do you think it is!?” he asked. We decided that it was 'one of those little brown ones'...

The things of the hedge are often unobtrusive and easily overlooked. When they are birds they are often 'those little brown ones', when they are plants they are often 'one of those green leafy things'. And thus they keep their commonplace mystery. So it is with goosegrass, which is one of our most omnipresent 'green leafy things'. The ubiquitous nature of goosegrass is clear from the range of 'folk names' that it has attracted during its irrepressible journey across our wild places; cleavers, clivers, catchweed, sticky willy, sticky willow, robin~run~the~hedge, stickyweed, velcro weed, grip grass, clabber grass, coachweed, cleaver wort, goose hair, gosling weed, hedge burrs, milk sweet, poor robin, loveman, stick~a~back, sweethearts, savoyan, scratchweed, barweed, hedheheriff, robin~run~in~the~grass, mutton chops, everlasting friendship, amor de hortelano, ladies' straw, eriffe, gia maria, goosebill, grateron, hayruff, kaz yogurtoto, and zhu yang yang. Quite a presence for such an unprepossessing green being and yet, when I point it out to people they have rarely heard of it or noticed its existence.

My own first memory of goosegrass is within the last ten years; it may be that I had noticed it before but, without a name to pin it there, it had slipped through my conscious mind like mist. What I do remember is that I was walking through the a quieter part of Avebury stone circle and that around the bottom of a small and twisted tree were some unobtrusive little plants with beautiful whorls of leaves that were sticky to the touch. I don't even remember who told me what they were but, whenever I see goosegrass now, I always think of that moment in Avebury stone circle. That they were close to a stone cottage that I often daydream about living in has only added to their place in my 'folk-telling' of the land. When I think of goosegrass I think of that little stone cottage with its blossom tree and there are always white sheets blowing in the wind on a washing line. That, for me, is goosegrass; a symbol of what is simple, common, in the best sense of the word, and feels like home.

The scientific Latin name of goosegrass is 'galium aparine' and it is an herbaceous annual plant, which means that it completes its life cycle, from germination to the production of seed within one year before dying. It is part of the Rubiaceae family of plants, which is known as the coffee, madder, or bedstraw family, and has 13,000 members species, ranging from trees, to shrubs and herbs. Being part of the same family as the coffee bean, the seeds of goosegrass can be dried and roasted and used as an excellent low-caffeine coffee alternative.

So, where can we find goosegrass? Probably all it needs is to look down when we are walking in
woods, hedgerows, and waste places, and also in our gardens if we allow the wild its place there. It is described by herbalist and naturopath Lucinda Warner as “one of the first spring allies to appear” and is often found close to those other inhabitants of forgotten corners, the stinging nettles. How they make the wasteland green! Goosegrass has creeping stems, which can be 3ft or more long, and which branch and grow along the ground and through other plants. They are born explorers and can be especially recognised by the tiny hook-like hairs that grow from their stems and leaves. These give them their 'sticky' feeling to the touch and also enable them to climb and attach their seeds, or burrs, to animal fur which helps their dispersal. In the early spring to summer they produce tiny star-shaped white flowers and the plants provide food for the larvae of many butterfly species.

(Image: AnRo0002, Licensed under Wikipedia Commons)

Goosegrass is native to Europe, North Africa, and Asia and is naturalised “throughout most of the United States, Canada, Mexico, Central America, Southern America, Australia, some oceanic islands, and scattered locations in Africa.” (1) Plants may not be able to move according to the perspective of most humans but the sticky burrs of goosegrass have managed to move a very long way. In many places it is considered to be a noxious weed, although that of course just means that it grows where we haven't decided to put it and often refuses to leave when asked! Which brings us to goosegrass's relationship with humankind.

Goosegrass is both an edible and a medicinal plant. When cooked it has been compared to spinach, although it is said to have a slightly bitter taste and so is better in soups and stews rather than eaten on its own. It is also possible to eat the leaves raw, although cooking removes the tiny hooks, and there is a report from Mulcheney, Somerset of someone who remembers nibbling the raw shoots of goosegrass as a child before feeding the whole plant to their ducks. (2) It is a plant that is much prized by geese for nibbling purposes and many of its related names may come from this link, or from its goose-foot shaped leaves.

Medicinally goosegrass is a gentle diuretic and lymphatic tonic, which cleanses the system after the stagnant months of winter. As a poultice or wash, its juice and pulp has been used traditionally to treat skin ailments, minor wounds, and burns. Its pulp has also been used to alleviate poisonous bites or stings. In 1653, Nicholas Culpepper said that;

It is under the dominion of the Moon. The juice of the herb and the seed together taken in wine, helpeth those bitten with an adder, by preserving the heart from the venom. It is familiarly taken in broth, to keep them lean and lank that are apt to grow fat.” (3)

(Image: Flowers, AnRo0002, Licensed under Wikipedia Commons)


(Image: Burrs. Rasbak. Licensed under Wikipedia Commons)

Goosegrass can also alleviate anxiety, as it has mildly sedative affects, may lower blood pressure, and tea made from its stalks and leaves can remove obstructions from the throat. There are also reports that it is helpful in treating cancer. It can also safely be used for the long-term treatment of animals and is especially helpful for cats suffering from feline urinary tract disease (3). An excellent article on the nature of goosegrass and its healing abilities by Lucinda Warner of 'Whispering Earth' can be found here. I love her belief that goosegrass, as one of the first green beings to appear in the spring, is perfectly placed to cleanse our bodies after the winter and also encourages us to play, and to begin moving our bodies again, through the many traditional games that involve chasing others and sticking goosegrass onto them. She particularly mentions, 'how many cleavers can you stick on someone's back before they notice'! There are also many folk beliefs involving throwing goosegrass at a young woman to see whether they stick; if they do then she has a admirer, if they fall then her hopes fall with them, although in some traditions the fallen plant is said to spell out the initial of her love to come (2).

A further use of our unobtrusive green companion can be guessed at from its Latin name, which translates as 'milk seizer', and physician and botanist Dioscorides (40 – 90 CE) reported that Greek shepherds would gather together the stems of goosegrass to create a rough sieve for straining milk. Carl Linnaeus (1707 - 1778), one of the founders of modern ecology, wrote of the same use in Sweden and the practice has continued into modern times. The plants were also used to curdle milk in cheese making and it was believed that contact with them would convey their healing properties to the dairy products. Its roots can also be used to create a permanent red dye and, like all plants of the 'bedstraw' family, its dried leaves were traditionally used to stuff mattresses, particularly as its hooks meant that it could be shaped into a stable mat that would provide uniform thickness. Mary is said to have used goosegrass to make a bed for her newborn child. 

Like all beings of the hedge, goosegrass is rarely noticed but holds much magic. We would do well not to underestimate these little green plants that we so often don't know the name of. Oh, and the 'little brown bird' turned out to be a chiffchaff...

(Image: Chiffchaff. Ken Billington/Licensed under Wikipedia Commons)

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