The stars are in our belly; the Milky Way our umbilicus.
Is it a consolation that the stuff of which we’re made
is star-stuff too?
– That wherever you go you can never fully disappear –
dispersal only: carbon, hydrogen, nitrogen, oxygen.
Tree, rain, coal, glow-worm, horse, gnat, rock.
Thursday, 2 March 2017
From the ragbag: buntings, roe deer & weedwifery; thorn blossom, abundance & generosity; books
In a rare sunny daybreak, I’m out walking just after 7.30am. I’m feeling a bit smug that I’ve already made sandwiches for TM (this is not unreconstructed housewifery, I hasten to tell you, but a choice to do something nice for him each morning!), meditated, read Instructive Texts a bit, and thought.
Yet to come: the stroll a couple of hundred yards along the valley, by the brook, which is all that Dog can manage at the moment. Then a full day’s work signing off a recent poetry distance-learning-course participant – always a poignant experience, and especially so when the person concerned has been so fully immersed – and putting together a mailshot.
Nonetheless, to be out walking early gives me a sense of spaciousness lacking so far mostly this year, which has felt crammed and cramped. (I did make space yesterday, though, in drizzle, to check the old stone and soil banks of our field/woodland margin/orchard/vegetable plot for signs of activity in the fox earths and badger setts, though I greatly fear the latter have gone, due to the Government’s insane cull, against which I’ve protested so loudly and fruitlessly the last few years. However, I did set up a couple of roe deer grazing close by, under one of the bird cherry trees.)
Now, there’s the fresh stink of fox, and a parliament of rooks is cleaning up spilt feed behind the in-lamb sheep at the top of the lane. Looking up at the buzzard who often occupies the telegraph pole at the junction, I also see in a tree nearby what I’ve assumed for years was probably a yellowhammer – we’ve one or two resident here. Having read the recent RSPB mag, though, I’m now thinking it may actually be a cirl bunting. These little birds, commoner in the south of France, were plentiful in the southwest (and I think only the southwest) of GB until last century, when loss of habitat and food supply, due to intensive farming methods, brought their numbers down to fewer than 100 breeding pairs. Now, though, they’re back up to over 1000 breeding pairs in a few isolated spots in South Devon and Cornwall.
En route, I collect some wild sorrel, some wild garlic (ramsons), and clock where the freshest pollution-free heads of young nettles are rising above the dog’s mercury. I’m using wild garlic in everything I can at the moment, and when that, the sorrel and the nettle-tips are combined with our leeks and some potatoes, there’ll be a nourishing, mineral-full and tasty cleansing soup for us and my poetry group on Saturday if I can get it together in time.
If you would like some fresh ideas for winter veg, you can see some here: scroll down to the bottom of the page to the beetroot and potato patties (based on a Riverford recipe. If you don’t know the Riverford cookbooks, you’ve a treat in store. Apart from glorious food from simple ingredients, they’re worth reading for the many little essays by the author and founder of Riverford Organics, Guy Watson.)
The Devon lanes are of course aflush with snowdrops, and the little wild daffs are in bloom. A few fat violet patches are lighting the lower verges. I remember as a kid that the Devon violet and rose sweets really were sugared petals; I imagine now they’re entirely synthetic.
In a parallel life I’d be an apothecary, plant alchemist. I would love to distill the oil from rose petals; spend my life collecting and blending herbal remedies and oils; make incenses.
In fact, for a great deal of my life I have worked with plants. My family, including the animals, has almost without fail been treated by me with herbs (my 38-year-old daughter has never had antibiotics), with professional herbalist input when needed*.
My first small business involved dyeing my own handspun wool with locally-collected plants – my daughter spent her first few months of life slung from my chest out on the coasts and moors of North Devon, where I’d collect gorse flowers, tree bark, lichens, ivy berries and so on.
On and off through my life I’ve made ceremonial incenses, usually to commission, frequently incorporating locally-collected plant material, carefully blending the ingredients for their subtle consciousness-altering qualities and the properties therefore of their scents.
And I make face creams for myself and friends blended with essential oils. So in fact I do still practise weedwifery; just not as much as I’d like.
Actually, once I start to think about it, I realise quite how big a part plants have always played in my life; how closely our lives have intertwined, from the preschool days when I'd mix 'potions' to put out for the fairies in acorn cups.
It's rather a consolation in a life in which I see myself as spending most of my time on the computer.
My Cornish maternal great-grandmother was the village midwife and wisewoman (my paternal great-grandfather, also Cornish, was the official dowser for Cornwall County Council!), and both sides of my family taught me about plants. I've remembered that when I was at Cambridge (reading Anglo-Saxon, Norse & Celtic – nothing to do with plants!) I was commissioned (long story – but as much for my proximity to major and significant library collections as for my interest and knowledge) to write a section on ancient and/or traditional British herbal remedies for a French encyclopaedia on natural medicines.
In my twenties, I co-led some residential workshops on plants as foods and medicines, doing the kind of foraging walks that are trendy now but no one did back then.
Later, I studied plant spirit medicine, and did a transatlantic interview for a mind, body, spirit magazine with plant shaman Elliot Cowan, out of which came, for me, some dramatic and left-field personal experiences with plants, especially trees (I don't mean via ingestion of psychotropics, though I've been there too).
And then, of course, I offer my Tongues in Trees workshops, with a new residential one coming up in a Brittany forest in October. (If you visit the blogpost, you'll see a later post, sister to this linked one, too, in November 2014.)
You know, I hadn't added all that up till just now. That's quite a lot of plant and tree stuff in my life. That makes me feel better.
White blossom adorns the prunus family trees now. Many of these flower before they leaf, and it’s a lush sight, snowdrifting the hedges, after drab winter. The blackthorn blossom is out, if later than usual, though already now the hawthorn bushes are in leaf – several weeks early (their leaves arrive before the blossom).
There’s a sense of real abundance with this blossom. I’m reminded of the Pablo Neruda love poem: ‘I want to do with you what spring does with the cherry trees’.
Such generosity, flowering with the whole of oneself, in full glory, like that; nothing held back but pouring towards the world as if towards a lover.
Here’s a thing: how would it be if we could do that each day, without counting the cost, or looking for return – simply giving?
And – often harder – how would it be if we could give like that to ourselves, without wondering if we ‘should’, if we’re worthy, if it’s selfish? (As Erich Fromm says, if we can only love others but not ourselves then we can barely love at all.) If we could let the radiance and generosity of our blossoming selves not only feed others, but also pour down our trunks to nourish our own roots to keep blossoming?
The way the natural world simply leafs, flowers, fruits, keeps giving.
The way too the natural world offers such an inexhaustible supply of metaphors, as Jules Casteen, editor of Paris Review, once said.
We worked with such metaphors in a workshop I led for young people on Sunday last for Teignmouth Poetry Festival. Some of the best metaphors came from the under-11s: one girl spoke of jealousy as being like a tree with no leaves. Hmm. Excellent.
I think it’s World Book Day. I should know, but didn’t till I was tagged on Twitter as one of 5 poets nominated by Awen Books for World Book Day. Am honoured.
So, to pass it on, here are three books I’ve really enjoyed reading very recently (I'm not going to do an Amazon link as my internet, as usual, is on the cusp of simply not delivering at all).
The Hidden Life of Trees, Peter Wohlleben: a barrowful of both whacky and completely reasonable assertions about trees, raising questions about such things as the fact that if trees have a memory (and they do), where do they keep it? He also makes use of the TED talk by Suzanne Simard that advanced our understanding of how trees communicate, and the fact that they feed each other.
I’ve just finished my friend Su Bristow’s* enchanting and captivating novel Sealskin. Based on the many Scottish and Irish selkie legends, she brings the old story to life in a way that has me harking back to the atmospheric telling. These stories have influenced so many writers and books; one I remember is Alice Thomas Ellis’ novel (though I can’t remember its name); and in fact I myself wrote a prizewinning short story based on this theme many years ago. Bristow’s achievement, apart from writing a beautiful and compelling story, is that she resists giving us a consoling ending.
I’m densely immersed in a great deal of n-f research for my current book, so most of what I read is fairly heavy duty stuff. As light relief, I ripped through Joanne Harris’ most recent follow-up to Chocolat last week. Peaches for Monsieur le Curé, set like Chocolat in a small town in Southwest France, explores the cultural clashes between the locals and the Muslim incomers. Because it’s Harris, there’s humour and a light touch, but she’s also an intelligent and subtle writer.
I need some good new poetry. It’s been a while since a new collection really woke me up and engaged my passion as well as my intellect. Ideas, anyone?
And finally, a little extra: a few years ago I was rather knocked out by a novel called Diggers and Dreamers, by Keith Walton. Set in the year of 1976 – that hot summer in GB – in the French Languedoc, it described the area, the blow-ins, the ideology and the lifestyle I recognised myself from that same year in almost exactly that same place – and so, in some ways, it is also my story as a student about to bail out.
If you, like me, were an intellectual hippy dropout at that time, rebelling against mainstream values – or lack of them, it seemed – and determined to live in a simpler, closer-to-the-soil, handcrafted, non-consumerist way with a guiding philosophy that rejected the Establishment and all it stood for, and had an engagement with more esoteric ideas about consciousness and all it means, you might relate to this book. (As you might even if you weren’t, but remember well the spirit of that time; the sense that we could change the world.)
It’s an assured, idealistic, deeply intelligent and erudite read that conjures so well its raison d’être: ‘there is another world but it is in this one’, which if I remember correctly is a quote from poet Paul Eluard. Something about it reminds me of John Fowles, and also John Crowley (Aegypt).
The reason I mention it now is because I recently reread it, and it has something of the vision of Beat poets like Gary Snyder. It deserves to be better-known.
And I think that’s more than enough. Back to the fireside for me.
* Su Bristow is a medical herbalist and writer – see also the bottom of this page, the book section.
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