On autumn & on risk (a bit)
I love this time of year – its transitional aspects, its elemental qualities, the shifts of light and colour and foliage. And I love the storms that come too, though I don't in any way mean to belittle the damage and devastation they can bring.
It all reminds me of transience – things move and change more swiftly than seems to happen in summer.
The Dart is swollen, and the water meadows down below Dartington Hall are now water rather than meadow, and host to 100s of waterfowl. The Dart higher up, coming down off the moor, is in serious spate, and each weekend flotillas of brightly-coloured kayaks will switchback down it, their paddlers chancing death (often a death occurs in these Dart River-races).
Risk interests me, the dyad of risk versus security being a significant dynamic that shapes all our lives in relation to which way we step, the choices we make. In fact, I'm here at Dartington today broadcasting with the presenter of an arts programme who is interviewing me about my new novel, The Burning Ground, and the part risk plays in it: for me as an author, but also themes of risk within the book: legal, ethical, emotional, physical. More on that in another blog.
Right now, in relation to what I'm writing here, Dog and I are strolling round the 4km circuit within Dartington Estate grounds. Little blue flowers of alkanet bloom still, like eyes in the bank – alkanet's a member of the borage family, and roots of one of its cousins produce henna – the Arabic name, similar to our English translation (but I can't remember its spelling) means just that. Swathes of autumn cyclamen splash the banks in South Devon exuberantly at the moment. Wild clematis ('old man's beard', 'traveller's joy') drapes wild roses in feathery sheets.
It's fungus time, of course, too:
Once upon a time, as a lifelong forager, wild mushrooms formed a serious part of my autumn diet. One autumn when my daughter was 18 months or so, parked up in the campervan in the forests of Les Landes on the Southwest Atlantic coast of France, my husband and I and Eloïse lived for weeks on nuts and berries and mushrooms collected close by (and the other two included shellfish in their diet). We strung rings of the wonderful parasol mushrooms around the interior of the van to dry.
These days I notice a caution in me. Apart from two or three species, I'm less confident in my ability to identify safe or otherwise mushrooms.
This one, for instance (it wasn't me who broke it off):
– tasty blusher, fatal panther cap, other? I suspect it's a panther cap, to which there is no antidote once eaten.
This one, amanita pantherina, is from the same family as that fairy tale classic amanita muscaria, or fly agaric: startling scarlet, with white dots: you know the one: the toadstool elves etc squat on.
Me & the counter-culture & drugs n stuff
I was growing up in the 60s and 70s, the daughter of rural Cornish people. My father's family comes from the very far west, forever. On my mother's side were women farmers/village midwifes/local wise women/trawlermen; on my father's, a Mayor of St Ives, a skipper of the last tea-clipper out of Falmouth, farmers, miners and dowsers. Both my parents were musicians and artists, and my father always rather unconventional (in fact he was quite deliberately anti most Establishment values going). In my family, such things as a certain psychic ability, second sight, telepathy, deep knowledge of flora and fauna and the ways of the land, and various other bohemian ways were rather taken for granted.
Since sleepy little North Devon in the late 60s and early 70s had an astonishingly vibrant arts/music scene and counterculture, with ashrams and yoga centres, places to learn meditation, wholefood shops, free festivals and the Whole Earth Fair up on Exmoor, it wasn't surprising of course, that I identified with the hippy culture more than the mainstream one. In my mid-teens, I came across Zen Buddhism, turned vegetarian and, not surprisingly, I guess, also discovered drugs.
My first boyfriend's parents, early disciples of John Seymour, of self-sufficiency fame, ran an organic smallholding on Exmoor (they were considered somewhat pioneering back then). There I learned to spin and weave and dye, milk cows and goats and make butter, watch for deer, encourage badgers to visit with peanut butter and raisins, grow and use herbs and veg. P and I also tracked leylines and holy wells, as one does as a teenager(!); and experimented with soft drugs, grown by ourselves, and later I started collecting and drying the gently hallucinogenic psylocybin (liberty cap) mushrooms. (I had friends in Hebden Bridge in Yorkshire who, when we visited, had bowls of dried liberty cap mushrooms out on the tables as others might offer peanuts or crisps. This time of year down here on Dartmoor you still see intent folk, bottoms up, trawling the moor scrutinising every tiny creamy-white mushroom...)
In my day – didn't we always swear we'd never say that? – any recreational drugs we took were natural, not synthetic. I personally believe that, while clearly some are seriously toxic, there are also natural, herbal, drugs such as cannabis that are not only a great deal less dangerous than alcohol – and don't tend to induce violence, either – but are also excellent pain-relievers. Yes, I do think cannabis should be declassified. No, it is not in itself addictive (and I'm also aware that some cannabis, eg skunk, can be acutely dangerous for mentally unstable people).
However, I don't intend to make the case for natural drugs here, and I do set them apart from manufactured street-drugs and the whole scene that goes with them; just to say that I had experiences with natural psychotropic drugs that changed forever my view on the world, and set my feet firmly on a spiritual and creative path at odds with a materialistic culture (TM would say similarly).
I also remember less-than-fortunate teenage experiments with eg inner banana-skin, dried and smoked (disgusting, and all it did was make my cheeks numb; ditto nutmeg, which made me sick, too); lobelia flowers infused in hot water – insipid; valerian root when I was over-anxious about exams (I took the wrong valerian and was laid up with headaches and nausea for 36 hours).
And on drugs & going berserk
But one drug I personally never touched was fly agaric. I have friends who did: don't try this at home, but some say you can eat simply the little white raised dots on the caps without any ill effects (the whole mushroom can in some cases be very seriously toxic). However, the effects of fly agaric are serious (see below), and occasionally fatal.
I'm telling you this to lead up to something: the word 'berserk' and its connections with fly agaric. Apparently, so legend has it, the Norsemen – Vikings – went 'berserking' after they'd stoked up with a little fly agaric. On their berserking raids they, as we know, massacred, raped and pillaged their way round the British Isles (though they didn't get westwards beyond the Tamar with any great success!).
And the way they stoked up with fly agaric? Drinking reindeer piss. Yes...
On recycling urine
Roger Phillips is the author of some of the best books on wild plants, trees and mushrooms in Britain. Here's what he says about fly agaric: 'It is a strong hallucinogen and intoxicant and is used as such by the Lapps. In such cases the cap is dried and swallowed without chewing... The central nervous system is affected and the muscles of the intoxicated person start to pull and twitch convulsively, followed by dizziness and a death-like sleep. During this state the mushrooms are often vomited but nevertheless the drunkenness and stupor continue. While in this state of stupor, the person experiences vivid visions, and on waking is usually filled with elation and is physically very active. This is due to the nerves being highly stimulated, the slightest effort of will producing exaggerated physical effects, e.g. the intoxicated person will make a gigantic leap to clear the smallest obstacle. The Lapps may have picked up the habit of eating the fly agaric through observing the effects of the fungus on reindeer, which are similarly affected. Indeed, they [the reindeer] like it so much that all one has to do to round up a wandering herd is to scatter pieces of fly agaric on the ground. Another observation the Lapps made from the reindeer was that the intoxicating compounds in the fungus can be recycled by consuming the urine of an intoxicated person.'
Or, so it goes, the urine of a reindeer.
Bet you didn't know that; nor that it was the origins of 'going berserk'...