Thursday, 17 September 2015

Woman Walking Wild: Bear Mother

(Image: 'Bear Mother: You Are In Her Belly', Aoife Valley - used with permission)

I am not good or brave or strong. This week, I have felt lost, confused, ungrounded, seeking the strong Bear Mother curled in my belly and not finding her. Tonight, I followed a thread and I remembered fairytales. Now I see that I am on a quest; silence, love, transformation, swan feathers, and nettle stings. I can do this. I was born to do this. My heart is wild and I am in awe of her ability to push through the wildest tangles and brambles and thorns of feeling, but beside her I feel small and vulnerable. But I can do this. I am not good or brave or strong but the Bear Mother is all these things and has been my companion for many years. I rarely call her consciously but, sometimes, and often when life challenges the ability of my heart to keep on beating, I just find her there with her musty scent and sure paws. Sometimes she takes me to dive in the holy river of the sacred. Sometimes she helps me to hunt herbs for my healing or teaches me to dream in the shadow places of tears and deep magic. Sometimes she comes when I am feeling strong, walking boldly upright in my Woman self, looking the world in the eye, and I feel her weight leaning against me in support and solidarity. Sometimes she comes when I have a need to connect deeply with my earth. It's then that I find her curled sleeping in the dark cave of my belly and I sink into myself and into her with a grateful outbreath. And sometimes she comes when when I am raw, stripped to the bone by my determination to live a wild life surrounded by the not-wild, when I can find no place for what moves within and am wandering lost without a map to follow. Often I stumble and, knowing that my belly is hollow and empty and not the place for her, she splits herself open so that I can crawl inside her still warm body, become bear, rest. Often there is blood. 
(From the film, 'Send Word, Bear Mother',

The Bear Mother is the oldest of the old. She was one of the first beings to be worshipped by our far off ancestors, possibly as far back as the middle Palaeolithic period, which lasted from 300,000 to 30,000 years ago. She is revered in the North American, Northern Eurasian, and circumpolar regions, particularly amongst the Sami people, the Ainu of Japan, and the tribes of Celtic Gaul and Britain. The Ainu call the bear 'kamui', which means God. In each area the bear is recognised as a supernatural messenger and walker between the worlds, traveller amongst the stars above, below, and within. Cave Bear skulls have been found in a cave at Saône-et-Loire, France arranged in a circle and marked with red ochre. They are believed to be between 45,000 and 75,000 years old and to date from the time of the Neanderthals. It is believed that even the more 'modern' beliefs of our own Northern ancestors date to a common ancestral belief-system of Asiatic origin dating back to the time ofthe Magdalenian period of 20,000 years ago”. Bear tracks appear in the rock carvings of the Altai people of Northern Norway from as long as 6,200 years ago. When we walk with Bear we too become the oldest of the old. We become once again the people who carry the red ochre. We become real and our ancestors are beside us.

But the one who is truly always beside us is the Bear Mother. She has touched my life many times. In 2007 my mother, who had been very ill, was not expected to live through the night. Her spirit chose to remain and she stayed for another few months before she left. I was relieved that she was still alive and, once the turbulence of that time had settled, I expected to carry on with my life as before but I found that I was agitated and couldn't settle back into my everyday life. I realised that I had been so convinced that my mother would die, and only a few months after my father’s death, that I had stepped partly into the Otherworld to hold her hand as she passed and had never quite returned. A few weeks later, I found myself in a little crystal shop in Glastonbury, Somerset, and there I found a bone pendant carved with the image of a bear mother holding her cub in her arms. I couldn't afford her but I felt her call and so I let the wild part of me in and she was mine. I wore her for several months and came back to myself but she wouldn't stay. Instead she has travelled to several friends, and friends of friends, who have had need of her. Some have received deep healing and become well again. Some have received deep healing and have died. Always she has come back to me and I trust that this time she will. I don't even have a photograph; for a creature so powerful and so big she knows how to slip unseen between the cracks of healing.

I have written before of the painful journey that I had with my partner, Will, and of the healing that Heron brought me, but there was also a whiff of Bear. When I was at my most ragged and raw I went to a drumming circle to celebrate Winter Solstice. It was all that I could do to get myself there at all and I was sure that I would feel cut off in my broken state. There were five drum journeys that night and in each one the Bear Mother came and curled up with me, wrapping around me a sanctuary of stillness and safety. In her warmth something in me was healed. It was enough.

She is not always, what we would think of as, kind and she can be a fierce mother. She is an ancestress, a mother life-giver, and even now we talk of 'bearing' children. In Eastern Lithuania, a woman immediately after childbirth is called 'Bear' (Meška). The saying ''licked into shape' comes from the belief that, during hibernation, bear mothers would literally create their young by licking formless flesh and fur into bear cubs before emerging with them in the spring. Sometimes, she has done this to me too; pushing me to be more, try harder, walk wilder, shaping me, when I would rather just lie down and give up. I am a wilful and defiant woman and sometimes she has to 'cuff' me. She is not to be trifled with, this Bear Mother.         
'Bear Mother and Cubs', Anna Hyatt-Huntington (Wiki Commons)

And now, when I have undertaken a brave quest to find a new and wild life and I am all love, silence, and transformation, the Bear Mother has returned curling into the cave of my belly and has drawn me down into the deep dreaming of her holy story, and of my own. I lost her, remembered fairytales, and she came back through words and tears. I am not good or brave or strong but the Bear Mother is with me and I am blessed.
(Wiki Commons)

And here, as a special treat for us all and for anyone who knows their bears to be, 'made of ice and river-wood and the bones of otters, full of pebbles and pine resin and the lost songs of bees', is a story of beauty and power from the wonderful Tom Hirons, first published in 'Earthlines' journal and shared here with his permission. Thank you, Tom.


'The Significance of the Bear Among the Sami and Other Northern Cultures', Brandon "Kál'lá" Bledsoe.

'The Language of the Goddess', Marija Gimbutas, Thames & Hudson, 1989.

'The Great Bear Mother', Jude Lally

Tuesday, 18 August 2015

Hedgehealing and the Blessing of Return

At the beginning of May I went for a walk in the woods and made a big prayer for healing of my old, old grief and anger. Since then I have written nothing. I had been in the flow of words and then the words left me. I am a writer and I must write. Words have stirred in me and called to be born but, when I have tried to set them free, they have fallen to the ground like broken-winged birds and I have cupped them in my hands, heartbroken. It has not been an easy summer; it has been a beautiful summer of sweetness, radical healing, love that is gentle and fierce, and land that is ever unfolding. It has not been a peaceful summer. And there are no words. This summer, I went for a walk in the woods and made a big prayer for healing. Bored of my excuses, my self-betrayals, I went for a walk in the woods and made a call to life.

'Give me more pain, more pain
Give me more consciousness
Tear open all doors, smash down all walls
Give me more pain, more pain
Give me more consciousness
Tear open all doors, smash down all walls

More love, more love,
that the 'I' in me may drown
More love, more love,
that the 'I' in me may drown
Give me more, more, more streams
of nectar to drink
Give me more, more, more'

-- from Gitanjali, Rabindranath Tagore

It wasn't conscious or planned but, this summer, I went for a walk in the woods; early summer ~ Bluebells, Wood Anemones, Red Campion, Wood Sorrel, Stitchwort, Yellow Archangel, and I made a prayer for healing that changed everything. 

Greater Stitchwort

Herb Robert

Wood Anemone

Yellow Archangel
The green people are not always kind. They may be delicate in their flowering but their roots are deep, drawing on dark and ancient layers of experience, and when we make a prayer for healing they answer. And so, on that day at the beginning of May, I let myself be pixie-led. I sat exhausted by carrying my bundle of sorrow and I made my prayer. I accepted the invitation and stepped through the gateway of healing.

An invitation to step through the gateway of healing

In answer to my prayer I was gifted with a song;

                                                             Little one, you are loved
                                                            Little one, you are loved
                                                            See the blue, see the green
                                                           Feel the sun, you are seen
                                                           Little one, you are loved
                                                           Little one, you are loved 

It was a simple song that opened me, allowing me to cry tears that had long not been cried. Two weeks later my heart was broken and it healed me.

Held by the Green

Held by the Green

The gift of a 'crow-skull' stone to hold
It used to be that my most powerful, and most challenging, lessons would come at the beginning of February, during the ancient seasonal festival of Imbolc. I have woven a deep connection to Snowdrops, those seemingly fragile spears that find a way to pierce the deadened ground of winter. I had much that needed to be brought back to life and, in that quickening, I stepped into a constellation of Bluebells; a tribe of delicate cobalt-blue wildflowers who establish a poison sea of scilarens which can lower the pulse rate and cause cardiac arrhythmia. It is telling that, soon after the effects of my prayer began to reverberate through my life, I was diagnosed with a slow heartbeat, which I had never had before. Bluebells are delicate but not to be underestimated and sometimes healing feels like dying until the poison leaves our bodies.

Taken to a place of deep heart
Since making my prayer much that was broken has been mended. I was numb and have been coming back to life. I have put down deeper taproots in the soil of my being, sung to crabapples in wild hedgerows, buried my toes in dark sea-silt, loved and been loved, learned much and forgotten more, and my relationship with the man who I first met in a bluebell wood, and who holds my heart in the fire of his being and my life in the clear-as-a-mountain-stream-blue of his eyes, has deepened in ways that I could never have imagined. There has been the snuffle-song of badgers, the still-wing of herons, and the roar of lions, the sting of separation and the honey of returning, and an opening of possibility; of love, of relationship, and of heart. As ever, I am in awe of the journey and, in truth, the journey has only just begun.

Gratitude to the green people

Friday, 8 May 2015

Souptemple ~ Stirring Up Belly, Heart, and Spirit in the Midst of the UK Election 2015

This has been a terrible day. It became clear by 6am that the Conservatives had won another term as the Government of the United Kingdom and, worse still, that they have gained a majority in the House of Commons. That this has happened is almost beyond belief, the pre-election polls having suggested that, at worst, another coalition would be required. Many had hoped that, despite their shortcomings, this coalition would be led by the Labour party and although certainly not perfect that would have led to an end of the hated Bedroom Tax, an end to the badger cull, and the continuation of the Hunting Act which bans fox hunting. That we now have to endure a further five years of a Right Wing government who, without the softening presence of their coalition partners, will go full steam ahead with their austerity agenda is a devastating blow. I know very few people who have not been in tears all day. For myself, I am heartbroken and a little bit of my belief in people has died. I am ashamed of my country and ashamed to be English; two things that I never thought I would say. That this neoliberal ideology is running rampant across much of the Western world is of little comfort to me. This is my land, a land that I had thought was inhabited by people who were ultimately caring, compassionate, and tolerant. Today, I believe otherwise. Maybe tomorrow it will be different.

This increase in Conservative power will lead to the further persecution of all that is vulnerable and wild in this land. I fear for the poor, the disabled, the young, the old, the homeless, the low-waged, and the mentally ill. I fear for the forests, the badgers, the foxes, and the song birds. I fear for our hearts and I fear for our sanity. I fear that not all of us will survive. Many feel utterly broken, and yet perhaps in that brokenness we will find our power. We human beings are very good at cutting off from our emotions, from the reality of what is happening around us if that reality is too hard to deal with. No doubt this ability holds powerful evolutionary benefits and yet it seems that it is also susceptible to manipulation by those who want to have power over us; they distract us by turning us against one another, offer us shiny bribes that appeal to our baser instincts, and encourage us not to see what is really going on beneath the surface of the spell they have created. And who would want to see the truth when that truth is so obscene? We would have to see people driven to suicide, starving, weeping as they are forced to leave their homes, animals maimed and screaming, forests cut down for new housing estates that few can afford to live in...

And yet, some of us do see and we keep on looking; some of us weep for those who can no longer cry, some love for those who can no longer love, and some see for those who keep their eyes firmly shut. It may break our hearts, we keep on looking. It may feel that it breaks us; we keep on looking. We can't help it. It is who we are. And so, for many of us who can see what has gone before and what lies ahead, this is a day of mourning. Many are still on shock. Many have lost hope. Soon will come the anger. These feelings matter. It is disconnection from what is sacred; from the land, the self, and community, that has allowed people to vote the Conservatives back into Government. Without that disconnection how could anyone bear to put their cross in the box marked 'austerity'. It is monstrous to even imagine that someone could have seen the reality and still done so. The tiny part of me that still believes in the good of my fellow human beings refuses to believe that that could happen. Those of us who have not succumbed to that disconnection are feeling the pain and the empathy that so many seem not to feel and in that we keep hope alive. We have to keep breathing deeply, allowing ourselves to be broken open and, in the days and months and years to come, we have to live from the heart and live fierce. What I have come to think of as the 'Tory death cult', which could just as easily be the capitalist or patriarchal death cult, suffers from a profound disconnection. It is led by people who persevere with policies towards the natural world that will ultimately kill us all, even though that includes them. What greater disconnection could there be than to continue with something that holds within it your own annihilation? And yet continue they do. Those of us with our hearts open are an answer to that. We are the pulse of Life, with a capital L, and for me that pulse of Life is Goddess.

And yet feeling isn't enough for times like these, sitting in prayer isn't enough. If today has been anything it has been a call to action, a call to sacred and connected activism in the face of unbelievable greed and indifference. A few years ago I was shocked to read in the newspaper that many food banks were reporting that food was being returned to them uneaten. Appallingly, this was food that needed to be cooked being returned by people who could not afford the gas or electricity to do so. I was moved to angry tears contemplating the feelings of those who, not only had to suffer the shame and indignity of going to a food bank in the first place, but then had to admit to not being able to cook their own food. I am sure that many took the food knowing that it would never be eaten, too ashamed to give it back. That this could happen in the sixth richest country in the world is almost impossible to understand. It is shameful and shames us all. I began to think of ways in which we could help one another; perhaps those who could cook could offer to do so for those who couldn't, perhaps we could create community kitchens? And yet all options left me feeling uneasy and despondent and, after some thought, I realised why; in trying to help, in offering a hand to the poorest and most vulnerable amongst us, as of course we must, we would be creating the 'Big Society' that David Cameron has eulogised on so often. This ideology, based on volunteers filling the gaps left by austerity, was a flagship policy of the 2010 Conservative manifesto and suggested that it would take power away from politicians and place it with communities. In reality, this was far from the case, with essential services being brutally cut and volunteers expected to fulfil the roles of those who had previously been paid. And so, in helping those in need, it felt that we would be not only absolving the Government of any responsibility for the care of the most vulnerable in society but also proving them right. This insidious turning of those with good intent against who they were trying to stand beside and offer a hand to is one of the reasons why I despise the Tories; they are treacherous and would like us to be just the same, or perhaps they assume that we are already.

And so I gave up my idea of somehow helping people to cook their food and tried to take action in other ways but the idea has kept coming back to me again and again. Today, devastated by the election results, I went for a walk, pressed my body against a tree and cried, gathered up some hawthorn blossom and buried my face in its creamy petals, breathed in the scent of what is real and of the earth, and the thought came back to me again. This is not a time for sitting and mourning what could have been. This is a time to take action like never before. I have no doubt that, just as I am writing this, there are people, worn down by the previous ConDem coalition, who are contemplating five years of an, even more heinous, Conservative majority and wishing that they were dead. No, this is not the time for those of us with open hearts and tears in our eyes to sit and mourn. We no longer have the luxury of that. People are dying. And perhaps those of us who can still feel and know that the world is broken are the ones who have to do something about that. Maybe we have to be the whisper of the wild in a world gone dead and cold. This is hospice Britain and someone has to care.

And so, something that I have spoken of with friends before came back to me, but this time with a name; Souptemple. It has often been suggested to me that I found a Goddess temple; something which I feel no enthusiasm for at all and yet the thought of something pulsating with the love of Goddess for us all, but with a practical purpose in reaching out to the most outcast, does seem bright with hope and promise. It seems to me that in times like these, when the vulnerable amongst us can't afford to make themselves a hot meal, that this is an idea whose time has come. I sat in the café and wrote everything that popped into my head and I am sharing it now just as it is and with, hopefully, some of the energy that I felt when I wrote it...

Souptemple ~ food for the belly, heart, and spirit

Provide free food, nutritious and made and served with love, containing as many wild and foraged foods as possible. Made to look beautiful and bright. Providing nutrition, dignity, love, and solidarity, together with connection to community and the natural world.

Could be in beautifully decorated vans but would be good to have a building to provide a place to be, together with workshops building self-esteem through creativity and connection to the natural world and one another.

Sacred activism ~ campaigning against food poverty and against loss of dignity and self-determination of the poorest and most vulnerable in our society.

Provide wild medicine/herbalism.

Create the beauty of the hedgetemple wherever we go.

And so there it is; the seed and the sowing of an idea. I don't know where it will go. It is an idea that never leaves me and, today of all days, it wanted to be made more real. I feel unequal to the task of making it happen; too scared, to shy, too wobbly, too inexperienced, but I am lifting a prayer for its growth and for the continuation of Life amongst all of this. If anyone has any thoughts please do let me know. There is much more to do and we will do it. I refuse to stop believing in the good of people. And, in the meantime, I spit on David Cameron's 'Big Society'. This isn't 'volunteering'. This is love.

Comfrey Fritters, made by Will Greenwood, April 2011.

Thursday, 7 May 2015

On Election Day ~ This is Still Our Land

This is still our land
and your arrogance won’t break her.
Her trees grow green and wild
and your power games will not make her
into a barren land where life is not for living,
into a well of souls with eyes staring, unforgiving.

Our ancestors have sung this land
and she has her own spirit.
Other songs have joined with hers,
her boundaries have no limit.
Tolerance is in her blood and sings in her blue rivers
Suspicion has no home in her so don’t try to begin it.

Her serpent currents run,
despite your machinations
Her dragon lines flow on,
have no room for your intentions
And those of us who love her can feel her deep heart beating
We’ll sing her on with open hearts, our voices raised in greeting.

Her warrior soul protects us all,
does not seek to turn on others
Our mother land embraces all,
Joy and freedom are our lovers

And when you think you’ve had your way
and our hearts are torn and burning
We’ll shout with voices of true power
Our land is not for turning!

(Written on Election Day, 5th May 2005)

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, 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.


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;

and Richard Mabey has written movingly of his own journey with depression in his book, 'Nature Cure'

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.


'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

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