Sunday, 15 January 2017

Everyday Enchantment ~ Ivy Magic and the Blessing of Hot Baths

A universe of ivy, November 2015

Today has already brought many blessings. The first was allowing myself a long lie in with my new husband sleeping softly beside me. The second was getting cold and damp when I went into our garden to feed the birds, which is one of my favourite moments of the day. I enjoy ritual that is lightly-held and my current morning observance is to first take seed and water, sometimes an apple or some cheese, to the waiting doves in the garden. The starlings are always waiting too but prefer to be clandestine about it. It feels both tender and important to feed the birds first thing on winter mornings, whilst I wait for the kettle to boil. Whereas in the summer and autumn they might visit the bird feeder briefly and then fly to richer spoils elsewhere, in the winter months they tend to gather; doves, starlings, blue tits, wood pigeons, magpies, jackdaws, sometimes a red-belied woodpecker or a wren, in our cherry trees and look for all the world like a 'Council of Birds' discussing the merits, or otherwise, of the day's offerings. If there have been none until lunchtime I feel chastened. I would much rather feed the birds first thing and not feel the weight of their disapproval. And I do so love the featherkin and take joy in the connection.

Yesterday, I had occasion to visit a large supermarket, which I dislike doing, and noticed that a starling was trapped inside, flying from one side of the cavernous store in a panic of wings. I raised this with the staff there who told the 'kindest thing' was to kill it, as it was scared and would also set off their security alarms during the night. I felt that death would not be the 'kindest thing' and told them so. They were unhelpful and I spent the part of the evening contacting the RSPCA, RSPB, and the supermarket's head office. I am hoping that the starling has now been safely rescued. I hope. And yet in those moments in the supermarket I felt the tiny beating heart of the star-feathered starling as though it were my own and felt as taut as a fiddle string all that evening. I feel trapped in supermarkets too. I had gone there to buy honey, and yet I am old enough to remember when me and my mum went to buy honey from a bee-keeper or a cart by the side of the road laden with eggs, fresh vegetables, honey, and sometimes cut flowers. with an 'honesty tin' for the money. It is still like that on many canals I am happy to say. Writing this now, I remember when my mother, brother, and I would cycle, what seemed like miles to my small legs, to buy potatoes from a house along a sandy lane. I found the lack of tarmac fascinating! Perhaps those of us who are now in our fifties and older are the last ones who will remember such ways of being. I understand about feeling trapped in a life that is unfamiliar, and so I hope for the liberation of that little bird.

And so this morning I began my Sunday by getting cold and damp, which leads me to the third blessing; that of hot bath water. I love baths. One of the things that made me reticent to move here was that, even though there is a bath, baths were not had due to strange creakings and bangings in the walls when the bath was filled, as though one might fall into the kitchen which I was reticent to do. Since then that particular situation has resolved itself and I have enjoyed many baths. That was until the water upstairs in our little hedge~hermitage became no longer hot enough for baths; something about water pressure. I have taken to having unsatisfactory showers and immersing myself in the brightness and warmth of candle flames instead. And yet, this morning, hot water! And so, I have had the most wonderfully hot bath, which has warmed me through from the cold and damp ~ and all the better for the contrast between the two.

Whilst in the bath I indulged in my current winter reading; Kathleen Jamie's, 'Findings'. Her writing is so hauntingly beautiful in its simplicity and, no doubt deceptive, ease. I was left feeling that my own writing, and possibly entire life, is fashioned by someone who has much in common with a web-spinning caffeine-soaked house spider. It is both a benediction and a challenge to be reminded so and I have breathed deeply before writing this in an effort to clear my mind of all thoughts of conveying a dozen ideas in a single sentence.

Today, 'Findings' has brought me to tears twice. Once through the description of the beleaguered corncrake, forced by modern farming techniques into its final stronghold in the Hebrides having been present in every county from Cornwall to Shetland less than a century ago as, 'little gods of the fields', “standing chins up, open-beaked, like votive statues hidden in the grass.” (1, p.98) John Clare wrote of corncrakes and would have grieved at their passing. I think that he would have liked the description of them as 'little gods'. This combination of John Clare and the holiness of small brown birds was more than enough to cause tears. The second passage that touched me was Jamie's description of the art of observing and seeing as a “kind of prayer. The care and maintenance of the web of our noticing, the paying heed.” (1, p.109) Like Jamie, I don't pray, in the accepted definition of the term at least, but I do try to be 'prayerful', to make every moment a prayer and a communion with what is sacred. And what is sacred is everything ~ the sun on the sea, a gossamer strand on a hawthorn hedge, a chance meeting with a kindred spirit who was a stranger only a moment before, rot on an apple, a wasp's sting, rust, love ~ all are a prayer. And one of my favourite prayers in winter is the wild and tangled life of the British native evergreen, hedera helix ~ ivy.

My copy of 'The Gardener's Book of Weeds' by Mea Allan, which I found in a skip in Deptford ~ pleasingly fallow and fitting ground to find a book on weeds I thought ~ describes ivy as both 'bad' and 'for burning'. She writes of her father buying a garden, together with 'an incidental cottage', and of attempting to rid the long unused garden of weeds, especially of ivy. “The apex of the long triangular garden, a dense shade under Holm Oaks, was carpeted thick with it, and hardly a tree had escaped its embrace. Shifted on a pitch-fork, pile by pile as we tore it down, the bonfire crackled like a merry Guy Fawkes Night.” (2, p.10) She goes on to say that, “Its method of climbing is by aerial roots which find their way into cracks and can be a menace in eating into the mortar of old walls, the weight of its foliage and branches eventually causing their destruction. On the ground its dense growth of impermeable leaves will prevent rain from seeping down into the soil.” (2, p.10) Poor, poor ivy. I have so rarely heard a good word said about it, and have often heard it spoken about with much vitriol, and yet it is such a blessing to the autumn and winter earth. And even its 'destruction' of walls has been disputed in a study by English Heritage who found that, although it might exploit already present holes and cracks, it won't make new ones and will form a 'thermal blanket', regulating moisture and absorbing damaging pollutants (5). Even Mea Allan, who is not truly a hater of weeds but is really not keen on ivy, goes on to grudgingly celebrate that it can be useful in bringing shady corners to life and providing a “substantial windbreak and nesting places for birds, your allies in helping to keep down insect pests.” I look forward to a day when something of nature is valued in and for itself, rather than for the benefit that it might provide to us, but this is something. Even ivy is not all 'bad'.

Far from being 'bad' at all, ivy is a wonder and full of dark and tangled enchantments, which we all need if our hearts are to stay wild and our eyes bright. It would be a sad thing indeed if life became too obvious. Its tenacity is a symbol of survival and determination, of the ability to endure, to tolerate deeply unpromising conditions, and for the benefit of accepting support, all much needed in these austere and worrying days. Far from the popular misconception, also often laid at the feet of the poorest in our society, it isn't a parasite. Rather, it knows how to 'lean', how to embrace, entwine, mutually strengthen, and, if it does appear to pull down, then it is only revealing an inherent weakness not creating the weakness itself. Like us, it returns even if damaged or generally foolhardy attempts have been made to restrict its increase.

Its heart-shaped leaves speak of love, constancy, and protection, an old British name for the plant being 'Lovestone'. Its spiral growth, linked to star constellations and ever-flowing life-force, provides shelter and hibernation space, food, and a pollen source for a wide range of birds, animals, and insects ~ notably food for the caterpillars of holly blue and red admiral butterflies and double-striped pug, swallow-tailed, and yellow-barred brindle moths, together with winter shelter for butterflies such as small tortoiseshell, peacock, painted lady, comma, and brimstone (5). Even their names are a poem and a prayer. In the autumn the adult plants, which can be identified by their less-lobed leaves, produce flowers at a time when flowers are so scarce, to the benefit of wasps, flies, hoverflies, bees, bumblebees, butterflies, and the beautiful ivy bee, colletes hederae, which appears in synchronicity with the growth of ivy and relies almost specifically on its tiny blooms. Indeed, I spent many happy hours last autumn entranced and as delighted as a child in the good company of roadside ivy and surrounded by clouds of butterflies and bees. All the photos here were taken during those times of ivy~bliss. I was often much later home than I had intended. I didn't care. My friend, Colin the Bee-keeper, told me that honey made from ivy-pollen is horrible to eat, and that made me smile although I still long to taste some, just to see.

September 2016 ~ what lovely pollen pantaloons!

When the flowers have ended, green and then black berries appear ~ unobtrusive, calorie rich, often over-looked, and offering a much needed larder for song thrush, mistle thrush, redwing, blackbird, robin, and blackcap, at a time when the brazen berries of hawthorn and rowan are long gone. It matters that the berries appear in November and yet are often not eaten until the depths of winter cold. They are saved, they are needed, and they are special. Like fairytales for our spirit, they are a store of sustenance, this time for the bodies of our feathered kin. There is no rush to consume them. They have been there forever and will be there when needed, unless they are tamed or burned. I can not imagine that happening to either; both are far too subversive for that.

January 2017

The folklore of ivy is rich and ancient, both in this land and in others. In Ancient Rome it was considered a symbol of intellectual achievement and Druids too were said to wrap ivy around their heads to represent clarity of thought. An interesting paradox perhaps when the plant is also, being sacred to the notoriously wild-living gods Dionysus and Bacchus, associated with over-indulgence and intoxication. Perhaps, rather than dry intellect in the form of logic, it brings the intoxication of creative inspiration. Its leaves did after all once form the poet's crown ~ a different sort of 'intellect', a different realm of thought. In writing this I can well see why ivy has become equated with intoxication and madness. My mind, like an ivy helix, has become entwined and attached to so many thoughts and memories; of moments in the wilderness, of bees and summer bliss, of loved ones who have died, the urgency of finding the right words, the sinking into darkness and despair; all have tendrils entwined with the folkloric and metaphoric magic of ivy.

Returning to drunkenness; in Europe an 'alepole', a branch covered in ivy leaves, revealed the presence of a public house selling wine with early herbalists believing ivy to be cure for drunkenness and drinking from an ivy wood bowl to relieve the effects of bad wine. Culpeper states that, “it is an enemy to the nerves and sinews, being much taken inwardly, but very helpful to them when outwardly applied.”(4, p. 104) He recommends the flowers, leaves, and berries being taken, often in red wine, as a cure for anything from the plague to a stitch. He also recommends and decoction of the leaves mixed with rosewater and Oil of Roses as a cure for obstinate headaches when applied to the temples. These days the internal use of ivy is not recommended, as much of the plant is toxic, but the leaves can be helpful when applied as a poultice to ulcers, boils, and abscesses. Always ivy likes to involve herself with the places that many of us shy away from, the places where we might fester, fall, or fail.

Wasp on ivy, September 2016

As for the Greek god, Dionysus, so woven in with ivy; he was said to represent the juice of life, the sap-blood in nature, just as ivy provides through the winter, and so lavish 'orgias', no doubt involving much drunkenness, were held in his honour. Interestingly these were popular amongst women and were disliked by men, who often tried to spy on their activities. There is something so intrinsically of the wild feminine in these unboundaried territories, just as there is in the dark, disordered depths of ivy bushes; ivy being so often linked with femininity ~ the 'Ivy Queen' with her brazenly-berried 'Holly King' (although of course it is the female holly bushes who bear the berries). English professor and collector of carols, Edith Rickert (1871 – 1938), says that holly and ivy carols, dating from the 1400s and earlier, often contain debates about the relative merits of men and women, with holly generally being thought superior! (9) In Athens, against their husbands' resistance, female followers of Dionysus took to the hills wearing fawn skins and ivy crowns and danced by torchlight to the pipe and drum (21). There is something of madness, of lunacy, in the feminine and in the dark twining of her ivy sister. Walter Friedrich Otto writes that, the god-intoxicated celebrants draw milk and honey from the streams. They strike rocks with the thyrsus, and water gushes forth. They lower the thyrsus to the earth, and a spring of wine bubbles up. If they want milk, they scratch up the ground with their fingers and draw up the milky fluid. Honey trickles down from the thyrsus made of the wood of the ivy, they gird themselves with snakes and give suck to fawns and wolf cubs as if they were infants at the breast. Fire does not burn them. No weapon of iron can wound them, and the snakes harmlessly lick up the sweat from their heated cheeks. Fierce bulls fall to the ground, victims to numberless, tearing female hands, and sturdy trees are torn up by the roots with their combined efforts(24), a similar accusation to that levelled at ivy herself! The female, the snake, and the ivy; all complicit in destroying the Garden, or some would say in bringing it truly to life.

That ivy is particularly bound up with Woman is also found in our own folklore. In some places, the last sheaf of the harvest was gathered up, bound with ivy, and this 'Ivy Girl' would be kept over the winter to ensure prosperous growth in the coming year. It is also said to be a bringer of good luck, particularly for women, and a girl carrying ivy in her pockets was likely to soon come upon the man who was destined to become her husband, or dream of him if ivy were placed under her pillow. Both these things seem to be said of so many plants that I imagine young women walked around looking like hedges! Nevertheless, ivy magic is so profoundly enmeshed with that of love. In some versions of the ancient tale of 'Tristan and Iseult', which became popular in the Twelfth Century, the lovers die and an ivy vine grows from each of their graves, inching across the soil one towards the other, until they twine together. These tendrils are repeatedly cut but always regrow and reconnect; a powerful symbol of love even in death.

This depth and antiquity of meaning makes it even more shocking that 'ivy' is one of the words now removed from 'The Oxford Junior Dictionary', along with catkin, brook, acorn, buttercup, blackberry, cowslip, cygnet, conker, holly, and mistletoe (3, p.106), as 'no longer holding any relevance for modern childhood'. So many seemingly evergreen words of wonder and connection lost to our children, unless we cast our own enchantment over them. As Sara Maitland writes in 'Gossip from the Forest', these words, like fairy stories, belong to an 'older forest'. Ivy and fairytales have a lot in common; both are “magical and generous and dark and terrible”(3, p.106), or should be. Ivy, the creator and destroyer, supposed puller down of walls and trees and haven for delicate wings and hungry mouths, shelterer of the vulnerable and the outcast, the dark goddess made evergreen and womb of life in the bleak of winter white. If we let her she can re-enchant the wayside world, and us with it.

And one last aside, an extra blessing for my day, is the memory of my dad telling me the tale of the time that he and his friend, Stan Satch, put a worm down the back of their friend, Ivy's dress at school. I imagine that they had no idea what they were tangling with!


1) 'Findings', Kathleen Jamie, Sort of Books, 2005.

2) 'The Gardener's Book of Weeds', Mea Allan, Macdonald and Jane's, London, 1978.

3) 'Gossip from the Forest: the Tangled Roots of Our Forests and Fairytales', Sara Maitland, Granta, 2012.

4) 'Culpeper's Colour Herbal', ed. David Potterton, W. Foulsham & Company Limited, 1983.

1 comment:

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