Tuesday, 20 June 2017

Star of Bethlehem ~ For All Who Are Lost in the Dark

Star of Bethlehem at the 1,000 year church, April 2017

It's said that the Star of Bethlehem first appeared on the night of Christ's birth to guide the Wise Men, whose journey was made complicated by their maps and charts, to the child. When its work ended it burst into thousands of brilliant fragments and fell to earth. Where it came to ground a blanket of milk-white flowers grew.

Beautifully, I first discovered the existence of this lovely flower amongst a tangle of primroses, nettles, and almost-flowering bluebells, in the churchyard of the 1,000 year church where I while away many happy moments and discover many wonders. You will know that you have found Star of Bethlehem when you see a flower with six white petals surrounding six stamens, each with a yellow anther. They bloom in the spring from early March until late May or early June. The flowers open in the early morning and are usually closed by noon revealing a beautiful green stripe on their underside, hence some of their common names; sleepydick, nap-at-noon, star-at-noon, johnny-go-to-bed-at-noon, and eleven o'clock ladies. When the flowers have died a three-celled seed capsule forms containing several black seeds.

Revealing their beautiful green stripes during a noon day nap (Image: Wiki Commons)

Her genus name, 'ornithogalum', comes from the Greek words 'ornis' for 'bird' and 'gala', meaning 'milk', and was named and described by Dioscorides (40 to 90CE) in his 'De Materia Medica' due to her abundance of white flowers that 'when opened look a lot like milk'. It is less clear why Carl Linnaeus, in his 'Species Plantarum' of 1753, names her 'dove's dung', although under this name she may be mentioned in the Bible; 

'And there was a great famine in Samaria; and behold, they besieged it until an ass’s head was sold for fourscore pieces of silver, and the fourth part of a kab of dove’s dung for five pieces of silver.' (2 Kings 6:25). 

Whether the 'dove's dung' mentioned here is indeed Star of Bethlehem is unclear, but she does have the other common names of 'pigeon's dung' and 'sparrow's dung'. Alternative, perhaps more obviously lovely, names for her are starflower, summer snowflake, summer snowdrop, grass lily, and wonder flower.

As suggested by her 'grass lily' name, Star of Bethlehem is a member of the lily family, although she is often mistaken for wild garlic, especially as her bulbs resemble small onions. Her common name was once 'dog onion'. Although these bulbs are harmless in small doses they contain the toxin, colchichine, which has been used in gout medicine but can cause shortness of breath in adults if too many are ingested. Nevertheless, in the 15th Century she became associated with the journeys of pilgrims to the Holy Land, both because they found her starry flowers growing on the hills around Bethlehem and because her bulbs were sometimes used by them as emergency rations when food was scarce. Because of her association with Christ's birth she is one of the plants often planted in 'Mary Gardens' and was taken to North America by immigrants to be planted as a reminder of home. So wild has her growth been there that she is now considered an 'invasive weed', having escaped from gardens. There really is no containing a fallen star.

Credit: E. Kolmhofer, H. Raab; Johannes Kepler-Observatory, Linz  ~ hale bopp, Wiki Commons

In herbal healing she is known as the 'comforter' and is one of the plants used in Bach's Crisis Remedy for the “after-effects of shock, such as caused by unexpected bad news or any unexpected or unwelcome event. Also for shocks received many years ago, even in childhood”; perhaps she does indeed carry a spark of the perfect Christ child. Dr Edward Bach wrote of her in his 'The Twelve Healers and Other Remedies' that she was, “for those in great distress under conditions which for a time produce great unhappiness. The shock of serious news, the loss of someone dear, the fright following and accident, and such like. For those who for a time refuse to be consoled this remedy brings comfort.” Her medicine is also said to be helpful for “the sense of emptiness and loss that occurs when a loved one dies or moves away.” One practitioner describes here as the 'Guardian of Grieving'. She has been used in the treatment of those who are suffering from suicidal depression, shock, and Post Traumatic Stress Disorder, offering a light to lead the afflicted out of the darkness. Indeed, she does that work for us all, blooming at the beginning of spring and reminding us of the need to come into the light after the dark winter months. She is the way-shower, a guide for the lost, just as she guided the Wise Men through the vast silence of the desert. The former Archbishop of Canterbury, Rowan Williams, in his essay, 'The Kingdom of the Simple' in the book of his collected sermons, 'Choose Life', notes that the Wise Men were late in coming to the Christ child, having undertaken a “laborious journey, taking sights and calculating, where the shepherds ran barefoot.” It is so easy to get lost, sometimes especially if we think ourselves 'wise'.

Harper's Magazine cover, Christmas 1898 (cropped), Wiki Commons

When I learned about the meaning of my new green companion I thought I might write about how touching I found the image of the Star of Bethlehem shattering into fragments and falling to earth as flowers. I saw her then as a symbol of it being possible for us to follow diverse spiritual paths, whilst still being part of one wild and beautiful truth. This felt so personal to my own journey as I begin to again explore my childhood faith of Christianity, having for so many years followed a Goddess-centred path. The Goddess is very much still with me I hasten to add. If anything my understanding of, connection to, and love for, Her has only deepened through following this old-new thread. 

But then the world, or the one close to me at least, did seem to shatter into thousands of pieces; the terrorist attacks in Manchester, and in London at London Bridge and the Finsbury Park Mosque, the Grenfell Tower fire; so many lost, so much needing to mend, and that is without all that is unfolding in the rest of the world; in Syria, in Yemen, South Sudan, Somalia. If the world isn't shattered into a thousand sharp and ragged pieces then I have no doubt that many of us feel that our hearts are. And it feels that it is to these shattered hearts that Star of Bethlehem speaks,certainly we are badly in need of her comfort now. Much that is transpiring seems to have religion at its core, and more specifically the Abrahamic religions of the desert, together with the separation of poor from rich, the 'simple' from the 'wise' (or perhaps the 'complicated'). So much separation. We have such a drive to define ourselves by what, and who, we 'are not' and perhaps it is time for that way of being to end; not to lose our differences or our diversity; that's what makes us wonder-ful, but in understanding that differences of belief are no threat to our own; that we are all fragments of a Star of Wonder fallen to earth. In her myriad mirrored fragments, her many white petals, her brilliance of being, Star of Bethlehem reflects them all. There is no 'other', just broken parts of one great beating heart. This is perhaps why she is sometimes called the 'Reconciliation Star', the star of at-one-ment. And it does feel that there is much to reconcile, and to atone for. But we are after all literally 'made of stars'. We are more wonderful than we could ever imagine. Let's seek out the stars in ourselves, and in one another, and mend.

I will end with a poem that came as I sat down to write this. Because of recent events, and just because, I am trying to make connection with my local mosque, to offer solidarity in this difficult-to-be-different place, and tomorrow I am beginning training as a mediator for neighbours who are struggling with one another and for children who are lost in this spinning world we have created. I don't know where that will lead but I hope that Star of Bethlehem would be proud of my small offerings to the huge work of mending all that is shattered. I pray that she will be astounded by the work that we have done when she returns to open her milk-white petals next spring. 

Star of Bethlehem is tired
of dragging around the baggage
that we try to hide,
divisions that won't be reconciled,
the willful non-seeing of the so-called wise.
Wakes bright with morning,
asleep by noon,
offers guidance with maps and tea;
pours milk, leaves not bags, her best bone china
slips from her exhausted hands,
smashes into a thousand shards of stars
on her kitchen floor,
reads the auguries in their constellations.
Weeps for the weight of what she sees
swept under the carpet.

Star of Bethlehem carries diversity
as a prayer in her shopping bag,
walks with Jah, Allah, Shekinah
wearing goose feathers in her hair
in the stews of the Liberty,
Keeps a torch by the back door,
shines a light on intruders ~
Guantanamo, Yemen, Syria, the housing of the poor,
a nail bomb on Electric Avenue,
knows that she can't take much more.
No amount of bleach in her bucket
will make this pure,
No amount of soap will scrub this whole,
And her batteries are running out.
She may have to brave the dark.

Star of Bethlehem hangs her head in the churchyard
closes in on herself at shadow fall,
offers her flesh for the breaking of bread,
ties her scarf more tightly round her head.
Tuber or tumour, hate or hope.
The murder of the innocents,
child radicalised, drowned on the refugee boat,
finding belonging in the EDL,
bleeding out in the stairwell in Peckham Rye.
Herod turns his head, shuts his eyes,
she opens her petals wide.
And she is growing wild,
escaping the confines of the flower bed.
Sinking her roots into holy ground,
gathering up the pieces that she let slip,
knows it's time to get a grip.

She weeps for mercy, grieves for grace,
what we might have been, what we are.
Yet still she loves the pilgrim soul in us,
the spark that journeyed from the furthest star
and fell to earth forged in fire.
She puts the kettle on.

(Jacqueline Durban, 20th June 2017)

Star of Bethlehem at the 1,000 year church, April 2017


How 40,000 Tons of Cosmic Dust Falling to Earth Affects You and Me, Simon Worral, January 2015, National Geographic ~

'Choose Life: Christmas and Esater Sermons in Canterbury Cathedral', Rowan Williams, Bloomsbury Publishing, 2013.

Friday, 16 June 2017

The Courage of Columbines ~ What We Choose to Bring to Birth

Nathaniel Hughes, author of 'Weeds in the Heart' and teacher of Intuitive Herbalism, talks of there being many different types of herbalist; ceremonialist, healer, activist, folk/hedge~witch, wisdom~keeper, cunning woman and many more. I'm not sure which of these, if any, I am but I know that sometimes plants begin to tap at my edges asking to be heard. The cottage garden columbines are one of these. It was more than a decade ago that I dreamed that columbines, along with harebells, were one of 'my' flowers, and so for more than a decade I have neither forgotten, nor understood why. Dreams are like that, and the ways of the woven sacred can move excruciatingly slowly. That is why long dreaming winters and cups of tea were invented I imagine. It was only last week, when I went into a tiny church, St Mary Magdalene's on the North Downs not far from here, and turned their Book of Common Prayer to the 9th of June, that I discovered that I share my birthday with the Feast Day of Saint Columba, the abbot who founded the important abbey on the Isle of Iona in Scotland. Although I haven't yet found a particular connection between St Columba and the flower both their names have their roots in the Latin word for 'dove', with St Columba's original Irish Gaelic name 'Colm Cille' meaning 'church dove'. I love this tender thread that weaves my own story with the flower, the saint, and the Spirit. But, even before I discovered the thread, the columbines were calling, especially since I made friends with a little community of them in the churchyard of the 1,000 year old church where I spend much of my time.

Granny's bonnet, lion's herb, lady's shoes, dove plant, God's breath, pigeon flower, pigeon foot, sow wort ~ our native columbine, Aquilegia vulgaris, belongs to a genus of more than 65 species. Often to be found at the edges of meadows and woodlands, it may be more familiar as a resident of cottage gardens, having been cultivated and hybridised with other European, and also North American, members of the aquilegia family. They are a major food source for the garden bumblebee and also for cabbage moths, dot moths, and mouse moths, who are able to feed on many poisonous plants without harm. The genus name, 'aquilegia' comes from the Latin, 'aquila' meaning 'eagle', due to the petals being said to echo the shape of an eagle's claws. The name might also come from 'aquilegias', a 'water- collector', because of the flowers' water holding capabilities, although it feels to me that the flowers are the wrong way up for that; perhaps here there are whispers of the World Turned Upside Down

In contrast, their common name, 'columbine' comes from the Latin, 'columb' for 'dove', due to the spurs of the flower petals looking like five doves sitting together in a circle. What depth of meaning for such a fragile plant to hold, and we have hardly scratched the surface! I find it fascinating that even at this layer of meaning, in the weaving of words, columbines already present much to reflect upon with eagle/hawk and dove being the names given, most often in relation to American politics, to those who are pro or anti-war. The eagle was also a prominent symbol in ancient Rome, especially as a standard of the Roman legion, the teeth and claws of Empire; the legionary who carried it being known as the 'aquilifer', or 'eagle-bearer'. Contrast this with the common folk meaning, the 'people's' meaning, of dove, a word associated with peace and with Spirit, particularly in the Christian faith for whom the dove is one of the most beautiful symbols. Indeed, as Christianity spread into Europe the columbine became associated with the values of Faith, Hope, and Charity, and its three-part leaves became a symbol of the Trinity, with the circle of doves a symbol of the Holy Spirit. So much so that columbines were once often used to stand for Jesus in religious paintings

I like very much that the folk name of these little flowers is linked with the Trinity and with Christ, and through him to standing up to the Roman Empire by facing it with a rebellion of love and the fierce call for justice. I like to think that St Columba, whose own 'Celtic form of 'wild edge' Christianity was forced aside by Rome and it's monk, Augustine, would have approved of the columbine and of the story she carries in her petals. It should never be forgotten that the story of Jesus is grounded in this rebellion; in a refusal to submit to Empire, in siding with the poor and the outcast in the face of corporate and Imperial power, in gathering around him disciples who were not thought learned enough for other Rabbis and teachers and giving them a place in the world that is so often not there for our own young people who may become vulnerable to gang culture and radicalisation as a way to find belonging. This is the path of peace and radical love; the dove standing up against the eagle, of speaking truth to power, despite its message being taken over by Empire when it became the official religion of Rome in 312. Imperialism as an ideology is inherently anti-life, and this energy against life will corrupt, contaminate, and undermine, anything that stands against it and which has beauty in it.  It is up to us to choose where we identify, which path we take, where we will make our stand; no matter who our god/gods/no god might be. The columbine reminds us of that choice, that we have a responsibility in what we bring to birth. This is a rebellion of petals, a revolution of feathers. 

In a piece of wild synchronicity, which so often occurs when I sit down to write pieces such as this, I discovered that to the indigenous First Nations people of Canada the eagle has quite a different meaning. Rev. Cannon Ginny Doctor, Coordinator of the Indigenous Ministries for the Anglican Church of Canada and member of the Mohawk Nation, Turtle Clan, writes that for her people, the eagle is a bird of peace. When The Peacemaker came to unify the nations, he travelled the land spreading the need for understanding. At each place he would plant a Tree of Peace and place an eagle on top to watch over the people and warn them if the roots of the tree were being disturbed by disagreement amongst them. The indigenous people, the people of the land, make the eagle a bird of peace, where Empire makes it a bird of war and domination. It is up to us what meaning we choose, whether we will stand with the people of the land, with deep myth and meaning, or with that which seeks to subvert both. It isn't easy to speak out against power, to “fight colonialism with a colonised tongue” (Akala). We might feel that it is impossible, but perhaps by rooting ourselves in the Tree of Peace and the wisdom of the columbine and all our green allies we can be rooted enough to begin to choose what we bring to birth, knowing that it is our birthright, our earthright. We think that we are alone but we're not; we live in a wild web of relationship and belief in the good, in the rightness of Life. And Life wants to live.

And these little flowers, these columbines, do have much to share about that choice. Although they are rarely used in healing in modern times due to their supposed toxicity, their leaves were traditionally used to make lotions for sore mouths and throats (helpful in speaking out!) and in Spain people who were troubled by kidney stones were advised to chew a piece of columbine root in the mornings. The idea that columbines are poisonous seems to come from Charles-Ernest Cornevin, who in his 1893 book 'Des plantes vénéneuses et des empoisonnements qu’elles déterminent' (Poisonous Plants and the Poisonings they Cause), said that it contains aconitine, possibly because it is in the same plant family as one of the most poisonous garden plants, aconitum. However, there is so scientific evidence that this is the case and indeed there are no recorded cases of harm caused by columbines. Interesting then that it should be given such a reputation. And then, what of choice and what we might 'bring to birth'?

Culpepper's 'Complete Herbal' of 1649 says that the seeds of columbine, which are just appearing now all across our land, “causeth a speedy delivery of women in childbirth” when taken with wine. In contrast, the fabulous 'Poison Garden' website says that the 'wise woman' of the village would use columbine to bring on abortion as a community service, 'the best known reference to it coming in Thomas Johnson’s 1633 revision of John Gerard’s ‘Herbal’ where he says that Clusius, the 16th century Flemish botanist, reports its use by Dr Francis Rapard to facilitate labour when the seeds are crushed and mixed with wine. It was thought to be widely used as a home remedy.' Plants, such as birthwort for example, which would aid childbirth are also likely to cause an abortion if used at an earlier stage of pregnancy, and so it is with columbine. There was a time when the green beings around us offered us the right to choose. Now of course we live in very different times, cut off from the earth and all that she offers us, and so the columbine's message of choice becomes more and more urgent, especially now.

Here in the UK, our Government, in the wake of a disastrous General Election result, are seeking to form a loose coalition with Northern Ireland's Democratic Unionist Party, founded by fundamentalist Protestant leader Ian Paisley in the 1970s. I stand in profound disagreement with the views of both parties, but at the time when the columbines in the 1,000 year churchyard are going to seed and revealing their deepest medicine, it is the DUP's attitude to abortion rights that is uppermost in my mind. As I write, the UK Supreme Court has rejected an appeal by a mother and daughter who have been involved in a legal battle for women from Northern Ireland to be offered free abortions in England on the NHS. In Northern Ireland terminations are only available if a woman's life is at risk, or if there is a possibility of permanent damage to her mental or physical health. Rape, incest, and fatal foetal abnormalities are not considered reasons for legal abortion to be offered. Many women, more than 700 in 2016, travel to England at great expense to access private abortions. Those who can raise the money often endure travelling alone, overnight by boat if they can't afford air travel, to a place that they have never been. One 28-year-old said, a lot of bad things have happened to me in my life, but this has been the worst.” In order to save for the journey she had to cut down on food for her family, including her two young children, and stop heating her house. 

Other women, financially or otherwise unable to travel, buy abortion tablets on line and receive them through the post. It is unknown how many this applies to, although the Dutch charities Women on Web and Women Help Women, who are able to provide women with abortion pills by post, receive around 3,000 requests for advice and help from women in Ireland and Northern Ireland each year. In 2016 1,200 parcels containing such pills were seized by Irish customs who investigate all 'suspicious' packages. A woman in Northern Ireland is currently being prosecuted for helping her 15-year-old daughter procure abortion pills and last year a woman was prosecuted for taking them, having been reported by her flatmates. In Northern Ireland, which has the harshest penalty for abortion of any country in Europe, women who have illegal abortions, and anyone found to have helped them, risk life imprisonment. 

The Abortion Support Network, a charity which offers financial support to Irish women who need to travel to England to access their abortion rights, have said that, “We've heard time and time again from women forced by the despair induced by a combination of poverty and draconian abortion laws who have taken matters into their own hands – by ingesting chemicals, by overdosing on medications, by drinking excessively, by literally throwing themselves down stairs to try and induce miscarriage.” Pregnancy counsellors in Northern Ireland have been known to hand out 'information' booklets warning of “a 72% higher risk of rectal and colon cancer among women who have had abortions and a 50% greater risk of breast cancer”, also suggesting that, “a woman who has had one may be more prone to seizures, tremors, comas, frigidity and committing child abuse.” Amnesty International has called upon the UK Government to urgently push for abortion reform in Northern Ireland. This coalition will of course make that less likely and Owen Paterson, the former Northern Ireland secretary, has suggested that there may be a parliamentary debate on further reducing abortion time limits during the next few years. As things are a climate of fear has been created with many women unwilling to speak even to their close friends for fear of being reported; turning woman against woman, dividing us, forcing a climate of silence and unspoken pain and grief. One woman who, unable to afford a trip to England, was forced to go through abortion alone and terrified of being reported said, I feel am being punished for being poor. If I had had money, I would have gone to a clinic, met a nurse, heard from her that everything was going to be OK.” She eventually went to her GP for a check-up two months later and told her that she had had a miscarriage. 

This is far from the wisdom and choice offered to us by our sister-ally, the columbine; our gentle dove, our wise-woman granny's bonnet, with her offering of wild plant medicine to hold our young women in their journeys. I stand with them against a coalition that would deny women the choice to choose what we bring to birth. Judy Griffin in her book, 'Flowers That Heal', says that columbine “enhances the ability to think and act independently of others”, to “drop the role that others have made for us”, and to claiming our autonomy. I stand with the columbine in holding the roots of wild earth wisdom and the liberation of heart and body.

And yet, this feels in so many ways overwhelming. All these things are happening far from me and my little community of columbines in the 1,000 year churchyard. Can the columbine help us to find the courage to raise our voices loud enough to be heard? Marvellously, we have not yet reached the end of our exploration. There is one more piece of folklore that might help us to choose the wilder path and a clue is found in one of the columbine's common names; lion's herb. In medieval times, it was believed that lions ate columbines in the spring to give them strength and so that rubbing the flowers on one's hands would bestow the 'courage of lions'. I think that we might well need that in the days and months to come. It really is time for a rebellion of petals, a revolution of feathers; for the eagle, for the dove, for the columbine, and for us all; it's time to choose what we bring to birth. And perhaps consider too that, although our green companions have much to teach us, it's we who give them their meanings. These are our stories of rebellion, of wild courage, which we have hidden safely in their petals, just as our far off ancestors buried their own treasures in the earth when invaders came. It's not the columbine that allows us to choose. She brings a reminder but the choice has always been ours. We don't need to wait until her flowers come next spring. We have always had the courage of lions. It has always been us, and it's time to roar!

Columbine; looking like a tiny lion

(Disclaimer: please don't take wild medicine, such as the columbine, without the advice of a qualified herbalist. In the case of the columbine, most of us no longer have the wisdom to know what amounts are safe for us to take. Until we claim back our wisdom, let's allow the earth to hold us as safely as she can and respect our not knowing)


On columbines ~






'Flowers That Heal', Griffin, Judy, Paraview Press, 2002.

Other references ~



Thursday, 8 June 2017

This is Still OUR Land ~ for Election Day and every day

(Denton, Kent, 4th June 2017)

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!

(Jacqueline Durban, Election Day, 5th May 2005 and again and again and again)

(Southwark, July 2016)