Saturday, 4 April 2020

The Blessings on our Doorsteps & Dying Alone in the Time of Corona



Hello dear readers. I hope that you, and those you love, are well in these extraordinary times. This is just a small sharing before I write more in the weeks to come, especially as we move into the strangest of Holy Weeks & Eastertide. For now, we are continuing our forty days & nights in the wilderness, which has seemed so deeply apt this year. But, of course, it is a wilderness whose blessings we have unlearned how to see.

We are well here in our self-isolation and I have been enjoying many heart-opening walks, during which I have foraged for wild medicine. I have bern hugely drawn to nettles, who I am finding more and more ways to incorporate into my diet, and also to cleavers spring tonic, of which more soon. Today, I have heard that it's going to be beautifully sunny for many of us and so I am hoping to go for a little walk to the woods to see if I can find wild garlic. These are blessed times in so many ways.

But I wanted to write a little about another nearby plant and all that her presence and recent flowering has led me to reflect upon.

The plant pictured above is beautiful herb-Robert, also known as red robin, fox geranium, & stinking Bob, amongst many other names, who has come into flower just by our front door.  She has so many wonderful edible and medicinal qualities that I'm quite determined to write a longer blog about her soon. But what her presence makes me think about today is how supported we are by the other-than-human world, and otherworld, that surrounds us.

Aside from herb-Robert, on one side of our front door we have cleavers and, on the other side, nettles. All either support our immune systems, or are, like herb-Robert, actively anti-viral. I feel better, and more protected, just by knowing that they're there but I fully intend to add herb-Robert into my daily medicine taking practice; not because of what I hope to gain, but because its presence by our door feels like an invitation to relationship.




Over recent weeks it has become more clear that so many of us feel deeply, achingly, alone and unsupported; this is why swathes of us immediately took to stockpiling when Covid-19 first came to our shores. It's why so many insist on going out to get-things-done, even though they would be better staying at home and asking for help. And it is making our mourning even more painful to think that our loved ones, or anyone, has died 'alone' in a hospital bed.

This wound is deep; borne partly of the human condition; that feeling of separation that so rarely leaves us. But it has also been nurtured in us through many years of the deliberate erosion of community, and also our disconnection from sister death, our loss of relationship. No wonder that we panic so. We just don't trust Life. If only we were able to look just outside our front doors, or in the cracks in the pavements we walk every day, or in so many places that are so familiar that we look but rarely see. We are surrounded by friends. We are never without good company or support for the journey, and that feels to be especially true now.




But, today, I especially want to say something about dying alone, as we come to a time when some of us and some of those we love may fall to the coronavirus. It is indeed a terrible thing to contemplate dying without the surrounding presence of those who love us. Particularly in this country, we are very used to that being possible, although we might also breathe deeply into the fact that many choose to die when their loved ones have slipped out of the room, and that our animal kin will often take themselves away to wait for their final heartbeat.

To die is a solitary activity, but we are never alone in it. Sister death is with us, our ancestors are there to hold out a hand, our God. I know in my bones that many beings of good intent will show us the way.

When my dear, beloved dad died I was the only one who was with him; it was a privilege, the holy of holies, but I didn't feel that it was my presence that made him not alone. He was so busy with what he had to do; he moved his hands in the air in ways that I later discovered mirrored the movements he made at work when using his lathe, every now and then he would reach up as though picking an apple and then hold the prized fruit to his lips with great pleasure. When he had been struggling, for what seemed like forever, to let go of this wordly life, I prayed for his mum to come and show him the way. And I swear that he took three more deep breaths and died. It was the most beautiful moment of my life and it mattered that I was there as a witness but no, it wasn't my presence that made him not alone. Far from it.

And yes, it must be frightening and heatbreaking to be in hospital ill and dying and not to be abe to have visitors, and the greatest of tragedies for loved ones not to be able to hold a hand one last time before death comes. But we are never, ever alone and no one dies alone. The herb-Robert, the cleavers, and the nettles by my door tell me that. My dad taught me.

Be of good heart, beloved friends. We are held in this world, the next, and the places in between. We could not be more blessed.





Thursday, 13 February 2020

Raising End of Winter Spirits ~ Making Gin Alexanders

Foraging basket with Alexanders

I have dipped one toe into my first gentle forage of the year; gathering Alexanders leaves from the hedgehermitage garden to make a flavoured gin; so easy that even I can emerge from my end of winter nesting to make it happen.

Foraging is perhaps my favourite thing to do; it is mindful, creative, it helps me care for my body (both because it involves walking & because it offers me healthy things to eat), but most of all because it creates a relationship & an intimacy with the land and the plant people, especially those close to home.

But I must admit that part of me resists foraging at all because, once I put my foot on the helter skelter ride of gathering, time becomes a different thing. I am a terrible procrastinator but there is very little room for doing-it-tomorrow with plants. They move so quickly from one stage to another that the prized petal, leaf, seed, or berry, can be gone before I've even picked up my foraging basket. So much longing waiting for their return, so much sitting with patience waiting for the right time, and then whoosh and they're gone! It really gets me in touch with what's real, and with what endures for all its ephemeral cycles.

There have been years when I've missed the spring cleavers, most of the nettle seeds, the rowan berries, & I dream of them all winter and still regret not being braver, or more present, or less world weary. But, when it works, it is also precious to live by something other than chronos, the worldly time of clocks & four walls; to step into the flow of kairos, the sacred time of sunlight, moon cycles, seasons, & the ebb & flow of growth. To be swept along by the generous tide of green is a gift to be cherished.

Alexanders, also known as black lovage, wild celery, & horse parsley, are almost ever-present in our garden but they are particularly lovely in the spring when their young leaves are pulsating with new growth and, a little later, when their green-gold flower heads are beginning to open. I also love them in the winter when they turn to dry stalks topped with shiny black seed heads.

Alexanders seedheads
They look beautiful and the tiny birds love to use them as perches. They are all leaves at the moment though and have almost entirely obliterated our garden bench!


The Romans called this stately green being 'Parsley of Alexandria' & introduced it to Britain as a pot-herb where it has thrived, particularly on the coast, which is why we have so many here. Although it was brought here primarily as food (its flowers can be steamed or eaten raw in salads, & its sprouts, buds, & tops  blanched all year round, together with its spring stalks, its black seeds can be ground & used like pepper) it has been used as medicine since ancient times & was eventually planted in medieval infirmary gardens. It can still be found growing in monastic ruins. Originally, it is native to wild Macedonia, the birth place of Alexander the Great.

A possible over-abundance of Alexanders
in the hedgehermitage garden 

As a medicinal herb the juice of Alexanders' roots & seeds have been used on cuts & wounds, & its bruised leaves used to stop bleeding. Its seeds soaked in wine were used to stimulate menstrual bleeding, & its leaves eaten against scurvy. The leaves were also said to 'sharpen the appetite'. That it helped with digestion was one reason for its inclusion, with nettles & watercress, in 'Lenten pottage', a gruel eaten in Ireland during Lent up until the 18th C, which was believed to ease the 'viscous humours' gathered in the stomach through the over-consumption of fish.


And so I pottered with my basket in the garden collecting Alexanders; they are wild & so to me that definitely counts as foraging. And we have SO many this year that gathering some feels essential! It is important though to be sure of identifying Alexanders correctly, as they are a member of the Umbellifer family which includes the highly poisonous Hemlock Water-Dropwort, although that is always found growing close to water. But there are others, like Hemlock, which it might be confused with. As I say, foraging builds relationship and the deeper that relationship is the better our ability to identify plants from their sisters.

Gathering these Alexanders I had to be particularly mindful as this year many of the plants have rust fungus (Alexanders rust, Puccinia smyrnii), which I celebrate as a being but don't really want in my gin.

Alexanders rust fungus




I was pleased with the leaves I did find though, & I feel more connected to the garden after the long winter months.


Having gathered the leaves, I carefully checked & washed them before slightly crushing the stalks (a bit of guesswork there but they smell lovely).


I then packed them loosely into a mason jar which I topped up with gin. You can also add sugar for sweetness at this point but I felt that I wanted to keep the pure flavour of the Alexanders as we move into spring. I'll leave them for three weeks or so & then strain them. I'm hoping that it will make a delicious spring tipple. So exciting!



Solid Dennis helped with my Alexanders gin making too, although to be honest his attention span wasn't all that...



To read more about Alexanders & using them to flavour gin pop to these links:

https://www.wildfooduk.com/edible-wild-plants/alexanders/

https://www.edenproject.com/learn/for-everyone/edible-wild-food-alexanders

https://www.google.com/amp/s/amp.theguardian.com/lifeandstyle/wordofmouth/2011/dec/07/how-to-make-gin-alexanders


Sunday, 9 February 2020

To Make a Snowdrop Pilgrimage


This week I made my annual snowdrop pilgrimage; my fourth, to the Church of St Mary Magdalene on the North Downs, having been told about it by my church friend Audrey. She is almost 90 now & too frail to make her way there so I always make sure to think of her when I go.

The snowdrop church is in the village of Denton, halfway between Folkestone & Canterbury. The church & the village are mentioned in the Domesday Book. Denton is tiny, just a few houses with a population of less than 200. There are no shops now but there are traces of what once was in 'Bakery Cottage' & 'Dairy Farmhouse', & they have a fox weathervane.


Sadly a major A road goes right through it, which can be rather frightening, but you can still feel the presence of an ancient community there. They have a big village hall, a bus stop filled with local notices, & with a wooden plaque which proudly declares that Denton was named 'best kept village' in 1958. It is all rather lovely.

Lavender Cottage

I felt slightly nervous as, knowing that we were going to have a storm this weekend, I decided to go to the church a week or so earlier than usual & feared that the snowdrops might not yet be out, but I needn't have worried as I soon found a beautiful clump of snowdrops by a village bench.


I must admit to feeling rather reassured by how few wildflowers were flowering in the village. It is lovely to see them but so often these days they seem so very out of season, although I celebrate their opportunism & the blessing they provide for early foraging bees. This week though all I found was red deadnettle, groundsel, a few already opened daffodils, a clump of candlemas bells, crocuses, lesser celandines, the glossy leaves of cuckoo-pint, & of course the snowdrops. All seemed perfectly as it should be. It was deeply soothing.

Red Deadnettle 
Groundsel
And Denton does seem slightly obsessed with foxes! They have a fox weathervane on the tiny village green, a fox statue on the roof of the pub, & two fox heads gaze out from the roof of the gate lodge at the turning to the church. If the word Imbolc does mean 'in the belly' then it not only refers to pregnant ewes but also to foxes, who will soon be giving birth to their cubs. So much is held in perfect grace in the belly of the year as the season turns.

On we go!


Denton's church was built in the 13th Century, with probable Saxon foundations, & is dedicated to St Mary Magdalene. To reach it you have to walk part of the way down the drive of the manor house & then across the fields.



Imagine how many people have walked this way over the church's 800 year history, & still do. It moves me every time I go there. I can almost see wedding & funeral processions making their way across the fields, Easter bonnets & Christmas candles.


Even if we don't practice this particular religion, these ancient places hold us in a web of familiarity & belonging that it is impossible to overestimate. These are the threads & the stars we navigate by, echoed in the design of the starry church gate. These are the places where our ancestors walked.


But the snowdrops were what I had come for. Such symbols of coming spring & fragile~strong saints of hope. Legend says that they were Eve's favourite flower, having been breathed into life from a snowflake by an angel when Eve thought that her first winter after leaving Eden would never end.

And the snowdrops were beautiful. It seemed that there were fewer than in previous years; snowdrops thrive after a cold winter & this one has been warm, but still a delicate white-petalled tide was washing across the graveyard and was shimmering in the pale winter sun.






Many of the crocuses weren't yet out, & the primroses were all leaves & no buds, although I have seen both here by the sea in increasing profusion. It can be colder on the top of the chalk hills. Things are different there.

But I did find the first traces of open blossom, & felt that I could trace the path of the elusive winter sun & its blanketing cloud and shadow, which had allowed the light to kiss the trees but not quite reach the earth; not yet.


The first Cherry Plum blossom


I do so love these edge-of-spring sunshine days, & where better to spend them than surrounded by bare winter fields in a little country churchyard awash with snowdrops, the first crocuses and cherry plum blossoms, glossy cuckoo-pint, & the feeling of Life on the rise? I felt blessed by the opportunity.


Crocuses

Crocuses 

Cuckoo-pint leaves

And I even found one little Lesser Celandine shining brightly amongst the dead leaves.

Lesser Celandine

I love too the feeling of ever-growing relationship with a patch of land. This place speaks to me in the most subtle of ways & I know that I haven't yet begun to even scratch the surface of the poetry and prayer it holds. I hope that, in time, it will open to me. I know that once it entrusted me with a recently dead mistlethrush, who I took time to lay to rest in my favourite corner of the churchyard & to scatter with flowers. I felt that to be invited into the dreaming of the land's dead was a privilege ~ a first glimpse under the surface of the everyday. Secret intimacies.





I am thinking of travelling to the churchyard once every month to record a year of its changes. Like all relationships, coming to know the land takes time and effort.

Going into the Magdalene church, which was surrounded by a fairy ring of spring flowers, there are many examples of medieval graffiti carved in the moon-milk stone around the door. 




These are prayers, demon traps, crosses, charms, & sometimes curses. The lost voices and concerns of the ordinary people who walked this way. I find them fascinating and touching too. Inside the church is tiny, dark, damp, but peaceful beneath the yew trees.




Such a blessing that it's open all the time, with several services each month. The foundations of the church are Saxon. There is one tiny piece of medieval stained glass, depicting the head of Christ. So beautiful. So very old.

Medieval stained glass, Denton church

 Sometimes the church is filled with light and colour, cast from the stained glass windows. On this day it was gloomy inside but each window ledge had on it a bunch of bright daffodils in a vase and there were t-light holders everywhere. It was clear that there had been recent candlelit services, which would be so beautiful in such an intimate little church.

As ever, it was a joy to spend time at the Magdalene church, and I did so love the snowdrops.




They are the most meaningful of flowers; not native wildflowers at all but garden escapees first introduced to the British Isles in the 16th Century and not recorded as naturalised until 1770. And yet we have embraced these tenacious little flowers as our own in a way that we have not found ourselves able to do with other non-natives, whether plant, animal, or human. Certainly it will become more and more important to explore the shadows in the depths of our collective psyche in the months and years to come. It has been suggested that the mysterious magical herb 'moly', which appears in Homer's Odyssey, is a snowdrop. It is this herb that helps to combat Circe's poison. Perhaps the snowdrop sea that's washing across our land in these first post-Brexit weeks will combat some of our own. I am a great believer in right-timing and I have no doubt that Brexit's Imbolc Eve date happened in order to help us find the medicine to alleviate its worst manifestations.

In other lighter news, I discovered yesterday that there is a species of snowdrop called a 'Tubby Merlin', & that if nothing else is reason enough to seek them out. I will look forward to making my pilgrimage to them next year.