Thursday, 13 October 2016

'October's the month for storage' - an autumn ramble.

You do not have to be good.
You do not have to walk on your knees
for a hundred miles through the desert, repenting.
You only have to let the soft animal of your body 
love what it loves

Mary Oliver from 'Wild Geese'

I have always loved these words by Mary Oliver, and they have kept coming up for me over the last few days; my middle son wondering if I'd heard them, knowing I would love them, a friend posting them on facebook, the book, when I eventually found it, falling open on exactly that page.  So I have been thinking about what the soft animal of my body loves, and I've found something blindingly obvious that I'd never really noticed before. My animal body loves nothing more than to touch, sniff, listen to and taste today, to lean into the day exactly as it is, to do today what is appropriate for today: 

All summer long there was nothing I wanted more than to laze around in the sun. I didn't get much opportunity to do it but when I did it felt like exactly the right thing to be doing and I dropped deeply into a sunshine induced torpor of utter relaxation. 

I had committed support in this endeavour from all sorts of quarters. Druid likes nothing better than a good laze, 

And Daisy likes to make sure that he's doing it properly. 

But now that the autumn equinox is past, the leaves are falling and the evenings are drawing in, 
my hands want to pick things and store them and harvest things and cook them and tidy flowerbeds and clean tools and generally scurry about filling the larder and the woodshed and making preparation for not doing too much of anything in the hard, cold part of winter.  In short, I want to do this! 

Hours and hours of picking, my fingers listening for the tell tale snap of the stem as a ripe apple falls into my palm. That heavenly scent of many ripe apples, calling forth sun and rain and dew into scrumptious tongue tangy crispness, the juices running down my chin. 

Luckily I only need to eat one apple to be full of apple, the same can definitely not be said of blackberries (or cake) so many apples were put in baskets and only one in me. First we picked the apples from the bit of garden that we grandly call 'The Orchard'

You can see that Mr Practical and Mrs Romantic were both picking, and that Mr Practical picked more. This was a story that wove it's way through the last days of September and into October, as we went out daily with our baskets (me) and plastic bags or buckets (him) and gathered the season's bounty.  

On one beautiful afternoon we went down to a little scrap of ancient woodland nearby to 'scrump' for crab apples. Scrumping is an old Devon word which means to steal apples from someone else's tree. Traditional cider (made by the bucket-full in the West Country) is still called 'scrumpy' in remembrance of this, but it's not scrumping when you've asked the land owner and the apple tree. However, I love the word scrump, and 'picking with permission' really doesn't have the same ring to it. 

Once we had gathered as many apples as we could carry, we picked the pears. Both of them. What they lacked in numbers they more than made up for in size, being perfectly pear-shaped and deliciousness. Sadly our pear tree hasn't been very happy this year, although it does look better now than it did at the beginning of the summer, when it seemed as if it might die. Lots of buckets of water throughout August and September and a strong new stake have made it feel much better. 

Next came the hedgerows; nature's pharmacy set out in neat little rows for our delectation and delight. I feel deeply in relationship with the hedgerows here, we have shared the wind and the rain, the sunshine and the starlight. This harvest grows along the lane to our house, berry after berry packed with so much of what we need, if only we listen to our bodies and to what the hedgerows themselves and those who live just on the other side have to teach us. 

Haws (Hawthorn berries), sloes (Blackthorn berries), blackberries, elderberries, rowan berries and rose hips have been gathered by the basket-full, bursting full of healthful goodness and ready to be made into magical potions, medicines to keep winter's colds away. Have you heard (I have no idea if it's true or not) that the word medicine finds it's root in the word metheglin which is mead with herbs in it? Medicine indeed! 

The sloes will spend some time in the freezer before we use them so that their skins are soft enough to let their goodness out. They are traditionally picked after the first frosts but they have been disappearing fast (perhaps into the beaks of hungry birds, or perhaps the baskets of other pickers) and I heard a whisper through the hedgerow that if we wanted some we would have to pick some early, so we did. Making sure never to take more than one third of what is there, so that the hungry birds don't become starving birds. There is enough for everyone if we pick for need not greed.

Each day I have walked out from our house with a basket, each day thinking that this will surely be the last time there are mushrooms to collect.  

But the ongoing saga of the HUGE quantities of mushrooms that there are continues, I have been drying racks of them for storage and making gallons of gorgeous mushroom soup. I cannot use that word - storage - at this time of year without thinking of Sylvia Plath's poem 'Who'.   

                    "The month of flowering's finished. The fruits in.                
Eaten or rotten. I am all mouth.
October's the month for storage."

If there are still mushrooms where you are then I have found that there are two really effective ways to store them. The first is to slice them fairly thinly and lay them out on racks like this. Then put the rack in a roasting tin and put the roasting tin in a very low oven or on top of a range for a few hours. I have taken to putting newspaper under the rack to catch the little bits that fall through racks as they shrink a lot as they dry, they turn crispy and can be kept in a jar for literally years. They can crumble to dust if you press them down in the jar hard but this dust tastes so deliciously strongly of mushrooms that it makes a fantastic flavour deepener in winter stews.  The second way to store mushrooms is simply to fry them in butter and then freeze them. You get more body this way, if you want them for adding to stews, but if you add a tin of coconut milk to your defrosted mushrooms in butter you have incredible mushroom soup! 

Chuntering away in the background of my mind as I wrote this was Plath's poem 'Mushrooms'. Depending on my mood I find this poem either sweetly funny or darkly threatening! 

Overnight, very
Whitely, discreetly,
Very quietly

Our toes, our noses
Take hold on the loam,
Acquire the air.

Nobody sees us,
Stops us, betrays us;
The small grains make room.

Soft fists insist on
Heaving the needles,
The leafy bedding,

Even the paving.
Our hammers, our rams,
Earless and eyeless,

Perfectly voiceless,
Widen the crannies,
Shoulder through holes. We

Diet on water,
On crumbs of shadow,
Bland-mannered, asking

Little or nothing.
So many of us!
So many of us!

We are shelves, we are
Tables, we are meek,
We are edible,

Nudgers and shovers
In spite of ourselves.
Our kind multiplies:

We shall by morning
Inherit the earth.
Our foot's in the door. 

As today it is sweetly funny, I thought I would show you this.   

We had picked and prepared all day and so there were fruit flies everywhere. When a fruit fly drowns itself in your wine the wine quickly goes sour so these horse mushrooms made brilliant impromptu lids for our wine-glasses. The wine within is 'Darkberry wine', on of Fergus' most delicious concoctions, consisting of elder, blueberry and redcurrant. Yummmm. 

May the season be fruit-full for you, filled with the magic of hedgerow harvests, conker battles, tea by the fire and home made feasts with good friends. 

Thursday, 22 September 2016

Equinox Blessings

Beannacht / Blessing

On the day when

the weight deadens
on your shoulders

and you stumble,

may the clay dance
to balance you.
And when your eyes
freeze behind
the grey window
and the ghost of loss
gets in to you,
may a flock of colours,
indigo, red, green,
and azure blue
come to awaken in you
a meadow of delight.
When the canvas frays
in the currach of thought
and a stain of ocean
blackens beneath you,
may there come across the waters
a path of yellow moonlight
to bring you safely home.
May the nourishment of the earth be yours,
may the clarity of light be yours,
may the fluency of the ocean be yours,
may the protection of the ancestors be yours.
And so may a slow
wind work these words
of love around you,
an invisible cloak
to mind your life.”
― John O'Donohue

On this day when we stand half way between life and death, between darkness and light, as the year tips into the downward spiral towards death, decay, darkness - before the beginning of the incubation of Spring, let there be once again the dying of the year. And let us remember, you and I, that in order for anything to live, something else must die.

Equinox blessings at this, the half way point, to you and yours.

Friday, 16 September 2016


There is a pleasure in the pathless woods, 
There is a rapture on the lonely shore, 
There is society, where none intrudes, 
by the deep sea, and music in it's roar: 
I love not man the less, but nature more. 
(Lord Byron)

The more I think about the ancient Celtic teaching that the year divides into four quarters the more I see the truth of it. This quarter, the one between Lughnasadh and Samhain, is the quarter of fruit and berries and of the making of seeds. This is where the quartering of the year makes sense - if you look at the lives of the plants that feed us. Samhain to Imbolc is when they sleep, Imbolc to Beltane is the time of first shoots, Beltane to Lughnasadh the time of leaves and flowers and Lughnasadh to Samhain the time of fruits and berries, the time of seeds being created so that they can fall in the ground and sleep from Samhain to Imbolc, shoot up between Imbolc and Beltane and so the cycle goes on and on and feeds us year after year.

So it's nothing to do with whether the weather is cold and rainy or not, it's what's growing that matters.

It seems that there's something to eat almost everywhere you look at the moment. The blackberries have been amazing.. This one most amazing of all, as it looked like a perfect heart!

And the mushrooms... Oh My Goodness the mushrooms...

Every day there seem to be more of them.


and more, (Daisy and Druid are just checking there's nothing exciting in the basket I now take out every day and seem to spend an awful lot of time filling - time that could be spent doing interesting things like getting the higher up blackberries down for them.)

Yesterday I found the first of the parasol mushrooms, what a whopper!

And today still more mushrooms than one woman can pick!

We dry them and keep them in a jar for winter stews. One year we picked so many that we were still eating dried mushrooms the following autumn and the one after that - which was lucky because those years there were hardly any mushrooms at all. Perhaps there's an omen here? Perhaps there is so much bounty this year because there are hard years coming.

My Grandmother always used to say that an autumn full of berries meant a hard winter, Nature was giving the birds what they needed to survive the long cold times to come.

We're certainly not the only ones who are having a frenzy of gathering,

The bees are hard at it too, not just the honey bees, the garden has been full of beautiful Bumbles too, this one feasting on the nectar from Marjoram.

And while they've been working I've been making them a beautiful new house, it's not finished yet, but here it is so far.

Gather while ye may... Isn't that what they say? Because winter's coming!!

Tuesday, 2 August 2016

Lughnasadh meanderings.

Lughnasadh, or Lunasa if you want to write it as it sounds, is the Celtic fire festival that marks the beginning of the harvest. Time of the first cutting of the corn, the gathering of the fruit, the lighting of hill top fires.  Time for us to reap what we have sown.

Traditionally this festival marked the turning of Summer to Autumn and I always wondered why, thought it was a strange time to celebrate something that would not come for weeks - until this year.

Now the relentless turning of the wheel of the year is much in evidence already, as green turns to yellow and orange to brown.

Leaves are crinkling and falling in crispy spirals through air that is veering bizarrely between warm summer and crisp autumn.  Is this what we have sown? Is it truly the case that summer is already all but over on August 1st?

The summer sun has brought the blackberries to various stages of ripeness, I saw some ENORMOUS, fully, sweetly plump black ones yesterday but didn't have my camera.

Rowan berries are reddening apace, ready for Rowan Jelly and bird battles.  I cannot help but celebrate all the beauty of the turning world whilst I also weep for what feels to me like a season come far too early. How long will winter be? How will those bird battles play out, when all the berries are gone and the snow is still falling?

The green grass of spring has become the golden grass of late summer as it rolls towards autumn. The hay was gathered in weeks ago, there isn't any corn around here to harvest, but I can't help but think about Lughnasadh being the Harvest Festival.  Perhaps when what we think of as ancient traditions were new ideas the seasons were always as short as they have been this year, neatly divided up into four exact quarters, no room for long drawn out summer afternoons after July.

I climbed the tower of a local church recently, and looked out over the patchwork edges of a nearby village.

Out towards the edges and the margins, I was wondering about the view, how much or how little it had changed in the last thousand years since that tall tower was built there, wondering if it would be there, little changed or barely recognisable in another thousand years. Fearing the worst and hoping for the best in a tangle of yearning for wildness, for certainty, for change, for a future free from the constant fear of imminent destruction and also knowing that looking down on the land, reaching downwards into the rooted present, the reality of now, and seeing it laid out among the trees and the fields of our endeavours is a much better place to look for wisdom and a more likely place to find hope than searching amongst the tattered old pages of our society.  History is, in that it is accurate at all, a record of how we got into this mess in the first place.

I heard such a beautiful thing today: I heard a young man say that he had written himself a promise; that he would search deep into himself and far out into the land, to find truth and bring it home to his tribe.

I feel that a future in the hands of men such as this is full of hope, we just need to stop thinking that we know anything much at all, and start listening to our hearts and to the land.

Monday, 25 July 2016

The Blessings of Hederows

Sometimes, not very often - because I feel so out of place there, I go to a city. I'm seldom there for long; I don't like the hustle and jostle, the noise and the smells and I easily become overwhelmed by what feels to me like an exhausting, teeming soup of human emotions. 
On the way home, even if it's only been a few hours, I feel as if I'm seeing the hedgerows again after long absence. I'm so happy to see them, the flowers, the green, the trees. I notice more at these times perhaps, than I do on an average day. 

The incredible feathery beauty of Mugwort.  Drink this if you want to dream.

I love the huge variety in the flowers of the roadside - especially the ones with incredibly un-romantic names like 'Hog Weed'. The flowers of this plant are simply stunning, as are the seeds, but the leaves justify the name. 

Look, but don't touch. If you don't know what you're looking at you could mistake this plant for some of it's very poisonous cousins. The sap from the stem of  Giant Hog Weed can cause terrible burns and make your skin photosensitive for life. Hemlock is a deadly poisonous relation who could look very similar if you only half look.  

In theory Hog Weed itself is edible; you can eat the young leaves cooked or raw and can create a kind of sugar from the sap in the stem. You can also eat the roots, but I have to admit that I wouldn't try. Even though I'm pretty confident that this is Hog Weed and not Giant Hog Weed or Hemlock, I'm not prepared to stake my life on it - and that's what you'd be doing if you chose to eat this particular plant! 

I'm so grateful that the hedgerows are not just the beautiful parentheses to the lane that takes me home, they are also my medicine chest. Few things here are really poisonous and many are balm for the returning wanderer's body as well as soul. This one is Valerian, beloved friend to the sleepless.

Here is Feverfew - the best migraine cure I've ever come across. The pink flowers are Red Campion.  

Honeysuckle, amazing for treating sore throats and bringing down a temperature by encouraging sweating. Although you do also have to be careful with this one - apparently some of the the kinds of honeysuckle that have been imported for people's gardens can be poisonous, so make sure you're using our native yellow honeysuckle.  If you've been walking past the same honeysuckle winding it's way with unruly abandon through the same hedge for decades you're probably safe enough, but if you don't know - please ask a herbalist. 

Greater Plaintain or Way Bread grows everywhere here, as does it's sister Lesser Plaintina or Ribwort. Both these plants are as extraordinary in their efficacy and multiplicity of medicinal uses as those other unruly weeds dandelion and nettle. 

Dear, lovely, underrated Nettle. All those seeds are sooo good for you. This much maligned feral beauty, impudent migrant and ignorer of boundaries, is perhaps the most necessary ally of all for our burned out western bodies. Nettle seeds are deeply nourishing and restorative to the kidneys and the adrenals, and who amongst us has not overused their adrenal glands this year? 

Again - a warning - please don't just eat handfulls of nettle seeds for a boost and carry on, firstly you might not get any sleep, as boost you they will. But also, if your adrenals really do need supporting then taking a few nettle seeds won't cut it. You need to make radical lifestyle changes - become the native plant; live in the place that suits your needs, blossom and flower in the appropriate season and then gracefully rest a while before doing it all again. Easy peasy! 
Clearly I jest, but isn't that the root of it? We so need to re-connect ourselves to ourselves, to the land and all our relations. We need to re-align ourselves with the seasons, Her Ways. 

We forget that we are children of the earth.

Sometimes we need things that make us remember. We need to look in a scruffy old hedgerow and see the magics and wonders there and remember to be connected to the body of the Earth, the body of all bodies on this earth and our own bodies.