FROM THE LOVELY late Maying to this humming cloudless unfamiliar summer heat, the Earth has been laughing in flowers. I have watched the lanes and the hills and the riverbanks as they've blossomed in a great rush of colour – one after the other after the other – a froth of petalled joy spilling my heart over and calling, calling in weedy green voices: a chlorophyll chorus, this time unignoreable.
Something has happened this year. The plants have started calling louder than ever before.
Those of us who have loved the plants since childhood and dreamed of a cronehood stalking the fields with a basket, kitchen windowsill a stained glass apothecary of sunlight falling through bottles of herb-infused oils and tinctures – a Church of Weeds – have heard the hedgerows calling clearer and more insistent this year than ever before. I wonder for how many of you the seasons' turning this year moved something in you that had perhaps learnt over the years a handful of plant names and their uses and maybe collected many books on plant lore and craft, but not before with this new purpose and dedication wanted to know the whole great encyclopedia of leaves?
The rushing of life into summer has been my church, and the green hands of this land have pushed up and out and taken mine, a willing but green apprentice, and they've begun to whisper things, now audible, that I've been hearing and yet not hearing for many many years.
The beauty of our Dartmoor hills stirs me every day. “We live here!” we say to each other, incredulous. On these hot hot days, we have swum in the cold thrilling rivers, alive with leg-kissing fish and haloed with an aura of insects. This land feels healthy and we fall endlessly, unquenchably in love with it.
And the plants go on calling. I feel a need to be able to name them, which seems at once ridiculous – how can two Latin words given by an eighteenth century Swedish man equal the complex ancient magic of a particular plant growing in a particular place? And yet somehow the Latin name, an international and specific way of reference, becomes helpful: It can tell us a story about humans' relationship with this plant (St John's Wort – Hypericum perforatum – is named for the midsummer saint who replaced the pagan sun magic with which this plant is associated. The hyper-ikon was a herb placed above the icon of St John attesting to its power over ghosts or bad spirits – also known as depression – for which the herb is most well known these days. Yarrow – Achillea millefolium, an excellent wound herb, which arrests bleeding and disinfects wounds, was used according to legend by Achilles as a field dressing for his soldiers' wounds during the Trojan war.) The Latin name of a plant can tell us where that plant can be found growing (- palustris – in marshes, - arvensis – in fields, - sylvatica – in woodlands), or whether it was part of the folk medicine chests of old ( - officianalis). Valerian - Valariana officianalis – commonly called All-heal, has significantly in German-speaking countries been given over 500 distinct names, and by the Romans was given feminine names, honouring the tall upright white-flower-crowned grace and importance of the plant.
The common names of plants conjure stranger, more wonderful uses and stories, tying us to our hedgewalking forebears, and reminding us how they knew the plants ~ wolf's bane, wet-the-bed, jump-up-and-kiss-me, fireweed, bastard killer, woundwort, sweethearts, sneezewort, simpler's joy, mother-die, bedstraw, heartsease, devil's plaything, gypsy's baccy, white man's footprints...
And so I have continued to walk the lanes and to ask the plants and to write down what they say in my book of the hedge. This writing has been not only in words and names but in paint too. Out of this ongoing hedgerow-thrall came a painting – Weed Wife – an expression of my love for the wild plants in particular, the ones who can thrive between pavement slabs and motorway sidings, the ones who grow strong despite bad weather and trampling, and in whose green veins thrum aeons of medicine for our bodies and spirits which we've strimmed and poisoned and walked past for too long.
She began in pencil on a beautiful heavy gnarly piece of burr oak. This one had no preparatory sketches whatsoever; all that came before this was the thought of a woman surrounded by plants: a Weed Wife.
And slowly the weeds began to grow around her.
The wood was an awkward shape to work on – too solid and unwieldy to rest flat on a drawing board. And so I wedged it inside an old school desk with its lid open.
The painting began with the Weed Wife herself.
And then the colours crept around her in tendrils of pigment
growing a forest of weeds.
The detail was small and required a meticulous brush, attempting to achieve a good likeness in every plant portrait.
Finally (just hours before the delivery deadline for the gallery!) she was finished:
See if you can find all the plants in the painting...
|Weed Wife - prints available here|
Hogweed, Goosegrass, Bramble, Lady's Mantle, Hedge Woundwort, Ground Ivy, Mallow, Dandelion, Dock, Heartsease, Nettle, Hawthorn, Herb Bennett, Elder, Ivy, Poppy, Shepherd's Purse, Plantain, Yarrow, Mullein, Holly.
This painting seems to have touched some gentle yet powerful part of many women who have seen it, bringing tears to their eyes. I can't explain why this might be because I don't really know, though I was very moved to hear it had this effect. Some kind of plant-song must come out of it, revivifying a deep and long-held womanly knowing.
The weeds continue their lessons as the year burns on, catching the light of every day in their green blood, in their thorns and hairs and petals, throwing me riddles and conundrums, singing me songs, and I listen as best I can, my ear still not fluent in the nuances of the language of their country.
I have begun to properly collect and dry plants found around and about where I live (all of the close up photographs of plants in this post were taken within a few yards of my home, and the rest within a few miles). I feel that the plants sharing soil and water with me are bound to have better medicine in them for me than some commercially grown and packaged herb flown in from overseas ever could, not to mention the extra and particular magic that will be inevitably mixed into any brew I make based on the intentions and reverence I hold whilst picking and preparing.
I've fashioned a very rudimentary drying rack for a tiny house out of an old crate, some strips of muslin, bits of bamboo and gaffer tape. This hangs over our wood burner on the clothes drying rack in between the towels and socks. One of these days I'll make a nicer version out of willow but this works very well for now.
And the dried plants are going into jars, for which I have yet to make labels...
Three plants flowering about our home at the moment combined to chase away a cold that threatened to drag Tom under. I brewed up Elderflowers and Yarrow (which both have excellent exterior-releasing qualities causing an illness-eliminating sweat) and Honeysuckle (which has wonderful antiseptic and soothing properties). A few hot brews of this with honey chased it away good and proper, and Tom awoke the next morning free of the cold!
Some years ago during my Book Arts studies, I made a book of plant lore – a Herbal Alphabet with one plant for each letter, each one illustrated by a woodcut illustration of a story surrounding the uses and folklore of the plant. The text tells of botany, history, folklore, superstition and medicine, and I bound the whole thing by hand. It was a one-off creation, my love of Herbals and the plant knowledge therein strong even then; and I find myself coming back to it now and referring to it, finding information in it that I'd forgotten.
It shares shelf space with many other excellent Herbal tomes, a few of which you can see here:
A small selection of plant books that have caught my imagination recently or become oft-referred-to old favourites follow:
The Energetics of Western Herbs Vol 1 & 2 – A Materia Medica Integrating Western and Chinese Herbal Therapeutics by Peter Holmes
The Secret Teachings of Plants – The Intelligence of the Heart in the Direct Perception of Nature by Stephen Harrod Buhner
Traveller's Joy by Beshlie
Wild Flowers of Britain by Roger Phillips
This last book is by a true weed wife of whom many of you will know. Juliette de Baïracli Levy spent her life travelling and living with the peasants and nomadic peoples of many countries, learning their medicine. She raised her children and Afghan hounds according to what she learnt along the way. Her life was a flourishing garden of glowing health and a deep and simple love for the Earth. I was first captivated by her ways after being given her book Traveller's Joy by a friend at the Weird and Wonderful Wood Fair this year, but she has written many, which are full with remedies for both humans and animals, that you know she has used and perfected.
This beautiful hour-and-a-bit-long film about her life will beguile you utterly, I heartily recommend taking the time to watch it:
Meanwhile the plants go on calling, and the small beautiful creatures who know the language of plants best of all answer in their miraculous iridescent orchestra of humming and scraping and buzzing and weaving and tasting and pollinating and egg-laying and cocooning and Keeping It All Going...
The Weed Wife original painting is on display at the Green Hill Arts Gallery in Moretonhampstead, Devon until 7th August and prints small and large can be purchased here.
Yesterday, down our lane, we found our beloved hedgerow massacred by brutal farm hedge-cutters which had hacked the whole living ecosystem back to a stubble of chewed stems and gouged banks. I found myself profoundly affected by this - heart-sad at the loss of specific plants I had come to know and love and watch grow day by day. I mourn their destruction and am left speechless at the way supposed "stewards of the land" can come at a tiny delicate rare variety of Imperforate St John's Wort which I'd found growing there a few days before with a huge indiscriminate cutting machine. I don't suppose the farmer even knew that little flower was there.
I will go on walking the hedges, listening to the plants, learning their names, telling them how I am glad that they live and thrive and trusting always in their ability to crack concrete.
learn the flowers
~ from For the Children by Gary Snyder