Herbology

11. The one with the mugwort

18.11.18

Perhaps it’s one of those odd laws of coincidence, or synchronicity. 

After posting about Artemis (and Artemisia dracunculus) at the last full moon (see blog 9. ‘Full and earthy’), I wasn’t intending to write more about Artemisia. But then I hadn’t planned on encountering the altogether madder, badder, and witchier Artemisia vulgaris.

More commonly known as mugwort (not the prettiest of names), she is most definitely a witchy herb.

I had no idea.

Well, I’d heard her recommended for lucid dreaming – for fair maidens to place under their pillows to dream of their true loves. The lore reminded me of Madeleine, the heroine of Keats’ Eve of St Agnes, going to bed hungry, surrounded by a great untouched feast, hoping for a vision of ‘the one’:

And turn, sole-thoughted, to one Lady there,

Whose heart had brooded, all that wintry day,

On love, and wing'd St. Agnes' saintly care,

As she had heard old dames full many times declare.

 

They told her how, upon St. Agnes' Eve,

Young virgins might have visions of delight,

And soft adorings from their loves receive

Upon the honey'd middle of the night,

If ceremonies due they did aright;

As, supperless to bed they must retire,

And couch supine their beauties, lily white;

Nor look behind, nor sideways, but require

Of Heaven with upward eyes for all that they desire.

 So, when an herbology colleague offered a ‘shrub’ of mugwort vinegar and blackberry syrup in return for a favour, I didn’t really think too carefully about pouring a generous amount into a mug, topping it with hot water, and settling down to the day’s lectures. It tasted absolutely delicious.

 What I didn’t know was that mugwort was once used as a kind of truth drug; that it is known as a great revealer; that it is usually found growing at crossroads; that it has a reputation for leading seekers to their true paths.

If I’d known that, I might have considered my action more carefully. As the old Blues saying goes: ‘If you meet the Devil at the crossroads…’ (google Robert Johnson for more on that).

 So I’m there in the classroom, and after an hour or so a very strange thing begins to happen. Although I’m aware that nothing superficially physical is taking place, I have a very strong sensation of the outer layers of my self — well, I don’t know what to call it exactly my aura/ being/ personality/ energetic field/ psychic defences? — peeling away, layer by layer.

As this continued, I grew smaller and smaller, like Alice. And it did continue. All day. 

By the evening, I had become so small that I had fallen entirely down a rabbit hole. Perhaps it’s fortunate that I am familiar enough with my own idiosyncratic warren of psychological rabbit holes to know not to panic when I find myself in one. Nonetheless, I wasn’t fit for much, so took to my bed early in the hope this might resolve the issue.

My cats, who had been very concerned by my countenance, followed me to bed, where they positioned themselves above my pillow so that they could purr continuously onto the top of my head — as if nursing me, or containing me. Or both. This is not their usual behavior. They continued this ‘nursing’ for the whole night.

So I rode it out and, by the morning, felt somewhat jangled but nonetheless restored.

I hasten to stress that this was in no way a hallucinogenic experience. I was entirely, and effortlessly in control of all my faculties. I could easily and safely have driven a car (though I didn’t).

I don’t really know how to classify the experience.

We had that day studied fungi, and had made hot water extractions, tinctures and dual extracts using birch polypore, chaga, usnia and jellyear — all of which we had tasted. And although it’s quite possible that these may have had some effect on me, the strangeness was beginning to happen before the tastings. In fact, I had the sense that the fungi were pretty grounding, and that things might have been more pronounced without them.

There’s only really one way to find out, and that’s to take the mugwort again.

I’m just waiting for the right circumstances, and the courage, to do it….

10. Body of work

09.11.18

 We have been tasked with using biodynamic methods on our herbal garden plots at the RBGE. I don’t know whether this is new to me or not, in that there’s a real cross-over here between the kind of old gardening wisdom I’d hear from my Uncle Ken, my Dad, and their compatriots, and the information contained in texts on the biodynamic method. Originally attributed to Rudolf Steiner (1861-1925), the biodynamic method is being increasingly granted scientific foundation by formal knowledge gains in both astronomy and horticulture.

In that sense, and to indulge in a little old skool sexism, biodynamic horticulture seems to be the masculine equivalent of herbalism, where much historically intuitive, tried and tested, mostly female folk wisdom is now being validated (and appropriated) by the scientific academy.

So whilst it seems, from our historical perspective, that much lay wisdom is now being validated by scientific findings, the inter-relationship is complex. 

For example, we in the West are not alone in inheriting a rich folk relationship with our biome. Consequently, we must also consider the Western-centricity of what we currently accept (and do not accept) as biodynamically, or herbally valid. It may be that some of the considerations found in the East are simply not relevant to our climatic conditions, or it may be that so many of our equivalent forms of understanding have been lost or destroyed (by a couple of centuries of vicious witch-hunting, for example, or by the practical restrictions imposed by early transcription and printing methods).

Either way, many of us — particularly city dwellers — have become increasingly detached from the planet on which we live. On a daily basis, how many of us touch the bare earth, with either hands or feet? How many of us can decode and predict the increasingly erratic patterns of birds and weather? How many of us even feel we have the time?

Recognizing the decline of earth-centredness in my own daily routines across my 50+ year life span, I decided to begin my biodynamic gardening practice by re-attuning myself to my planetary environment.

And for that, I have found myself looking Eastward.

The Ashtanga yoga tradition seemed to offer the best option since, like biodynamic gardening,  its practice is specifically tuned to moon days. The website ashtangayogacenter.com explains the connection thus:

Both full and new moon days are observed as yoga holidays in the Ashtanga Yoga tradition.

Like all things of a watery nature (human beings are about 70% water), we are affected by the phases of the moon. The phases of the moon are determined by the moon’s relative position to the sun. Full moons occur when they are in opposition and new moons when they are in conjunction. Both sun and moon exert a gravitational pull on the earth. Their relative positions create different energetic experiences that can be compared to the breath cycle. The full moon energy corresponds to the end of inhalation when the force of prana is greatest. This is an expansive, upward moving force that makes us feel energetic and emotional, but not well grounded. The Upanishads state that the main prana lives in the head. During the full moon we tend to be more headstrong.

The new moon energy corresponds to the end of exhalation when the force of apana is greatest. Apana is a contracting, downward moving force that makes us feel calm and grounded, but dense and disinclined towards physical exertion.

The Farmers Almanac recommends planting seeds at the new moon when the rooting force is strongest and transplanting at the full moon when the flowering force is strongest. Practicing Ashtanga Yoga over time makes us more attuned to natural cycles. Observing moon days is one way to recognize and honor the rhythms of nature so we can live in greater harmony with it 

I took my first class on the Monday immediately preceding the new moon (on Wednesday November 7th, 2018), rested on the moon day, and practiced again the following Monday. 

So far, the endorphin boost from the exercise itself is feeling great. I’ll need to take quite a few more classes before I’m familiar with the Primary Series 1 (beginner’s) sequence, and complete a few monthly cycles before I can begin to feel more attuned. So I’m off now to book my next class, and I’ll keep you posted….

9. Full and earthy

25.10.18

I didn’t think I would see her. 

On the night, in the heart of Edinburgh, she was smeared in dark cloud, though just the promise of her radiance was entrancing enough. It was the following day’s early start that allowed me to encounter her, slightly bleary after her night’s work, but still hanging huge over the city’s Athenian skyline. ‘She’ is the full moon at the apogee of this fortuitous lunar cycle: the Hunter’s moon.

Artemis. Daughter of Zeus and Leto, sister to Apollo, goddess of the hunt, and of wild animals, wilderness, childbirth and virginity.

She seems to have been making her presence felt in all sorts of ways this week.

On Tuesday, we were given the benefit of the teachings of Duncan Ross, the biodynamic herbsman at the heart of the Poyntzfield Nursery up on the Black Isle. We were treated to an ident. parade of some of the healthiest and most vibrant plant specimens I’ve seen. Amongst them Artemisia dracunculus(tarragon), known for its ‘abilities to influence brain function and gastrointestinal function and the presence of antimicrobial activity’*.

In the afternoon, after the gale force wind miraculously calmed, we were led out into the gardens to meet our plots; the small areas of earth that will be ours for the next nine months, and upon whose design, fertility, and maintenance we will ultimately be assessed.

‘Plot‘, however, is too bleak a description. These small gardens have been carefully tended by our predecessors, and boast a plethora of fine and interesting annuals and perennials, many still in flower after the long sultry summer. Our task was to ‘clear’.

It was actually quite difficult. I found it hard to clear plants that still seemed to have a little something to give, and even harder to decide what to confine to compost and what might be useful to my emerging theme. Having just ‘met’ my garden, I wanted to spend time slowly getting to know her. Perhaps drawing and photographing her, sitting with her a while, but time is impatient and we were compelled to push on with the work in the few hours available to us. 

Can I blame my uncertainty on the waxing of the moon? On the whirling of the wind? On fear of incurring the wrath of Artemis by ravaging one of her own?

I dithered. I resisted. I flapped. I panicked. I observed. I considered. I learned. Only latterly did I begin to clear. And in the earth began to find solidity, comfort, ‘grounding’. 

Artemis, the goddess of childbirth and also virginity. 

Waxing in Taurus on the 24th October 2018, this moon brings an end to uncertainty, ushering in stability, and revealing endings as pathways to beginnings.

I’ll be back in the garden this weekend, making a slow and gradual transition, helping the plot revert to its virgin state, ending and beginning.

 *Aglarova, A.M., Zilfikarov, I.N. & Severtseva, O.V. ‘Biological characteristics and useful properties of tarragon (Artemisia dracunculus L.) (review) in Pharmaceutical Chemistry Journal (2008) 42:81.

https://doi.org/10.1007/s11094-008-0064-3

 

 

8. Harvest Moon

21.10.18

And how. 

Rising in Libra on the 9th October, the internet tells me that the new moon following the harvest 

does its best to calm everything down — to make pleasant, balanced, harmonious and fair what has been complicated, unpleasant, confrontational and unbalanced. This new Moon cycle presents us with a window of opportunity…

The Universe is on our side as we make our wishes and intentions…

And right on cue, as I was standing in line for my canteen lunch that day, I received a phone call telling me I had won a holiday from the back of a packet of Tyrell’s popcorn! (Ok, there is some discussion about whether the ‘prize’ is in fact a manufactured opportunity to sell a holiday timeshare, but that’s kind of missing the point…).

A short tarot reading reassured me that ‘the path you have taken is the true one’, and that I ‘will be guided’ in my new endeavour. Good stuff.

On the following Sunday, my endeavour seemed to be to turn my frozen harvest of Hippophaë rhamnoides L.— sea buckthorn berries (see blog 7. Surfacing) — into almost 2 litres of delicious syrup, following the Royal Botanic Garden in Edinburgh’s secret recipe. It was a wonderful way to spend an autumnal afternoon, and it is such a joyful and satisfying process to take Mamma Nature’s bounty and celebrate it’s healing properties. The first wee bottle was sent on its way, to lend support to my daughter’s immune system in her first term at University.

And then the ultimate prize revealed itself: I am now in the probationary period of employment at one of the most revered herbalist institutions in the land!

October may have been windy but, with this kind of change in the air, I am very happy to be a leaf.

7. Surfacing

04.10.18

October comes like a blessing. 

There are spaces on the calendar. Both children seem to be settling happily in their destinations. There are even some potential openings for work, so perhaps money will soon become less of an issue (though doubtless that will entail a concomitant lack of time for study)…we’ll see.

The morning of Week 3 of the course is still a little frustrating; we are studying botanical nomenclature and those of us who have not studied it before are falling behind as the class progresses. I feel deeply frustrated, and remind myself that it is good to be in this position. As Dave, my classmate, reassuringly says, ‘We’ll get there’. I’m aware that I’m still panicking a little, and am still quite wired. I’m also aware that as the class pairs up for a task, I am left to work on my own. I feel vulnerable and a little paranoid. I know that in my wired state I can be very much too much for many people, including myself. I’m hoping my desperation and panic haven’t burned all my bridges at the start.

The afternoon sees our first field trip — out to Gullane to forage the sea buckthorn (Hippophae rhamnoides). I’m delighted to have the chance to actually harvest (see previous post ‘Marginalia’), and the weather turns out gloriously for us. Unfortunately, though, I have some paid work scheduled for the evening. When I took the job, the start time allowed the short hop from the Botanics to the centre of town. East Lothian is quite another matter. Getting to the field trip now means leaving the Botanics as soon as morning classes end, hopping across the city on the No. 27 bus, picking up my van and driving out to rendezvous with the rest of the group. I miss lunch, and the shared experience and camaraderie of the minibus. Luckily, I arrive right on cue, although two new people — whose names and roles I do not know — have joined the group.

The mad dash is entirely worth it. Catherine leads us on a short ident. walk and then we forage for a while. As ever, the knowledge she imparts is invaluable. I want more of this, but as the foraging comes to a close I have to leave to get the van back into town, then switch to the bicycle to get to my assignment. As I drive off, I’m lamenting what I know I must be missing. 

At home, I’ve almost finished storing my offsprings’ worldly goods, and am fashioning myself a study space. I’m very proud of it, and it’s feeling like home. And as the reality of the empty nest sinks in, I’m glad I have prepared a scaffold towards a new life. I’m even imagining spaces in the calendar where I can continue the more general domestic renovations — but I might be getting ahead of myself there. There is a lot of course work to be done.

I am still without an RBGE fob/pass, which serves as a student card. This means I am still unable to go to yoga, or to the pictures, as I can’t get discount. But my other life has just blessed me with the privilege of a University of Edinburgh library card, and a morning trawl of the local Amnesty bookshop serves up a perfect primer on organic chemistry. 

As I sip my fresh sea buckthorn leaf tea, it’s beginning to feel like things are falling into place.

Image by Deviantart

5. Marginalia

22.09.18

We have been asked to keep a journal, which will be submitted but not assessed, and I am pondering how this might look for me. For my PhD, I kept a research blog (nanafroufrou), which proved both useful and popular. And my instinct after the onslaught of the first day of the herbology course was to begin to write this. Or rather to type this, on my laptop. And that’s an important distinction. Writing here is almost an act of surgical dissection – of excising something and placing it on a screen, as if under a microscope, for closer examination. 

A paper journal lends itself to inkier, messier, more multi-medial play; to marginalia. And I find myself frozen at the prospect. I have unearthed a beautiful and appropriate book, bought at reduced rate as the traders at Glastonbury festival were packing to leave the site. But I am anxious not to ’spoil’ it. This is a long-standing personal obstacle, a hangover from my childhood, and a barrier to creativity. At 54 years of age, it’s time I dismantled it. Perhaps the first page of the journal should be a page of ink blots and jam smears.

But in the meantime, this series of documents has emerged, almost as electronic marginalia, and I think there may be room for both. So I am going to try to keep a paper journal for research purposes, and post these electronic notes as a blog. A space where I reflect on how I feel about the course. An online autoethnography. 

Out in the real world, meanwhile, the weather today is the kind of glorious that had Keats reaching for his pen after a walk near Winchester, in 1819 — his ‘learning curve’ period.

To Autumn

Season of mists and mellow fruitfulness,
Close bosom-friend of the maturing sun;
Conspiring with him how to load and bless
With fruit the vines that round the thatch-eaves run;
To bend with apples the moss'd cottage-trees,
And fill all fruit with ripeness to the core;
To swell the gourd, and plump the hazel shells
With a sweet kernel; to set budding more,
And still more, later flowers for the bees,
Until they think warm days will never cease,
For Summer has o'er-brimm'd their clammy cells.

Who hath not seen thee oft amid thy store?
Sometimes whoever seeks abroad may find
Thee sitting careless on a granary floor,
Thy hair soft-lifted by the winnowing wind;
Or on a half-reap'd furrow sound asleep,
Drows'd with the fume of poppies, while thy hook
Spares the next swath and all its twinéd flowers:
And sometimes like a gleaner thou dost keep
Steady thy laden head across a brook;
Or by a cyder-press, with patient look,
Thou watchest the last oozings hours by hours.

Where are the songs of Spring? Ay, where are they?
Think not of them, thou hast thy music too,—
While barréd clouds bloom the soft-dying day,
And touch the stubble-plains with rosy hue;
Then in a wailful choir the small gnats mourn
Among the river sallows, borne aloft
Or sinking as the light wind lives or dies;
And full-grown lambs loud bleat from hilly bourn;
Hedge-crickets sing; and now with treble soft
The red-breast whistles from a garden-croft;
And gathering swallows twitter in the skies.

In my turn, I head to Gullane. To the soft sand, sea, and steep dunes of East Lothian. I carry my Opinel, a Tupperware container and some newspaper. We have been taught how to collect specimens for herbaria and I need to start facing some of these new practical challenges. 

The coastal margin is laden with hawthorn berries, bursting with blood red rosehips, and festooned with sea buckthorn berries. I want to forage, particularly amongst the abundant and oh-so-perfectly-ripe sea buckthorn berries, but I don’t have a freezer for the bletting. It feels rude to refuse such a generous offering, but I do. I tell myself I will return for the harvest, knowing the moment is now and that I’ll miss the vitamin C when the hard winter hits.

I must learn not to be my own obstacle.

Meanwhile, I’m preoccupied with the question of what I bring to herbology. I’m running through lists in my head:

Things I Like To Do — dancing, yoga, drawing, sewing, poetry, gardening.

Attributes I Have — a few languages, good with my hands, an aesthetic eye, a curious mind.

Practices I Have — reading, research, ethnography.

Hmmm.

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4. Arbeit, Kunst, Wissen, Natur

21.09.18. I am feeling calmer, and am beginning to feel a little more organized, but I still haven’t recovered my vision of what I can bring to herbology, nor what herbology can bring to me.

But today I get some time to spend in my garden. It’s a tiny, urban patio space that I have partly enclosed from the communal garden area behind my tenement flat. This is probably not what one is supposed to do. 

When I first came to Edinburgh from Lancashire, it was the garden that I missed most. In my previous home, I had built three gardens, laboriously digging out deep aggregate until I could construct and plant a small brick herb wheel, then a sandpit, rock garden, small lawn, pot garden, and eventually a parterre. I mixed ornamental and vegetable planting. The local horticultural society surprised me with a garden design award, but the real prize was those days when I sent my small children (who had grown with the garden) out with a bowl and an instruction to gather ingredients for a pot luck supper. 

I brought my enthusiasm to the city, but it quickly dissipated with the injustices of working thanklessly on a garden only to see it used incompatibly by neighbours and their dogs. The waiting list for allotments seemed huge. I wasn’t sure I could survive here that long, and I didn’t.

So when I returned last September, after a five year hiatus, I didn’t even make a pretense at communal gardening. I simply and selfishly took control of the strip immediately outside my windows. Mostly ornamental, and housing a large table, nonetheless it has yielded lavender, sage, mint, rosemary, thyme, kohl rabi, potatoes, raspberries, strawberries, blackcurrants, vine leaves, geranium, a heavy crop of plums, and even a handful of tomatoes. Yes, tomatoes grown outside in Scotland. Edvard Much wasn’t wrong: industrially induced climate change has long been real. It’s now both urgent and terrifying. 

Today I spend a few hours on my patio and begin to remember, as if opening a portal with a haptic key, that I am back here in the city because it is a means to an end: that the course at RBGE is my pathway out of the labyrinth; that I am dreaming of a future closer to the land, working as much with the earth as with people; that this is how I will find my place and purpose in my post-oil dotage; that I am a nomad seeking a new tribe; that surviving two more years in this city will be worth the prize.

I repeat this to myself like a mantra, hoping the words will conjure the reality. And I think of the postcard pinned in my campervan. It shows an artwork from a garden I once visited, by an artist whose name I cannot now recall. On a stone tablet, carved like commandments for a new age, are the words: 

ARBEIT

KUNST

WISSEN

NATUR

 

Yes. That. That’s what I want the herbology course to bring me.

And yes, I’m aware I still haven’t formulated the trickier part of this equation…

3. Containers and liquids

This person is all earth and water. They would do well to engage their earthy qualities of common sense and practicality to create a safe container for themselves; then the water aspects of their personality — emotion, imagination and empathy — can flow more easily.

Kyra Pollitt: basic natal chart reading. Mel Skinner, 12.09.18

 

20.09.18. The house is upside down. My daughter has emptied countless cupboards onto the floors of the communal spaces and is organizing piles of items; to be taken to charity shops, to be taken to university, to be taken to the bin. In the corners of all the rooms are boxes, plastic bags and unruly packages that my son has recently deposited. He is leaving the flat he has shared with his girlfriend for the past 5 years and is unsure of his next move. Also in my absence, the household chores have been left undone by my overworked partner, the garden neglected, disheveled and desiccating in the season’s mischievous winds. 

It feels like chaos.

But it’s a chaos I have faced down many times before. I know, then, that this is also an opportunity. I know that if I can organize this space, then in so doing I will find some strength and organisation in myself.

By 22:00 I am exhausted, emotionally dredged, and sporting a painful, severely swollen and possibly broken big toe. But the house is neat, I have a to-do list, and a modicum of control. I am beginning to feel I can do this, I can face the challenges of this course.  

I have the basic outline of a container.

P.s. Hexene (n): C6H12

Cyclohexane is a colourless, flammable liquid with a distinctive detergent-like odour, reminiscent of cleaning products.