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Archive for the ‘Plant Ramblings’ Category

This month’s blog party is hosted by Ali over at Eldrum Musings and is all about sharing aspects of working with herbs that are personal to us. She writes ,”What do you do that makes your herbalism uniquely yours?  This can be an experience, a subject close to your heart, even a herbal ally that you work with more closely than any others – whatever resonates most with you!”

There are so many different facets of working with plants that I enjoy it was something of a challenge to decide what to write about. After some pondering however, I realised that it is this very multi-faceted quality that makes herbalism so completely fulfilling to me.

Perhaps the thing I love most about herbs and plant medicine is that is feels both deeply personal and completely universal all at the same time. What I mean by this is that my relationship to the plants feels at once both fresh and unique as well as profoundly ancient; something entirely individual yet something shared by generations of people since our very beginning. I have encountered so many talented herbalists, wild foodies, gardeners and other plant folk- in person, through books or online through blogs and websites. Each one has so much in common and yet also an entirely unique way of expressing our love for nature and the plants.

For me herbalism is the twine that bound together all the things I had been interested in from childhood to the present day. During this time I considered and experimented with many ways of expressing the desire I felt to be of service in the world and work with people, animals and plants in one capacity or another. From volunteer work with NGO’s to courses in environmental and citizenship education, to care work, gardening, volunteering with animals, painting and drawing, writing, studying health and spiritual explorations – it was herbalism that wove together all my seemingly disparate interests into one whole. Nowadays, whether I am drawing a dandelion, writing an article, seeing a patient, teaching a class or meditating with a plant I get to incorporate all the many facets of life I most enjoy under the heading of ‘herbalist’. Whether I am in the garden, in the kitchen or in the clinic there is a feeling of connection to the plants that infuses each aspect of my life.

There are so many things to love about this plant-entwined journey, whatever direction it may take us in, but at the centre of it is always the simple truth that being connected to nature is part of who we are. Flowing with the seasons, the comings and goings of life, knowing and using the plants in any number of ways, these are things our ancestors have done for millennia and our part in it is just another thread of the whole.

I often hear or read people asserting the need to reconnect to nature and, whilst of course I see the immense value in what they are saying, for me it misses a vital point- that we are not and never have been disconnected. We are nature and the effort is not in the coming back to her but in the dream of staying away. Somewhere along the road to our modern way of life we celebrated the idea of humans as separate and superior to nature and this has become so ingrained in the collective unconscious that we feel it is the normal way of being.

The flow of our own lives is no more and no less than nature and we are one with that flow, whether we embrace it or not. From personal journey to universal connection, the herbal path is the thread that this life and its expression is woven from and one I am ever grateful for.

 

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Connections and Change

Today has been cold and rainy and now that I am settled for the evening, in front of a warm fire, I find myself in the mood for a little philosophising.

“This walk on Bindon Hill brings to the fore three important themes of landscape reading: everything changes, everything is connected, and everything has multiple causes.” Patrick Whitefield – Permaculture teacher.

For the last few years I have felt a convergence between many of the different facets of my life and an awareness of the subtle threads that run through my various perspectives. What is interesting to me is that these things are all based on experience and observation of the world around me, though they may be presented within different philosophies, ideas or world views.

Two such things which are fundamental to both my experience of nature and my love of Buddhist teachings for example, are the truth of connection and flow – or Interbeing, and the truth of change.  I may call myself a ‘buddhist’, ‘nature lover’, ‘permaculturist’ or any other number of labels, but ultimately these are just concepts that help give structure to the actual experience of living in the world.

Two of the key principles of Buddhism are that all phenomena are impermanent and that they have no inherent self. This is what I see reflected in the natural world at all times, these simple truths of change and interbeing which underpin our entire existence. As humans we tend to want things to be solid, linear, permanent and unchanging as all these qualities make life easier for the mind to conceptualise and create pattern, formula and theory from. But if we look closely we can see that nothing exists without dependence on numerous other factors in a delicate balance which allows for continuous change and transformation. Ultimately, these two truths are really one because when everything is seen to be in a state of change and flow, there cannot be said to be any independent or inherently existing self, only a kind of beautiful dance and the awareness thereof.

‘When we take a step on the green earth, we are aware that we are made of air, sunshine, minerals and water, that we are a child of earth and sky, linked to all other beings, both animate and inanimate. This is the practice of non-self.’  Thich Nhat Hanh – Buddhist monk, teacher and peace activist.

Walking on the green earth with Thich Nhat Hanh in Plum Village, France.

It seems to me that the perceived tension between the natural world and modern Western society is a reflection of the tension between our own true nature and ego or independent identity.

Where as the natural world can be clearly seen to be inter-dependant, constantly changing, selfless, connected and whole, the world of modern man is an attempt to build something lasting, stable, individual and solid. It is an attempt to shut out what, in our deepest hearts we know ourselves to be and instead create more and more strands to weave into the web that is the illusion of a separately existing self.

The current scientific culture provides a similar example. Nothing can be considered logical or ‘true’ unless the mind  can create a theory from it. Again we can see the attempt to make definitive ‘laws’ of the universe as an attempt to create something unchanging, ‘real’, and solid in order to pacify this egoic state of delusion that we are all subject to at some point. The thing that is often overlooked however is that theories themselves are continually changing. One idea of the universe is disproved and gives way to another and another and yet at each stage of development, we hang on to these theories as if they were a lifeline and desperately try to stamp on anyone whose ideas are conflicting. And it is a lifeline –  a lifeline for the ego which will destroy everything in its attempt to keep hold of the fallacy that it is a separate, unique and independently existing entity.

Life, death, decay and back again - the cycle of change.

Many of us experience a pull to nature, just as underneath the cultural obsessions with shopping, celebrity and the mundane details of life there is always a pull into own own hearts. This conflict is written through our landscapes and our lives, even though the resolution lies closer than our own breath. The clues are everywhere; in how each wave is unique but is really just part of the ocean, in how the clouds arise and pass but do not obscure the sky, how the seasons in the forest are ever changing and how the cells of our bodies die and are renewed so many times in our lifespan.

If we can open our eyes and open our hearts to look around us, we see the whole world is whispering this most plain, yet most secret of truths, and it is saying ‘we have not forgotten who we are, we have not forgotten who we are.’

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In the beginning was the word. After that came the concept and then, piece by piece, we began amassing knowledge of the world.

But what came before the word? Before our minds began to conceptualise? It can only have been the experience, alive and present in the moment. The word was only ever meant to be a reference point, a useful tool in describing experience, our own innate knowledge. But somewhere along the line we have crowned it King.

My point is that, when I consider how so many in our society regard issues  of science, health and disease, it seems that concepts have come to have more value than experience and, as a result, our approach has become stagnant. To put it another way, we have forgotten how to listen to our own bodies and hearts.

A few weeks ago I saw someone who told me she felt bad every time she ate dairy but, as the tests had come back negative for a food intolerance, she continued to eat it. I asked her why she placed more value on a test than the experience of her own body. She seemed surprised. I have seen many people change their diet because of something they read even though they don’t feel good on it, take up strenuous exercise even though their joints are hurting, drink wine every weekend even though it plays havoc with their digestion etc. We have let our minds totally take over and have become slaves to knowledge as it appears in theory rather than as it appears in our living awareness.

Right now herbal education in the UK is becoming increasingly more research driven in an attempt to keep up with the scientific model of healthcare, a model which is at best disempowering and at worst highly exploitative. And at what cost?  If a doctor/ herbalist/ person in a white coat with the letters BSc after their name tells us we should do something we just do it, even if the wisdom of own body says ‘stop’?

Our experience is alive because we are in the awareness of it at the present moment. With our minds firmly in control of the reins however, the concept – already a dead thing- has gained supremacy over what we are actually experiencing. I bumped into a friend last week on my way home and we started discussing a certain journalist who is notoriously anti-natural medicine. She said, “he’s got three degrees in science, he knows what he’s talking about.” I must say, this did little to change my mind. Let’s face it, I could have three degrees in theology but does that mean I know God?

What I mean by this is that studying doesn’t necessarily lead you to a deeper understanding of the thing itself, which can only be gained by experience. Study is very useful of course and is something many of us, myself included, enjoy and get much benefit from, but it is also dangerous because it can lead to a certain arrogance and the assumption that we know things, and that we know them better than you do. All we really know is that concepts and theories are changing and becoming outdated all the time but unlike experience, which is lived in the awareness of change, theory encourages us to hold onto something and cement it in our minds as ‘true’ or ‘untrue’. Experience is ever fresh, ever changing, always in the present, and as such, there can be nothing to hang onto.

One last example. Recently, another friend sent me an article written by a neuroscientist about how meditation had been proven to be effective – never mind that meditators have known this for centuries upon centuries through direct experience. The scientist went on to say that Buddhism was, in someways, acceptable to science because of the teaching of ‘no self’ as science has never managed to find something that could be called the self. Reading this guy’s description of no self made me laugh because it was so clear he had very rigid ideas about himself, despite the fact that science told him otherwise. Whilst he knew about this idea of ‘no self’ had had absolutely no experience of it. Contrast this with a great meditation master whose direct experience of selflessness is like a beacon shining from their very being and you can be left in no doubt that it is the experience which liberates, not the concept. The article is here if you have the inclination to read it.

So anyway, if you’re still with me by now, what I’m really getting at here is that we must learn to trust ourselves again. We can do so within a framework of study and knowledge but with mind as servant to experience rather than as the Grand Ringmaster, forever running the show.

“You do not possess intelligence, nor do you possess ignorance, nor do you possess a mixture of these two. You are yourself intelligence. An intelligence that never ceases and never strays. ”  Avadhuta Gita

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Your art is to be the praise of something that you love. It may only be the praise of a shell or a stone.
John Ruskin.

This is my little offering for the March Blog Party, the topic of which is herbal creativity. I must apologise if this post is a little rambling and incoherent, it started of in quite a different place to the one in which it ended and I fear the part of it that made sense may have got lost somewhere en route!

It occurred to me as I turned my mind to the topic of herbal creativity that nothing has quite the same creative potential as nature herself. One man who understood this well was Johann Wolfgang von Goethe, whose work is testament to the depth of understanding that can be achieved when we enter into a communion with nature rather than imposing rigid theory upon her. He sought to understand the unity inherent in nature through a technique of contemplative observation which harnessed the cognitive perception of the mind rather than denying its existence. Where as empirical science sought to understand nature through objective observation of phenomena, then impose theory upon it, Goethe understood that pure sensory experience is not possible and that understanding only arises through a meeting of sense perception and mental faculties. What we perceive therefore, arises at the meeting point of mind and matter, “the complete phenomenon is visible only when there is a coalescence of sensory outsight with intuitive insight.”

For Goethe, science “involves not only a rigorous training of our faculties of observation and thinking, but also of other human faculties which can attune us to the spiritual dimension that underlies and interpenetrates the physical: faculties such as feeling, imagination and intuition.”

I wrote a post last year on working with Goethean observation in deepening my relationship with Comfrey which you can read here. This year I found myself captivated by the emerging buds of my favourite Elder and I decided to attempt the process once more.

When working with this technique it is wonderful if you can observe your chosen plant at least once a day as this allows for a deep observation of the subtle changes which are occurring. This wasn’t a possibility for me at this time so I had to content myself with twice weekly visits, all of which still afforded me a magical view into the dynamic processes involved in the life of this beautiful tree.

When I had a little more time I opted to draw the buds as this requires a much more profound engagement and necessitates a far deeper level of observation. Mostly I made do with photographing the changes I observed though and scrawling a few key lines in my notebook. The object here is not to produce a piece of fine art but to engage with what we see in a way that allows for a relaxing of our normal consciousness that sees the plant as ‘out there’ and ourselves as ‘in here’ and enables a kind of flow to arise which recognises both the seer and the seen as being at one.

“I would rather teach drawing that my pupils may learn to love nature, than teach the looking at nature that they may learn to draw.”

John Ruskin

Goethe realised that scientific, or indeed any truth is active and not passive, just as the observer themself is dynamic and ever changing. By entering into the flow of the plant he was able to see that each part is a metamorphosis of another. In botany we are accustomed to looking at and identifying different plant parts, such as leaves, sepals, petals and stems. When we pick a plant, press it and make a herbarium specimen -the traditional way of recording plants in botany- we only get a snap shot in time rather than facilitating an understanding of the continual metamorphosis of the plant, how each part belongs to a developing whole which is never static but forever adapting to the environment around it. He explained, “The variation of plant forms, whose unique course I had long been following, now awakened in me more and more the idea that the plant forms around us are not predetermined, but are happily mobile and flexible, enabling them to adapt to the many conditions throughout the world, which influence them, and to be formed and re-formed with them.”  In fact Goethe’s ideas were to become key in the developing theories of evolution.

What a wonderful thing it is to see new life emerging. By practising Goethe’s technique of gentle observation I was able to witness how each part of the Elder gradually transforms into another. How the stem lengthens into buds along its nodes. How from the buds emerge six little leaves parting slowly to reveal the sepals, like hands clasped in prayer, protecting and holding their treasure within.

Slowly, as these hands begin to open we see another transformation has taken place. Somewhere, hidden from sight, the tiny beginnings of the elderflowers have formed. These in turn will open out and become the large, flat, white flower heads that mark the beginning of summer in June. As the year continues to turn they will become the ripe black elderberries that will help keep us healthy all winter long.

At what point in time can we say the elderberry is born? When the first buds appear? When we see those first little clusters that will become the flowers? Or not till later, when they become recognisable as such? We tend to see bud, flower and fruit as separate instances in time and neglect the thread that runs through all, from life to death and back again.

Taking any point in time as static can tend to inhibit understanding rather than promote it, and that is why practising Goethean observation can be so transformative. We stop looking for a phenomena that is inherently existing, as we Buddhists say, “from its own side’, and start to understand that life and its myriad expressions are part of a continuum that is constantly creative, never still, always metamorphosing.

“How difficult it is not to put the sign in place of the thing; how difficult to keep the being always livingly before one and not to slay it with the word.”  Goethe.

Through our own creative process we can start to become one with the miraculous creative process of  all nature.

Please pop back tomorrow when I’ll be posting the links to everyone else’s creatively inspired ideas.

References:

Henri Bortoft – The Wholeness of Nature – Goethe’s Way of Science
Peter Tompkins and Christopher Bird – The Secret Life of Plants

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There is a small area of woodland near my house which is filled with violets at this time of year. If you stumble on them unawares they will quite take your breath away. Sometimes the smell is barely detectable but when the sun is shining and the breezes blow, it is utterly divine. I have harvested twice from this patch over the last couple of weeks in order to make an infused honey, an infused oil and a flower remedy. Coming home with a harvest of violet flowers is like carrying a bag of precious jewels, truly a privilege. Unless they continue to bloom so prolifically, I will seek another patch to harvest for a tincture as it’s so important to remember not to over harvest one area.

The sweet violet flowers we know and love are what is known in botany as chasmogamous flowers, those that display their stamens and style for  insect pollination, but many species of viola also produce tiny self pollinating flowers later in the year which are known as cleistogamous. This means that we can be a bit freer with our harvest than we might otherwise be but we should still remember that insects need the flowers for an early source of nectar and therefore not take too many. Also, a beautiful patch of wild violets is enjoyed by many passers by and its not fair to strip it bare.

As a herbal remedy Violet is used most often for it’s soothing, demulcent properties found in the leaf and flower. Being cool and moist they are particularly good for conditions where there is heat such as inflammation and irritated coughs. Culpepper wrote, “A drachm weight of the dried leaves or flowers of Violets, but the leaves more strongly, doth purge the body of choleric humours and assuageth the heat if taken in a draught of wine or other drink.”

Three species are used medicinally, Viola odorata, V. tricolour (the wild pansy) and V. yezoensis (the chinese violet).  The wild dog violet is one of the most common violets found in the UK but it lacks scent, unlike the odorata, though it is still mucilaginous.

Violets are also gently cleansing and decongestant and can be used safely for helping clear the chest and sinuses. Combined with their anti-inflammatory effects and their antioxidant content, this makes them particularly helpful for allergies. You can read Danielle’s fantastic post about treating seasonal allergies here.

They are also specific for a sluggish lymphatic system and make a very valuable spring tonic herb for getting everything moving again after a stagnant winter. This makes them helpful for breast swellings and mastitis and many sources recommend them for cancer treatment. Used as a poultice and taken internally as tea or tincture they were a traditional remedy for breast cancer. I think they resonate with this area of the body particularly as they are, to me, a remedy of the heart. It is with a slight sense of shame that I realise I left them out of my herbal hugs post back in January as they are certainly deeply comforting and loving in their energy. In fact Violets were used by the ancient Greeks in potions for love and fertility.

I also like to use violet as a skin remedy. Both the odorata and the tricolor, better known as heartsease, which flowers a little later, are very valuable in oils or washes for a variety of skin ailments. Their cooling, soothing and protective properties can be used on both dry and weeping eczema as well as acne and irritated, itchy skins. The leaves and flowers contain volatile oils and saponins both of which are extracted well in an infused oil which can then be made in to a lovely cream. I like mine combined with chickweed, speedwell or lavender infused oils depending on the person it is for. For acne treatment I would use it as a wash rather than an oil based preparation.

The flowers and leaves are a very gentle laxative and are often given to children in syrup form to ease their bowels. The root however is a strong laxative and purgative and in high doses will cause vomiting, so be wary.

Also be sure not to use the house plant, African violet, which is poisonous!

The flower remedy is a particularly special preparation which holds many great lessons for us. It is for those who have a very pure vision of the way they feel the world should be. It is a remedy of the imagination, for promoting and holding a clear and positive vision and returning us to a sense of child-like joy and wonder that can heal despondency and the fatigue caused by living in a challenging world.  The sweet violet helps us stay centred in the place where love and imagination has the power to manifest physically and create a better world as a result.

The upper petals are open to give and receive but the perfect gold centre is protected, so the visions held cannot be compromised by the challenges of this world. The fine veins running through the petals are like nerves, indicating the extreme sensitivity of the violet personality. Their heads seem to hang heavy indicating how weighed down these folk can feel by the suffering they see around them. They grow close to the ground indicating how the remedy can help in grounding our dreaming into the here and now and stabilising us when times are tough. The large heart shaped leaves unfurl from the centre enabling us to open our hearts to all life’s experiences whilst remaining equanimous, grounded and free.

A perfect remedy for our troubled times, the violet is one of my favourite flowers.

It was truly a blessing to have such a bright sunny morning for making my flower essence. I’ve spoken to flower remedy makers who do theirs whatever the weather but I find there’s nothing like sunshine to result in a wonderfully energised remedy. You can read my post on how to make your own flower remedies here.

Violet infused honey is such a treat and you can leave the flowers in to add a decorative and delicious touch to your food. It has many of the same properties as the syrup but is simpler and better for those who seek the medicinal benefits of honey rather than using sugar. An added advantage is that you don’t have to heat the flowers or honey at all so none of the antioxidants or vital enzymes will be destroyed. I had thought I wouldn’t bother at all with a syrup this year but Sarah Head posted such an enticing recipe here which involves a magical colour change, so I might have to do a small batch after all!

To make the honey just fill a jar with violet flowers, cover with a reasonably runny raw honey and stir with a chop stick. let infuse for a fortnight or so and then enjoy. The flowers tend to float to the top so just turn the jar or give it a stir now and again to ensure everything is well mixed.

The violets have also been gracing my food regularly over the past couple of weeks and I find nothing more cheering than their beautiful colour mixed here with the leafy greens of my lunch which consisted of quinoa, walnuts. sunflower seeds, cleavers, tender new hawthorn leaves, viola flowers and lemon juice.  It was a delight for all my senses.

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For me there is something special about trees in winter. You get to appreciate the beautiful subtlety of twisted trunks and broken branches, the soft hues and the sinewy masses that are normally overshadowed by leaves. I wrote about my appreciation of tree barks here some months ago and this too is part of the fascination of winter tree gazing. But there’s more than that; it seems to me that trees, especially deciduous ones, somehow embody the spirit of winter. Once their leaves drop they cast a spell of sleep and withdrawal across the land- and us, if we are alert enough to perceive it. They look aged, wise and full of secrets, but ones that have no intention of being told until Spring begins to wipe the sleep from our eyes and comb last year’s leaves from our hair.

It’s fun to learn how to spot different trees without being able to rely on their leaves to identify them.

Ash are one of the most distinctive due to their black buds and the ash keys still clinging to their branches at this time of year.

Ash Keys

Oak too can be easy to spot due to it’s lovely ridged bark and twisted branches. It helps too that there are still some leaves, despite the high winds, snow and torrential rain of the past few weeks.

Oak Branches

Beech trees are always a pleasure to spot with their smooth, silvery bark and great sinewy limbs.

Beech trunk

It will come as no surprise to those who have been reading this blog a while that one of my favourite trees to admire at this time is the Hawthorn. These three wind blasted beauties on top of the Downs are some of my favourite trees in the local area.

I love gazing at how the elements and the landscape have moulded them, shaping their stories into form.  Though Hawthorns are abundant in this area, each one is completely unique, just like humans they reflect their own natures and that of their environment.

Winter is generally the least popular of the seasons for it’s cold, dark days and biting winds but if you are open to finding the beauty in nature, you’ll find it year round, even if sometimes you have to look a little harder than others.

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Everything exists because everything depends. This philosophy was drummed into me by my Buddhist meditation teachers and I think I’ll be forever understanding it in new and deeper ways. If we consider closely, we can see that all things can only exist in dependence with other factors. The table can only exist because there was a tree and a carpenter. The carpenter can only exist because of the air he breathes and the food he consumes. The vegetables he eats only exist because of the soil which also depends upon the bacteria and breakdown of other plants and once living beings. And so on and so on.

Over the past few years, this philosophy has become central to my understanding of health and the healing powers of plants. We can see it working on very simplistic levels, i.e. eating poor quality food leads to compromised health, but also in more subtle ways that are to do with our relationships to the plants and ourselves.

Bee depends on flowers, flowers depend on bee.

We all have our own individual ways of looking at the world, our own genetic make up, our own physical and mental strengths and weaknesses and we all perceive the plants we use for medicine in slightly different ways. Each plant is also unique, even if it is from a particular species, and so when we take medicines, the result is always about a meeting between ourselves with the herbs.

This understanding runs counter to Western biomedical understandings in which the body is seen as a machine and the drugs as the tools to alter or fix it. Results must be precise, repeatable and measurable or they are discounted. In my understanding however, herbal medicine can never really fit this pattern, though many have tried to make it, because it doesn’t allow for the uniqueness of people and plants and the relationship that occurs between the two. Even if you and I suffer from the same disease and take the same herbs, our healing will be different. That is because plants aren’t drugs (even if some popular books and T.V. shows use that terminology to appeal to a wider audience!). In fact, plants are unique and remarkable living beings, just as we are and it does well to approach them with the respect and reverence that this understanding incurs.

Depending on innumerable factors.

Just as we all have discernible personalities, yet feel ourselves to have many facets, the plants too are able to surprise us. Often a group of people will have a general consensus about a friend of theirs, agreeing that ‘she is serious and practical’ for example. There’ll always be someone however who says, ‘Really? I find her very amusing, she has a great sense of humour!’ That’s because these qualities are dynamic, they depend, it’s impossible for a relationship to be static as things are always in a state of change. And so it is with plants. When you do herb tastings with a group of people most will agree on the major effects but there will always be some variation. This is because we are entering into a dynamic relationship with another being, so what we feel won’t just depend on whether they are hot or cold, moist or astringent etc, but what is going on for us too. That’s what makes healing with herbs so exciting, the same plant can offer many possibilities when you spend time really getting to know it. It turns from acquaintance to deep and most darling friend.

I only exist because I depend. Thanks Bramble.

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Common Aspen, Populus tremula, is a species of poplar native to Europe and parts of Asia and closely related to the North American Aspen, Populus tremuloides. Known as the trembling or quivering tree, once you know Aspen it’s impossible not to recognise. It’s forever dancing, forever whispering, forever shimmering with the breeze and glistening in the light.

Aspen

I first learnt about Aspen and it’s healing properties through the Bach Flower Remedies where it is used for treating fears and anxiety of unknown origin. It is associated with fear in the doctrine of signatures because it appears to be trembling in the wind. Indeed the aspen is hardly ever still, except when there is no wind at all, and you can hear the distinctive rustling of it’s silvery leaves which are associated with the moon and see them glistening in continuous motion whenever you draw near.
The Celts saw the Aspen as the Whispering Tree. Closely associated with the wind, it carries messages from the ancestors offering deep understandings and a gateway into the worlds beyond our own and the realms of faerie. To sit beneath an aspen and listen to its leaves is to hear a thousand thousand voices, all singing the songs of life and its mysteries.

Aspen Leaves

Though the aspen has been associated with fear, to me the shimmering motion of its leaves seems more one of joy and exultation in the present moment and the gift of life. I find sitting with Aspen an experience of blissful connection. To me it’s a tree of light, totally connected to the divine and dancing its marriage to the consciousness that underpins its existence. Its trembling seems to me to demonstrate its exquisite sensitivity, its awareness of its own mortality and the pure joy and exuberance it experiences in the act of living. Perhaps it heals us from fear because it itself knows no fear, it doesn’t look to the future or the past which is the source of all our fears. It just dances it’s joy for this moment and in doing so, teaches us to shed our habitual worries and anxieties too. Sitting beneath an aspen brings me a sense of wonder and reminds me to celebrate this present moment and to laugh with amazement that I am alive right now, in this moment, what a miracle!

Aspen Sky

Associated with Autumn, it’s good to sit with at this time of year as it helps us to shed our old fears and outworn ideas at the turning of the pagan new year at Samhain (Halloween).
Glennie Kindred writes that Aspen ‘ grows by sending up new suckers which can become new trees. Thus an aspen will create hundreds of interconnecting trees all joined together at the roots, providing us with a clear image of continuity, growth and connection to the source. Linking to the spiritual source, love, is the culmination of a spiritual journey. Everything leads to here and everything follows from here.’
The Celts believed the whispering of the ancestors could lead to visions or messages in answer to our questions. Mostly, I believe the ancestors, through the sweet musical voice of the aspen, are whispering to us to live our lives, live them fully, live them well and live them in joyful celebration of this moment right here and now.

References:
The Tree Ogham – Glennie Kindred
Tree Wisdom – Jaqueline Memory Paterson

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This is going to be my last elder post of the year (probably) so bear with me!

Today we went to Westonbirt Arboretum and spent a wonderful day admiring all the beautiful, majestic and exotic trees. I loved seeing them, especially the incredible collection of Japanese Acers, though I must confess to enjoying the Native Tree Walk just as much with its wonderful assortment of hawthorns, hazels, oaks, junipers, aspens, pines and birches. One tree that I didn’t notice there was the Elder. Only as we left the Arboretum did I see her, just outside the walls, growing straggly yet strong in the place she likes to be the most… on the edge.

The idea of ‘Edge’ is one I first came across during an introduction to permaculture design and it’s one I come back to, now and again, and understand more deeply each time I do. Edge is the meeting point between any two things, where garden meets hedgerow, where river meets shore, where ground meets sky- these are all examples.

Of course in the case of the Elder it’s also where life meets death, where old meets new, where known meets unknown and where the world of spirit meets the physical world. Elder has always been a plant of the edge, both physically and metaphorically.

 

Walking the Edge

 

In the permaculture philosophy, the edge is where it’s all happening. Change, variety, the arrival of new species – the ‘edge’ often has a greater biodiversity then the ‘middle’ as it is where two different ecosystems meet.

Here’s a nice description of the concept of ‘Edge’ and its use in design from the Permaculture Association.

“The place where two eco-systems or habitats meet (e.g. woodland and meadow) is generally more productive and richer in the variety of species present than either habitat on its own. In ecology this is called ‘ecotone’. This is central to the idea of using edges as a design method. The logic is simple. If the most productive bit of woodland is the edge, then design it to have a bigger edge. These ideas are used in alley cropping, shelterbelts and pond design. Marginal could be ideas, views, unusual plants, wild animals or people at the ‘edge’ of society. Permaculture itself has been seen as marginal for many years….”

So this idea of edge can also be applied to new and diverse ideas, to people and to cultures. The margins are where new things begin before they start to spread out and colonise new places.

The edge is always a little bit unknown. Where else would I expect to find the Elder?

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Recently I read these words from the famous and well respected nature writer Richard Mabey on the subject of the Elder (Sambucus nigra). “It is hard to understand how this mangey, short-lived, opportunistic and foul smelling shrub was once regarded as one of the most magically powerful of plants.” Now, I like Mabey and own several of his books but reading this made me seriously re-evaluate my position! She may not be a classic beauty, but look closely and you will see so many aspects of the Elder Mother to love and cherish. Her presence in the hedgerow is such a blessing. She shelters and protects not only her human children, but is also beloved of wildlife and has a key role to play in plant ecosystems as well. She is truly a mother to us all and should be treated with respect, if not veneration, by everyone whose life has been touched by her generosity.

The Elder bathed in late summer sun

Along with other white blossomed trees such as Hawthorn and Rowan, the Elder belongs to the realm of the faeries and the Goddess. I loved discovering this, as all three have been particular favourites of mine for many years.  The Elder represents the old crone aspect of the goddess, as her name suggests, that part of us which is wise, experienced, strong and connected to the world of the unconscious. Part of these associations come from Celtic mythology in which Elder governed the thirteenth and final month of the year. Her place was to guard the gates between life and death, endings and beginnings, the knowledge of the day and the mysteries of the night. Her mythology has always related to those in-between times such as Samhain (Halloween) and Midsummers Eve when you would see the Faery King ride by with his retinue, should you choose to take shelter beneath an Elder tree. Elderberries gathered at Samhain are seen as especially potent medicinally, though there are seldom any left by late October.

Elder Hedgerow

Often, when I come across Elder out walking I have a sense that I’ve strayed into the path of someone venerable and wise and feel I should offer a little curtsey or bow of respect, or at least an acknowledgement in words or in thought. She seems to cooly observe the world, somewhat detached from its folly yet uncompromising in her efforts to help. Just like any loving and aged Grandmother, or anyone connected with the realms of faery, she also has a bit of a sense of humour! There’s often a challenge involved in picking Elder, she’s usually surrounded by a guard of nettles or a hidden ditch for the unwary to stumble down.

Elder Tree

In his highly recommended book The Lost Language of Plants, Stephen Harrod Buhner describes Elder as a keystone plant, one that helps to establish a community of plants by increasing the health of an ecosystem and making it more hospitable. He says;

“Keystone species, once established, call to them not only soil bacteria and mycelia but the plants they have formed close interdependencies with over millennia. As the plants arrive, the keystone’s chemistries literally inform and shape their community structure and behaviours. The capacity of keystone species to ‘teach’ their plant communities how to act was widely recognised in indigenous and folk taxonomies. Elder trees for example are keystone species in many ecosystems. Among many indigenous and folk peoples it is said that the Elder tree ‘teaches the plants what to do and how to grow,’ and that without its presence the local plant community will become confused.”

This confirms for me one of the key aspects of my understanding of the Elder, that of protection. Not only does she protect and shelter young and newly establishing species of plants but, through the berries she produces in abundance each year, she protects our immune systems during the harshest months of winter. These berries are also rich in antioxidants which are known to protect our cardiovascular system, skin and brain among other things. In folklore, The Elder was thought to protect from witchcraft and negative energies and was traditionally planted at the back of the house, whilst Rowan was planted at the front.

The Elder Protects

For me the Elder speaks of the wisdom of change, the subtle understandings of life and death and the knowledge teamed with deep compassion that only those of great age can possess. We have much to learn from this ‘mangey’ and ‘opportunistic’ old crone. This spirit of the hedgerow who doesn’t quite belong to this world, but fulfils so many duties within it.

Who cares what Mabey thinks. we love you Elder Mother.

Elder Sky

Pop back tomorrow when I’ll be posting a variety of the elderberry recipes I’ve made over the last fortnight.

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