I had the idea about a week after finishing the edging, so there wasn’t that much grass left from my weeding and tidying efforts, and the violets have now finished flowering, but the forgetmenots are doing brilliantly and it has been a very cheerful indoor arrangement for about three weeks. I notice some aquilegia seedlings have appeared as well. The grass has had to be cut every few days…
I spent the day yesterday pumpkin carving, preparing for the festival of Samhain and having a really joyful celebration of the year gone and the year coming.
This was the first truly joint pumpkin I have carved with my daughter, as her design input was equal to mine. After explaining that we weren’t going to carve a scary face, because Samhain isn’t intended to be a scary time of year (more connecting and thanking the dead, our ancestors, those who have gone before rather than being scared by ghosts) we thought about what things we were thankful for. Fairies. Flowers. Trees. Frogs. We can use cookie cutters, she said.
I have spent quite a bit of time over the past year going through the elements, so I decided to make my own thanks and celebration by organising them into four elemental groups, with three things for each one. We also had a five-pointed star for our lid, so that made a perfect 13 holes to be carved in the pumpkin.
My daughter’s washable pens were perfect for drawing the design on, especially as any traces can be easily removed afterwards, and where we had a suitable cutter she drew round them for me. Where we didn’t she found me a picture in one of her books to copy … luckily the pen can be rubbed out and corrections made!
I used a knife to cut the lid, then a melon baller has proved the most useful tool to cut through seed strings. This year I also used it to remove half the flesh from the inside so that the walls weren’t too thick to cut through, then cooked what I removed for pies later. Experience has taught me that a cookie cutter doesn’t cope with curved pumpkin skin very well, so after having drawn around them, I used a hacksaw blade taped to a piece of wood, which has been my trusty pumpkin carver for over a decade now. It turns corners better than a knife, although can leave edges ragged if not careful.
All four sides have holes in, making it hard to photograph, but right for us. Earth on the side that was on the ground, fire upwards to the sun, water and air in between. Some are animals, some, such as a musical note or the heart, are symbolic.
May you have bright blessings and a peaceful new year.
A bright, clear December day yesterday, we managed to have a walk at one of my favourite places locally. This is Nine Ladies Stone Circle, on Stanton Moor in Derbyshire. (There is a legend that the King played the fiddle and the ladies danced, until all were turned to stone for dancing on the sabbath.)
I have done many simple, solitary ceremonies here over the past few years, and always managed to have the space to myself until the moment I finish when other people appear – just as they did straight after I took this photo. However I have also noticed no one ever stays for long, especially not within the circle itself; the guardian seems to remove anyone lingering fairly promptly!
It has one of the strongest energy fields I know of – straddling the circle ring is a strange experience, and I can always feel the energy flowing very strongly between the circle and the King’s Stone. Most people can feel the flow just in front of the King’s Stone I have found, although it does seem to vary how strong it is. (It would be interesting to compare strengths at different times of the moon, or the sun, but I don’t live close enough to do this!)
Yesterday I didn’t do anything special while there, since I wasn’t alone and hadn’t planned the visit in advance, but I explored the experience in meditation later. Strangely I didn’t feel the need to renew any promises, ask for anything, or make any particular connections, which I could have done had I felt anything was missing – yet I felt very much at peace. It was like by going somewhere that was part of me and I was a part of, and brought me back to who I am. Even more than that, I felt energised, and I realised that, to me, Nine Ladies is a place of power that refreshes and restores.
To connect back to last week’s post, it made me think of how R Ogilvie Crombie spent a period every day connecting with sources of power, and thus was always ready for out of body experiences and communicating with elementals or guardian spirits at any time of day or night. Personally I have noticed how I can feel tired after a journey, or am sometimes too tired to journey, and realised that this type of energising is probably what I need at times, as I received yesterday and have received from various other ancient sites or from oak trees I have visited. However becoming aware means that it is now part of my consciousness. I need to re-energise myself, be at one with nature, and connect with all the elements on a regular basis.My garden simply isn’t enough; I also need to find places I can visit regularly to raise my energy so that I can learn and understand and feel, or find an alternative way of raising my own energy – because after we left the circle, we passed through some of my favourite silver birch woodland, and I could feel and see energies in a way I have rarely experienced except when journeying. As if every blade were alive and shimmering, seeing the growth, seeing the aura of each tree, sensing elementals living there, catching a brief glimpse of a gnome by a tree. Truly magical.
I am in water, I am nearly part of the water. I am wishing I could come back not as a human but as a water elemental. Oh to be a drop of rain, falling through the sky, then trickling through vegetation into a stream. To be a part of that, part of a river, the sea. Waves, or deep water. The feeling is so powerful, it catches me by surprise.
Could I simply do that?
Then I see a problem. Water elementals are formed and unformed when they are needed and not needed. They live, but then disappear as the water evaporates, taking no memory with them.*
A human has memory, too much sometimes. I feel weighed down. I want to be free. Tears run down my face.
But then I remember that as a human I can follow the water with my mind. I can go into the tree with my mind, up out of the leaves. I can play in a huge stopper at the bottom of a pourover, or just drift lazily down a summer stream where ducks make their way back and forth. And I can keep the memory of each exploration, bring it into my own life – along with so many other things as well. I make a vow to go swimming again.
* On further reflection I realise this probably isn’t true. Elementals can be themselves again when they reform, or even a more developed, further advanced version of themselves, just as we are in essence ourselves again in each lifetime. Spirit, in all its forms, is conscious. But it may be just as well I didn’t consider this at the time…
It is two weeks later. I journey astrally to meet the elemental of the swimming pool where I have been going. I tried to make contact when physically at the pool, but just had the impression of colourful swirls of energy, the colours associated with swimming pools, of blues and whites, strangely the blues nearly the same as what I was wearing.
In my journey I was able to see her much more clearly. She is far more advanced than the simple elementals, more like a mermaid in form. I shall call her a Deva, as that is how she seemed to me. Her main colours were indeed swirls of light blue and white, with the occasional streak of dark blue. She had long blond hair, and overall looked like an Art Nouveau image of a graceful woman, but with her form unfixed and ever changing. I was surprised that when she came out of the pool to talk to me, she had legs, but they disappeared again as soon as she re-entered the water. She was young, and as bright and clear as the water. (Which is the nicest public swimming pool water I can ever remember being in.)
As the pool suddenly became busy, she excused herself and said she had to go. I watched her guiding several people to avoid collisions, and supporting anyone learning to swim – one girl of about six or seven in particular was getting a lot of help from her to float gently.
I then left the pool and came to my own garden, to try and meet the Deva of our pond. She was completely different in looks and character, swirls of greens, lots of browns, a dash of pink and red from the waterlily, dark hair, more frog-like. She had no time to stop, so busy was she trying to keep the balance of this very young pond. I thanked her for her efforts and told her how beautiful it was looking. I then returned the way I had come, for once not feeling bereft as I re-entered ordinary reality.
Elder is now published on its own page, under Tree Stories or click here.Technically Elder, Sambucus nigra, should probably be a shrub rather than a tree. It does have a bole where the roots and branches meet but it scarcely has a trunk, its branches are hollow, and it is currently classified as being in the Adoxacae family along with Moschatel. (Previously it was with honeysuckle and snowberry in the dipsacale or teasel family.) However Elder towers over most other shrubs and grows to the size of a small tree, so in folklore it is a tree.
The name is thought to come from the Anglo-Saxon aeld, fire, as its hollow sticks were used for encouraging a good blaze. They also called it ellaern, meaning hollow tree. Other names include Ellhorn and Bour (pipe) tree.
Elders like to grow in full sun and will romp away in a hedge overshadowing the hawthorn, but are also frequently found in damp shady areas of woodland forming part of the understory. It has a very strong life force and great powers of regeneration, being quite hard to remove should you wish to. However not much will grow under it so it is difficult to place in a garden.
A wide range of wildlife lives off elderflowers and berries, hence it will often grow near rabbit or badger setts after they have helped the seed along its way. Caterpillars also like the foliage. Elderberries can be mildly toxic to humans unless cooked, particularly if still unripe. Medicinally, however Elder is a very valuable tree. The berries and also the bark were used as a purgative, for rheumatism, or for colds and flu or sore throats and for asthma; breathing through a hollowed out stick was also a remedy for asthma. The leaves are good for bruises, sprains and strains or chilblains, or for insect repellant as a bunch to keep flies out of the kitchen or off horses, or soaked and the liquid used on the human body against midges. The flowers are good as a tonic or for epilepsy or sinusitis.
Other uses from the tree include: berry juice as a blue or purple dye, or for making wine, pies, jams, vinegar, chutney; flowers for sparkling wine or cordial, or in salads or cakes; bark for black dye, leaves for green; sticks for blowpipes, whistles, pegs, skewers, or making small whittlings; and the pith for fishing floats or to hold samples on microscope slides. The wood polishes up well when the bark is removed, and the bole is very dense.
In folklore elder was inhabited by the Elder Tree Mother, Hylde-moer, who needed to be appeased before any part of the tree was cut. She would haunt any timber from the tree, not necessarily in a good way, so making furniture from it was generally avoided. Witches were said to be able to turn into elder trees at will. However as protection elder was apparently great for driving away evil spirits or witchcraft, so branches were hung over doorways and buried in graves. Flutes made from elder were used to summon spirits, while twigs woven into a headdress are said to enable the wearer to see spirits. Alternatively they will undo evil magic; a necklace made from elder beads can also be used for protection. To have a self sown elder tree near your house was regarded as particularly auspicious, and they were often planted by bake ovens to keep the devil away. Fairies are said to particularly like the music from elder pipes or flutes, but it is generally advised to avoid sleeping under an elder tree unless you wish to be taken by them. Food left under elder trees overnight will be considered to belong to the fae.
To me the elder is a tree I have always been a little ambivalent towards, and the many contradictions in its character and uses are possibly the reason why. However, I then found a transcript of a conversation between an elder tree interpreted by Verena Stael von Holstein, and Wolfgang Weirauch, which showed me how the strength and spiritual gifts of this species come from precisely this contradictory nature. The many connections the Elder has with spirits and otherworld beings may not be entirely coincidental. As a witches tree, it is without parallel.
Elder Tree: “For human beings there are various paths to seek initiation into the world of spirit: firstly through thinking, clarity of thought; then the path which corresponds more to me is a path rooted in one’s own culture. … On the one hand such a person needs to be formed in a relatively gnarled way, but on the other hand he needs an unimpeded lightness – as you find in my timber. From the outside my wood looks completely gnarled, but inside I am almost cotton-like. As trees we need a harder exterior form, but within I’m the opposite of heaviness: a matter that is almost dissolving. This shows I’m a kind of connecting radiance between this world and the world of spirit. … This permeation with spirit informs my whole being and substance.
On the one hand my substance is very stable, on the other it is in dissolution. For instance, see the feathery quality of my pinnate leaves, through to the tips of each leaf, which are pointed and dentate, or toothed. Due to my transitional and gateway function, my leaves are flame shaped. In the flame you meet the world of spirit in tangible form.
A sulphurous quality comes through [the smell of my leaves.] The world of spirit does not necessarily smell very good for earthly senses. You would need to completely refashion your sense systems to really endure spirituality. If you want to develop your clairsentient faculties of smell, you can school your senses with the scent of crumbled elder leaf. On the other hand, my blossoms give of a fragrance that you probably find wonderful, which has an intoxicating effect and which you use to make sparkling wine. The scent serves at the same time as a warning not to get intoxicated.
As for the berries being poisonous when green and only edible when fully ripe:
Elder tree: “When you are still green you should not pass across to the other side, for then spirituality can endanger you. You first have to attain a certain soul maturity to cope with the full reality. The guardian of the threshold and I have a very close relationship. Wherever elder grows you can encounter your guardian.
Elder has a cleansing effect on the body. You can’t cross over the threshold in an impure state.
I belong to the cultural inheritance of northern Europe, and thus to the forces that come from the North and Teutonic cultures. I belong to people of the central European cultural epoch and their roots. … I am not so important to Asiatic peoples.”
Q: “There are said to have been times when people took off their hats as a mark of respect when passing an elder tree. Why did they do this?”
Tree: “Because they knew unconsciously that the place surrounding an elder tree is sacred. That’s why they removed their hats in the same way as going into church. At the same time people knew unconsciously that higher beings were connected with the elder tree, such as the guardian of the threshold, or Mother Holle, who is a fairytale image of the figure of the guardian.”
From: Nature Spirits of the Trees.
The strange thing to me is that I never liked the taste of elderberry, just the flowers, so I have most of a box of ‘medicinal’ tea on my shelf that I save for when I have a bad cough or cold. However, since writing this story and becoming closer to the tree, I have found I now rather enjoy it.
I love stories. Fairy tales, folk tales, romances, stories about people, animals, spirits, trees. They become part of me, and are part of the way I approach life. I learn through stories, true stories about other people’s lives, or about other places. I explore ideas through stories, my own imagination combining with something deeper, alive, characters I have created with their own ideas and viewpoints that bring insight to me.
History is captured in stories, and I am learning how many myths are based on true stories that have stood the test of time. Great stories, like the floods relating to the end of Atlantis, or the comings of different races, and simple stories used for teaching. Stories about elementals such as fairies and mermaids, and stories that contain our own racial histories. Those stories not written down are being lost, yet at the same time, in the past few centuries there are people collecting them and preserving them in forms suitable for our times. Charles Perrault, Brothers Grimm, WB Yeats and Lady Gregory, Joseph Jacobs, Jack Zipes, to name but a few. Those stories which are needed will survive in our books and computer systems and our collective consciousness. And yet, what about our own stories, the ones told by the fireside in winter or when they are needed? The ones that tell us and our children about who we are?
There seem to me to be two forms of storytelling, the spoken and the written, and they are different. The best autobiographies nearly always seem to be ghost-written, capturing the easy flow from a born raconteur and bringing to it the organisation of writing that builds form, linking the events to each other and to greater truths about place and time. Either skill alone lacks the fullness of the experience that both together can bring. But the ghost writer would be nothing without the raconteur, the person who can tell an interesting story about their life or other’s lives, and tell it appropriately, movingly, coherently.
I was struck reading ‘The Wind Is My Mother’ by Bear Heart and Molly Larkin, how the elders of the community taught through stories, always having an appropriate tale to tell in order to guide the younger ones. They were experienced in the telling, and the younger members of the tribe learned to listen. It started very young:
“When elders came to visit, it almost always meant that, unless they lived nearby, they’d spend the night and go on the next day. At bedtime, the family made a palette for the children in the same room with the elders, and it was done for a reason. Understanding human nature, they knew that children like to eavesdrop. Knowing we were listening when we were supposed to have been asleep, the grown-ups told one another the legends of our tribe. They already knew the stories – they were telling them for our benefit. If we’d thought about it, it should have seemed odd for old people to be telling stories to one another. If they’d said to us, “I want you to listen to this story,” we’d probably get bored, maybe forget about it, so in a way they were great psychologists…”
In such ways were the history and teachings of the tribe passed down through the generations.
However this is not the way I was brought up; the stories I heard over and over were mostly out of books. Some stories were told about personal experiences, such as my parent’s childhoods, but they did not generally go further back than this. Until I did some research into family history I knew the birth place of only one of my grandparents, and none of my great grandparents. I should maybe be glad there were no great family or community or tribal disasters that became legends to be passed on through the family, but there was little history either.
Lisa F. Tardiff commented recently on ‘Rattling The Bones’ blog:
“Most students I meet today will ask me: “Can you recommend a book for me to read”. They don’t have the time nor do they want to give their time away to “listening to me and my story.” Knowledge in the 21st century needs to be written!”
She may be right, and it feels like a sad state of affairs if the pendulum has swung so far towards writing that we can no longer listen to a story being told. However, when I have tried listening to the many elders I meet when out with M and the pushchair, I have realised storytelling is such a lost art that many of them do not have the ability to tell a coherent story. They have had little practice in the telling, or frequently in the listening. On one recent occasion, a man started telling me about his recent health problems and visit to hospital, then morphed into some story about a doctor who was a paedophile. Clearly his mind associations were different to mine, and it wasn’t a story that I needed to hear or had any relevance to him or me. Years ago I had an uncle who would tell us stories about the places he had been, and the people he had spoken to, yet somehow they never quite came alive for me. I was never left wanting to know more. In both cases, the storytellers were not either masters at their art, nor in tune with their audience. So I return to books, letting the right ones come to me at the appropriate times, where the stories contain grains of wisdom, and where they resonate with my own experiences to form part of my heritage.
But I am left wondering, is it possible for me to learn to tell stories: made up, or family history, or great legends, myths and fairytales; or should I simply hone my writing skills so that the stories can be read by future generations? Is it possible to find that balance in our modern lives, where both skills are valued? I hope so.
Mulberry is not a tree I would have anticipated in a short list of twenty trees, but I have fond memories of a huge mulberry in the middle of a car park we used to stop in often when I was small. The fruits ripen over quite a long period, so we would often find a few to eat, but to get to them we would have to find a gap in the branches and pick from the inside. The surface of the car park was light sandy gravel, and would always be stained dark red where fallen berries were crushed by car tyres. Sadly I haven’t been there for over thirty years, so have no idea if the tree is still there.
Reputedly planted en masse by James I England in the early 1600s to start a silk industry, they were not a great success. It is thought this was because Black mulberries were planted, rather than the White, Morus alba, which the silkworms preferred. However it may also have been that our climate was too cold for silkworms, or even for mulberries to grow well. The children’s song “Here we go round the mulberry bush on a cold and frosty morning” may allude to this!
The main use of mulberry today is for paper, and also for cordage. The leaves are eaten by silkworms, and also cut for livestock such as cattle and goats to eat in dry seasons.
The fruits can be eaten when fully ripe, and in my memory are a little like blackberries. They are frequently used for jams, tarts, or wine. Unripe fruits and other green parts are apparently mildly hallucinogenic. The leaves are used in traditional Chinese medicine for the treatment of diabetes, since mulberries have been discovered to contain compounds that suppress high blood sugar. Other uses include treatment of various blood disorders such as high blood pressure, dizziness or anaemia, and for healthy hair growth. The raw juice will keep for months, while the fruit needs careful handling so is rarely found in shops.
I have inadvertently started a collection of hag stones. Not intentionally, I just find them rather intriguing and can’t help picking them up…
There seems to be a long history of humans fascinated by natural holes. Large stones with holes in them, such as the Tolmen Stone on Dartmoor, have been used for people to pass through in initiations for thousands of years. If it is difficult to access, or dangerous to egress, so much the better. Caves have formed a similar purpose, particularly when it is possible to emerge somewhere other than where you entered.
Initiation by a stone works because it changes the consciousness of the person passing through. In shamanic journeying, it is usually necessary to find a natural hole to pass into different worlds; a hole you can physically pass through means you also take your body with you. A hag stone is a tolmen on a small scale, as only your consciousness may pass through. For this reason they can be a useful aid when you want to look at something in a different way, and I have used them for middle earth travel. This may be why they gained the reputation of being a way to see fairies.
Holes have also been thought to cure disease, or infertility. Where a holey stone of the right size cannot be found, then for cures trees were often used; these have the added benefit that the hole can be sealed up again by binding the tree back together and the time of spell is lengthened to include the regrowth of the tree.
The hole can be used as a doorway or portal even without passing through it, in order to draw or repel energy. For example, they can bring luck, or wealth, or protection, and banish misfortune, poverty or psychic attacks. Common places to find them in use are attached to fishing lines or nets, to keys, or as an amulet. They have also been used for divination, looking at the moon through the hole.
Here is my collection, found on various beaches around the British Isles. Most of the holes have probably been made by bi-valve molluscs to live in, when the stones were still attached to bedrock.
I enjoy using herbs in a seasonal way, using a succession of different herbs or wild plants (some might call them weeds) through the year, depending on what I can find. I have tried drying herbs for winter use, especially when shrubby plants such as sage have needed pruning anyway, but I found I never use them; I would rather pick something fresh according to the season and what is growing well at the time.
Luckily there are a few herbs I can pick at any time of year, one of my favourites being Thyme. Only the hardiest varieties survive here in Derbyshire, but I currently have two types in my garden. T. vulgaris I grew from seed which does very well, and another whose name is since lost which has slightly larger leaves and a more rounded flavour, but is only borderline hardy. A little goes a long way with both types, so I use it regularly in tiny quantities through the winter for soups, stews or herb tea. (As with all very strong herbs, don’t use the same herb every day and extra care should be taken if pregnant.)
As a tea, Thyme is great for reducing or thinning mucus, so really helps with winter coughs and colds even for those without lung conditions. I pinch off two or three tips and pour boiling water over them, cover and leave it to infuse until it is drinking temperature. It combines really well with rosemary, which is great for an energy boost, and in early Spring, marjoram which also helps to clear sinuses. Combined with sage it makes a good gargle for a sore throat. It is said to be anti-bacterial and anti-septic, so is good to use directly on the skin as cooled tea or as a salve where it can help with skin conditions, joint inflammations, or cuts and bruises.
Thyme is a survivor, growing in the harshest conditions between cracks in paving slabs or rocks, or on dry mountainsides in the wild. It can even cope with being walked or trampled on. It is said to increase courage and inspiration for when you are doubting yourself. In medieval times, women used to sew thyme into scarves for knights to wear in battle to help them be brave. Earlier uses included room purifications by the Romans, temple purification and offerings by the Greeks, and Egyptian embalming. Some modern pagans use it to cleanse and purify a room instead of sage.
Some writers have suggested that wearing a sprig of thyme will help you see fairies… for some reason it is thought that fairies are very small and can hide among the tiny leaves. I’m sure some can fit here, but not any fairies I’ve seen!
I love eating apples, and always have done as far back as I can remember. I currently have five apple trees in my garden. Three are cordons, Sunset, Bountiful and Arthur Turner, planted the first winter we lived here and on M26 rootstocks, almost too vigorous for their own good. The fourth was found in our hawthorn hedge and allowed to grow up, a very early cooking apple that tastes delicious and ripens even before Discovery apples make the shops, but it doesn’t keep well. It is a tip bearer and pruning it each winter usually involves a ladder or a scaffold tower. The fifth tree was planted eighteen months ago, crab apple Laura. It is still establishing itself but I look forward to some dark red fruit next autumn. With such a mild winter last year the trees failed to set their usual abundant crops, so I’m hoping for some snow this year! I’ll add some more photographs next year, starting with the blossom, which on Arthur Turner is usually stunning.
Apple feels almost like our National fruit. It is ideally suited to the English climate, keeps well, and is varied enough in its fruits that it caters for all tastes. Sweet, sour, savoury, raw, juiced, cider, brandy… Apple also seems to be becoming a staple ingredient for commercial herb teas – which says more about the apples than the teas! And while trees can be pruned for shape or size, they will still produce fruit happily by themselves and feed the bees each Spring.
Apples are full of soluble fibre, present even in the juice, which is great for the digestive system. The acid helps balance the body in all kinds of ways, so is helpful for rheumatism and arthritis, and the pectin is also good for removing toxins such as heavy metals. The juice is good for the skin too, hence rubbing fruits on warts and burying the remains. Various compounds within the fruit also improve lung function, liver function, and guard against cancer. An infusion made from the tree bark will help bring down a fever. An apple at bedtime is said to improve the quality of sleep, although if placed under your pillow instead of eaten, it is said you will dream of the one you will marry.
There are probably more stories associated with the apple tree than any other tree, thanks to its generous nature and the fact that it is one of the few trees whose fruits can be eaten straight off the tree. Just to mention a few: Adam and Eve, Labours of Hercules, Aphrodite, many Celtic tales, Norse Iðunn, Snow White, Johnny Appleseed, William Tell and Isaac Newton. Many folk traditions are centred around apple trees, such as wassailing, apple bobbing, and divination.
Traditionally apple wood was used in windmills, since it was hard enough for the cogs and doesn’t need oiling. It also makes good handles for wood carving tools, or the mallet used to hit them with. Other uses include woodwind instruments, carving or inlays. It will burn well, although this may be a waste, but if used to smoke cheeses or meats the results are delicious.
It will come as no surprise that apple is used magically for healing, fertility or love. However it is also often used for faerie magic or in dealings with the otherworld, helping to connect their world and ours.
For the past three weeks M and I have enjoyed picking blackberries on our walks. Apart from just eating them, we have made several pots of bramble jelly, some blackberry ice cream, had blackberry and apple crumble, stewed blackberries for breakfast, and even frozen some. Blackberry cheesecake is a personal favourite that might come soon… It is one of those flavours that you can never quite remember properly, but a good juicy berry is always better than you expect. Or a bad one more pippy and worse.
Brambles love the British climate, growing anywhere they are allowed and rooting themselves wherever they touch the ground. Around here it is in the hedgerows that I find them, often picking a few here and there as I walk. Most branches will have a few ripe ones, but the plants have evolved to fruit over a long period to encourage maximum spread of the seeds so it is rare to find many ripe ones together. M has taught me to notice them even when I haven’t brought a pot to put some in; the odd one or two keep her going on a walk and she can now spot a bramble bush before I can. Even 30 yards away, the other side of a road. Picking half a pound along a mile of hedge is quite easy; if I’m after more than that it takes effort, knowing where to go, and frequently full combat gear! They are the most predatory plant I know, using their thorns to hook onto whatever they find – hawthorn, fences, their own branches. (Take a look at Bramble Scramble from the BBC’s Private Life of Plants if you don’t believe me!) Luckily there are thornless types now available for those who wish to cultivate them, but they are generally not half as satisfying as picking wild berries.
In some areas of Europe there is a taboo against eating blackberries – either because they belong to the fae, or because they represent death. The former is an interesting one, given blackberry wine is apparently okay! This is not a question I have had the opportunity to ask directly, but I believe the point here is about balance, respect, understanding, and above all sharing, especially if you make wine… And remembering that the bramble bushes feed and shelter many animals and birds as well. Cutting them all back, especially when they are about to fruit, would not be appreciated. Others suggest that eating blackberries or drinking blackberry wine at the Equinox is a good way to contact the fae. This is the time when the energies start to withdraw, spiralling down into the earth, and in some legends the Lord of the Harvest enters the Underworld, through the hollow hills, into the care of the fae. Black will take you down into the dark, finding the way through the tunnels of the Earth, while the sweetness will bring pleasure and enjoyment and lightness of heart, helping us to remember life is to be lived.
As for death, well being a pagan is all about the cycles of nature and death being a necessary part of life. The old must be cleared away to make space for what is to come, and Spirit is eternal. Death is not to be feared, but to be embraced, worked with, even thanked at times, for it is the only way we may pass out of this life and into the next part of our spiritual journey when it is time to leave.
There are also many superstitions against eating blackberries after a certain date, usually Michaelmas day (11th October) but sometimes Autumn equinox, or October 1st. The reasons given vary with the date, but in my experience it is a rare year that the late blackberries have been properly pollinated and ripen to full sweetness; the August berries always taste the best.
Planted on graves, brambles were supposed to stop the dead from wandering. Children or cows can be passed through a bramble arch rooted at both ends to bring health, for the blackberry has the gift of abundance as well as protection. Whooping cough was a favourite to be cured in this way, leaving an offering afterwards of bread and butter for the fairies of course.