Saturday 29 September 2012

Herbal updates

Anyone trying to discover what I was up to by following my blog this summer would have been sorely disappointed. A dearth of posts resulted from a plethora of stress, knitting and gales (although not necessarily in that order!). Now the autumn equinox has passed and life has quietened just a little I can look backwards and forwards to various herbal exploits.

The weather has been atrocious. There is no other word for it. No sun, no warmth and almost continuous rain. I really thought I would not be gathering anything but I was wrong. It may be small and not as rich as I’d like but there is a harvest and I am grateful.

I have gathered rose petals whenever and wherever I can. There are jars of rose elixir, rose vinegar and rose honey infusing in the larder and two large jars stuffed full of dried petals waiting for autumn or winter inspiration. I also discovered a beautiful bag full of apothecary’s rosebuds dried to perfection. I’d picked them after one of the summer workshops when I felt sure I’d lose the entire crop because of the rain. They smell amazing and I’m looking forward to using them in some ashwagandha milk over the winter.

The calendula crop was initially disappointing. I blamed myself for not supervising the apprentices who sowed the seed then I blamed the weather. I picked yellow and orange flowers and began to be grateful for the limited bounty I was able to gather. We even made a double infused oil from wet flowers – something I never thought I’d do – and yes, it was paler than usual, but not without merit. You have to use what you have when you can.

I was also incredibly grateful for the self -seeded row of plants which offered a rich and healthy crop of flowers without any thought or effort from me. When I went down to the Sanctuary last Tuesday, both calendula beds were looking the best I’d seen them all year and I was able to pick a large basketful of flowers and a whole pile of seeds for next spring.

One of the things I’ve tried to do this year is not panic. Ok, there were very few St John’s wort flowers in my garden. I have given away so many plants, the marjoram has completely overwhelmed the few I have left.  Bees adore the marjoram. Luckily there have been plenty of flowers at the Sanctuary and, even more exciting; I found a real sufficiency of small wild plants when I was foraging in Cornwall. There were enough blossoms to dry for our German friend who can’t use alcohol. They grew next to ragwort, so you really had to be able to identify your plants to wildcraft in safety.

The St John’s wort oil is not as crimson this year as others but that’s ok. I still have loads left from other years so I don’t think I’ll run out and there’s always next year.

There have been a lot of plants I have not harvested this year, ladies mantle and agrimony being but two. I don’t know either of them well enough, so maybe next year I shall choose a new ally to get up close and personal with. Anne MacIntyre’s comments about agrimony’s digestive properties have already got me thinking. I’d like to be able to tie them in with its energetic properties and Matthew Wood’s use for pain where there is tightness/contraction.

Even when I was so miserable and frustrated because of the weather and my mother’s deterioration, the Sanctuary still held me and gave me hope. 

I was picking St John’s wort flowers in a howling gale one August afternoon, thinking how dreadful everywhere looked because we hadn’t been able to mow or weed.The hops completely sheltered me from the wind and the message in my head was, “Never be ashamed of what you have.” 

It made me realise I don’t have to compare myself with other herbalists. Just because they have stunningly beautiful, manicured gardens with easily identified and labelled herbs, it doesn’t mean my piece of land is any less valuable or beautiful, it’s just different.

It was one of those days when nothing went right, but when I touched one of the oak trees it told me to “remain steadfast”. I don’t spend enough time talking to my trees but they are always generous with their support and advice when I do listen.

It’s sad to see branches so bare this Autumn. Oak trees covered with knopper galls instead of acorns. Apple, plum, pear, meddler and quince trees devoid of fruit. Even the sloes, damsons and haws are scarce. I guess the trees are resting after last year’s bumper crops but it’s still difficult to see empty spaces in the freezer and know they won’t be filled anytime soon. I’m grateful for our Autumn raspberries which are cropping for the first time this year – not enough for jam but a real dessert delight mixed with natural yoghurt and honey.

I’ve already wildcrafted two baskets of windfall apples in public spaces this year, one in Cornwall and one locally and I can see me hunting for more in the coming weeks to turn into jams or jellies. It’s frustrating that none of the rosehips I’ve found are ripe yet as I want to restock my dried hips this year. I’ve already made one batch of elderberry and blackberry cordial from fruit leftover after my festival workshop and a muslin bag of “hedgerow juice (sloes, blackberries and elderberries)” is currently dripping quietly into a bowl over the cooker top as I type. Tomorrow I shall turn it into jelly to add to our growing stock of preserves.

The hot cupboard in the kitchen is still full to the brim with paper bags drying herbs and seeds plus a few infusing vinegars. It has taken weeks to process dried herbs from bags into glass jars on my larder shelves but the kitchen table is finally clear. Only one of my ashwagandha plants has produced the familiar red cherries this year but there will be plenty of seed for next spring. I also managed to save lettuce seed from plants which bolted; the first time I’ve done this.

As I was looking at my French beans flowering in the new raised beds today, I noticed chickweed was growing again to be added to autumnal salads. There are still bright green nettle seeds to harvest and dry towering over the mint and raspberry canes and fresh nettles are taunting me to make soup from underneath the patio.

Everywhere I look there is something to gladden my heart and prompt gratitude. It would not be real life if bounty were not balanced by lean times. It is all part of the cycle of life and death and rebirth. We could not learn if we did not experience and could not grow if those experiences did not feed us and grant us riches. We do not always appreciate the lessons we are offered but they make us who we are.

Sunday 23 September 2012

Book Review: 365 Ways to get you writing by Jane Cooper

Several months ago an email popped into my inbox advertising “365 ways to get you writing: daily inspiration and advice for Creative Writers”by Jane Cooper.  Although I write many different things, I’m always interested in new ways to learn so I asked for a review copy and it quickly arrived. Unfortunately the last few months have been somewhat busy, so I haven’t been able to get around to posting the promised review until today.

Jane Cooper is not an author I’m familiar with. She lives in Edinburgh where she teaches English and Creative Writing. She has written six school text books as well as poetry and short stories. I wish I lived a little closer to her because I suspect she is an inspiring and supportive teacher.

I love her book. It is split into over one hundred chapters ranging from “Googlewhack” to “Taboo” and other more familiar topics such as “Show, don’t tell” and “Changing tense”. Each chapter is split between information and practical tasks, giving the reader simple yet efficient ways of improving and inspiring their writing.

Cooper is a very subtle teacher. Within the chapters are suggestions about other books or TV shows the reader can investigate and if they follow her lead, they will find they have devoured a comprehensive diet of literature from both past and present which cannot help but influence their own writing in a positive way.

I was very impressed by the subjects included in the suggestions. As well as the usual five senses, Cooper shows how personal experience can be accessed to provide inspiration and depth when writing. She also includes areas you might not have considered before such as song lyrics, writing spells and first times.

She also includes standard creative writing techniques in her chapters – using different perspectives, increasing tension and conflict, using hypothetical subjects and writing dialogue between family members or other scenarios. The whole book contains a wealth of experience and expertise the reader can dip into at any time and, if the exercises are completed, personal skills cannot help but be improved.

Not everyone can attend creative writing classes or courses. Not everyone has a supportive writers group they can join.  I count 365 Ways to get you writing by Jane Cooper as a useful tool for every writer, no matter their level of competence. Published by How to Books at £10.99 (or £6.37 from Amazon), it is a worthwhile investment.