Saturday, 2 January 2016

Learning from your herbal studies

When you begin a course of study, whether provided by an institution, distant learning or from a book, there are often written or verbal instructions to guide you in preferred methods of demonstrating the degree of learning you have achieved. You may be asked to submit essays, monographs or dissertations. There may even be exams to sit or oral discussions to prove your worth.

When you embark on something less formal, it is often harder to show yourself that you are assimilating facts and experience or you have confidence to experiment with what you know and trust your intuition to create something new which resonates with our ancestral past.

At this time of the year there are several people around the UK who are starting the Springfield Sanctuary Herbwifery Apprenticeship. Over the next few months I will be posting a series of articles which look at how herbal learning can be recorded and disseminated so everyone can look back and easily see how their herbal journey is progressing.

Recording what you learn 

It is often easy to do things but harder to make notes and write considered pieces to incorporate everything you learn. Try to get into the habit of jotting down notes or diagrams with your observations while you are observing or immediately after doing something significant. If these notes are part of the observation or practical process they will be easier to do than if you “leave it ‘til later” when you will have forgotten half of what you wanted to put down and put yourself under extra pressure to try and write something meaningful.

When you have a collection of notes, make time maybe once a month to sit down and review what you have discovered. This may be an amalgamation of your research through reading books or online, your practical observations, what you’ve learned through using a herb either physically or energetically or maybe you’ve experienced a “eureka” moment when something has happened which has given you a greater insight or understanding of herbal companion.

You may want to record your findings in a series of articles or a collection of written or oral stories. If you are writing about your ally or one herb, the correct name for these accounts are herbal monographs. This just means you are writing in depth about a single plant. If you find writing things down difficult or unrewarding, draw some mind maps so you have a written record of what you have learned or record your thoughts on a suitable device you can return to later.

Capturing images

If you are to learn as much as you can from your time of study, it’s a good idea to capture images of your activities throughout the year. Photographs are a good way of keeping a precise record but sketching a plant or situation teaches you close observation, enabling you to see aspects you might otherwise miss.

To be asked to draw something can be very scary and many people will avoid such a task because they believe they have little or no skill and therefore their efforts are worthless. 
The quality of the outcome is not the most important aspect, trying your best is the only thing that matters. No-one else will see your work if you don’t wish to share. You may surprise yourself and I can guarantee you will discover things you have never seen before. To give you some encouragement, I’ll recount what happened to me when I was asked to draw my ally.

All my life I have known my artistic skills are very limited. I cannot draw or cut straight lines and colouring inside lines was never achievable. I can’t remember what age I was when I knew I could not draw. I remember illustrating my written work in the junior class without any qualms. I took great delight in designing dresses for the princess of my dreams, even though they all looked the same!

I suspect my mother mentioned my sister’s drawings were more accomplished than mine but real embarrassment came on transfer to secondary school. Art lessons were not a subject in which I excelled. I loved the lino-cut pottery and fabric screen painting we did in the second year. I was even quite pleased with my shading effects when drawing twigs in the third year but art was not a valued part of our academic career and it was jettisoned in favour of a second foreign language.

Forty years later, Kristine Brown, who devised the original herbal ally series, set a challenge to draw our herbal ally. Kristine is incredibly skilled in art and design.  I wondered how I could achieve something similar to her endeavours with nettles. I quietly forgot about the task but it remained in the back of my mind.

My ally that year was sweet violet. It was the end of March and I knew the violet flowers would soon be over.  On a cold, cloudy Saturday, I woke early, determined to think about seed planting instead of sleep. I dug one third of a vegetable bed and planted some peas. We used prunings from the apple tree as pea sticks. I hung washing out on the line and felt it grow wetter. We sat outside and drank coffee complaining about the cold while the radio cricket commentator complained about heat in Sri Lanka.

My husband disappeared indoors to watch the last of the cricket. I followed. In the middle of removing my jacket, I decided I really would go and sit by the violet bed with my notebook and a pencil and see what happened.

I had sketched one leaf when a phone call drew me away. I didn’t use the excuse to stay inside but returned to my chair, pencil and paper. I drew two plants, each with the delicate violet flower hiding amongst vibrant green leaves.

What did I learn? The leaves have a serrated instead of a smooth edge. The leaf has two lobes where it joins the stem. The stem is a circular tube, three or four times as thick as the flower stalk.  In the centre of each plant new leaves appear as green tufts.  The markings on each leaf are delicate lines, almost like the lines on a hand. They stand out and yet are ethereal.

The violet flower is such a beautiful colour. She hangs her head modestly, reaching only half the height of the leaves. They stand tall all around her, protecting her. The plants felt like family groupings; each one growing one or two flowers, but several leaves with many more to come.

I didn’t hold out much hope for my sketches but I was quite pleased with the two results. I still can’t colour in without crossing the line. I could blame it on a failure to keep a steady hand but my hand has never been careful or meticulous.  The colours were not exactly true, but they were what I had available. 

Using another medium

Part of the same challenge was to try different mediums. One Saturday I sketched plants and coloured them using crayons. The following day I gathered a bunch of violet flowers and leaves for another jar of infused vinegar, along with nettle tops, sorrel, jack-in-the-hedge, marjoram and a little rosemary for nettle and stilton soup.

The hour I was in the garden coincided with sun emerging through deep cloud cover, so I sat and sketched a violet flower, both full facing and a side view. It was remarkable how much detail could be seen in the delicate flower.  The pale green sepals could only be seen from the side view and if you only viewed the flower from this angle (which is the most common view when looking at the plant) you could easily miss, what to me is the most amazing part of the whole flower.

The flower consists of five petals, leading down to the orange stigma in the centre. Each petal is similar but different. They are have a deep, violet pigment for two third of the length which then becomes white as it nears the stigma. It is only when you turn the flower upside down that you notice the single largest petal has purple streaks of colour leading down to the stigma in the middle of the flower.

Recent technological advances in infra-red photography have shown how most flowers have “landing lights/lines” to show the bees where to reach the pollen but it looks as if the violet flower has its own flight path painted onto this one petal.

Once back indoors, I took the plunge to try painting my sketches with watercolours. The crayons I’d been using said they could be used for water colours, but I didn’t understand how until discussing it with a friend. It was surprisingly easy to paint over the shading with a damp brush and gave the sketches a softer, more even look.

If I had not taken part in the challenge, I would still believe I lacked the ability to sketch plants. Now I challenge you to pick up a pencil and see what you can learn.

Recording your herbal companions does not have to be restricted to drawing and painting. You can use your sketches to make embroideries, maybe to cover a notebook or make an item of clothing or soft furnishing. You could also transfer the image onto graph paper and use this as part of a knitting pattern.

The possibilities are endless, the only limitation is your imagination. If you’re not sure how to achieve what you can see in your head, ask for advice or help. Remember to share pictures of anything you create within a community you trust so you are part of the growing fund of support.

Evaluating your learning

If you keep a diary or notebook or blog it is easier to review what you have achieved and maybe to challenge yourself to show how knowledge you have assimilated. Here is a list of questions you may wish to use to help you quantify what you have learned over a given period.

1.    Which plants have I grown this year?

2.    Which other plants have I worked with?

3.    What have I done with these plants?

4.    Which workshops/workdays/festivals/study days have I attended (list dates & activities)

5.    What did I learn from these activities?

6.    What books have I read and what were the major points of learning from them?

7.    What have I really enjoyed this year?

8.    What have I found really difficult?

If  you take time to answer these questions fully, you will probably be surprised by how much you have learned and how much you have changed over that time.

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