Thursday 22 September 2016

Reviewing the festival

It’s difficult to share how much we enjoyed this year’s festival. We think it was the best so far. Putting on your own event can be daunting. Will anyone come? Will the donations be sufficient to fund the cost of the marquee and toilets? Will there be enough cake?

I don’t worry about speakers, apart from myself. I mean, why would anyone want to listen to my contribution or follow my instructions? They did, they came, they wrote, they giggled (a lot) and everyone laughed when the resulting “stories with ten authors” were finally read out and enjoyed. It was a good exercise and I’m pleased it came to mind five minutes before we started the second creative writing workshop. Only a few people were up in time to gather herbs on the Sunday morning and the vinegar workshop was rushed. I’ll try to stretch the time slots next year.

Speakers are funny things. I decide on a possible theme for the weekend and people “pop up” out of the ether. There’s no funds to offer fees or expenses but they come anyway.

One year I wanted someone to talk about men’s herbal health. I didn’t know any male herbalists but I found a name from Henriette’s list in the UK who talked sense. I emailed him and asked the question. The lovely man travelled all the way from Cornwall with his family, gave a fabulously informative talk whilst holding several stuffed toy animals and left us with gifts of honey as he returned home.

This year, Sharon Ingram was the newcomer, recommended by one of my apprentices. She’s a soul midwife and talked passionately on Saturday about her work with the dying. Everyone in the audience connected with her words and many tears were shed. Good tears. Cleansing. Lynne Tynan Cashmore followed on with a talk about herbs for chronic and life-limiting conditions. So much knowledge and experience. Now I know another use for marshmallow in bringing moisture to dry and cracked mouths in their final days.

I also know not to use mint as it dries lips even more. It brought back memories of Solihull’s first community Macmillan nurse excitedly showing me the new mouth swabs she’d been given to use with clients when I was engaged in carrying out an audit of terminal care for the health authority. They were flavoured with mint. I didn’t know anything about herbs at that time. How we all change!

Sharon also offered to provide us with a “sound bath” at the end of the day. Together with her friend, Kuma, they provided an amazing assortment of gongs, Tibetan singing bowls and other instruments which flooded the tent and its surrounds with a blanket of different sounds.

Our intensive this year was run by Charlie Farrow, ably assisted by her daughter, Rhianna Yates. Her subject was the use of herbal smoke, drawing on centuries of European knowledge, rather than the imported practice of smudging which really only appeared in the middle 20th century.

Most people assume smoking started when Columbus brought tobacco from North America. In fact, sitting over a pan of hot coals so herbal smoke could be directed internally either through vagina or rectum was common since Greek and Roman times. How else did the priestesses in the temple of Apollo in Ephesus come up with their prophecies? My father designed and made a complete birthing stool so anyone could try out this practice but although they loved the stool, no-one used it clinically.

Coltsfoot has always been recommended as a smoke for pulmonary issues and straw left after the cereal harvest was used to draw the smoke up into the lungs. In time, pipes developed or funnels were used to direct smoke into the mouth.

Apparently “snake oil salesmen” would travel the country showing people how they could draw out the “worms” from any teeth which were aching. The “worms” were actually henbane seeds, which resembled tiny worms when dropped into water after they had been heated in a chafing pan.

The smoke from the henbane anaesthetised the toothache bringing temporary relief to the sufferer. Given the toxicity of henbane, this was one practice Charlie didn’t demonstrate! We were able to experience smoke from coltsfoot, wild lettuce, mugwort and other resins thanks to the bongs, Shisha pipes and incense burners.

Ali English returned to update us on her research into UK’s forgotten herbs. We see these familiar wildflowers growing in hedgerows and meadows but we’ve lost the memory of their value as medicinal herbs. This may have been because they were too common or had a very narrow spectrum of historical use. Some of these treasures are now being re-evaluated as herbalists seek to establish a locally grown Pharmacia.

She talked about using yellow hedgerow honeysuckle to balance earth and sky. Full of vitamin C, it could be used for viruses or as an immune tonic if added to self-heal. It can be given for heat headaches or to those who suffering with a short temper. It cools and calms the nervous system and acts as an anti-inflammatory for rheumatism or inflamed joints. It is also an expectorant and helpful with throat and upper respiratory tract issues. It shouldn’t be given to those with a cold constitution and care should be taken with anyone allergic to salicylic acid.

Toadflax is another powerful herb working with liver and gallbladder issues. It tasted bitter, earthy and astringent, working on the solar plexus. Used as a drop dose, it could act as a blood alterative and improves tissue nutrition. Toadflax is a warming herb for those with cold constitutions. If using for kidney gravel, Ali advised making a tea rather than a tincture.

Lady’s smock is a sweet nervine, the tincture presenting at the tip of the tongue when tasted. Historically it was used for convulsive disorders but it has the ability to clear the head. It should be gathered in May. Like honeysuckle it is an anti-rheumatic and anti-spasmodic, relieving cramp, pain and helping the liver and spleen. It can also be used for stubborn coughs and chronic skin conditions but a healing crisis should be anticipated because such skin conditions usually have an anger element associated with them which must be expressed appropriately.

The other two herbs Ali mentioned were crosswort and sweet woodruff. Her talk was captivating and it was frustrating how time ran away before she could complete the range of tinctures she brought with her. We look forward to learning more next year.

Sunday saw the kites back in action having been drowned out by Saturday’s rain. Chris and Dave Salmon produced two memorable displays showing everyone how to fly a trick kite safely then demonstrating how one man can fly two kites at once followed by a choreographed display with three kites and two people. The tails on the pair were especially enthralling.

For the first time in festival history, the kite field swarmed with children and adults learning how to fly the sport kites or enjoying the feel of a string in their hand. Thanks to both Dave and Ivan, each child was given their own kite to take home and have fun with another day.

We finished with Fred Gillam’s wonderful talk on the various medicinal mushrooms available in our woods and fields. Most herbalists are aware of reishi’s use as an immune tonic but it was only this year we realised how prolific the St George’s mushrooms were on our local fields. To find they can be used to fight other fungal infections was an added bonus. The tent was full with an enthusiastic audience.

So, what did we learn and what might we do differently next year?

Saturday’s rain meant there were no activities for children and the talks were inappropriate for a young audience. We’d also like to increase the size of the main and craft marquees which would free the small tent to be used elsewhere as a designated children’s area. We’ll now be seeking suitable people to take charge of this side of the festival.

Several ideas have been put forward for possible subjects. I suspect at least one day will be dedicated to getting to know our forgotten herbs at a deeper level. It’s an exciting time to see our small festival begin to grow and flourish and know how much it is valued by those who attend.