Tuesday, 11 July 2017

The Festival of the Yew Tree ~ a One Day Conference

The 2,000 year old Grandmother Yew, Sy Nicholas, Newington, Kent, 4th June 2017

“Like blue whales to land...”

On Midsummer's Day I went along to the 'Festival of the Yew Tree' organised by the Friends of St Nicholas Church, Newington. I was already familiar with the church, as I have been there to services and also to visit their 2,000 year old Grandmother Yew, but it was lovely to spend a whole day there drinking tea and listening to lectures.

St Nicholas Church, Newington, Kent, 4th June 2017
The church itself was built in the 12th Century and sits at the edge of the village, seemingly surrounded by jackdaw nests. They seem to be affronted by all human activity and so create a constant and marvellous hullabaloo, which I very much enjoy. Earlier in the summer the bank below the church wall was covered in oxeye daisies and poppies and the churchyard was home to the most delicate pink wild roses, so there is much to love. 

St Nicholas, Newington and her wild roses, 4th June 2017
I have now discovered that the church has one of the last surviving underfloor medieval heating systems, much like the Roman hypocausts. Sadly it is no longer in use, which is no doubt why many of us were wearing our coats inside earlier in the spring! They have two yew trees in the churchyard; one quite young (for a yew anyway) and one ancient. She was what drew me there in the first place and I have visited her several times, finding her to be a wonderful anchoring presence in this landscape that is so dominated by the sea and its tides. Indeed, the flow of her bark often reminds me of its ebb and flow.

She flows like the sea, Grandmother Yew, 4th June 2017

The Grandmother Yew, St Nicholas Church, Newington, Kent, 4th June 2017

And so I found myself at the Festival of the Yew Tree, looking forward to a whole day of yew related talks and activities. The church was beautifully decorated for the event, with ivy draping the walls and looking stunning next to the stained glass windows, and we were very well looked after all through the day with frequent breaks for tea and biscuits, together with a rather fine buffet lunch.

St Nicholas Church was beautifully decorated with evergreens for the Yew Conference
The Sauniere Society was also there with a range of esoteric books for sale. I treated myself to Jeremy Harte's, 'English Holy Wells; a sourcebook', which I am very much looking forward to reading. And indeed, Jeremy Harte was the first speaker on, 'The Mystery of the Ancient Yew'.

Jeremy Harte, who I have heard speak before at events in London, is an expert and researcher into folklore and has written several books, including 'The Green Man' and 'Explore Fairy Traditions'. When I first caught sight of him at this event he was attempting to manoeuvre a solid oak lectern carved into the shape of an eagle and looked very much as though he was wrestling a crocodile! However, all was eventually well and he went on to give an interesting talk, mainly about the controversial and contentious subject of accurately ageing yew trees. He began by telling us about the giant Fortingall Yew in Perthshire, which has a 56ft girth and may be Britain's oldest tree, having been aged at between 2,000 and 4,000 years old. Some have even suggested an age of 9,000 years, which seems to be one of the most mysterious things about yews; no one can accurately work out how old they are! There is much complex evidence, complicated by strategies that help yews 'live forever', but how long an individual tree may have been living is anyone's guess. It has been found that they grow quite quickly when young and then may or may not continue growing at the same rate. For example, two trees planted at the same time can vary from between 4 ft and 10 ft in girth. It is therefore impossible to measure a tree and extrapolate back in order to work out its age. Alan Meredith of the Ancient Yew Group has visited every large yew tree in England and has pushed back many dates but often his ideas seem not to fit in with the available historical information. Even then we were told that there is much 'pseudo history' relating to yew trees and so most things should be approached with a pinch of salt. Some grow in datable landscapes, such as deer parks which were often laid out and enclosed as land once held in common was claimed for the few from the 1500s onwards, and there was an early medieval tradition of planting yews but for all this their age is often impossible to guess. They are 'one unto themselves'. I love that the more we feel that we know about yews the more mysterious they seem to become!

We heard that Ireland was once an important centre for yew trees, and that evidence of this can be found in both the extensive indigenous literature and in writings by visitors, such as Giraldus Cambrensis (Gerald of Wales) who travelled there in the 12th Century. When Saint Patrick converted Ireland to Christianity in the 5th Century he found a land which already had its own well developed laws and teachings, which the inhabitants refused to abandon. However, both cosmologies included sacred trees. The yew became associated with the 'saint as ancestor' and both St Patrick and St Columba, who founded the important abbey on Iona in Scotland, are depicted with yew trees.

The Yew of Ross, which grew in Leinster and was said to be the 'offspring of the tree that is in Paradise', was a particularly significant tree in Ireland.  This significance shines through in the 'Praise Song of the Tree of Ross', which describes it as, 'a King's Wheel, a Prince's Right, a Wave's Noise, Best of Creatures, a Straight Firm Tree, a Firm Strong God, Door of Heaven..a Fruitful Sea, Beauties Honour, Shout of the World, Banba's Renown, Noblest of Trees, Dearest of Bushes, a Bear's Defence, Vigour of Life, Spell of Knowledge, Tree of Ross.' However, sadly the depth of meaning held in this holy tree was not respected by early Christianity. The 'Life of St. Laserian' says that, because they wanted its wood, a group of clergy, not daring to cut the tree down outright, 'took turns at fasting and praying' around the tree until it fell. Further attacks on the yews of Ireland occurred when the English invaded in the 16th Century and began to confiscate and colonise land. Many of these ancient trees were cut down to make way for 'plantations'; for the 'planting' of settlers, more than trees. The yew tree had been thought of as the 'abiding centre' in Ireland and was a sacred tree associated with the honour of the community so, sadly, it makes sense that invaders, both Christian and colonial, would want to subdue the people by desecrating their holy trees. We might imagine that similar things happened in England and yet we are blessed that so many of our yew trees remain.

Her ancient heart, The Grandmother Yew, St Nicholas Church, Newington, 4th June 2017
The second talk, 'Medicines of Yew Old and New', was by retired pharmacist, John Linch-Batten, who told us that yew has been documented as a treatment for arthritis and bladder problems and has also been used as a sedative in India. He went on to explain the origins of modern medicine, beginning with the schools of medicine in the Middle East in the 12th and 13th Centuries up until the foundation of the NHS here in the UK in 1948 which made healthcare accessible to all. He bemoaned the fact that much modern medicine seems to treat the symptom, rather than the disease itself, and talked a little about the different approach found in Chinese medicine and others. He told us that he feels all forms of medicine have their place and that it is a loss to us all that they are often in tension, rather than working together. He said that when he began his training in the early 1960s pharmacists were still making their own compounds, mainly from vegetable extracts, and that he considers this to be an art form. He said that chemists have now taken over from herbalists and so extract the active compounds, rather than using the whole plant. There is now a "swing back to the natural", with the healing powers of many plants being investigated. Returning to the yew, he told us that the potential of the Pacific yew to attack cancer cells was examined in the 60s but that it was found that the bark of six 100 year old trees would be needed to treat one patient. However, studies of the English yew have made it possible to create the anti-cancer drugs, 'taxals', which came into production in 2001. These are made using only new growth, rather than old wood, and so their availability is affected by the growing season; in dry years there will be less growth and so taxals will be less readily available. He said that clippings are collected from 4,000 UK gardens by a very small number of companies, that 1 ton of yew is needed to make 1lb of compound, and that the molecules needed to make the drug begin to destabilise 8 hours after harvesting. All this means that the price of the drug is extremely variable, with the current price of raw taxal being $17,000 per ounce! Hearing all of this I was even more in awe of all that the NHS does to care for us.

Her medicine, the Grandmother Yew, St Nicholas, Newington, 4th Nune 2017
After a delicious buffet lunch (yum!), tree surgeon, arboriculturalist, and member of the Ancient Yew Group, Russell Ball spoke on 'Old Yew Trees and Best Practice for their Management'. He explained to us that the terms 'ancient' and 'veteran' yew have very specific meanings, signifying that these yews are 800+ or 500+ years old respectively. He described yew trees as a 'travel lodge' for biodiversity, with their hollows, cavities, holes, and deadwood. Alarmingly, ancient yews, both in Europe and globally, are a threatened genera. He talked of great stands of yew trees being felled on a huge scale to make English longbows from the 13th to the 16th Centuries, of the rush for taxane alkaloids for use in medicine in the 60s, and of yew trees being removed as a 'toxic threat' to horses and cattle. Nevertheless, the most significant and vital refuge for yew trees is now English, Welsh, and Scottish churchyards, with 84% of our 270 ancient yews being found on church land. This refuge is so important that Fred Hageneder, in his 'The Ancient Yew: a History', describes Britain as a 'Noah's Ark' for ancient yews; something to be proud of but also concerned by.  It is such a responsibility to care well for these ancient grandmothers and grandfathers!

She is the first door, the Grandmother Yew, St Nicholas Church, Newington, 4th June 2017
Russell went on to tell us that many yews are surprisingly under threat even in churchyards due to development works ~ root loss due to expanded car parks or toilet blocks, for example , misguided tree management ~ 'lopping and topping' ~ spurious building subsidence insurance claims, and risk averse management. He said that good stewardship is the key in all these circumstances and that yews are “1,000 years in the growing and an afternoon in the killing”! A sobering thought indeed. Because yews, and other trees, can be so easily harmed ~ which might not be obvious immediately as they can take several years to die ~ Russell suggested that they should be made subject to a conservation order, which would protect them from many of the hazards he mentioned, but also from a change of church management to less yew-friendly humans.

Yew trees, which have shallow roots, stabilise themselves by putting sweeping their branches down to the ground
We also learned that yews stabilise themselves by putting down branches that sweep down to the ground. These branches are able to root, slowly growing a new tree, and so there is a sense in which our ancient yews are slowly 'walking' across the land. I felt more and more as the day went on that yews are more animal than tree, or should have their own category like fungi! Returning to how yews remain standing, they also have aerial roots, which grow down through the hollow centres of older trees where much lovely rotted material will have gathered. This is known as 'retrenchment'. I know that I would like to develop that ability; to constantly 're-root' and re-establish connection with the ground of my being. 

Clearly showing aerial roots growing down through her hollow heart
After opening our eyes to the wondrous ways of the yew, Russell led us out into the churchyard where he gave advice about how best to care for the two yews there. I know that the people who help to manage them listened with great interest and I'm sure that the yews will benefit from his wisdom.

Tree expert, Russell Ball gives a workshop on how to care for our churchyard yews
The final talk was 'The Natural History of Old Yew Trees' by ecologist and mycologist, Martin Newcombe who was an engaging speaker and further enchanted us with the magic that surrounds yew trees. He told us that yews are part of a family of fairly primitive conifers, which also includes spruce, larch, and cypress. I was fascinated to hear that there are many species of yew; European, Himalayan, Chinese, Japanese, Sumatran, Florida, Mexican, and Western (N. American)! These can look very different from our own native yew, some almost like grasses, but all are long-lived. 

There are a huge concentration of yews in England, especially in the south but beginning to fade in number as we go west and north. Martin showed us a map which claims to record all English yews, but which has missed some, including a small and 'secret' yew of at least 200 years of age snuggled in a holly wood, which has existed since at least the 8th Century in Dungeness, Kent. I love that even on our own small island there are so many secrets to uncover and so many possible moments of quiet intimacy with hidden nature. 

We learned that yews are 'dioecious', which means that individual trees are either male or female. However, the Buckland yew in Dover changed sex when it was moved! Again, no one truly understands why this might happen. The tree has now settled back into its former female self but still retains one or two male branches. I looked this up after the event and learned that the male trees produce wonderful golden clouds of pollen in the spring (I love to give the branches a gentle shake) and that the females birth the berries, more properly 'arils' (berries enclose the seed and arils expose them), in the summer and autumn. The seeds are highly toxic, as are most parts of the yew, and so should not be eaten, although I do know of brave souls who have made 'yewberry jam' by carefully removing the black seeds from the red flesh. Speaking of pollen, yew trees are usually 'anemophilous', which means that they are wind pollinated. Bees and other pollinators will collect pollen but don't visit yews everywhere that they grow. Another mystery, as no one understands why this should be. Bees and yew trees have a private relationship that we know little of, and I am quietly pleased.

Male yew flowers, St Mary's Church, Plaistow, 16th March 2016
Female yew 'cones', St Nicholas Church, Newington, 4th June 2017
Female yew arils, the Grandmother Yew, Newington, 7th July 2017
Martin also told us of other beings that yew is in deep relationship with. He described yew as the 'Buddha of the plant world', colonising slowly and needing protection in her early years. Seedlings often grow with juniper, which protects their tender beginnings and allows then to grow up and through. Indeed, there are two types of 'plant community' for yew trees; whitebeam~yew woodland and dog's mercury~ yew woodland. The first type includes whitebeam, together with elderberry, the occasional ash, oak, and beech, some box, often with bare ground beneath. Dog's mercury~yew woodland is comprised of ash, whitebeam, elderberry, spindle, and clematis. It is still not understood why yew and whitebeam have such a close relationship. Yew woodland is now rare, although there is evidence that the scarp face of the North Downs was once covered in yew woods. Remaining examples, 90% of which are on chalk, are to be found at Kingley Vale, near Chichester in West Sussex, the Medway Gap, and the Lake District (very recently declared a World Heritage Site!). All are SSSIs and extremely precious. 

Kingley Vale yew, 16th April 2014

Kingley Vale yew, 16th April 2014
Yew has a huge root system and is excellent at collecting rain water, also putting natural herbicides into the soil to keep the ground clear and reduce competition for moisture. This makes it difficult for many plants to grow with her but some do. Mostly these are plants which leaf very early in the spring, as whitebeam and dog's mercury do. Ground cover plants that do grow are often 'noxious', such as stinking iris and cuckoo pint. How deeply evocative a landscape filled with dark enchantment yew sings into being. Few invertebrates live with yew and so they provide poor environments for birds like robins. However, the beautiful mistle thrush is truly the 'yew bird', a specialising in dealing with yew arils and setting up a feeding territory amongst the yew trees, returning to its night roost to clean its beak and spread the seeds ~ yew arils are sometimes known as 'snot berries' because they are covered in a mucus that helps them stick to beaks! 

Mistle thrush (juvenile), Wiki Commons, via David Friel on Flickr

Nuthatches are able to split the seeds but it isn't clear whether they are affected by the toxins in yew seeds. We might assume that the birds which eat the seeds have evolved with the tree and so will be unaffected. Martin told us that he has eaten the arils many times (not recommended!) and survived and so he may well have evolved in the same way! Goldcrests breed in conifers and love yew trees, badgers and squirrels eat the arils. It may be that this suppresses their metabolism ~ possibly echoes here of yew being used as a sedative in ancient Indian medicine. As for fungi, beech and oak sustain 2,200 species and yew only 258, mostly simple micro fungis and slime moulds, although earth stars are common in some yew woods. Whereas willow supports 450 insects, and oak 423, yew is in intimate relationship with only 6. Every new morsel of information I learned was like a poem, making yew ever more precious by the moment. 

The warmth of yew wood, Brecon Beacons, Wales, 14th March 2010

Finally, Martin told us with some glee about the 'artichoke gall', which can be found on yew, diverting energy from the tree, and which houses a tiny fly. He informed us that this gall has its own parasites which lay their eggs inside it and feed on the fly larva and that these parasites have their own parasites; like a tiny living Russian doll! Truly nature is ever unfolding in its surprising wonderfulness!

This was a fine day and I am very grateful to the Friends of St Nicholas Church for making it possible. I left even more enchanted with yew trees and more in awe of the Grandmother Yew in their churchyard than ever. I thought that day, as I often do, of her roots which have been growing in this land since before the Romans came, before even the birth of Christianity. Often she seems to tower above the church, as well she might. Next time I meet her I will whisper the words 'like blue whales to land' to her as a prayer. I want her to know that she is seen.
The 2,000 year old Grandmother Yew seems to tower over St Nicholas Church, Newington, 4th June 2017

This has been a long piece of writing, and I hope that there will be much here to cause us all to cherish our precious yews, but I haven't written much of her heart and my own experiences with yew. As a small balance to that I will end with this image of a 'yew spirit' I met on a trip to Wales in 2010. She seems to me deeply gentle and kind and yes, patient. A much needed prayer for this world of ours indeed.

'Yew spirit', Brecon Beacons, Wales, 14th March 2010

References ~

Robert Bevan-Jones, The Ancient Yew: a History of Taxas baccata

Plantations of Ireland, Wikipedia 

England Enclosure Records and Maps, familysearch.org

Tuesday, 20 June 2017

Star of Bethlehem ~ Reconciliation's Prayer

Star of Bethlehem at the 1,000 year church, April 2017

It's said that the Star of Bethlehem first appeared on the night of Christ's birth to guide the Wise Men, whose journey was made complicated by their maps and charts, to the child. When its work ended it burst into thousands of brilliant fragments and fell to earth. Where it came to ground a blanket of milk-white flowers grew.

Beautifully, I first discovered the existence of this lovely flower amongst a tangle of primroses, nettles, and almost-flowering bluebells, in the churchyard of the 1,000 year church where I while away many happy moments and discover many wonders. You will know that you have found Star of Bethlehem when you see a flower with six white petals surrounding six stamens, each with a yellow anther. They bloom in the spring from early March until late May or early June. The flowers open in the early morning and are usually closed by noon revealing a beautiful green stripe on their underside, hence some of their common names; sleepydick, nap-at-noon, star-at-noon, johnny-go-to-bed-at-noon, and eleven o'clock ladies. When the flowers have died a three-celled seed capsule forms containing several black seeds.

Revealing their beautiful green stripes during a noon day nap (Image: Wiki Commons)

Her genus name, 'ornithogalum', comes from the Greek words 'ornis' for 'bird' and 'gala', meaning 'milk', and was named and described by Dioscorides (40 to 90CE) in his 'De Materia Medica' due to her abundance of white flowers that 'when opened look a lot like milk'. It is less clear why Carl Linnaeus, in his 'Species Plantarum' of 1753, names her 'dove's dung', although under this name she may be mentioned in the Bible; 

'And there was a great famine in Samaria; and behold, they besieged it until an ass’s head was sold for fourscore pieces of silver, and the fourth part of a kab of dove’s dung for five pieces of silver.' (2 Kings 6:25). 

Whether the 'dove's dung' mentioned here is indeed Star of Bethlehem is unclear, but she does have the other common names of 'pigeon's dung' and 'sparrow's dung'. Alternative, perhaps more obviously lovely, names for her are starflower, summer snowflake, summer snowdrop, grass lily, and wonder flower.

As suggested by her 'grass lily' name, Star of Bethlehem is a member of the lily family, although she is often mistaken for wild garlic, especially as her bulbs resemble small onions. Her common name was once 'dog onion'. Although these bulbs are harmless in small doses they contain the toxin, colchichine, which has been used in gout medicine but can cause shortness of breath in adults if too many are ingested. Nevertheless, in the 15th Century she became associated with the journeys of pilgrims to the Holy Land, both because they found her starry flowers growing on the hills around Bethlehem and because her bulbs were sometimes used by them as emergency rations when food was scarce. Because of her association with Christ's birth she is one of the plants often planted in 'Mary Gardens' and was taken to North America by immigrants to be planted as a reminder of home. So wild has her growth been there that she is now considered an 'invasive weed', having escaped from gardens. There really is no containing a fallen star.

Credit: E. Kolmhofer, H. Raab; Johannes Kepler-Observatory, Linz  ~ hale bopp, Wiki Commons

In herbal healing she is known as the 'comforter' and is one of the plants used in Bach's Crisis Remedy for the “after-effects of shock, such as caused by unexpected bad news or any unexpected or unwelcome event. Also for shocks received many years ago, even in childhood”; perhaps she does indeed carry a spark of the perfect Christ child. Dr Edward Bach wrote of her in his 'The Twelve Healers and Other Remedies' that she was, “for those in great distress under conditions which for a time produce great unhappiness. The shock of serious news, the loss of someone dear, the fright following and accident, and such like. For those who for a time refuse to be consoled this remedy brings comfort.” Her medicine is also said to be helpful for “the sense of emptiness and loss that occurs when a loved one dies or moves away.” One practitioner describes here as the 'Guardian of Grieving'. She has been used in the treatment of those who are suffering from suicidal depression, shock, and Post Traumatic Stress Disorder, offering a light to lead the afflicted out of the darkness. Indeed, she does that work for us all, blooming at the beginning of spring and reminding us of the need to come into the light after the dark winter months. She is the way-shower, a guide for the lost, just as she guided the Wise Men through the vast silence of the desert. The former Archbishop of Canterbury, Rowan Williams, in his essay, 'The Kingdom of the Simple' in the book of his collected sermons, 'Choose Life', notes that the Wise Men were late in coming to the Christ child, having undertaken a “laborious journey, taking sights and calculating, where the shepherds ran barefoot.” It is so easy to get lost, sometimes especially if we think ourselves 'wise'.

Harper's Magazine cover, Christmas 1898 (cropped), Wiki Commons

When I learned about the meaning of my new green companion I thought I might write about how touching I found the image of the Star of Bethlehem shattering into fragments and falling to earth as flowers. I saw her then as a symbol of it being possible for us to follow diverse spiritual paths, whilst still being part of one wild and beautiful truth. This felt so personal to my own journey as I begin to again explore my childhood faith of Christianity, having for so many years followed a Goddess-centred path. The Goddess is very much still with me I hasten to add. If anything my understanding of, connection to, and love for, Her has only deepened through following this old-new thread. 

But then the world, or the one close to me at least, did seem to shatter into thousands of pieces; the terrorist attacks in Manchester, and in London at London Bridge and the Finsbury Park Mosque, the Grenfell Tower fire; so many lost, so much needing to mend, and that is without all that is unfolding in the rest of the world; in Syria, in Yemen, South Sudan, Somalia. If the world isn't shattered into a thousand sharp and ragged pieces then I have no doubt that many of us feel that our hearts are. And it feels that it is to these shattered hearts that Star of Bethlehem speaks,certainly we are badly in need of her comfort now. Much that is transpiring seems to have religion at its core, and more specifically the Abrahamic religions of the desert, together with the separation of poor from rich, the 'simple' from the 'wise' (or perhaps the 'complicated'). So much separation. We have such a drive to define ourselves by what, and who, we 'are not' and perhaps it is time for that way of being to end; not to lose our differences or our diversity; that's what makes us wonder-ful, but in understanding that differences of belief are no threat to our own; that we are all fragments of a Star of Wonder fallen to earth. In her myriad mirrored fragments, her many white petals, her brilliance of being, Star of Bethlehem reflects them all. There is no 'other', just broken parts of one great beating heart. This is perhaps why she is sometimes called the 'Reconciliation Star', the star of at-one-ment. And it does feel that there is much to reconcile, and to atone for. But we are after all literally 'made of stars'. We are more wonderful than we could ever imagine. Let's seek out the stars in ourselves, and in one another, and mend.

I will end with a poem that came as I sat down to write this. Because of recent events, and just because, I am trying to make connection with my local mosque, to offer solidarity in this difficult-to-be-different place, and tomorrow I am beginning training as a mediator for neighbours who are struggling with one another and for children who are lost in this spinning world we have created. I don't know where that will lead but I hope that Star of Bethlehem would be proud of my small offerings to the huge work of mending all that is shattered. I pray that she will be astounded by the work that we have done when she returns to open her milk-white petals next spring. 

Star of Bethlehem is tired
of dragging around the baggage
that we try to hide,
divisions that won't be reconciled,
the wilful non-seeing of the so-called wise.
Wakes bright with morning,
asleep by noon,
offers guidance with maps and tea;
pours milk, leaves not bags, her best bone china
slips from her exhausted hands,
smashes into a thousand shards of stars
on her kitchen floor,
reads the auguries in their constellations.
Weeps for the weight of what she sees
swept under the carpet.

Star of Bethlehem carries diversity
as a prayer in her shopping bag,
walks with Jah, Allah, Shekinah
wearing goose feathers in her hair
in the stews of the Liberty,
Keeps a torch by the back door,
shines a light on intruders ~
Guantanamo, Yemen, Syria, the housing of the poor,
a nail bomb on Electric Avenue,
knows that she can't take much more.
No amount of bleach in her bucket
will make this pure,
No amount of soap will scrub this whole,
And her batteries are running out.
She may have to brave the dark.

Star of Bethlehem hangs her head in the churchyard
closes in on herself at shadow fall,
offers her flesh for the breaking of bread,
ties her scarf more tightly round her head.
Tuber or tumour, hate or hope.
The murder of the innocents,
child radicalised, drowned on the refugee boat,
finding belonging in the EDL,
bleeding out in the stairwell in Peckham Rye.
Herod turns his head, shuts his eyes,
she opens her petals wide.
And she is growing wild,
escaping the confines of the flower bed.
Sinking her roots into holy ground,
gathering up the pieces that she let slip,
knows it's time to get a grip.

She weeps for mercy, grieves for grace,
what we might have been, what we are.
Yet still she loves the pilgrim soul in us,
the spark that journeyed from the furthest star
and fell to earth forged in fire.
She puts the kettle on.

(Jacqueline Durban, 20th June 2017)

Star of Bethlehem at the 1,000 year church, April 2017


How 40,000 Tons of Cosmic Dust Falling to Earth Affects You and Me, Simon Worral, January 2015, National Geographic ~

'Choose Life: Christmas and Esater Sermons in Canterbury Cathedral', Rowan Williams, Bloomsbury Publishing, 2013.

Friday, 16 June 2017

The Courage of Columbines ~ What We Choose to Bring to Birth

Nathaniel Hughes, author of 'Weeds in the Heart' and teacher of Intuitive Herbalism, talks of there being many different types of herbalist; ceremonialist, healer, activist, folk/hedge~witch, wisdom~keeper, cunning woman and many more. I'm not sure which of these, if any, I am but I know that sometimes plants begin to tap at my edges asking to be heard. The cottage garden columbines are one of these. It was more than a decade ago that I dreamed that columbines, along with harebells, were one of 'my' flowers, and so for more than a decade I have neither forgotten, nor understood why. Dreams are like that, and the ways of the woven sacred can move excruciatingly slowly. That is why long dreaming winters and cups of tea were invented I imagine. It was only last week, when I went into a tiny church, St Mary Magdalene's on the North Downs not far from here, and turned their Book of Common Prayer to the 9th of June, that I discovered that I share my birthday with the Feast Day of Saint Columba, the abbot who founded the important abbey on the Isle of Iona in Scotland. Although I haven't yet found a particular connection between St Columba and the flower both their names have their roots in the Latin word for 'dove', with St Columba's original Irish Gaelic name 'Colm Cille' meaning 'church dove'. I love this tender thread that weaves my own story with the flower, the saint, and the Spirit. But, even before I discovered the thread, the columbines were calling, especially since I made friends with a little community of them in the churchyard of the 1,000 year old church where I spend much of my time.

Granny's bonnet, lion's herb, lady's shoes, dove plant, God's breath, pigeon flower, pigeon foot, sow wort ~ our native columbine, Aquilegia vulgaris, belongs to a genus of more than 65 species. Often to be found at the edges of meadows and woodlands, it may be more familiar as a resident of cottage gardens, having been cultivated and hybridised with other European, and also North American, members of the aquilegia family. They are a major food source for the garden bumblebee and also for cabbage moths, dot moths, and mouse moths, who are able to feed on many poisonous plants without harm. The genus name, 'aquilegia' comes from the Latin, 'aquila' meaning 'eagle', due to the petals being said to echo the shape of an eagle's claws. The name might also come from 'aquilegias', a 'water- collector', because of the flowers' water holding capabilities, although it feels to me that the flowers are the wrong way up for that; perhaps here there are whispers of the World Turned Upside Down

In contrast, their common name, 'columbine' comes from the Latin, 'columb' for 'dove', due to the spurs of the flower petals looking like five doves sitting together in a circle. What depth of meaning for such a fragile plant to hold, and we have hardly scratched the surface! I find it fascinating that even at this layer of meaning, in the weaving of words, columbines already present much to reflect upon with eagle/hawk and dove being the names given, most often in relation to American politics, to those who are pro or anti-war. The eagle was also a prominent symbol in ancient Rome, especially as a standard of the Roman legion, the teeth and claws of Empire; the legionary who carried it being known as the 'aquilifer', or 'eagle-bearer'. Contrast this with the common folk meaning, the 'people's' meaning, of dove, a word associated with peace and with Spirit, particularly in the Christian faith for whom the dove is one of the most beautiful symbols. Indeed, as Christianity spread into Europe the columbine became associated with the values of Faith, Hope, and Charity, and its three-part leaves became a symbol of the Trinity, with the circle of doves a symbol of the Holy Spirit. So much so that columbines were once often used to stand for Jesus in religious paintings

I like very much that the folk name of these little flowers is linked with the Trinity and with Christ, and through him to standing up to the Roman Empire by facing it with a rebellion of love and the fierce call for justice. I like to think that St Columba, whose own 'Celtic form of 'wild edge' Christianity was forced aside by Rome and it's monk, Augustine, would have approved of the columbine and of the story she carries in her petals. It should never be forgotten that the story of Jesus is grounded in this rebellion; in a refusal to submit to Empire, in siding with the poor and the outcast in the face of corporate and Imperial power, in gathering around him disciples who were not thought learned enough for other Rabbis and teachers and giving them a place in the world that is so often not there for our own young people who may become vulnerable to gang culture and radicalisation as a way to find belonging. This is the path of peace and radical love; the dove standing up against the eagle, of speaking truth to power, despite its message being taken over by Empire when it became the official religion of Rome in 312. Imperialism as an ideology is inherently anti-life, and this energy against life will corrupt, contaminate, and undermine, anything that stands against it and which has beauty in it.  It is up to us to choose where we identify, which path we take, where we will make our stand; no matter who our god/gods/no god might be. The columbine reminds us of that choice, that we have a responsibility in what we bring to birth. This is a rebellion of petals, a revolution of feathers. 

In a piece of wild synchronicity, which so often occurs when I sit down to write pieces such as this, I discovered that to the indigenous First Nations people of Canada the eagle has quite a different meaning. Rev. Cannon Ginny Doctor, Coordinator of the Indigenous Ministries for the Anglican Church of Canada and member of the Mohawk Nation, Turtle Clan, writes that for her people, the eagle is a bird of peace. When The Peacemaker came to unify the nations, he travelled the land spreading the need for understanding. At each place he would plant a Tree of Peace and place an eagle on top to watch over the people and warn them if the roots of the tree were being disturbed by disagreement amongst them. The indigenous people, the people of the land, make the eagle a bird of peace, where Empire makes it a bird of war and domination. It is up to us what meaning we choose, whether we will stand with the people of the land, with deep myth and meaning, or with that which seeks to subvert both. It isn't easy to speak out against power, to “fight colonialism with a colonised tongue” (Akala). We might feel that it is impossible, but perhaps by rooting ourselves in the Tree of Peace and the wisdom of the columbine and all our green allies we can be rooted enough to begin to choose what we bring to birth, knowing that it is our birthright, our earthright. We think that we are alone but we're not; we live in a wild web of relationship and belief in the good, in the rightness of Life. And Life wants to live.

And these little flowers, these columbines, do have much to share about that choice. Although they are rarely used in healing in modern times due to their supposed toxicity, their leaves were traditionally used to make lotions for sore mouths and throats (helpful in speaking out!) and in Spain people who were troubled by kidney stones were advised to chew a piece of columbine root in the mornings. The idea that columbines are poisonous seems to come from Charles-Ernest Cornevin, who in his 1893 book 'Des plantes vénéneuses et des empoisonnements qu’elles déterminent' (Poisonous Plants and the Poisonings they Cause), said that it contains aconitine, possibly because it is in the same plant family as one of the most poisonous garden plants, aconitum. However, there is so scientific evidence that this is the case and indeed there are no recorded cases of harm caused by columbines. Interesting then that it should be given such a reputation. And then, what of choice and what we might 'bring to birth'?

Culpepper's 'Complete Herbal' of 1649 says that the seeds of columbine, which are just appearing now all across our land, “causeth a speedy delivery of women in childbirth” when taken with wine. In contrast, the fabulous 'Poison Garden' website says that the 'wise woman' of the village would use columbine to bring on abortion as a community service, 'the best known reference to it coming in Thomas Johnson’s 1633 revision of John Gerard’s ‘Herbal’ where he says that Clusius, the 16th century Flemish botanist, reports its use by Dr Francis Rapard to facilitate labour when the seeds are crushed and mixed with wine. It was thought to be widely used as a home remedy.' Plants, such as birthwort for example, which would aid childbirth are also likely to cause an abortion if used at an earlier stage of pregnancy, and so it is with columbine. There was a time when the green beings around us offered us the right to choose. Now of course we live in very different times, cut off from the earth and all that she offers us, and so the columbine's message of choice becomes more and more urgent, especially now.

Here in the UK, our Government, in the wake of a disastrous General Election result, are seeking to form a loose coalition with Northern Ireland's Democratic Unionist Party, founded by fundamentalist Protestant leader Ian Paisley in the 1970s. I stand in profound disagreement with the views of both parties, but at the time when the columbines in the 1,000 year churchyard are going to seed and revealing their deepest medicine, it is the DUP's attitude to abortion rights that is uppermost in my mind. As I write, the UK Supreme Court has rejected an appeal by a mother and daughter who have been involved in a legal battle for women from Northern Ireland to be offered free abortions in England on the NHS. In Northern Ireland terminations are only available if a woman's life is at risk, or if there is a possibility of permanent damage to her mental or physical health. Rape, incest, and fatal foetal abnormalities are not considered reasons for legal abortion to be offered. Many women, more than 700 in 2016, travel to England at great expense to access private abortions. Those who can raise the money often endure travelling alone, overnight by boat if they can't afford air travel, to a place that they have never been. One 28-year-old said, a lot of bad things have happened to me in my life, but this has been the worst.” In order to save for the journey she had to cut down on food for her family, including her two young children, and stop heating her house. 

Other women, financially or otherwise unable to travel, buy abortion tablets on line and receive them through the post. It is unknown how many this applies to, although the Dutch charities Women on Web and Women Help Women, who are able to provide women with abortion pills by post, receive around 3,000 requests for advice and help from women in Ireland and Northern Ireland each year. In 2016 1,200 parcels containing such pills were seized by Irish customs who investigate all 'suspicious' packages. A woman in Northern Ireland is currently being prosecuted for helping her 15-year-old daughter procure abortion pills and last year a woman was prosecuted for taking them, having been reported by her flatmates. In Northern Ireland, which has the harshest penalty for abortion of any country in Europe, women who have illegal abortions, and anyone found to have helped them, risk life imprisonment. 

The Abortion Support Network, a charity which offers financial support to Irish women who need to travel to England to access their abortion rights, have said that, “We've heard time and time again from women forced by the despair induced by a combination of poverty and draconian abortion laws who have taken matters into their own hands – by ingesting chemicals, by overdosing on medications, by drinking excessively, by literally throwing themselves down stairs to try and induce miscarriage.” Pregnancy counsellors in Northern Ireland have been known to hand out 'information' booklets warning of “a 72% higher risk of rectal and colon cancer among women who have had abortions and a 50% greater risk of breast cancer”, also suggesting that, “a woman who has had one may be more prone to seizures, tremors, comas, frigidity and committing child abuse.” Amnesty International has called upon the UK Government to urgently push for abortion reform in Northern Ireland. This coalition will of course make that less likely and Owen Paterson, the former Northern Ireland secretary, has suggested that there may be a parliamentary debate on further reducing abortion time limits during the next few years. As things are a climate of fear has been created with many women unwilling to speak even to their close friends for fear of being reported; turning woman against woman, dividing us, forcing a climate of silence and unspoken pain and grief. One woman who, unable to afford a trip to England, was forced to go through abortion alone and terrified of being reported said, I feel am being punished for being poor. If I had had money, I would have gone to a clinic, met a nurse, heard from her that everything was going to be OK.” She eventually went to her GP for a check-up two months later and told her that she had had a miscarriage. 

This is far from the wisdom and choice offered to us by our sister-ally, the columbine; our gentle dove, our wise-woman granny's bonnet, with her offering of wild plant medicine to hold our young women in their journeys. I stand with them against a coalition that would deny women the choice to choose what we bring to birth. Judy Griffin in her book, 'Flowers That Heal', says that columbine “enhances the ability to think and act independently of others”, to “drop the role that others have made for us”, and to claiming our autonomy. I stand with the columbine in holding the roots of wild earth wisdom and the liberation of heart and body.

And yet, this feels in so many ways overwhelming. All these things are happening far from me and my little community of columbines in the 1,000 year churchyard. Can the columbine help us to find the courage to raise our voices loud enough to be heard? Marvellously, we have not yet reached the end of our exploration. There is one more piece of folklore that might help us to choose the wilder path and a clue is found in one of the columbine's common names; lion's herb. In medieval times, it was believed that lions ate columbines in the spring to give them strength and so that rubbing the flowers on one's hands would bestow the 'courage of lions'. I think that we might well need that in the days and months to come. It really is time for a rebellion of petals, a revolution of feathers; for the eagle, for the dove, for the columbine, and for us all; it's time to choose what we bring to birth. And perhaps consider too that, although our green companions have much to teach us, it's we who give them their meanings. These are our stories of rebellion, of wild courage, which we have hidden safely in their petals, just as our far off ancestors buried their own treasures in the earth when invaders came. It's not the columbine that allows us to choose. She brings a reminder but the choice has always been ours. We don't need to wait until her flowers come next spring. We have always had the courage of lions. It has always been us, and it's time to roar!

Columbine; looking like a tiny lion

(Disclaimer: please don't take wild medicine, such as the columbine, without the advice of a qualified herbalist. In the case of the columbine, most of us no longer have the wisdom to know what amounts are safe for us to take. Until we claim back our wisdom, let's allow the earth to hold us as safely as she can and respect our not knowing)


On columbines ~






'Flowers That Heal', Griffin, Judy, Paraview Press, 2002.

Other references ~