Wednesday, 24 May 2017

We Continue Because We Must ~ Some Small Thoughts on Wild Dreaming in Painful Times

(Small Tortoiseshell Pupa. Photo: Butterfly Conservation)

What painful, painful days we are journeying through. They are enough to make us shut down, give up, curl into ourselves, and there are moments when I am tempted to do that but there is something that helps me at times when the human world feels bewildering and full of what is unbeautiful. Today feels like a good day to share it. I wrote this on Facebook yesterday and it seems to have struck a chord so, rather than spending a long time trying to make it just right or attempting to say everything that I would want to say, I will leave it here just as it is and I hope  expand on it in the weeks and months to come...

There are things on this precious planet called 'imaginal cells'. These are cells that 'imagine' a butterfly into being and they have to be really determined. When a caterpillar retreats into its chrysalis there is no part of it that is anything at all like a butterfly; hard to believe really. Inside the chrysalis the caterpillar dissolves into a formless gloop and this is when the imaginal cells, which had been dormant in the caterpillar, begin their work. At first they are detected as a threat and attacked by the caterpillar's immune system but they carry on regardless, multiply, connect with one another, passing information until they reach a tipping point, and then BUTTERFLY! I wonder if these little cells even realise what they are creating but, whether they do or not, they continue because that is why they are there and because they must.

(Small Tortoiseshell. Photo: Butterfly Conservation)

And we can be the imaginal cells for the 'body' of our own species; be tenacious in imagining what could be, even in the midst of structures that seem to be dissolving, withstand a world that seems set on its own destruction and which sees those who speak of a different way as a threat, hold onto the thread of a hope that destruction and dissolution are somehow needed, connect with one another in all manner of ways, offer support, gather, tell our holy stories of better things, wait for the tipping point (and the tipping point will come). This is our work and we were born to do it. Imagine, and never stop imagining, because our imagining will make it real. It already is. I wonder if we even realise what we are creating but, whether we do or not, we continue because that is why we are here and because we must.

Postscript ~ as a small aside, I have been both heartened and surprised that this piece of writing has been shared on Facebook many times since I spontaneously wrote it yesterday in a moment of wild hope in the good, and by people as diverse as American feminist historian, author, artist, and founder of the Suppressed History Archives, Max Dashu, who is marvellous, and the Kensington Labour Party! I find this so encouraging. We may seem to be on very different paths but beneath the surface, for now at least, so many of us are doing the same work; finding connection, beginning to gather, dreaming something wonderful. Becoming imaginal cells.

Wednesday, 10 May 2017

On May Flowers, Sea Monsters, and What Moves Beneath the Skin

Hawthorn in St Martin's Churcyard, Folkestone, 9th May 2017
Today is Full Moon in Scorpio, and so also Lunar Beltane; the most blessed of days, dripping with the diamond-sweet nectar of the hawthorn, lucent with honey. Beltane is, on the surface which is as real and important as the depths, the brightest and most joyous day of grace celebrating as it does the edge of summer, the beauty of bluebells and wild garlic, the flowering of the May, the warming of the earth, and our warming with it. It is a time to unfurl and stretch, to breathe and bask, to engage fully with life after the long slow days of dark. For many of us, the cells of our bodies will have been calling for it since Imbolc at the beginning of February when first we sensed the light returning. It has been a long time coming. There have been days when I thought that I would never be warm again. And yet today, as the Full Moon begins her wild prayer, the sun is shining, our rowan tree is full of frothy blossom, and there are tiny blue butterflies blessing the garden. This is the best of times indeed.

And yet it is also Scorpio Full Moon. Scorpio with its insatiable desire for depth, for deep diving, for seeking out the sea monsters that move beneath our skin, and beneath the skin of the world around us. This is the wild edge, of the shallow and the deep, that we must learn to dance with if we are ever to heal the dualism which is so much a part of patriarchy; the way of thinking that refuses nuance or compromise, that sets good against bad, light against dark, masculine against feminine, mind against body, rationalism against creativity, and on and on. And this way of being isn't just in the world around us. It is in us too. We all walk with the not-beautiful within and we enjoy our certainties, even we secretly know that they are not so certain at all and our clinging to them means crushing someone else's.


The American Franciscan friar and writer, Richard Rohr in 'Things Hidden: Scripture as Spirituality' talks of how we must accept our own complicity and co-operation with what is ugly in our world and in ourselves, of how we stand frozen between our belief in goodness and the realisation of our own role in working against that goodness; through apathy, through greed, through fear, through despair, through just being so, so overwhelmed, and so many other ways in which we stumble and fall. He believes that we must learn to hold this contradiction; that everything is held within the perfect body of Godde, including us, and yet somehow everything is not perfect. That we must learn to “forgive reality for being what it is” before we can truly participate in changing anything. It is a deep, deep grief and yet perhaps there is some empowerment in knowing that we have a role to play in forgiving life for not being what we need it to be. Can we look into the eyes of the Sea Monster and love her? Can we acknowledge the monster within and still celebrate the blissfulness of the bluebell sea? If we are ever to mend the poison that seemingly seeps through much of our society then I believe that we must learn to do so, and in that we will also liberate ourselves. It takes so much energy to keep the Sea Monster down and we need that energy for other, and better, things.


Some years ago I did something that I was not proud of, through love, through hope, and through vulnerability, but also through weakness and lack of responsibility. It was then that my own sea monster showed herself to me. At that time she revealed herself as Sedna, the Inuit goddess of the sea, whose story of dismemberment is so shocking to those of us who live in a less harsh environment and who have little understanding of the day to day struggle to survive, at least materially. Sedna, who loved so wildly and so wilfully and yet ended her story at the bottom of the sea, her flesh being devoured by bitterness and regret and yet with no way to make herself beautiful again. We must all pray that that is not what becomes of us. This is what she taught me about my own 'sea monster', who I am finding my own way to love.



Sea Hag Sedna

I am gasping in the shallows, floundering,

the seal song of my intuition calling, calling,
calling out into the steel grey sea,
the waters of shifting reality,
to a million, million teardrops falling.
And though I find myself in the wrong shape of me,
though I remember the ancient kiss of salt on skin,
I will not dive, will not surrender the safety of this suffocation.
My shadow is selkie shaped and I am drowning in this air of reason.

She comes quietly, moving slowly beneath the ice floes of my history,

seeking out the secret places where I hide my deformity.
She is monstrous in Her beauty, I am monstrous in my needing.
Could swallow the whole ocean with the greed of my wanting,
She is rising from the Mother Place of a million women screaming,
She is breaking through the barriers of my wilful non-seeing.
And She is sea breathing, licking the wounds of Her own ragged journeying...

I slam the doors, nail up the windows,

shore up the cracks with all my tired excuses,
fool myself She will not sense my longing for the ocean...

But She comes seeping in like dreams, beautiful in Her simplicity.

Her spiral being, deep shell knowing, a labyrinth of possibility.
She drags me down, Her fingers bloody stumps caressing,
My lover's deep brown eyes receding, and I am reeling,
the chains that hold me land-bound breaking.
Leaving the world of maps and signposts,
seeking what is old and wild, my whale knowing.
And I am flowing, dissolving my own boundaries,
have become unborn in this amniotic world of soundless seascapes.
I sift through the silt of all my self-betrayals,
Am powerless against the pulls and tides of my revealing.
And She stays with me, crooning, Her sea creatures' sharp teeth tearing,
until I am stripped white like bone and empty as a moonbeam.
So deep beneath the tide we rest in seaweed stillness,
and we are Sea Monster sisters, unreachable...

I surrender to this journey,

have let go all that anchored me,
am iridescent in my lunacy,
my shadow is selkie shaped and she swims with me.

I have tasted the wild seas of me...

I don't know when I will return.

(Jacqueline Durban, 2011)


She was frightening. She dragged me down, and it has taken me a long, long time to return, but I know that I desperately needed to dive. And so on May morning I woke early and watched the dawn. It had been a difficult time for all manner of reasons and yet I had hopes of reclaiming the day. It was not to be, or at least not in the way that I expected. My partner's sleep moves in cycles and often he is up all night. So it was on May Eve and, on Beltane morning whilst I was soft from sleep, he began to show me videos he'd been watching of 'Social Justice Warriors' in an attempt to understand what is happening to his world. On this occasion it was students, and others, who wished to prevent a speaker that they didn't agree with from speaking on their campus; demanding that the speaker's right to 'free speech' was curtailed in the interests of their own 'right' not to be offended. They seemed not to understand the irony, or the unsustainable nature, of such a position. There was a protest where those from both sides began to accuse the other of being 'fascists', with seemingly very little understanding of what that word truly means, to pepper spray the opposition, throw bricks, and eventually what appeared to be home made bombs. They seemed not to care that others were bleeding, and yet it was clear that they did care, and care very deeply and with much passion. Both sides believed that they were in the right and refused to back down, seeming to almost celebrate and glory in every injury that their side sustained as proof that the others were in the wrong, rather than accepting that it was more likely that both sides held a spark of truth. It was insanity, literally. And it just made me sad. It seemed to me that the people in those videos, no matter which side they happened to be on, were mad with grief at a world that seems so deeply broken and were clinging to any life raft that they could find in the sea of chaos; the sea where the monsters hide just beneath the surface. I wanted to hug them all, to go towards them rather than running away, to tell them that the world is not so broken, that hawthorn is flowering, that they would feel better after a nice cup of tea, and did they know that the leader of the Labour Party makes his own jam and believes in the worth and dignity of everyone? It is changing, slowly. It will be alright.


And this is a dramatic example but there are so many others; of people set against one another unable to find a way to compromise, or seemingly unaware that such a thing even exists; Republican vs, Democrat and the election of Donald Trump, Remainers vs. Brexiters, Left vs. Right, and nowhere in the middle just to sit down and talk, to remember that we are all humans together in a world that we find so hard to understand. And, for me, this is what moves beneath the skin, the 'sea monster' that we must have the courage to look in the face. We are all so attached to our life rafts that we refuse to dive. We are too afraid to let go, to admit that we are lost, to cry out to whatever we call sacred, “Please, please help me. I don't know what to do!” Can we let ourselves be so vulnerable? Can we trust to the unknowing, rather than taking up a position and hanging onto it for dear life no matter what the cost? Can we look at someone we don't agree with, who we can never agree with; someone who is un-beautiful, just like us, who is lost, just like us, and complicit, just like us, and know that they too are beloved and are meant to be here, that Life wants them to live, just like us?
Can we have the courage to believe that we can breathe underwater?

Soon, we will have a General Election. I fear the worst of outcomes, and yet I hope and hope and hope for the best. After the last one I couldn't speak for two days and I couldn't look at anyone. I was so, so angry and anger is good and gives us fuel to work for change. But what change can there be when we have forgotten that we are all humans together doing our best in a world that feels so overwhelmingly broken? My most favourite recent conversation was with someone online who, in response to a link that I posted on tactical voting informed me, as he always does when I post such things, that he will be voting very much in the opposite way than I would choose. And I replied that I was glad that he cared enough to vote, that I wished him luck, and that although I could not support his choices I celebrated his belief in the good and his hope for the future, and I meant it. And I will still mean it on June 9th, whatever the result may be. And it was utterly liberating. I have had enough of brokenness and hate. And I know that not one of us knows everything. Not one of us has the answer, if there even is an answer, to a broken world. And I wonder whether humility can find a place in this world any more. But there is love; that most misused and belittled word and way of wild power and mending. Can we love enough to believe that we are right, to work passionately for change, and yet not allow our rightness to need someone else to be wrong? Perhaps we can look at someone who we truly don't agree with, someone whose way of thinking makes us feel so much more lost and broken, and love them? Really love them. Then perhaps we truly can find a way to change the world and our sea monsters might not seem so monstrous after all. The hawthorn will bloom no matter what but we have deeper work to attend to.




Monday, 27 March 2017

Becoming Prayer

(Photo: Jacqueline Durban)
The most blessed result of prayer would be to rise thinking,
But I never knew before, I never dreamed.”
(C.S.Lewis)

I find Her in the psalm of sun on skin,
in turning my face towards the light in early spring,
in the honeybees who worship at the altar of our cherry tree,
in crow's dark wing against the vivid blue of sky and sea.

It's then I know that prayer is in my bones,
in my cells dividing, quickening, allowing space
for the never-ending wilding song of grace
that breaks through winter's frozen state
and sets my bloodsongs free to sound and shine.

I know that sister starling prays Her better still than I
with whirr and click that cleaves the day to life,
her feathers gone to stars, and yet I try
to find the words for how it feels
to see the first petals against snow
and what that means to light,
to fall in love with what wind means to wings,
and peace to night.

And this black ink I use to write is whispering cormorants
I wonder just how deeply I can dive...

(Jacqueline Durban, 27th March 2017)


Wednesday, 22 March 2017

Flowers and Blood and Mercy and Miracles


So, today London happened, and today, 33 civilians were killed in Syria in a US-led airstrike on a school which was being used to house refugees. And today, as on so many days, many are weeping for their lost brothers and sisters, and for the seeming loss of hope and love and compassion, none of which is ever truly lost because we are human and humans hope and love and care, in spite of and because of it all.

And everywhere humans are at this moment lighting candles and lifting prayers to their God, or Goddess, or gods, or no god, and will care all the more fiercely because of a day like today, and some will hate and call it care and not the fear that it really is, and some will lift up weapons and some will lay down their weapons because they are sickened by it all. And no doubt tomorrow, somewhere, more will die needlessly and more candles will be lit and so we go on in our broken and bewildered way. Because this is what life is, or part of it anyway. It isn't worse than it has ever been. It just is.

And we don't have to say that 'they' won't win, because there is nothing to win and there is no 'they'. There is only us, spinning around on this messy, precious little planet filled with flowers and blood and mercy and miracles, and we have to make it work. And we might not know much but what we can know is that we are all going to die trying. And we don't have to say that we aren't afraid, because we are allowed to be afraid. And I won't be looking at images of people bleeding and dying on Westminster Bridge, or of a man lying dead because how it 'just is' twisted his heart into this act of violence. I will be thinking of the candles and lighting my own. And there are just too many words, and never the right ones, so I will just say that this is how it is. It isn't going to stop, or not any time soon, and so we must find a way to love life and one another all the more because of it. There is nothing else.

Today, London happened and children locked inside Parliament with people dying outside sang to offer comfort and lift people's spirits, perhaps not knowing whether they would live or die themselves. We all need to remember to sing and just keep on singing. 

Monday, 20 March 2017

Hare-heart ~ a Poem for Spring Equinox

'Beneath Her Robes' by Kay Leverton. Find her at https://www.etsy.com/uk/shop/KayLeverton

How bitter sweet the snowdrops' lucent leaving
Frosted flames returning to the earth
To be held in hope as winter's cherished children
Gathered in darkling dreaming round the old year's embered hearth
As jackdaw comes with ice blue eye and silver gleaming
In winter-winged devotion to spring's rebirth

In untamed form, Melangell drums our aching
Wild lands prayer made woman, sanctified by honey and by hare
Her chapel is our ground of adoration
Our suckling hopes protected by the tresses of her hair
As her fleet-foot lambs spin the triskele to waking
And hill and valley echo to her prayer

Hare-hearted woman, devoted and defiant
One unto herself, though chased and run to ground
No hunt can halt the wildfire of the springtime
No snare bind up the sweetness where her rebel grace is found
And the outcast soul finds sanctuary in her silence
The hallowed place with which her spirit's wound

How bitter sweet the snowdrop's lucent leaving
We might close our eyes and miss their transient sea
But the seductive spell of winter's ours for breaking
Swept on a warming tide of celandine and bee
And Melangell has no time to mourn the snowdrops
Her wish, her spell, her prayer, to set us free.

(Jacqueline Durban, Spring Equinox, 20th March 2017)

Kay Leverton ~ find her at https://www.etsy.com/uk/shop/KayLeverton

'Safe in Her Arms' by Kay Leverton ~ find her at https://www.etsy.com/uk/shop/KayLeverton

All images used with permission by the artist. Thank you so much to Kay!



Wednesday, 25 January 2017

Hope is the Thing with Feathers ~ a Prayer Song to Small Brown Birds

'Winter Wren', Wiki Commons ~ https://commons.wikimedia.org/wiki/File:Winter_Wren_(8085328310).jpg


Hope is the thing with feathers 
That perches in the soul 
And sings the tune without the words

And never stops - at all -...


(Emily Dickinson)

These are difficult times, with so much unfolding, both here in Britain and elsewhere, that is painful, frightening, and feels almost impossible to bear.The election and inauguration of Donald Trump, and all that that promises to bring into being, Brexit, the rise of right wing politics and attitudes, fracking, the Dakota Access Pipeline, continued attacks on the poor and vulnerable, the badger cull, and so much more, all conspire to make life less bright. In my own small life, I struggle personally with financial worries, with keeping my little family afloat, and with the loss of the beautiful hawthorn hedge and mature trees that until recently were close to our house but have now been hacked down to make space for new houses. It is a small blessing that my beloved wilding tree has been spared thus far. She was the next tree in the line that was felled but, for reasons that are unclear, she has remained standing. For how long I don't yet know. Where once I walked care-free, I now turn the corner preparing myself to see an empty space where her beautiful old branches once met the sky. It is not a good feeling. From the personal to the collective, it all just feels too much, enough to shut down our hearts and make us turn away. And yet, hope is the thing with feathers that perches in our soul.


Chiffchaff, Wiki Commons ~ https://commons.wikimedia.org/wiki/File:Chiffchaff_(Phylloscopus_collybita)_(7).jpg

I have much to say about the war on our hearts and on our connection to the Land and to the Sacred. I will write more on that soon but, for now, I want to write about the blessings of small brown birds. What matters most, and perhaps what is hardest, in times like these is to keep our hearts open, to allow the flow of feeling when so much of us wants to shut down. Without that flow I believe that we are lost. I have written before about how grief is one of the gates to an open heart, but there are so many gates and, for me, one of those gates is birds. I have also written about feeding the birds in our garden every morning but I have not really talked about how much joy that brings into my life, nor the anchor that it provides to what matters. Today, for example, I have been scared and a little bit lost. It is a feeling that I am familiar with and one that might cause me to become grasping and needy. I feel that part of me scratching at the window of my soul, demanding to be let in. And yet today as every day, I fed the garden birds, with seeds and suet, with cheese and apple, I broke the ice on their water bowl and poured fresh, clean water for them to drink, and that made it better. It is not just that it matters to feed birds in the winter, nor that it is a nice thing to do and means that there will be birds to watch in the garden. It is that, at a time when we are being told, both explicitly and implicitly, that there isn't enough for everyone and that it would be best to think only of ourselves, when we are encouraged to turn inwards and harden our hearts, that buying seed and fruit and making sure to go out every day because the birds are waiting, challenges all of that. Because there is more than enough for everyone. It's just that some people don't want to share. And it matters because birds are one of the things that can keep our hearts open.



In the last few days I have been moved to tears of wonder and quiet awe, not to mention delight, at the presence of small birds. A wren seems to have taken up residence in our garden and is often to be seen foraging in our brambles. Two days ago she let me get quite close to her before she flew away, and today I was standing at the kitchen sink and she landed on the tree just outside our window no more than two feet away from me. I was enchanted and transfixed. I have also watched a blue tit on the rose bush outside our living room window carefully turning over rose leaves with his tiny foot to search for insects and, today, a chiffchaff doing the same. Sometimes small birds seem more mammal than bird, flowing with stoat-like grace between blackberry tendrils and rose thorns. I could watch them for hours. And that is not to mention that starry-night starlings who gather in a joyous cacophony of squawks and clicks in our cherry tree every day, or the doves with their outspread tail feathers lit by the sun, or the fat woodpigeons that land and seem to threaten to knock the bird feeder over, or the jackdaw couple who always arrive and leave together, or the lesser spotted woodpecker who spirals up and down our cherry tree and brings a flash of red flame to grey days, or the magpies with their long balancing tails and stunning secret rainbow colours, or the gulls with their demanding fluff-ball babies that blow onto our roof every spring, or the blue tits whose colours seem so vivid in the winter light, or the excitement of the sparrows who occasionally call by, or the blackbird pair who, to my absolute delight, have begun to visit, or the bright little winter robin. Every day they bring me a precious brush with the wild, and there are days when I would swear that they save my life.


And then yesterday I walked, as I often do these days, to the graveyard of the 1,000 year old church close by. Churchyards are so often a rich source of connection to nature and this time I was particularly blessed; first by watching a wren indulging in a lengthy dust bath, something which I have never seen before, and then by a tiny goldcrest foraging on the branches and leaves of two yew trees that I happened to be standing under. Goldcrests are well known for their cavalier attitude to the presence of humans and I stood enchanted for at least half an hour watching this one flit from one tree to the other only a few feet from where I was standing. Who needs a mountain to feel awe when there are goldcrests in yew trees? There was a moment when he was lit from behind by the pale winter sun and I have to admit that I wept for the beauty of it all and for the fierce aliveness of that tiny bird.

Goldcrest in a yew tree, Wiki Commons ~ https://commons.wikimedia.org/wiki/File:Regulus_regulus_-Auderghem,_Brussels-8.jpg

I have little more to say. It was just that something in me wanted to record that moment as a prayer song to all the things that are beautiful and fiercely alive in our world, in spite of and because of it all, and in the feathered hope that we will all notice the things that could keep our hearts open in the days and weeks to come.

As for the birds, the late winter is sometimes known as the 'hungry gap' when many winter berries and seeds have gone and little food is available. Birds need more energy in cold weather and the shorter days mean that they have less time to forage. At the same time, the loss of wild hedgerows and much garden space means that there is less and less food for them to find, and at a time when many migrant species are arriving and needing feeding up after their long journeys. It is a blessing to them, and to us, if we can put out a little food and water for them every day. The RSPB provide some valuable tips on how best to feed the feathered~kin in winter, and at other times, here. I wish you many moments of quiet awe and simple delight in their good company.


Goldcrest eating silver birch buds, Wiki Commons ~ https://commons.wikimedia.org/wiki/File:Goldcrest,_eating_the_silver_birch_buds_(11585923184).jpg

You can read the full text of Emily Dickinson's poem here. Honey for the soul.

Tuesday, 17 January 2017

Everyday Enchantment ~ Angels with Dirty Faces


Primroses in St Mary's Churchyard, Plaistow, March 2016.

“Do not, as some ungracious pastors do,
Show me the steep and thorny way to heaven;
Whiles, like a puff'd and reckless libertine,
Himself the primrose path of dalliance treads,
And recks not his own rede...”

So says Ophelia to her brother, Laertes, in William Shakespeare's 'Hamlet', Act I, Scene III, when referring to the hypocrisy of those, whether peasant or priest, who preach the merits of 'goodness' whilst living in quite another way themselves. Good old Shakespeare, truly in so many ways a manifestation of the spirit of the Green Man, a shaman of the quill, weaving yet another little flower into the magic of our language. And so the phrase 'to lead someone down the primrose path', or to encourage taking the way of hedonism and worldly pleasure, rather than the uninviting and dry as dust path to heavenly salvation, was born and the innocent buttery little primrose forever associated with wantonness, despite her seeming fragility. She does so thrive in the damp and fecund edge places, of hedgebank and wood, railway embankment and roadside verge, of churchyard and stream. And all the better for it!


Photo: wildseed.co.uk

Primrose, primula vulgaris, a British native, is one of the first flowers to appear in the spring. She is such a symbol of hope and of life returning with her bright green rosette leaves and creamy yellow translucent petals, as though she has gathered up every ray of pale winter sunlight and turned it into flowers. Her Latin name translates as 'first rose', although she is not related to the rose family at all, and the best times to see her are from March until May. Yet she often births into the light as early as January in sheltered spots during mild winters. I saw my first primroses in flower last week despite the recent snow, which is what has led me to write about them now. Indeed, primrose leaves are almost an evergreen if they are protected by a churchyard wall or a guardian bank and their vibrant leaves are most welcome underfoot during the dark months. A pleasurable path indeed. There are many times when I have been encouraged to walk further than I might have done on damp, washed-of-colour days by a trail of these cheerful little beings amongst the dead leaves, whether in flower or not. It is no wonder that they are the county flower of Devon, where they can be seen in abundance, and were also the choice of Scotland, Northern Ireland, and Wales in a recent Plantlife vote to find the nation's favourite wild flower (England chose the bluebell, with primroses second). American horticulturist, Buckner Hollingsworth, wrote in his 'Flower Chronicles' that “England displays a rose on the Royal crest of arms, but she carries a primrose in her heart”. They are held in deep affection, despite Shakespeare describing "the primrose way to the everlasting bonfire” in MacBeth!

My first primrose flower of 2017, St Martin's Churchyard, Horn Street, 11th January

One of my favourite things about primroses is the way that, when first opened and damp with dew, their petals, for all the world like newly emerged butterfly's wings, are often smeared with mud as though they have had to fight the hold of the winter frost and hard earth to make their way into the light. Truly they are little angels with dirty faces, and I love them for it. They remind me that it is possible to be delicate, soft as butter, pure as milk, and yet brave with it. Snowdrops, although just as tender, have the power of the spear, primroses of the ruffle! Sweet then that some of primrose's common names are 'butter rose', 'lady's frills', and 'milkmaid', although the latter, a name attached to many flowers, may more likely describe the oxlip, a cross between a primrose and a cowslip. She is a fertile little soul, and where no other primroses are present a cowslip will do. Wanton indeed!


Which brings me to a fascinating finding, something that I had never heard of before gathering morsels to write this piece. It seems that primroses bear two different types of flowers, which although hermaphrodite, and superficially the same to the eye, are very different in the secret world of small things. These flowers, which grow on separate plants, are called either 'pin-eyed' or 'thrum-eyed', and the differences between them help to promote cross-pollination and therefore a healthy primrose community. I am certainly not an expert in understanding or describing the diverse sexual shenanigans of plants, and yet it seems that the five petals of primrose flowers join at their base to form a tube. Inside are anthers, which hold pollen grains, and stigma, the female part of the flower where pollen lands to begin the fertilisation process. In the pin-eyed flowers the stigma protrude above the anthers, looking like tiny green pinheads in the centre of the flower. In the thrum-eyed flowers the anthers are longer and the stigma is not visible. At the bottom of the flower is much-prized nectar, only accessible to long-tongued insects (the rare Duke of Burgundy butterfly is one). Whichever flower is visited first will deposit pollen perfectly on the insect's tongue to pollinate the opposite type of flower; thrum-eyed to pin-eyed and pin-eyed to thrum-eyed. And voilà, baby primroses everywhere! To add to the wonder, the pollen produced by the two flowers differs. The pollen of the thrum-eyed flower is markedly larger because the tubes put out by the grains in order to reach the flower's ovaries have further to travel from the long stigmas of the pin-eyed flowers. The pollen of the pin-eyed flowers has less work to do, as it is deposited deeper in the flower, and so can afford to be smaller. Truly enchanting! You can see lovely images of the two types of primrose flowers here on the marvellous Bugwoman in London blog, which I highly recommend.

I hadn't realised when I began writing that I would find that primroses are a perfect symbol of the beauties and importance of sexual diversity, nor of a whisper of perhaps asking their blessings in the work of coming into right relationship with the inner feminine and masculine, the anima and animus. What unexpected places the beings of earth, flower, and root can take us to!

Discovering this world of small wonder has gone some way to explaining to me why the primrose was one of the flowers used in the creation of the Welsh goddess, and outcast spirit mother of the hedgerows and edge places, Blodeuwedd, who has also been accused of leading the unwary to the 'everlasting bonfire' with her licentious and shameless ways. And yet how could any being created from flowers ever feel shame for the wild diversity of being that she inhabits; something to be celebrated, rather than damned. The primrose path looks lovelier by the minute.

And in the woods, where often you and I
Upon faint primrose beds were wont to lie...”

(William Shakespeare, 'A Midsummer Night's Dream)

Wild flower stained glass memorial window with primroses, taken in a church in Wales

My second favourite thing about primroses, and one which again concerns the ways in which they extend the boundaries of their loveliness, is that our much-maligned and equally beloved badgers help to spread them along bank and ditch as they dig for worms. How intimate this shimmering Web of Life that we are a part of. As an aside, badgers are also hugely helpful in the growth of difficult to propagate wild cherry trees by consuming the fruit with abandon and then depositing the cherry stones in fertile piles of badger poo. I love this image of badgers as our wild gardeners carefully deciding where cherry trees should be planted.

"The pale brimstone primroses come at the spring
Swept over and fann'd by the wild thrush's wing"

'Primroses', John Clare, 1793 ~ 1864

And why should Brock consider the propagation of primroses to be important for his wild garden? In the early days of medicine they were considered to be an important remedy for muscular rheumatism, paralysis, and gout, and were spoken of by Pliny as a virtual cure-all. The whole plant is a sedative and a tincture made from it was used to treat cases of extreme sensitivity, restlessness, and insomnia. An infusion of the root taken in tablespoon doses was helpful in curing headaches and the plant mixed with lard was used as an ointment for wounds. Its flowers were even the main ingredient in an ancient recipe called 'Primrose Pottage', which sounds delicious and I am a great fan of anything involving the word 'pottage'. She was also a flower of the poor and there are tales of those on a low income collecting primrose petals to bake into pies. It should be noted though that, although the primrose population is considered stable, they have suffered greatly from over collection and habitat loss and we rarely see the great drifts of yellow flowers that many remember from the childhoods. A friend, Patsy, shared with me her own memories of primroses when she was small, "Oh, I remember going primrosing, on the way to Brighton to visit my Nanny in Brighton in the 1960s. The huge, perfumed bunches of soft, pretty pale yellow flowers we gathered to present her with! How excited we got when we discovered a yellow-carpeted glade or roadside bank!" It would be lovely if we were once again able to freely gather primroses, for our Nannies and ourselves, knowing that there would still be abundant drifts of butter roses remaining in the wild places. For now, the plants are rightly protected under the Wildlife and Countryside Act, 1981 which prohibits their collection or removal from the wild.

April 2012
This 'over collection' may have something to do with the amount of folklore which binds the magic of primroses to the faery-kin. Children used to eat the flowers or peer over the top of the petals in the hope of seeing fairies. Posies were left on doorsteps in the anticipation that fairies would bless the house and its residents, although conversely the posies were also believed to provide a barrier to prevent fairies from crossing the threshold. If I were a fairy I might not want to bestow blessings on a household that wielded primrose posies in such a bewildering way! Often their folk-magic was bound up with that of May Day, “Guard the house with a string of primroses on the first three days of May. The fairies are said not to be able to pass over or under the string.” (National Folklore Collection, Ireland). In Ireland, the flowers were rubbed on cows' udders to ensure a rich milk yield and primrose balls were hung on their tails on May Eve to prevent fairies and witches stealing their milk. Despite this lack of generosity, fairies were said to be fond of primroses and to be angry if they were allowed to die through neglect; a fine encouragement to treasure and protect our wild flowers in their natural habitats, rather than bringing them indoors.

Numbers also seem important in primrose folklore. It was said that if one were to touch a 'fairy rock' with just the right amount of primroses in a posy you would be shown the way to Fairyland. If it was the 'wrong' number then one's fate was to be less pleasant, although the form that that might take is obviously too fearsome to relate. As well as protection of the dairy, primroses were also important to hen-wives and children were told never to bring fewer than thirteen flowers into the house in spring, as that would be the number of chicks a hen would then hatch (thirteen being considered the perfect number). The wonderful Plant Lore relates an incident where mediation was required between two old women, one of whom had accused the other of encouraging her child to bring one primrose flower into the house and so cause her hens to only hatch one chick out of each batch of eggs that year! The association between chicks and primrose flowers was thought to be a sort of 'sympathetic magic' as they not only appear at the same time of year, but both are also yellow. This possibly explains the connection with butter and milk too. In some places primroses were also known as 'goslings' and believed to have the same effect on the hatching of goose eggs, but this is more usually a matter for the catkins of pussy willow.

As well as the connection to birth and fecundity, primroses were associated with death, which seems incongruous in such an archetypally 'spring' plant. I wonder how much of this is a later overlay by the Church, one which has also affected snowdrops and their own folklore? Another friend told me that, although she finds primroses pretty, they 'spook her' because to smell their scent meant death. Returning to numbers, this range of meaning for the primrose may be due to the five petals of her flower being said to represent 'birth, initiation, consummation, repose, and death'.  It was also sometimes believed that giving someone a single primrose, or bringing one indoors, would cause death. 

Victorians chose primroses as one of the flowers which should be planted on children's graves. Rev. John Evans wrote in 1898 that, “The snow-drop, violet and primrose denote the infant dust”, echoing the words of Charles Bucke in his 1821 publication, 'On the Beauties, Harmonies, and Sublimities of Nature, with Occasional Remarks on the Laws, Customs, Manners, and Opinions of Various Nations', who said that, “in some villages, children have snowdrops, primroses, violets, hazel-bloom, and sallow blossoms upon their graves.” It seems that, as symbols of youth and innocence, primroses were also the perfect flowers to accompany such small souls into the afterlife. Here, we find Shakespeare again, who describes primrose as the 'funeral flower for youth' in 'Cymbeline', Act 4.

Primroses planted in a Welsh church font

The Greeks named the flower (and its sister, cowslip) 'paralios' after a youth who was said to have died from a broken heart when his love, Melicerta, was turned into a primrose by the Gods. Strange that the flower was named for him and not for her, although primrose is a flower of paradoxes ~ both chaste and wanton, an emblem of birth, innocence, and tender childhood, and a marker of their death, a symbol of love and sweetness, but also of inconstancy, the sense of being forsaken, and lovers' doubts. It seems to me that primrose's 'root wisdom', which weaves together all these aspects, is the reminder to keep our hearts open, through doubts and heartache, through loss and grief, through all the journeys that necessitate us pushing through the dark, emerging fragile, dishevelled, and grubby faced into the pale light. If she can shine and remain butter-soft through all of that then so can we. It is not so very hard.  If we dare to peer over the petals of their beloved flowers, the faery-kin will no doubt remind us that there is an edge of danger and of blessing in everything and that when we have struggled through much that has left us winter-ragged and storm-torn, we all deserve to walk along the Primrose Path for a while.

At eve, the primrose path along,
The milkmaid shortens with a song
Her solitary way;
She sees the fairies with their queen
Trip hand-in-hand the circled green,
And hears them raise, at times unseen,
The ear-enchanting lay.

Rev. John Logan: Ode to Spring, 1780

As a final aside, the writing of this piece has been confused by the ways in which the folklore of primroses and cowslips, which are related species but certainly not the same, seem to have become tangled together. Some authors acknowledge that certain pieces of folk-wisdom apply to both. Others will state that they are sharing primrose folklore when it clearly relates only to cowslips. I believe that sources which  give one of the common names of primrose as 'St Peter's Keys' are guilty of this, for example. And cowslips do look so very much like a little bunch of golden keys. I have omitted information that proved, or felt, wrong. It matters to trust the ground under our feet and our own observations and feelings when writing about flowers, or anything else. And I asked the primroses.

Primroses growing beside a grave, St Mary Plaistow, March 2016

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http://www.gardenherbs.org/simples/primrose.htm