Posts in Musings
Forests: Fables, Folk Stories and Fairytales
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I grew up with a forest fascination. My mother’s side of the family are Polish, so there’s always been a tradition of folk stories; I remember one in particular about a little girl whose stepmother demands roses in midwinter, snowdrops in summer and so on. She hides down the well and meets twelve mysterious figures who each provide her with what she requires in order to appease the wicked stepmother.

The forests I grew up exploring were, in actuality, smaller areas of woodland. Deciduous woods with a wonderful variety of fungi, berries and flowers. Streams and silver birches, oaks and sycamores, sweet chestnut and ash. Occasionally we’d go hunting pinecones in the fir plantations near the local reservoir, but we generally spent most of our outdoor tree time in the leafy woods. Ferns and wild garlic in the spring, conkers and rosehips in the autumn. The kind of woods you see in those old Ladybird books.

But now we reside in Scotland. The north of Scotland, to be precise: the Hebrides. Most of our woodland here is of the evergreen variety; pine and spruce. Real fairytale forests, where the light is dim and the ground is soft and velvety with mosses and deep, deep layers of dropped needles. There’s a kind of silence that’s very particular to a pine forest. The low boughs and thick carpeting deaden any outside noise. All you’ll hear is the odd crack of a breaking branch or the call of a bird. There’s an atmosphere very specific to this type of woodland.

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It’s easy for the imagination to run wild when you’re standing alone in a pine forest. Everywhere looks the same, like you’re surrounded by mirrors. It’s dark and suggestive and strange shapes manifest themselves; wind whispers eerily through the branches. It doesn’t take much to envisage hungry wolves weaving stealthily past or goblins hiding in the roots of fallen trees.

It may be a subliminal thing, but recently my reading of choice (from the library) has been all about the woods. I just finished Pollard by Laura Beatty, a novel about Anne - a girl who doesn’t ‘fit in’, subsequently leaves her family and takes up permanent residence in the woods near her home. It’s set in the present day and makes for a wonderful read. In turns brutal and whimsical, the story is told both through the eyes of Anne and the ever-watching trees.

Next up is one I’ve wanted to read for a long time. Sara Maitland’s Gossip from the Forest promises many evenings of indulging my love of fairytales and forests by exploring the relationship between the two.

Some of my all-time favourite stories are set within the woods, from the Laura Ingalls Wilder Little House series to Hansel and Gretel. Likewise, my favourite parts of stories are those where adventures unfold amongst the trees: The Wind in the Willows springs to mind. And who could resist the beautifully-illustrated storybooks of childhood? Jill Barklem’s Brambly Hedge books, Winnie the Pooh, The Lion, the Witch and the Wardrobe

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Some of the most evocative writing I’ve ever read is by Angela Carter, in the opening pages of The Erl-King (one of the short stories in The Bloody Chamber). The dank foreboding of a secretly inhabited autumnal forest, explored alone, is described beautifully. You can almost feel the damp, still air and smell the dying vegetation as it slowly collapses back into the ground.

So here we are. Those pine forests which looked so enchanted just a few short weeks ago, snow-covered and twilit, are now hosting signs of life. They’re beckoning. It’s time to find a little-used, winding path and follow it into a secret world where talking creatures, witches and magic might just exist.

MusingsSarah Hardman
The Folklore of Snowdrops
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A tiny, fragile milk-flower clustered resolutely in the bitter and frosted winter’s soil - bringer of hope to some yet loathed by so many. Believed by some to have been brought to England by monks, the humble Snowdrop hails from the mountainous Alpine regions where the world is much colder and winters much harsher. Today, although not native to this country it’s commonly found in the British Isles, rearing it’s pearly head in time to coincide with celebration of Imbolc/Candlemass around the beginning of February;

‘The snowdrop, in purest white arraie,

First rears her hedde on Candlemas daie.

While the Crocus hastens to the shrine
Of Primrose lone on St Valentine.’ 

-an excerpt from an Old English floral calendar dating back to the 19th century.

One of my preferred folklores that surrounds the plant is an ancient German tale;

At the beginning of all things when life was new, the Snow sought to borrow a colour. The flowers were much admired by all the elements but they guarded their colour’s jealousy and when the Snow pleaded with them, they turned their backs in contempt for they believed the Snow cold and unpleasant. The tiny humble snowdrops took pity on the Snow for none of the other flowers had shown it any kindness and so they came forth and offered up to the Snow their colour.

The Snow gratefully accepted and became white forevermore, just like the Snowdrops. In its gratitude, the Snow permitted the little pearly flowers the protection to appear in winter, to be impervious to the ice and bitter chill. From then on, the Snow and the Snowdrops coexisted side by side as friends.

Fascinating little flowers, according to hearsay the plants are able to generate their own heat, however, there’s little in the way of proof. Known to have medicinal properties, the Galanthus nivalis currently being used in treatment for Alzheimer's. Their Latin name is dreadfully pretty as it translates as ‘Milkflower of the snow’ - this is possibly my favourite variant on the name as well as a Welsh word for them, ‘Eirlys’ which translates as ‘Snow Lilly.’

A much-adored sight around the bleak late winter days in modern day Britain, the ‘Fair Maid of February’ as they are also known, favour shady areas such as woodlands and are perhaps most notably and somewhat grimly found clustered upon graves and carpeting the floors of Britain’s churchyards. Perhaps this is the reason for some darker lore that surrounds the Snowdrops; for some say that they are an omen of death.

In Victorian superstition, it’s told that you must never bring the Snowdrop into the house for that will bring ill-fortune and in some more extreme versions of the tale, death will occur in the family within the year. Many cling to and practice this superstition still claiming resolutely that a plucked snowdrop brought upon their threshold was the reason they were widowed. Other old English superstitions dictate that by bringing in a Snowdrop, the milk will turn sour and eggs shall spoil. I’d rather not believe that picking this beautiful little flower would be a bringer of ills and sadness, however it’s most probably for the best that it’s not plucked from its roots and taken indoors where it’ll only wither but instead left with its fellows, creating a wondrous blanket of white across the woodlands and churchyards.

Better than a bringer of death is the flower’s associations as a bringer of hope and purity; the green coloured stem of the snowdrop symbolises and links with the Pagan ideals of health and wellbeing whilst the white symbolises the light of the winter sun which is now beginning to grow stronger as the days lengthen.

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One of the most popularly documented stories surrounding the origins of the Snowdrop is actually a Christian creation tale. It tells of the moments following Adam & Eve’s exile from the garden of Eden where hopeless and dejected, they shiver as the snows swirl around them and the frost bites at their toes. An Angel descends from the Heavens to relate the message that Eden is no longer their privilege and that they must swiftly move on. Frightened and awed by the Angel and apprehensive of the nameless world that lies beyond, Adam and Eve take each other's hand and wander towards the unfamiliar and cruel new lands, heads bowed and tearful.

It is here that the Angel feels deep sorrow in his heart so he reaches out a hand where the soft snowfall lands in its perfect kaleidoscope of shapes, twinkling crystals in his palm; perfect and unmelting. The Angel brings the snowflakes to his face and breaths upon them, transforming the glittering ice into soft, pearly flowers; the first Snowdrops. “Take these little flowers,” says the Angel to Adam and Eve, “take them as a sign of hope. A sign for your kind and for the earth outside.” The Angel casts the tiny flowers into a halo that surrounds the two people and they carry this blessing of hope with them out into the world beyond.

Whether you believe the many dark superstitions that surround this flower or not, you cannot deny that it is a messenger of the seasons, that the darkest moment of winter has passed and that there are happenings of life in the roots beneath the earth; spring is imminent.

The Scottish poet George Wilson concludes his poem ‘The Origin of the snowdrop’ with the lines;

"And thus the snowdrop, like the bow
That spans the cloudy sky,
Becomes a symbol whence we know
That brighter days are nigh ; ”

MusingsSarah Porteus
Changing Habitats: from the familiar to the new
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At the end of last year, we made the move from the Lancashire Pennines to the Inner Hebrides: the Isle of Skye, in fact. I grew up in the Pennines, in a valley of mill towns and stone villages surrounded by moorland. It’s a place I know intimately: the topography, the quiet places, the history and the people. I loved the familiarity of it all, the paths and walks, the way I could tailor my expeditions to my mood, the amount of time I had, the seasons or whether I was walking alone or in company. Some were favourites, others came into their own for foraging or gathering. 

I could climb onto the hills for heather and bilberries, wander into the woods to find bluebells amongst the birches or follow the river in search of wild raspberries. It was a varied landscape of wild moorland and green, sheltered valleys. The only thing missing: the sea.

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And so to Skye. Our new home presents us with an entirely different prospect. Yes, there are similarities (an abundance of sheep and heather, all that wind and rain). But for the most part, it’s so very different to what we’re used to. Prior to holidaying here, I had an imaginary picture of Skye - rainbows, mountains, mist. What I didn’t know was just how big an island it is. Miles and miles of stark, harsh moorland. Those mountains are vast, often disappearing into the clouds. Gargantuan cliff faces and crashing waves, fearsome storms and deep, silent pine forests.

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I’m a complete coastal-living rookie. I know so little about the birds of prey which sit, sentinel-like, on fence posts as we drive past. Other than herons and cormorants and gulls, I’d struggle to identify anything we see bobbing about in the bay. I’m perhaps a bit more knowledgeable about the plants and flowers; as winter melts away and spring arrives (we always used to visit in May), there are masses of violets, primroses, orchids, and ferns. One of my favourites is the cotton grass, the pale tufts of which seem magically suspended above the ground as they blow in the wind.

As well as exploring this new landscape I’m keen to learn more about it. About the machair, that low-lying and sandy ground, fertile and floral (when not closely-cropped by sheep and cattle). About the birds and deer and butterflies. I want to educate myself on the weather here, on the tides, shells, and seaweed. And to discover stories, folklore, and traditions. This is a place not so much shaped by people, but which shapes those who live here. It’s an island of contrasts: winter quiet, summer activity as the tourists descend. Blue skies and turquoise seas, lashing rain and howling gales. It’s not just about going outside and experiencing it on foot; for me, I need to know and understand too. 

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The island library has a comprehensive section upstairs on Scottish and local history. It spans both the social and natural heritage of Skye, and I fully intend to study my way around those shelves.

How much do you know about where you live? Was it shaped by an industrial past or by previous inhabitants, centuries ago? Are you aware of plants and animals specific to your particular region? It could be worth prescribing yourself a little course where you choose the content and then do the research. Read, speak to people, explore. You never know: you may end up unearthing a few surprises.
 

MusingsSarah Hardman
Borrowed Landscape

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Visits to famous gardens in the winter never fail to get me outside cutting and digging in my own patch. I've already cleared a small bed in my front garden just 2 x 3 metres, ready for switch and spangle grasses inspired by the Hauser Wirth garden in Bruton. This one is a big open space some 1.5 acres where the designer Piet Oudolf has used drifts of grasses from the Prairies of North America to echo the reeds, rushes and willows of the Somerset Levels. I like the way his garden has this strong sense of place which makes for a calming yet energising space. Closer to where I live is Croome Park near Pershore originally laid out by Capability Brown where you'll find the gardens spreading seamlessly into the pastoral landscape by using wide ditches on one side and a woodland on the other;  it's a lovely place for a country walk with delightful features at every turn. Both designers borrowed the landscape by choosing plants that blend well and by using views to their best advantage and you can too. You'll probably have to learn to love all shades of brown and green keeping showy seasonal flowers to dress your porch or patio, but I promise this gardening style will beguile and sustain you for many years.

So how exactly do you borrow from the landscape to make a garden that feels right? Maybe start with the bigger picture and consider these questions: What was there before the land was developed and built on? What about the lie of the land? What grows well? Then make choices for your garden that are compatible with the land beyond its boundaries. In northern Europe, woodland areas, raised beds for vegetables, small orchards and swathes of grass bound by hedges all look well because you'll be restoring what was there before.

Repetition is an important principle: shapes, textures and colours all need to be used repeatedly because this is what happens naturally. Have a good look at neighbouring gardens and green spaces and repeat those plants choices, for example a silver birch the other side of a fence would look well with two more planted on your side. Trees do better planted in groups and the existing tree gives lots of information about summer shade and its winter silhouette.  If there's an established beech hedge in view, create inside walls with new beech whips to outline a secret garden or to hide tools, pots and compost. You should find that sympathetic planting softens boundaries and gives your garden an expansive feel. I'm a great fan of low impact boundaries:  featherboard or chestnut paling fences and picket and cleft gates look lovely planted with native hedging. I realise full height braced gates are needed sometimes, to keep the dog safe in my case but choose low fences and hedging elsewhere.

To add charm and loveliness add features which don't have to be plants at all: a timber archway or an arbour, a winding path with a change of surface, stone spirals or a container used as a focal point, all work well in your outdoor room. Seasonal plants in pots and troughs like the green and white viridflora tulip or a dark blue lavender in spring and later echinacea and calendula look stunning with a green backdrop.

Every garden I've tended has had an unappealing feature or two, a towering Leylandii hedge which I had to make my peace with, house building at the bottom of the garden, and orange fence panels, for example. Hiding them in plain sight might save you from disliking the whole plot: you can use the fence panels to hold up natural willow hurdles, or plant some woodland trees in front of them like hazel and hornbeam which will take a few seasons to make an impact but then gardening is always a long game. The orange tones will fade in a couple of seasons especially if you water the timber with muddy water. To mask the new rooflines at the end of my garden I planted a fast growing maple where there was a gap which will do the trick in the summer and for winter frost and snow I put up a shed with a pitched roof to repeat the shape of the gables of the new build houses. But the best solution is to make the most of vistas and views from further away.

You can look up the Piet Oudolf garden here: www.hauserwirthsomerset.com and Croome Park here: www.nationaltrust.org.uk/croome and if you get the chance to visit in person you won't be disappointed. My grasses are now planted in my small front garden and seem happy in the rain and above average temperatures. I imagine them grown up, swaying in the breezes that sweep up the river valley their straw shades augmenting the colour of the pale oak door.
 

MusingsFrancey Bunn
The Discipline of Solitude: Being Present and the Creative Writing Process
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It’s strange, but the notion of truly ‘being present’, has almost become a counterculture behaviour.  A valid description, its status as such heralds a stark warning on how intrinsically linked we are becoming to digital, viewing moments as future memories waiting to be captured, rather than experiences to be felt in the moment.

But this is not a post about the benefits of digital detox, but more a weekly ritual I want to share, that has helped me not only to focus on ‘being present’, but one that has truly deepened my connection with my garden and its abundance of life in the winter.

Long hours commuting, the demands of a busy job, and the even tougher task of keeping a 3-year-old entertained leaves little time for oneself, or to focus fully on observing and listening to the world around you.  But the other weekend, a chance opportunity to spend just 20 minutes in the garden alone, triggered a routine that I now hold sacred for so many reasons.

I awoke early on a Saturday morning, and my wife and daughter were both still asleep.  I made myself a cup of coffee, reached for a jacket and took myself to the end of the garden to enjoy a few moments of solitude before the household woke up in earnest.

Standing there, time almost seemed to slow down.  Each draught on my hot cup of coffee was followed by a lungful of cold winter air, and then accompanied a bird flitting in the bush beside me; a leaf being carried along in the stream; a heron swooping awkwardly above me.  The less I thought about life, the more I noticed it.

Winter forces me to live a life in boxes even more than the summer: trains carriages, stations, trams, offices, houses.  The opportunity to start the weekend standing in the garden seems to open the pores of the soul and reset one’s internal balance.

But aside from the mental benefits this brings, it’s also started to fuel a deeper connection to life in the winter.  I’ve always loved winter for the same numerous reasons that it’s loved by so many others.  But the garden has always felt like a dead zone to me; closed down and locked off for the winter.

My weekly excursions into it, however, prove how wrong this presumption was.  Even just 15 minutes a week has allowed me to be silent, still and listen to the world around me.  And the abundance of intrigue, interest and activity, has been a revelation to me.  From the intimate lives of birds, made more visible now the branches are bare, or the perseverance and life of different plants, the weekly ritual of observation and quiet listening, has connected me to winter in a way I’ve never felt before.

Discovering this – or should it be, rediscovering? – has been nothing short of a joy.

In addition to the richness this has brought to my love of nature, these wintertime reveries have also helped my creative process.  Any writer will have empathy for the lack of discipline, writer’s block, or general procrastination that seems to come so easily.

But these weekend musings have taken on a metamorphosis of their own, much like the season.  Solitude turned to observation; observation turned to listening.  Listening fuelled note-taking; and notes inspired prose. 

The ‘field notes from the garden’ now form a weekly feature on my blog, a column I derive much pleasure from writing.  But as I’ve started to collate these, even in their infancy, they are starting to form a record of natural history in the smallest of gardens. 

A recent trend for micro, rather than macro, natural history is rather prevalent: writers penning books on edge-land, woodland or even fields.  Could the humblest of small gardens in the Peak District take that premise even further still?

Time will tell.  But I urge all of you, writers or not, to actively carve out a few moments of winter solitude in your gardens, outside spaces, or even gazing out of a window.  When you actively listen, engage and connect, it’s incredible what stories start to reveal themselves to you.

(This also presents an opportunity to apologise to my neighbours for the early morning sight of myself in pyjamas and thick jackets in the garden.  If any of you are reading this, then hopefully this piece changes your perception of me from ‘bizarre-winter-garden-pyjama-man’!)

You can access my weekly observations in the ‘field notes’ category on my website: https://aseasonedsoul.blog/category/field-notes/ or follow me on Twitter @aseasonedsoul

MusingsCallum Saunders
Baba Yaga
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Not every fairytale has a fairy godmother, altruistic and giving, always on hand to grant a wish and wave a magic wand to set everything right for the downtrodden hero or heroine of the story. Some protagonists of the old folk stories weren’t always lucky as Cinderella and Dorothy, the less fortunate hero and heroines didn’t encounter Glinda the good witch of the North, instead they happened across the terrifying being that is Baba Yaga.

I find Baba Yaga a most intriguing character in Slavic mythology. Always drawn to the more austere and gothic edges of folklore as opposed to the rose tinted happy endings of modern fairy tales, Baba Yaga captivates my attention as there are so many conflicting tales surrounding her, none of which can give any clue of her true desires and intentions. She is a chaotic neutral force that grants help when asked but her methods are never pretty, sometimes leaving the protagonist feeling like they should have never begged her help in the first place.

Unpredictable and volatile, Baba Yaga is sometimes perceived as a mother nature figure but one trope that is always consistent throughout the lore that surrounds her is that she eats those unfortunates who cannot complete her tasks. Depicted as heinously ugly to behold, she is a crone with iron teeth and a long nose who travels through the sky in a mortar and pestle.

Another intriguing feature of hers that appeals to the fifteen year old goth version of me is  that of her house.  One of the most iconic motifs surrounding the Baba Yaga mythos is that she lives in a hut in the centre of the deep dark woods (like many witches of folklore) but what sets her hut apart from your run-of-the-mill forest witch is that her hut is has it’s own pair of long, giant & gnarled chicken legs. The hut is believed to be alive (As much as a hut can be alive) and possess its own personality. The hut roves about the forest, like an elemental force of its own, perhaps seeking out those in need of Baba Yaga. People can often tell when they are in Baba Yaga’s presence before seeing her for when she is around, the winds turn wild and whistle through the trees which creak and groan as the air turns bitter cold.

Baba Yaga appears throughout history, first referenced in text in a Russian Grammar book in 1755 as a figure lifted from Slavic folklore. It’s likely that her origins derived from many ancient oral tales that later were built upon, frayed and reconstructed into written folk stories.

Although unmoral and dangerous, Baba Yaga never goes after anyone unprovoked and the stories that surround her are generally told from the point of view of the people that encounter her. One such story is the that of Vasilisa, a Cinderella-like character who’s stepmother and sisters severely mistreat her. Her family send her into the forest on an impossible quest for the fire of Baba Yaga (who serves in this tale as a wicked fairy godmother) and Vasilisa finds herself faced with completing a variety of exhausting tasks set by the witch under the threat of her life. Upon completing the tasks, Baba Yaga sends her back to her family with the fire as requested however when Vasilisa brings it home, the fire which is contained inside a  magic skull, burns her family to death as punishment for their cruelty. Not exactly the nicest way to treat even those who’ve wronged you but it’s not the way of Baba Yaga to be forgiving or gentle.

I don’t know about you, but when it comes to villainy I feel a little weary and tired of an antagonist that is inherently evil. Their motives are normally along the  lines of world domination (here’s looking at you Voldemort) or they’re just terrible people and want to eat small children. I struggle with the concept that people can be all good or all evil which in modern fairy tales often has a clearly defining line. Those who are considered evil and villainous often have a backstory that details a history of suffering or abuse or it’s completely unexplained and they are just outright chaotic bad and only ever do bad things to people.

I find the notion of a neutral villain far more appealing; Baba Yaga is an elemental force that has no definable intentions and does terrible things because she has no moral compass although she is willing to help those who prove themselves. Villainy isn’t perhaps an apt word for a character like Baba Yaga, for she comes from a branch of folktale where there is no defining line of good and bad. The characters of older tales tend to find themselves on a spectrum of good to evil but ultimately it’s their actions that define them.

This approach to character design feels more raw, realistic and relatable. Is it not the most appealing part of a fairy tale to find ourselves in a surreal experience but able to relate to the protagonists? I don’t know about you but these days I’m slightly apathetic towards the myriad of fairy tales featuring melodramatic heroes, peril-prone altruistic and altogether vanilla heroines and villains who are both predictable and shallow in their intentions. Give me a flawed protagonist any day and while you’re at it, an antagonist that has perhaps more than just humble personality traits of narcissism and megalomania, one that surprises, twists and turns the plot. One both unpredictable and wild, unfathomable and enduring; one like Baba Yaga.

MusingsSarah Porteus
An Eye On The Wind
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‘Weather cannot be divorced from the outdoors experience and nor should it be.’ Tristan Gooley

If you’re someone who spends time outside in the UK then you’ll be acutely aware of the weather. We have to be because it can determine if a day goes to plan or not and more than once I’ve wished I could enjoy the outdoors without the elements but as Gooley says, we shouldn’t. With a little understanding and patience, the elements can yield clues for navigating. Yes, we have maps, GPS, and even our phones so we’re not reliant on natural navigation anymore but there’s still value in observing how the natural world is behaving around us.

It’s essential to observe the weather from the outset of your journey because often clues are in the changes. If you don’t know which way the wind was blowing an hour ago, you won’t know it’s turned.

In fact, wind direction is a great place to start. The ancient Greek name for different winds was interchangeable with the direction they came from; for example, Boreas, the name for the cold wind from the north (and the God of winter) could be used to mean the direction north. In the ancient world the characteristics of a wind would be analysed to detect from where it blew but in modern times we’ve flipped this so we look at the direction to try and predict what’s coming. Where a wind comes from gives us clues about what it might bring with it. A westerly wind coming off the sea will bring damp, maybe rain. As we saw last year, a southerly wind can turn the sky orange with Saharan dust while also bringing heat and dry air.

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Historically the clarity of air has been used to predict weather too. The sky appears a darker shade of blue when the air is extremely dry or at high altitude because the short waves of blue light aren’t being scattered by clouds or pollutants in the atmosphere. The Polynesians used the twinkling of the stars to judge weather conditions, as twinkling is caused by wispy cirrus clouds high in the atmosphere.

While this all sounds more like weather forecasting than navigation, they are incredibly closely linked. If you can tell where the wind comes from and what it might have encountered on its way, i.e. mountains or sea, from the weather it brings, then you can learn about a landscape even if you can’t see it.

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If you know the prevailing wind direction of a place then natural features become points on a vast compass. Trees bent like cartoon hags go with the direction of the prevailing wind and are easy to spot. More subtle is the weathering of a hill or mountainside. The slope facing into the wind (windward) might have less vegetation, smoother rock, and curves while the sheltered side (leeward) will gather dust, leaves and shingle and will usually be dryer than the windward side.   

While this is only a small introduction to a huge topic, winter is a fantastic time to tune into nature. Start small, notice changes in the wind while out walking and slowly you’ll become more perceptive.

Happy navigating!

MusingsMelissa Davies
The Poetry of The Garden
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"Everything that slows us down and forces patience, everything that sets us back into the slow circles of nature, is a help. Gardening is an instrument of grace."   (May Sarton)

It’s hard to convince myself that gardening is an instrument of grace when I am plastered in mud and weary from a day planting bulbs.  In fact I’ve been planting bulbs for the last month; 2,715 of them – I trudge around the garden zombie-like, weighed down by the sludge on my boots and trousers.  I’m a bulb-planting zombie.  But May Sarton is right; the slow process of digging down deep and burying my little nuggets of treasure, does set me back into the ‘slow circles of nature’.  

That is what I love about working closely with nature.  I have to work at her pace and now, in November that is slow; slowing down to the virtual stop in December.  And after a busy year in the garden I need the break.  Spring with its excitement, followed by the colourful chaos of high summer and the flurry of harvest and preparation that comes with the late summer and autumn, all combine to make the gardener’s life a pretty busy one.  But even the most back-breaking jobs and the coldest, wettest days, never once make me want to do anything else for a living and I am always deeply grateful that life has allowed me to live my path this way.

Working with Gaia, feeling her life-giving soil in my hands, nurturing her wild seeds and my own chosen precious gems, embracing the beauty and wallowing in the scents she sends, it is a wonder to me that anyone would want to be anything but a gardener!  Luckily everyone can be a gardener – even without a garden:  With so many wonderful community gardening projects to join, allotments to be had, window boxes to install, gardening is within pretty much everyone’s reach.  For those of us lucky enough to have our own gardens, the path to happiness is just a step outside the door.

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Biophilia – our instinctive connection with nature – is part of us all.  Living without this connection can lead to illness and a feeling of ‘something missing’ in our lives.  Going for a walk or enjoying a view bring a certain amount of connection but for me, the act of working with the land, as gardeners do, brings even greater benefits, involving, as it does, the elements of creativity and nuture that fulfil other human desires.  Creativity -  art - is what we are able to give back to the world.  Working with the world, with Earth herself, nurturing Nature to create art in the form of a garden, is incredibly fulfilling.  It is joyous, sacred work.  I worship daily; kneeling in the dirt, loving every minute.  

In the Blue Zones of the world (the five areas where people live longer, happier and healthier than anywhere else) the people engage in daily unautomated tasks such as gardening, eat plant based diets and place great value on social and family life.  In many ways, they lead a ‘Simple Life’ – something to which many of us aspire.  Gardening takes us back to that simple life.  

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We don’t need a horticultural degree to make a garden – everything we need to know is out there in the Collective Unconscious (or, failing that, Google).  Humans have been working the land for thousands of years – it’s what we’re meant to do.  If we give ourselves a chance we can re-find our way into the flow of natural life.  In fact it is an easy and instinctive act to step outside and back into May Sarton’s ‘slow circles of nature’.

It’s not so easy, though, in my experience, to remain entirely graceful while you’re doing it.

 

MusingsSarah Wint
Ode to the Map
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At 21 years old, engineer William Roy was tasked with mapping the Scottish highlands. Following the rebellion of 1745, the military decided they needed to open up the wild highlands and to do this they had to understand them. William Roy and his teams spent eight years measuring distances with a 50ft chain, the rest was sketched by eye. 

This is the origin of the OS Map. 

Born from a military desire to control, the bright orange Explorer maps now form an integral part of our freedom to roam, to adventure and explore Britain. In less than 300 years these maps have completely reversed their philosophy and we should take a moment to celebrate the possibilities that lie within their folds.

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Every time I pick one of the maps off the blue bookcase that stands in the corner of my office I experience the tiniest flutter of excitement. It means I’m heading outside, it means my rucksack and my precious Scarpa boots will soon follow. It means I’m going on a journey. Thanks to Roy and his ability to dream big and achieve bigger I’m able to explore an empty valley on my own in an afternoon, knowing I’ll make it home. Or I can cycle the length of the country knowing exactly what obstacles I’ll meet each day. I can chose somewhere to pitch my tent before I even leave the house. Isn’t that amazing?!

In 2017 we’re so obsessed with surveillance, with who is tracking us and that nothing is unknown but why not highlight one positive in the culture of fear and control. Every detail of the landscape is known and available to us, from the farm wall to the footbridge or bridlepath that might guide us to the breathtaking view over our home town. Having that knowledge gives us a freedom that didn’t exist in the past. So next time you reach for your OS take a second to thank William Roy and the explorers who’ve made your adventure possible.

Happy travels!

MusingsMelissa Davies
The Pattern of the Land
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Hedgerows are a defining feature of the English countryside, creating a distinctive patchwork over much of the land.  The word ‘hedge’ derives from the Anglo Saxon ‘hecg’ meaning boundary.  But over time these leafy stretches have proved to be so much more than man’s way of marking a plot or controlling the movement of livestock.

Well over half of England has had a continuously hedged landscape for a thousand years or more.  This is despite the removal, in medieval times, of many hedgerows to create an open field system of farming, and the subsequent planting of new hedges under the Enclosure Acts in the years between 1750 and 1850.

Over time different regions developed their own distinctive methods of planting or laying, creating traditional practices that today contribute much to the character of a place.  From the hedges of Cornwall – stone banks topped with turf and adopted over time by a multitude of wild plants, sometimes with their herringbone pattern (known as Curzy Way or Jack and Jill) still showing – to the carefully pleached and well maintained, square-cut hedges of Lancashire and Westmorland, our hedgerows are a distinctive part of our cultural heritage.  And whether created to manage livestock or land (to prevent soil erosion or to regulate water supply for example) they are vital to the survival of much of our native flora and fauna.

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As winter approaches and the hedgerows begin to lose their leaves, we get to glimpse into the thicket of branches and twigs; to discover what the hedgerow harbours.  Long abandoned birds’ nests, a loveliness of ladybirds clustering together to hibernate, a stretch of spider’s web, all provide insight into the role our hedges play as shelter.  For flying insects such as butterflies, sheltered conditions are essential, allowing them to gain and retain the heat needed for flight.  For small mammals it is the interconnectedness of our hedgerows that proves key. Networks of hedges provide safe routes to follow, allowing creatures such as mice and voles to move freely in search of food while remaining hidden from predators.

At this time of year the hedgerow’s worth as a source of food is most apparent too.  Great clouds of bees, wasps, and flies erupt from the starry, nectar-rich heads of ivy flowers, while red admirals flit among them.  And as the flowers fatten into dark berries they become rich pickings for hungry birds.

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Of course it’s not just wildlife that benefits from this natural abundance.  Hedgerows have long provided some of our favourite victuals: blackberry jam, sloe gin, rosehip syrup, hawthorn jelly to name but a few.  And they are a great source of inspiration; particularly on autumnal days, all aglow with hips and haws, and bedecked with strings of berries, garlands of hops, and the tangle of traveller’s joy.  Clusters of woody nightshade berries hang like little lanterns, and robin’s pincushions – caused by the larvae of a tiny gall wasp, Diplolepis rosae  – redden on the wild roses.

Perhaps it is this sheer density of different life forms that makes our hedgerows so fascinating. Our landscape and our lives are certainly made all the more rich by their presence.

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Did you know?

It takes around one hundred years for a new woody species, such as blackthorn, hawthorn, elder or hazel, to become established.  Thanks to this knowledge you can estimate a hedge’s age using what is known as Hooper’s Hypothesis. Just count the number of woody species within a 30 metre stretch, then multiply that number by a hundred.  The hypothesis was formed by the naturalist Max Hooper who died earlier this year, aged 82.

MusingsHelen Duncan
Lavender for the Soul

As rosemary is for the spirit, so lavender is to the soul

-Anonymous

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From the ancient Egyptians filling tombs with its heady perfume to the Arabs, Greeks and Romans utilising its medicinal qualities, lavender has long since been a part of nature’s rich medicine cabinet.  Traded all along the spice route in centuries gone by, its oils and flowers made their way across Europe to monastery gardens, the courts of kings and queens and everyday folk to scent bed linen and ward away evil spirits.  Used during the Plague for its antibacterial properties to guard against the spread of infection, throughout history, lavender has been the ‘go-to’ herb for stimulating and calming, uplifting and relaxing, to cure ills and heal burns, to aid insomnia and even alleviate depression.  Its magical properties never fail to amaze me.  Steeped in folklore, it was used to summon the faerie folk on Midsummer’s Eve.  It has even played its part when it comes to love.  It is said that Cleopatra herself used lavender as part of her charms to seduce both Mark Anthony and Julius Caesar.  A herb of both love and strength, it was believed to drive away lurking demons but perhaps my favourite lavender tale of all, is the story of young maidens using it to remain chaste, carrying sprigs about their person to guard against unwanted advances. 

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Nowadays its purpose is far less spiritual perhaps but no less powerful – sewn into scented bags and tucked in wardrobes to deter moths and flies, to soothe in hot baths or to aid restful sleep as a pillow spray.  I’ve lost count too of the numbers of recipes I’ve come across where lavender has been used to flavour cakes, jam or ice cream – a small amount working its magic on ordinary ingredients.  Lavender remains one of the most recognisable and prolifically grown herbs in gardens large and small. 

Moving to a derelict farmhouse a few months ago, we were staggered to uncover amongst knee high grass and overgrown weeds that we had a whole field of it planted in the garden behind the house.  Slowly but surely as we weeded and strimmed, the beauty of rows upon rows of this seemingly commonplace garden herb became more and more apparent.  As June approached, the field bloomed with a gradual tonal sea of deep purple and blue hues.  To be honest, it felt like we had moved to Provence, not rural Hampshire.  Harvest time arrived and each sprig was cut by hand, bunched and hung to dry in the shed.  Hours of breathing its heady perfume as we picked rendering us like dandelion clocks floating in the breeze.  I am not sure we have ever slept so well.  Wreaths and wands were made.  Even now, jars of dried lavender await their turn to be transformed into pillows and bath salts ready for winter’s dark evenings.  Memories of our first summer here, brushing my hand across the lavender as I followed my girls racing down the rows on their way back to the house, will stay with me forever.

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With the house a veritable wreck, lavender has indeed soothed the soul when lack of running water, no heating and a leaky roof have made for hard days living on a building site with a young family.  So as we bid farewell to the last of the summer’s sun and sink into autumn’s embrace, waiting for next year’s blooms to grace the field once more with their purple perfumed spires, it seems the perfect time to remind myself to stop and daydream awhile as I sip a soothing cup of lavender tea and allow its warmth to wash over me.  Maybe its healing powers really do contain magic after all...?

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Try harvesting the last of any lavender in the garden to make your own tea.  Push the flowers up from the base of each spike and allow to dry in a cool dark place before placing in a jar to preserve its perfume.  Boil a kettle of fresh water and add a heaped teaspoon of lavender flowers to your pot.  Pour the water over the flowers and allow to steep for a few minutes.  Add honey to taste if desired.  Lavender tea can be used to aid digestion, as a tonic for headaches or just for those days when you feel a little world weary.  It makes an ideal blend with dried camomile flowers as a sleep inducing tisane.


Rebecca Fletcher is a writer attempting to transform herself from self-confessed townie to country bumpkin. Follow her journey here.

MusingsRebecca Fletcher
The Stories of Trees: An Ode to Jefferson Pines
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In today's tree story, Steffany shares her ode to and love for the scent of Jefferson Pines. If you want to take part in this mini-series, head back to the original post for more details.

My tree-loving soul was born on the breeze floating through Jefferson Pines, living in southern California at a little less than 7,000 feet above sea level. A new job in California took me far from the midwest, where I grew up near flat farmlands, where trees were planted as windbreaks, for apple harvests in the fall, or for barriers between houses. I had never experienced native trees, planted where their seeds fell due to wind and wildlife and able to grow to heights well beyond 100 feet. When I exited the van which had driven me to my new job, my first thought was how dark the area seemed despite the morning hour.

As I looked up, I stood in awe. Shrouded in shade I stood below the tallest pine trees I had ever seen, their rich red/brown bark looked like puzzle pieces and their crowns the most beautiful shade of blue-green needles. Their pine cones littered the ground and were the size of cantaloupes and small watermelons, missiles I would learn to dodge when hearing them crash through the branches on their way to the ground.

The trees' height and locations formed a sanctuary - the trunks were the walls, the ceiling was their branches offering small glimpses of the sky, and the floor, a wondrous, crunchy brown carpet made of fallen needles.

I stood and let the southern California breeze wash over me. I inhaled the scent of the dead needles, burning them into my memory and smelled... vanilla? Butterscotch? What was that?

“Smell the tree,” someone said. Hesitant but curious, I walked to the nearest tree, gently moved my nose close to her mosaic bark and smelled. My eyes were closed and it was vanilla, the scent of my childhood, the essence of cookies and sweetness and warmth and familiar and love. I was over 1,800 miles from home and yet…I opened my eyes.

“Wow,” was all I could manage.

“Jefferson pines, that’s how you tell…you smell their bark,” the person said and smiled.

Back home as a child I would climb the trees in my backyard, would rake the vibrant yellow and orange and red leaves in fall for money, and watch cedar waxwings eat the berries from trees. As an adult, I spent the next nine months living in and among the Jefferson Pines, gathering her pinecones, standing at the edges of her walls to view the San Jacinto mountain peaks we would hike and climb, sleeping underneath her protective arms, and watching as walls of them burned in a local forest fire. As a child, trees were a part of my world. As an adult, these Jefferson Pines were my world. I was forever changed, my view of trees moving from one of utility to one of admiration.

A few years ago I was in Colorado, near Pikes Peak and as I exited the car, the familiar scent of dead pine needles took me back twenty years, to my lost soul, so unsure of my future, right out of college with no plans and a temporary job in southern California. I walked to the nearest tree, laid my arms around her trunk, leaned close and inhaled. The lack of a vanilla scent was disappointing at first. I knew it would be a long shot as Jefferson Pines seem to grow mainly along the western coast of the United States, but I had to try. I stepped back, the crunching under foot familiar, looked up into the spire of needles above, saw snippets of blue sky through the small windows of adjacent branches and inhaled a familiar peace. I sat down in her shade, picked up the small pine cones scattered about and remembered.

My love for trees was born on the breeze of Jefferson Pines. Before her, a tree was a tree was a tree. After her, a tree was a maple or blue spruce, a weeping willow or a crab-apple, a home for bluebirds to raise their young and squirrels to find shelter and doves to build their nests, where bluejays chased sparrows in their quest for food, where tire swings are hung for my children and joy is found among the branches of our Maples, where curiosity is aroused, where respite beckons me, and where my soul breathes and finds peace.

Steffany Cartellone is an explorer of nature, relishing the things she sees on her daily walks with her kids. She is currently sitting outside on a cool summer morning, sipping hot coffee and watching a mother bluejay teaching her young how to find bugs and seeds. For her, life doesn’t get much better than these moments. Her blog, thoughts about intentional living, can be found at a-snails-pace.com and her first novel, she hopes, will be published in 2018.

MusingsEleanor Cheetham