by Melusine Draco
The (Inner-City) Path was inspired by Chet Raymo’s book of similar title that chronicled his own daily urban walk to work and observing the seasonal changes with a scientist’s curiosity. As often happens, I began thinking ‘what if’ there was a complementary book written from a pagan perspective for when we take to our local urban paths as part of our daily fitness regime or dog walk. And, as if arising from this external creative impulse The Path began to unravel in the mind’s eye … based on several urban walks that have merged together over the years to make a chapbook of the seasons and to offer a glimpse into the pagan mind-set that can ‘find mystery under every leaf and rock along the way’, or caught in the murmur of running water, and to act as a simple guide to achieving a sense of well-being and awareness so that even in the city’s throng we feel the freshness of the streams’ as per Longfellow’s ‘Prelude’ …
Summer – the Path of Flowers
Since prehistory, the Summer Solstice has been seen as a significant time of year in many cultures, and has been marked by diverse festivals and rituals. According to the astronomical definition of the seasons, the summer solstice also marks the beginning of summer, which lasts until the Autumnal Equinox (22nd or 23rd September in the Northern Hemisphere, or 20th or 21st March in the Southern Hemisphere). Traditionally, the Summer Solstice is seen as the middle of summer and referred to as ‘Midsummer’. Within the Arctic Circle (for the northern hemisphere) or Antarctic Circle (for the southern hemisphere), there is continuous daylight around the Summer Solstice.
The woods of The Path with its scattering of fading bluebells, horsetails and ferns, have a primeval feel about them as spring descends into summer; and when the trees are full of leaf, it is easy to image that we are tramping through Wildwood even though we are never more than a few hundred yards from our village or town. The urban woods along The Path are somewhat unkempt and before the wooded path opens out into the meadow there is a sturdy oak which is exposed to the full force of the westerly winds. The branches on the windward side break the gusts: the trunk and the dark, sturdier branches don’t give an inch, the smaller branches and twigs sway but a little. Then a branch breaks off … Next to the oak is a silver birch that sways
and bends with the force of the summer storm …
Later, we recall the buffeting of the wind and feel so much empathy for the two trees that we can almost experience or perceive what forces were at play. We can feel the resistance and stiffness of the oak, and how futile this resistance is when a branch gets broken off. With the birch, we can feel how it surrenders itself to the wind and how supple and pliable the tree is. We can attribute resistance to an oak and pliability to a birch and if these concepts are correct, then we will be able to recognise them in all the different parts of these trees. We will see it in the leaves (the tough, unbending leaves of the oak and the light rustling leaves of the birch) and the seeds (the heavy acorn with the hard shell, the light birch seeds which carry on the wind) … [Psychology Today]
It is the Ash tree, however, that has a host of folklore surrounding it. The ash along with the oak is one of the last trees to come into leaf and according to country lore, the one that comes into leaf first, gives us an indication as to what the weather will be like for the summer: “Ash before the Oak, you can expect a soak, but Oak before the Ash, expect a little splash” The fascination of the ash tree traces its roots to the ancient times. The Druids believed that it had the ability to direct and blend the masculine and feminine energy, using a branch of the ash to make their staffs. The staff then acted as a connection between the realms of the earth and the sky. A staff of ash is hung over door frames for protection as it will ward off evil influences; while ash leaves can be scattered in the four directions to protect the house against negative and psychic attacks – but despite its traditional role in protecting against witches, the ash is also extensively used by them.
The ash is often found growing near sacred wells and it has been suggested that there is a connection between the tree and the healing waters of the well (possibly iron contained in the roots and leeching into the well). The tree itself can sometimes supply ‘holy’ water as the bole of the ash often has a hollow in it like a shallow bowl; the water that gathers in this is well known for its healing properties. This could be a good example of a ‘bile’ – a sacred tree. Sailors also believed that if they carved a piece of ash wood into the shape of a solar cross and carried it with them then they would be protected from drowning. A solar cross, consisting of an equilateral cross inside a circle ⊕ is frequently found in the symbolism of prehistoric cultures, particularly during the Neolithic to Bronze Age periods of European prehistory.
The oak, birch and ash are common tree along The Path and we should make an effort to recognize and understand the lifecycle of these three sacred trees that are tightly bound into our folk-, country- and Craft-lore. As we leave the woods and step onto The Path that borders the meadow our attention is caught by the plants that adorn the verge of hard-packed earth and stones: daisies, dandelions and filmy cow parsley. Cow parsley (Anthriscus sylvestris), grows in sunny to semi-shaded locations in meadows and at the edges of hedgerows and woodland. It is related to other diverse members of the Apiaceae family, such as parsley, carrot, hemlock and hogweed – and often confused with Daucus carota which is known as Queen Anne’s lace or wild carrot and mistaken for several similar-looking poisonous plants, among them poison hemlock and fool’s parsley.
From where The Path exits the woods it is only a few minutes before we come to the plank bridge over a brook fringed with forget-me-nots. The plank bridge is one of our favourite places to dawdle with the pond on one side and the brook making its way back into the woods on the other. On one side the water lies dark and deep in a languid pool where dragonflies and nymphs hover over the still surface (perfect for scrying); and from this bridge the slope of the water meadow basks in late summer sunlight and autumn mists since the surrounding ancient woodland was cut back for agricultural reasons. ‘It is widely acknowledged that a landscape of open fields, trees and brooks is what humans consider most beautiful,’ observes Chet Raymo.
In the water meadow we can find an olde English favourite: Meadowsweet from the Anglo- Saxon meodu-swete meaning ‘Mead sweetener’. The plant’s herbal uses had a base in scientific
fact; in common with many other folk and herbal remedies, in the 19th century, chemists isolated salicylic acid from meadowsweet to use as a disinfectant that not only made rooms smell better but helped the fight against bacteria. It was one of the three herbs considered sacred by the Druids: the others being vervain and water mint. Creamy, perennial of damp waysides, meadows, marshes and woods, this tall plant flowers from June to September, and with a heavy fragrance, the flower heads are frequently visited by bees attracted by the heavy scent which can be so evocative of summer days in the countryside. In spite of this fragrance, however, the flowers produce no nectar. Insects, however, don’t realise this but their visits serve to fertilise the plants which are heavy with pollen. A peculiarity of this flower is that the scent of the leaves is quite different from that of the flowers, the leaves having a heavy almond-like aroma whereas the flowers have a strong sweet smell.
Meadowsweet was historically known as Bridewort because it was strewn on the ground at hand-fastings for the bride to walk on (wort is an old word that means herb or root) and it was also used in wedding posies and bridal bouquets. Meadowsweet was also spread on the floor in medieval times to provide a nice smell and deter insects. This plant was given to Cúchulainn in liquid form and it was said to calm his fits of rage and outbreaks of fever and it may be for this reason that another name for meadowsweet in Ireland is Cuchulainn’s Belt or Crios Conchulainn. It is also associated with death as the scent of its flowers was said to induce a sleep that was deep and fatal. However, in County Galway it was believed that if a person was wasting away because of faerie influence then putting some meadowsweet under the bed ensured that they would be cured by the morning.
All along the water courses most Willow species grow and thrive and this theme is reflected in the legends and magic associated with these trees. The willow muse, called Heliconian (after Helike), was sacred to poets, and the Greek poet Orpheus carried willow branches on his adventures in the Underworld. He was also given a lyre by Apollo, and it is interesting to note that the sound-boxes of harps used to be carved from solid willow wood. The willow is also associated with the fey and the ‘Wind in the Willows’ is said to be the whisperings of a faerie in
the ear of a poet.
Willow was often the tree most sought by village wise-women, since it has so many medicinal properties, and eventually its healing and religious qualities became one and the tree became called a ‘witch’s tree’. The willow is associated with enchantment, wishing, romantic love, healing, protection, fertility, death, femininity, divination friendship, joy, love, and peace. Placed in homes, willow branches protect against evil and malign sorcery. Carried, the wood bestows bravery, dexterity, and helps to overcome the fear of death. If we knock on a willow tree (‘knock on wood’) this will avert evil. A willow growing near a home will protect it from danger, while they are also good trees to plant around cemeteries and for lining graves because of its symbolism of death and protection.
Willow can also be used in rituals for intuition, knowledge, gentle nurturing, and will elucidate the feminine qualities of both men and women. When a person needs to get something off their chest or to share a secret, if they confess to a Willow, their secret will be trapped. Also, wishes are granted by a willow if they are asked for in the correct manner. Willow leaves, bark and wood add energy to healing magic, and burning a mix of willow bark and sandalwood during the waning moon can help to conjure spirits. Uses of willow in love talismans include using the leaves to attract love. The tree is linked to grief and in the 16th and 17th centuries jilted lover poems were written that included reference to the tree. In Irish folklore it couldn’t be more different as it was called sail ghlann grin or the ‘bright cheerful sallow’. There it was considered
lucky to take a sally-rod with you on a journey and sally withies were placed around a milk churn to ensure good butter. It was believed that the charcoal left behind after burning willow could be crushed and spread on the back of an animal as a way of increasing fertility and even restoring hair.
Needless to say, country folk have long been familiar with the healing properties of willow. They made an infusion from the bitter bark as a remedy for colds and fevers, and to treat inflammatory conditions such as rheumatism. Young willow twigs were also chewed to relieve pain. In the early 19th century modern science isolated the active ingredient responsible, salicylic acid, which was also found in the meadowsweet plant.
As we follow the brook back through the wood along a different pathway, in the sunlit glades swathes of foxgloves stand tall above the bracken. A well-loved plant, the whole foxglove plant is extremely poisonous, but provides a source of digitalis used by doctors in heart medicine. The foxglove was believed to keep evil at bay if grown in the garden, but it was considered unlucky to bring the blooms inside the house. The name derives from the shape of the flowers resembling
the fingers of a glove – ‘folk’s glove’ meaning belonging to the Faere Folk and folklore tells that a bad faerie gave the flowers to the fox to put on his feet to soften his steps whilst hunting. In Irish folklore it was said that if a child was wasting away then it was under the influence of the faerie (fairy stroke) and foxglove was given to counteract this as it was known to revive people.
One such remedy was the juice of twelve leaves taken daily. It could also work for adults, such a person would be given a drink made from the leaves, if they were not too far gone, they would drink it and get sick but then recover. However, if they were completely under the spell of the faerie then they would refuse to drink. An amulet of foxglove could also cure the urge to keep travelling that resulted when anyone stepped onto the faerie grass, the ‘stray sod’ or fód seachrán. In Ireland it is also believed that the foxglove will nod its head if one of the ‘gentry’ pass by.
And it’s not just in the woods and fields that Nature is lush and tropical and green, because as The Path takes us passed the allotments, we can find the lushness reflected in the vegetable plots and gardens. In the overgrown orchard some of the old trees are still capable of producing a good crop after the warm, damp start to the year. With our newly discovered vision we relish the sight of all this bounty that is the result of sore backs and chapped hands during the cold and wet of the seedtime. As harvest approaches, we can appreciate the fruit of their labours by proxy since friendly gardeners often have surplus stocks that they gladly share with their neighbours.
Exercise: A Sense of Contemplation
Don’t get carried away by a new-found enthusiasm but commit to contemplate today – and only today. It is not necessary to commit to contemplation tomorrow, or every day for a week, a month, a year because over-commitment is a sure-fire recipe for procrastination. If you have the opportunity for five minutes contemplation today – contemplate today. If you have the opportunity to contemplate tomorrow – contemplate tomorrow. Contemplation is the action of looking thoughtfully at something for a long time. It is not a relaxation exercise or meditation but while it may contribute to us becoming more relaxed, this is simply a side effect. Contemplation is profound thinking about something and here we select something from the natural world where we can sit and stare – for example – at bees on a clover patch, lavender plant or butterfly bush (buddleia).
Doctorates in Bioenergetic Medicine and teachers of the ancient Egyptian healing and spiritual tradition, Meredith McCord and Jill Schumacher tell us that in ancient Egypt the humming sound of the bee was said to stimulate the release of super hormones known as the ‘Elixirs of Metamorphosis’, as the sound also resonates the ventricular chambers in the center of the brain, which are filled with cerebrospinal fluid that acts as a cushion for the brain’s cortex, providing basic mechanical and immunological protection to the brain inside the skull. The good doctors claim that the humming sounds of bees also resonate and stimulate various other structures of the brain, including the pineal gland, pituitary gland, the hypothalamus that link the nervous system to the endocrine system, and amygdala, which is responsible for emotions, survival instincts, and
Five minutes contemplation in the company of these small creatures can open up worlds that we would otherwise not bother to think about – and it’s an added incentive to create areas in our garden that are bee-friendly for our own benefit, too. Invest is a couple of bee boxes to encourage queen bees to lay eggs and repopulate your own garden next spring.
The Wild Larder
We can also treasure the time spent alone foraging. The repetition of gathering wild food allows the mind to relax – we can’t fret about household chores and work when we’re out there stocking
up our wild larder. The creamy-white flowers of the Elder can be found in woods, hedgerows and waste places and as Richard Mabey writes in Food For Free:
…to see the mangy, decaying skeletons of elders in the winter, we would not think the tree was any use to man or beast. Nor would the acrid stench of the young leaves in spring change your opinion. But by the end of June the whole shrub is covered with great sprays of sweet-smelling flowers, for which there are probably more uses than any other single species of blossom…
Elderflowers can be eaten fresh from the shrub on a hot summer’s day and have the taste of a frothy ice-cream soda; while the flowers separated from the stalks make a remarkable sparkling wine. Dipped in batter the flower-heads can be deep-fried and served as fritters to end a summer meal. The berries are small and green at first, ripening to deep purple clusters that weigh down the branches. These are made into wine, chutney, jellies and ketchup.
Any witch worth her salt, of course, knows that the elder is also known as the ‘poor man’s medicine chest’ due to the wide range of herbal remedies that can be got from the shrub. The flowers are utilised to raise the resistance to respiratory infections, and ointment made from elder flowers is excellent for chilblains and stimulating localised circulation. The flowers are also used in hay fever treatments for their anti-catarrhal properties. Medicinally, both the berries and the flowers encourage fever response and stimulates sweating, which prevents very high temperatures and provides an important channel for detoxification. To cure warts, rub them with a green elder twig which should then be buried. As the wood rots so the wart will disappear.
The (Inner city) Path: A Simple Guide to Well-Being and Awareness by Melusine Draco is published in Moon Book’s Pagan Portals series ISBN 978 1 78904 464 5 : 78 pages : UK£6.99/US$10.95 in paperback and e-book format.