Tomorrow I will be leaving Reagh—a friend’s cottage in rural Ireland, complete with a maze in which it is absolutely possible to get lost, a fairy glade, magical garden, and a small river. It’s an enchanted place where pipistrelle bats fly in the evenings and we might catch a glimpse of a large hare.
Following a thread of story
I’ve been writing here and my main character is (in my story) born here—the daughter of Saoirse, whose narrative I wrote a few years ago in Saoirse’s Crossing.
Viola, her daughter, is a very different person and lives, in the novel, in a hamlet outside Berrien, a few miles from my home in the forest in Finistère. The novel is set in 2065 and the world is a devastated remnant of life as we know it, but the community in this small hamlet have made a place of safety despite the daily harshness. Viola is a herbalist and lives with a much older friend, Isabelle, also a herbalist, and her 15 year old daughter, Lisette. On one day — Solstice 2065 — Viola’s birthday, we hear the story of all those in the community as they gather to celebrate the summer energy.
Listening to the world around us
But we also hear the story of the land—of the forest above ground and below ground and it seems to me more and more important as a writer to engage with the earth as the ground of our being and as a vital subject, without anthropomorphising lives whose reality is so different from our own. I don’t mean that all of us should be writing eco-poetry or novels or non-fictions of ecology—there are so many varied and rich ways to be writing as witnesses—how relationships work or don’t, how race or disability or gender are variously celebrated or abused, how we live in the world now or lived in the past, how mythologies can enslave or liberate…
But for me, the forest has been calling for the past several years and it’s the area I’m immersed in both as a writer and herbalist. As I’ve written the last of the first draft of the novel here in Ireland I’ve also been working on my research project for my herbalist training—a cosmology of the body based on Celtic seasons and herbs, particularly those native to Finistère, almost all of which would also have been present in Ireland and the British Isles.
In preparation, I spent a lot of time in the forest outside my door this summer. Last summer I completed the community herbalist programme before going on to the current practitioner course. The first stage was sensory and immersive. I spent a lot of time playing with potions and recipes. The time since September has been very different—partly this has been due to a year of health challenges and a heavy workload, but also because I moved into learning a lot more theory about the herbs and attending a lot of online clinics with real patients facing all kinds of issues.
Listening to our senses
The result was that my herbalism became much more cerebral and considerably more sedentary with my screen time (which was already high for work) rising. I started to hear myself saying I didn’t have time for walking, playing with recipes… And then, in late May and into June, I had a sustained block of time off work for writing and travel. In cities I did more walking than I had been doing over the rest of the year and started my new novel. It was the shift I needed and when I returned home I was determined to maintain the walking and have since walked in the forest every day for at least an hour, usually and hour and half.
After a year of feeling my relationship with the plants becoming more cerebral and less intuitive and embodied, the walks transformed things. I found myself noticing and identifying plants more readily. My mind and heart slowed down and my senses felt much more alert.
We all have these stories—our rhythms become more or less nurturing at different points and we constantly need to re-appraise. Life, like stories, never get solved—process is always more than destination.
I was fortunate that this year, despite a rather damp and sometimes very grey Breton summer, the forest was particularly lush and I noticed many more species flourishing than in previous years. The meadowsweet was especially abundant and for several days I stopped with a particular plant, took a small amount of blossom and spent time paying attention to colour, texture, scent—including how the scent changed when the blossoms were crushed between my fingers. The different notes that came through over a couple of minutes told me so much about this plant. There’s an initial sweet almond-like note to the crushed flowers, then an undernote that is slightly camphorous, reminiscent of wintergreen and distinctly ‘medicinal’ odour, but also warm—it made me think of a herby version of Vick’s vapour rub, but softer and cleaner. Finally there’s a deeper trace of a bitter, very faint.
Whatever our area of writing, bringing all our senses to bear gives our work life. I read Tan Twan Eng’s new novel, House of Doors, in June, travelling on trains from Paris to Karlsruhe and Stuttgart to Prague. It’s set in Malaysia in the early 1900s and is an ambitious and far-reaching story of intimate relationships, culture, race, gender and politics. It encompasses loss and memory, like all of his work, but most of all it is exquisite prose, deeply embodied. This is an author who writes with all his senses open and reading books like this as well as interacting with particular environments, in my case a forest, reminds us why we write and what writing can do.
Attending to what is easy and hard
Another reminder that the forest has given me this summer is how much attention writing needs, Learning to identify plants and work with them safely will be a life’s work. There’s a wide range of fungi that I certainly don’t feel confident to identify. Pharmacists in France will identify foraged mushrooms for people so at some point I will pick some and take in a basket. But so far I’ve simply observed them, aware that I find them harder to get a sense of than the green plants and need to take my time.
There are plants I feel confident with, familiar friends—one of which is agrimony, which emerged amongst the ferns well into August.
yellow candles hedge
ditches in agrimony,
sun on a grey day.
On the path towards the town of Carhaix Plouger there’s a tiny hamlet of three houses, one of which was a mill and is now a pottery. There, the rosebay willow herb has particularly abundant and is a beautiful herb to work with, a plant full of nurture. But hemp agrimony also grows strongly there and there are huge swathes of it competing with ferns for the densest growth.
Despite the name, it is unrelated to either hemp or agrimony. It’s also known as Ague Herb, Water Agrimony, Bastard Agrimony, Water Hemp, Gravel Root, and Hemlock Parsley. And although it has a long history of being given for fever, digestive trouble, and upper respiratory issues. was used in medicine by Avicenna, (980-1037), and by the Anglo-Saxons to treat wounds, it is not an easy plant to work with. Although it is packed with chemicals that heal and which are antiviral, it can cause skin burns, violent vomiting and diarrhoea internally.
Another local plant that is hard to relate to is the poison hemlock. Very similar to Queen Anne’s lace, also known aa wild carrot, it is extremely toxic, even to touch. Similarly, the gorgeous bright orange berries amongst the ivy are woody nightshade or ‘bittersweet’. Historically used for rheumatic joint pain, especially in the hands, or for skin complaints such as ulcers, the berries are to some extent toxic and internal use can induce changes to the heart rate and respiration, lower body temperature and may cause delirium.
Writing with attention
The craft of writing is so similar. There are areas where we are confident and fluent, but areas where we need to negotiate with infinite care. I am not someone who believes that only women can write believable women or that we should each stick narrowly to writing about the class and direct experiences of our own lives in fiction and poetry. We are so much more connected, subtle and rich than this—so much so that I am attempting to enter the consciousness of a forest and have a friend who is writing a novel from the perspective of a bird, which I know will be the polar opposite of anthropomorphism.
But we do have to pay attention. We do have to find those parts of ourselves, including our own shadows, that resonate with what we are writing. We do have to be aware of the areas that are potentially toxic and harmful and negotiate them with serious care and constant tenderness.
Simply being in the forest each day, in the company of plants, has been deeply healing this summer. I have had so many voices to listen to. The meadowsweet has been a particular companion and I can now greet the plant as a friend I look forward to seeing on daily walks.
Writing the novel, particularly the sections which give voice to non-human lives, the trees and plants and mycelia, has been slow and painstaking and no doubt there are flaws in the results. But it’s one of the most creative experiences I’ve ever had because it has demanded that I embody what I’m writing, that I listen deeply, that I truly pay attention. Whatever we are writing—science-fiction, a family saga, a poetry collection about loss… we need to be writers who move through the world with all our senses open, who listen, observe, pay attention. Writing the earth has reminded me of this. For others very different environments might spark our connections to the world we inhabit. Something else entirely might make you pause, reset and determine to embody your story more deeply…
Here’s to paying attention to our stories.