In a chapter of The Enchanted Life entitled ‘Coming Home to Ourselves’, I wrote about the ways in which we can deepen our relationship and sense of belonging to the place we live: specifically, to our houses – and to our gardens, if we’re lucky enough to have one. And I am. Regular readers of this blog will know that I moved back to Connemara around a year ago, after three years in Donegal. The rather strange house we now live in sits in the middle of what, once upon a time, might have been thought of as a garden. Here’s how I described it in The Enchanted Life:
Home is a building, but home for the most fortunate among us might be a garden too – though if you had asked me, when we first moved to our new house in Connemara in the early spring of 2017, I would have told you that it was surrounded not by a garden, but by a bramble thicket. There I sat, like some wistful, ageing Briar Rose in a sea of thorns – ensorcelled not in a palace, but in the run-down, long-neglected grounds of a dilapidated 1970s bungalow. But after watching through weeks of relentless growing and greening, I would have told you, by midsummer, that I lived in a wood. It is a small wood, covering less than half of a strangely shaped one-acre plot, but it is a wood nevertheless.
There are silver ladies in my wood: tall, stately birches, their ageing bark deeply scored with black. Birch is the first tree in the old Ogham tree alphabet of Ireland: the tree of beginnings, of rebirth. There is willow too, and holly, and a scattering of baby rowans fetched in on some fitful breeze. This is a witching wood: dark green ivy wrapped around hawthorn; white-faced bindweed snaking through the brambles which guard the threshold to the wood-world beyond. It is a healing wood, too – with yarrow for your wounds, mint for your digestion, sweet violet to ease the breaking of your heart.
I am in love with my wood: the night-calls of the stalking fox, and early-morning encounters with the badger at the gate. It is haunted by magpie and crow; it’s a breeding-ground for robins and goldfinch. Four hives of honeybees work hard at its edges, and half a dozen hens scratch their way determinedly round the clearings. We tread carefully on the winding path that we have forged through it, because of the clouds of speckled wood butterflies which dart up from the wildflowers, just inches away from our feet. We tread even more carefully off that path, because everywhere we look we see baby hollies, baby rowans, baby birches and a very occasional pine – a remarkable effusion of new and continuing life.
In the beginning, the stories say, was the Wood. ‘When I was but a young lass,’ said the Cailleach — the divine old woman of myth who made and shaped this land — ‘the ocean was a forest, full of trees.’ This wood into which I, seed-like, have blown is on its own path of becoming: a path which grows thicker and greener with every year that it is not cleared or ‘managed’ – for this place was not always a wood: I have seen photographs of it, from a decade or so ago, when it was a neatly manicured, well-kept garden with a few sedate trees. But, abandoned for years to its own devices, it has grown into a wood – and I am reminded of the words of my wise friend, activist and garden designer Mary Reynolds, who told me once that all land, left to its own devices, wants to become wood.
Last year, when we first moved to this place, we had to work hard to transform a mouldy, neglected bungalow with no heating, rotten windows, and a beautiful but completely unfinished extension tacked onto the side, into a functioning home. This year, as spring finally arrives in the west – heralded by the return of the swallows to last year’s nesting place in the shed, and the call of the cuckoo in the early-morning wood – we are looking at the abandoned garden-cum-bramble-thicket, and wondering what – literally – to make of it. I’ll write more about that in my next blog, but for now, one thing I know for sure is that somewhere, there has to be a herb garden.
My love of working with herbs – as what I call a ‘weed wife’: a competent amateur who works with wild plants – began when we lived in the wild and remote Isle of Lewis in the Outer Hebrides. I wrote about the development of that love in If Women Rose Rooted:
The wild and exposed south-west coast of Lewis to which we moved in 2010 had no fertile fields, no hay meadows, no lush gardens, and few opportunities for food foraging – but it had its own great treasures, which I gradually came to know. On that wildest and rockiest of all headlands, and around the shallow freshwater loch at the bottom of the croft, grew a profusion of wildflowers. Plants which once were used for dyeing: tormentil, bog asphodel, marsh marigold, butterwort, lady’s bedstraw, various lichens. Plants which had herbal medicinal uses: bogbean, self-heal, eyebright, sundew, dandelion, plantain, sphagnum moss. Seaweed galore: kelp and bladderwrack to fertilise the garden, and beautiful red dulse, packed with vitamins and minerals, to eat. Flowers to feed the hive of honeybees that we cherished, out there at the end of the world, on the farthest edges of their possible habitat.
When the land offers up relatively little, you come to treasure what gifts it gives, and during the years we spent on that croft, I came to know the plants intimately. I knew when they would appear, and in what sheltered pockets: sundew in June, down by the burn that fed the loch; self-heal on the verges of the road in July; wild thyme out at the rocky place, hidden in cracks of the cliffs. Each morning and afternoon, as I roamed a land empty of humans with only the dogs by my side, my walking was teaching me. As time went by, more and more plant-strangers became friends, could be greeted by name as I passed along my way; now each day I walked not through uncharted territory, but through a brave new world of magic, medicine, folklore and food with which I was growing unexpectedly intimate. I harvested carefully, dyed the fleece from our own sheep, made herbal tinctures, gathered and dried seaweed for use in the kitchen. In short, I became a ‘weed wife’.
As well as wild foraging of herbs, since that time I’ve always grown a few of my own. My practice has always been to grow and work with a small number of plants which particularly call to me; that list for me has consisted of a core group of the following herbs: rosemary, comfrey, mugwort, St John’s wort, calendula, feverfew. (The herbs which freely grow wild here and which I like most to work with are nettle, yarrow and self-heal; I’m also drawn to the berries and flowers of the native trees in our place – especially hawthorn, blackthorn and rowan.) So now, I’m happily fingering packets of seeds as David digs out and constructs a raised bed and a border or two from part of the reclaimed wilderness. Once I have those plants in my garden again, I’ll be surrounded by old friends. I’ll feel even more at home.
In the Celtic tradition, as the oldest texts clearly show, herbal practice has always been important. Three kinds of medicine were recognised under Brehon law: surgery, dietary interventions, and herbalism; the sagas also speak of many examples of herbal healing. But the mythology of old Ireland offers us another unique gift: the story of the herbalist Airmed, daughter of Dian Cécht – the healer of the Tuatha Dé Danaan (the divine, or semi-divine, tribe who once ruled Ireland).
The story of Airmed comes from the Cath Maige Tuired (‘The Second Battle of Mag Tuired/Moytura’), in which the Tuatha Dé Danaan fight a great battle against the Fomorians. Dian Cécht and his physician children heal the wounded warriors through incantation and immersion in a healing well:
123. Now this is what used to kindle the warriors who were wounded there so that they were more fiery the next day: Dian Cécht, his two sons Octriuil and Miach, and his daughter Airmed were chanting spells over the well named Slaine [meaning ‘health’]. They would cast their mortally-wounded men into it as they were struck down; and they were alive when they came out. Their mortally-wounded were healed through the power of the incantation made by the four physicians who were around the well.
The story of Airmed follows, and it begins with Nuadu, the king of the Tuatha Dé, losing his hand in battle.
33. Now Nuadu was being treated, and Dian Cécht put a silver hand on him which had the movement of any other hand. But his son Miach did not like that. He went to the hand and said ‘joint to joint of it, and sinew to sinew’; and he healed it in nine days and nights. The first three days he carried it against his side, and it became covered with skin. The second three days he carried it against his chest. The third three days he would cast white wisps of black bulrushes after they had been blackened in a fire.
34. Dian Cécht did not like that cure. He hurled a sword at the crown of his son’s head and cut his skin to the flesh. The young man healed it by means of his skill. He struck him again and cut his flesh until he reached the bone. The young man healed it by the same means. He struck the third blow and reached the membrane of his brain. The young man healed this too by the same means. Then he struck the fourth blow and cut out the brain, so that Miach died; and Dian Cécht said that no physician could heal him of that blow.
35. After that, Miach was buried by Dian Cécht, and three hundred and sixty-five herbs grew through the grave, corresponding to the number of his joints and sinews. Then Airmed spread her cloak and uprooted those herbs according to their properties. Dian Cécht came to her and mixed the herbs, so that no one knows their proper healing qualities unless the Holy Spirit taught them afterwards. And Dian Cécht said, ‘Though Miach no longer lives, Airmed shall remain.’ *
Airmed, then, is the divine herbalist who remains: the one who knows the ‘proper healing qualities’ of our native plants. She’ll have a special place in my garden, once the herb bed is finished. And that special place, and an acknowledgement of Airmed’s freely given plant healing, will play a key function in the re-enchantment of this long-abandoned garden.