The members of my family have developed a skill; it might be more accurate to say, they have perfected ‘a look’, reserved for those moments when I rummage around inside my cauldron to find something to fix whatever ails them. It’s where they keep a straight face and look me in the eye with just a glint of amusement – they daren’t laugh or roll their eyes because that would be hurtful, but at the same time, they want to let me know that really, they’re humouring me. Of course I don’t actually have a cauldron as such – I use it as a blanket term for my life long belief in the magic of plants and the power of intention. So it was a joy for me when my daughter recently remarked, “By the way, that stuff actually works.”
‘That stuff’, in this case, was plantain oil. I’ve been trying to force it on them for years, whenever anyone complains of a bite or a sting or even a cut, but they usually reach for something with a brand name. Somehow I managed to get her to use plantain and she was impressed. I was thrilled. I mean, I’m not a fool; I wouldn’t make potions and lotions if they didn’t work. So it was a kind of acknowledgement that I’m not mad.
Some humans find divinity in the great and powerful; I find it in the grass. Roving weeds and garden pests connect me to Mother Earth because almost everything under our feet offers healing and wellbeing. Plantain, so common and so overlooked, was one of the nine sacred herbs of the Anglo-Saxons, or the Nine Herb Charm (along with mugwort, nettle, chamomile, lamb’s cress, betony, crab apple, chervil and fennel, since you ask) but it could not be simpler to use it, even in an emergency – just crush a plantain leaf to bring instant relief to an insect bite. I chop the leaves and cram them into a clean jar, top it up with olive oil and let it sit for a month or two on a shelf, then strain it. In her wonderful book Health Through God’s Pharmacy, Maria Treben recommends it for open wounds, blisters, dog bites and disorders of the lungs. It can be drunk as a tea for allergies including hayfever and combines well with mint and elderflower according to my well loved book Hedgerow Medicine(Bruton Seal & Seal) where I also found this adorable 17thcentury quote from Abbe Kneipp :
“plantain closes the gaping wound with a seam of golden thread;
for, just as gold will not admit of rust,
so the plantain will not admit of rotting and gangreneous flesh.”
My rescue hens will eat the leaves on occasion – they’re picky enough about what greenery they enjoy (they’ll go for dandelion leaves and the leaves of clover too). The seed heads can be eaten raw and it seems they’re quite tasty dipped in oil and fried but I haven’t tried that. Yet!
Anyway, you’ve no excuse – it grows literally everywhere. The Native Americans called it ‘white man’s footprint’, springing up all over the place in the footsteps of the settlers. If you mow it down, it’ll just grow back – folks; Plantain wantsto be used!
Three a.m. or thereabouts is ‘me time’. Not by choice, exactly, it’s just the time that my body can no longer tolerate the infernal heat and wakes me up so I can be part of the suffering. I whisper a curse at he-who-snores, but he shouldn’t take the full blame. And, in fairness, I can often give as good as I get – I am almost fifty three now after all, and fond of wine, so. What wakes me is one of two things: the deep white-hot inferno raging within me, or the freezing cold that ensues when that particular bout passes. And then I lie there, wide awake, making like Lanigan’s Ball as I fling the duvet on and off, stepping in and out of the fire and ice.
I spend this time in a state of continuous mental doodling – sometimes this is when I get my finest ideas, knowing that by morning they’ll be gone. I do keep a notebook and pen by the bed but you must understand the level to which I could not be arsed, regardless of the brilliance of the notions I get. It’s the damn heat, you see. At first, I was goddess-like, accepting my stage of life, and leaning into the hot flushes. After all, no amount of clothes shedding actually makes a difference to the intensity of the heat; peeling off a layer is just a reaction, that’s all, as is picking up the nearest flappable thing to bring a breeze to the situation. It’s only a few months into the stage of life folks call Menopause. Some days I do still ‘lean in’. Some days I cry, like a hot and bothered child, give or take fifty years.
Last night I woke up because the room was more than usually bright. We sleep in the attic, which I like because it’s big – we call the chimney-breast in the centre of the room ‘a feature’ though the Velux blinds broke years ago and replacing them is on the very long (if somewhat reduced, thanks to Lockdown) list of things to do/get/change. Reflected in the glass of the wardrobe door, was a big ball of whiteness, and I spent some minutes debating whether it was the moon, and if so, how come I’ve never noticed it do that before, and actually, it could be anything (Hey Emer, remember that time you stood beaming at what you thought was a pink moon but you weren’t wearing your specs and of course, wine, and what you were wishing on was the street lamp?) I don’t know anything about the moon, not really. I suppose I should, because my own daughters call me a witch, and I recognize the pull of it in other women; most of the women I know, in fact, seem to understand the power in a full or a waning or a new moon. And yet, here she was, at a minute to three, drawing my attention so fully that I made the bold move to actually get out of the bed, walk all the way around the chimney breast and stand before the Velux-less window. Yes, that was the moon alright, a glorious full-bellied beauty. If I get up in the night, it usually disturbs him, but not now: I was entirely on my own with her and the silence between the Moon and I connected us. I was in no doubt that she had called me to her, not as a mother to her daughter – more like a sister to a much loved sister. I tiptoed back to bed, before he woke up and it all got weird, but I lay looking at her reflected in the glass. There was a slow steady rhythm to his breathing now that I was beside him again, and in that moment he was a Man of the Earth; he was connected with terra firma while I felt the moon’s coolness all around the room and I basked in the relief of it. There we stayed until I drifted off to sleep – I know this, because his snoring jolted me out of it at 3.33 and she was gone. Hidden behind a cloud or wherever it is that moons go when they’ve finished impressing you. Back came the darkness and with it, the heat. Sleep came eventually.
The news is full of it today; it was a Buck Moon apparently – appearing in the season when young male deer grow antlers, and sometimes a Strawberry Moon, but it was also a partial lunar eclipse. (I’ve eased off social media so I know nothing anymore.) I resisted the temptation to take a photo last night – there was no place for technology during our special moment, the moon and I, but if I had, I think I would have been one of the lucky ones – seems the view wasn’t magnificent everywhere. I’ve said I know nothing about the moon and her secret ways – I’ll leave that to those who do. But I’ve just remembered that at 3.33, when the moon left me, the wind returned. During the calm I had asked her to send strength to my tomato plants, I was worried about them in this unseasonable wild weather. When I hold the first ripe tomato later this summer, I’ll do what I always do: cherish its round red shape, smell the earthiness of it and be grateful for rain and sun and the cycle of life. This year, I’ll remember the moon had a hand in it too.
I sat in my office planning the term and crying; I didn't want to teach anymore. That was the moment I knew there was something wrong; I never thought of my job as actual work - teaching drama was creatively challenging but always fun, always emotionally satisfying. People liked how I did things and I had taken on some teachers. I had a number of centres around Dublin and I was directing professionally, sometimes juggling two or three separate productions at a time. I had left myself with absolutely no personal time in a home with two very young children. Although my husband was the most amazing house husband (I used to say he was a better mother than me) I had spread myself too thin. When I told him I wanted to stop teaching, he sent me to the doctor. I had suffered from ante and post natal depression on one of my pregnancies and it looked as if I was suffering again. That time I had exercised my way to wellness, this time I simply had no energy. I wondered if there was a natural remedy and that's how I came to take St John's Wort (Hypericum perforatum). In a matter of weeks, I felt as if I had been lifted up out of my dark self. The joy of being given a leg up, as it were, led to a deep honouring of the plant. I was so grateful to it.
A woman known as 'The Healing Nun' (oh, you'll hear more about her folks) re-introduced me to herbal medicine years after I had given up on my studies, loaning me her Maria Treben books and telling me stories about eating garlic cooked nettles on toast. The first thing I looked up was St John's Wort, and dragging out my old text books I learned as much as I could about my green saviour. Maria Treben's book 'Health Through God's Pharmacy' mentions the legend behind the plant, dedicated to St John the Baptist, with old Christian beliefs that the red juice of the yellow flowers connected to the blood of Jesus. "The fact is," says Treben, "that St John's Wort oil is the best wound oil, it soothes the pain, is anti-inflammatory and healing." I know this is true because I've made the oil and I've given it to people suffering from arthritis, muscular and joint pain and it definitely brings comfort.
Many of you will be familiar with St John's Wort tablets for the likes of SAD (seasonal affective disorder), or mild depression, which I can vouch for too, but it's interesting that folklore believed it to be a plant that had the power to drive away witches, ghosts and demons (although my daughters tell me in another life I would have been burnt at the stake!) My cherished Culpepper's Herbal (published 1649) recommends a tincture of the flowers in spirits of wine to ward off melancholy and insanity (Hmm...) Medicinally it must be prescribed by your doctor here in Ireland, although it can be bought over the counter in most other countries, and in Northern Ireland. Amongst my favourite herbal remedies books is 'Hedgerow Medicine' by Julie Bruton-Seal and Matthew Seal. The layout and description of the modern and ancient uses of hedgerow herbs is so clear and engaging and I've made so many healing remedies using their recipes. I also follow the herbalist Brigid Anna McNeill on Instagram, her feed is pure joy.
If you find some St John's Wort growing in the wild, use the forager's rule of thumb and don't take more than you need, or no more than 10% of what's growing. It needs to be picked on a sunny day when the sun is high in the sky. You could make an infused oil or a tincture:
St John's Wort Oil : Put the yellow flower heads into a glass jar and cover with olive oil, leaving it in a sunny spot for a month. Shake regularly to ensure the flowers stay completely covered. After a month, strain the liquid, which should be the gorgeous red you see in the photo above.
St John's Wort Tincture: As above, but cover the flowers with vodka instead of oil, and leave in a darkened place away from light for a month, and strain in the same way. Bottle and label, preferably with a dropper so you can control the dosage (1-4ml daily according to Bruton-Seal/Seal) and take for SAD, mild depression, nervous exhaustion, PMS and menopausal moods.
Note: Do not take St John's Wort if you are on anti depression medication, and seek medical advise before taking it if you take any strong medication, including contraceptives. It can make you more sensitive to the sun, so be careful if you are fair skinned. Check with the photo here and other images to be sure that you have the right herb.
With no word of a lie, I began writing this late last year, before any word of Covid-19. I thought it would be a funny way of introducing a more sustainable way of living. The project was for my own benefit, but I had plans to turn it into a book...who could have known!
ZOMBIE APOCALYPSE NOW!
Live your life as if you already have to ration
It’s today; the time is approximately…right now, and you’re already in danger.
Your neighbours have turned into zombies and are in your driveway crying out for your flesh. Their zombified brains are too stupid to remember you keep a spare key in the dog’s kennel, so you have time to think; not much, but enough to barricade the door – but with what? You can’t go to the hardware store, you can’t even get to the shed. And speaking of stores, you’re running low on food. You meant to go grocery shopping yesterday but you blew it off - how could you have known there’d be a zombie apocalypse today? You’re so ill prepared for bunkering down. You’ll have to ration what you have. You’ll have to watch how you do everything from now on.
Brushing your teeth? How much toothpaste do you actually need to use? Can’t you get away with a smidge instead of a blob? Do you even need to use paste? Or water? Water is going to become precious. Think about how you’re going to use and reuse every last drop. There’s going to have to be some new rules about toilet flushing around here – and that’s as long as the water company workers avoid becoming zombies, then it’s going to get really messy. How are you going to cope with that? Wait; what about other public service zombies? Bus driver zombies and Internet service provider zombies? Don’t think about that yet. Back to your ablutions; toilet roll…you know you don’t need two yards, so back up – how much is just enough? You’ve only just gotten out of bed! This is so stressful! How are you going to cope? Thank GOD you bought this book! Let’s hunker down and figure this out – and switch the big light off, do you want Mr. Zombie neighbour to see you? Time to gather up all the scented candles you never re-gifted and get used to a new lifestyle: a lifestyle of rationing…
First off – Food!
Ok, so now you’re watching every morsel. Nay; you’re savouring every bite because you know when this box of cereal/bag of peanuts/bottle of wine is gone – you may never see its like again. Plus, the pesky zombies are making grocery shopping difficult, not to mention the actual breakdown of society which basically means, no sliced bread or milk in a handy plastic carton. You’ve been mentally whipping yourself for decades, with what you should be doing/not doing, eating/not eating, drinking/not drinking. The zombies have changed everything (ironically, you’re most likely going to lose weight with this new improved sustainable and mindful way of eating, and there’ll be less flesh for them to feast on when/IF they do find that key, but you can’t think about everyone’s feelings. It’s dog-eat-dog now. For the sake of keeping this project relatively stress free and adding an element of fun, you don’t have any dependents. You’re on your own, or living with capable, fit, competent people.
So, you’ve had your thirty second shower, giving thanks for the joy of hot running water – who knows how long it will last? But without dilly-dallying you make a mental note to learn how to make soap while the Internet still works. As you get dressed you realize that washing machines and tumble driers are a luxury you may no longer enjoy. Choose your clothes wisely; if things go pear shaped today you may be wearing them for a while. Time to appreciate fabric.
Tune in next time for the continuing saga of Zombie Apocalypse Now!