I stood in the old graveyard watching the burning bush. It was biblical. With each shudder of the wind, the plume of smoke convulsed, rose and twisted away – yet there was no fire. As I moved closer to the yew bush, I realised that the ‘smoke’ was in fact millions of pollen grains released into the air; I stared in awe at the abundance of nature.
As such, I am always disconcerted that so many people pray for abundance. An abundance of what, I wonder? An abundance of work? Well, more than you can cope with brings a great deal of stress. A lot of money is likely to create envy and discontent amongst one’s friends and family. Too much romantic attention can become intrusive and ruin other relationships, and by the way, an abundance of cells means cancer.
Yet if we tune into the abundance of nature, we see only generosity. Anyone with an apple tree knows that it produces far more than an entire family can generally cope with. Harvesting herbs from trees such as the linden or hawthorn brings this abundance sharply into focus; for example, I can only reach the very lowest branches, but above me tower millions of flowers which are producing buckets of nectar for thousands of bees, who convert it into enough honey to feed their entire community for a year.
In all indigenous societies we see that when people relied on the abundance of the land to feed and clothe themselves, they created many significant rituals and ceremonies throughout the year to encourage the fertility of the land and the growth of all her creatures and plants. The people would also give thanks and offerings for nature’s generosity, which allowed them to live through the scarcity of another winter. Everything would be honoured: the sun, the herds, the trees and the plants.
In our society today, blackberrying represents one of the last vestiges of foraging that we consider to be a normal part of our lives, and a joyful activity too. To my mind, brambles are one of the symbols of generosity in our hedgerows. There are plenty of berries for everyone to enjoy in their Sunday fruit crumbles, and still plenty left over for the birds and mice of the fields.
However, as a medical herbalist harvesting my own herbs, I am often aware of the fragility of this abundance. It has happened that the night before I intended to go out and harvest a rich supply of elderberries, there was a violent storm and the next morning there was barely anything left on the trees. Now, I can easily order dried elderberries, but in the days when this luxury was not available the event would have represented a disastrous loss of valuable medicine, not to become available again for another year. So, let’s harvest with gratitude and be aware that the plants are donating their body parts for our use, be aware that we should not take everything, since the birds and insects must eat too, be aware that we are lucky to harvest before the storm has whipped the berries away. Of course, I am especially grateful for the magnificent healing properties of so many plants, available for me to use in helping others.
We can all celebrate the abundance of nature with simple ceremonies such as making our own remedies and condiments straight out of the hedgerows. It is such a treat to go out, basket on arm, for some hours with wind in our hair, birds calling in the skies, dogs charging about in wild joy, cows staring at us as we gently wander the hedgerows collecting our treasures. Then back to our kitchens to start brewing. Here are a few simple recipes to support our health through the winter, as well as providing surprisingly delicious foods.
500 g of elderberries with the stalks removed
400 g chopped onions
500 g chopped and peeled apples
1 tsp mixed spice
1 tsp ground ginger
1/2 tsp cayenne
A good sprig of thyme
1/2 tsp salt
400 ml apple cider vinegar
325 g granulated sugar
Put the berries, onions and apples into a large saucepan. Add the spices, salt and half the vinegar and bring to the boil, then simmer for thirty minutes. Add the granulated sugar and remaining vinegar. Stir until the sugar has dissolved and then simmer until thick, stirring to prevent sticking. Pour into warmed jars and seal. Serve with strong cheese and biscuits!
Rowan Berry Throat Syrup
Collect a large jam jar of the ripe berries, wash the berries well and just cover them with boiling water. Add a stick of cinnamon and simmer for five minutes, then add a tablespoon of apple cider vinegar and strain, keeping the liquid. Finally, dissolve sugar into the warm rowan liquid until it is saturated. Store it in a sterilised glass bottle. Whenever you feel that your throat is sore or scratchy, take a teaspoonful four times a day for a maximum of three days.
Jo Dunbar is the author of The Spirit of the Hedgerow, a description of many common hedgerow plants, their medicinal uses and food value, as well as our ancestral folklore. The book is richly illustrated in colour and includes a comprehensive index and resource directory. It is published by Local Legend.