Earlier this year, herbalist and founder of the Plant Medicine School, Nikki Darrell, offered a workshop at the first of my annual HedgeWise festivals in the Burren, here in the west of Ireland. The workshop was about connecting with plants, and although this is work I’ve done before, sometimes it’s a fruitful thing to begin anew with someone else as a guide. So off I went, out into the damp March chill, to wander a while and wait for a plant that called me.
On a whim, I wandered off through a gate, away from everyone else, and came to the beautifull stone circle at the Boghill Centre, where these gatherings are based. There, right in front of me, was a small but sturdy bush. At this time of year in Ireland, the leaves were only just beginning to emerge, and I had to come quite close to it before I realised that it was a hawthorn. I sat with it for a while, and came to understand something I’d not realised before: that although I love many, many trees and flowers and herbs, the plants which really call to me – the plants which hook themselves right into my imagination and carry me away with them – Have thorns. Or are prickly. Or sting.
To most people (with the exception of roses, and I’ve grown roses – old roses, and wild roses – in pretty much every garden I’ve ever cared for) the plants I love are not always the most beautiful. But there’s nothing which tugs at my imagination like the nettle. When I look at a nettle, I see a many-layered world. On the one hand, a plant which flowers and harbours so much wildlife. On the other, a food (the first nettle soup of the season, with the young tips …). And a herb: an anti-inflammatory and diuretic, among many other useful properties. I know what a nettle is in the physical world, then – but it’s what it represents to me in the imaginal world which is just as important. Whenever I see a nettle I’m reminded of one of my favourite old fairy stories: ‘The Wild Swans’. I’m reminded of Eliza, in the Hands Christian Andersen version, who must pluck stinging nettles with her bare hands and eave shirts for her brothers who have been transformed into swans by a wicked stepmother. And she must weave the shirts in silence. Only then, by throwing a shirt over each brother, can she change them back to their human form. She’s almost burned at the stake for her trouble by an overly zealous bishop – but Eliza endures. When I see a nettle, then, layered on top of the physical characteristics in this world of the senses which we inhabit, I see images. Images of endurance, of love and loyalty, of the silencing of women’s voices through the centuries …
But there was an aspect of the nettle I wasn’t really focusing on, just as there was an aspect of the hawthorn, and the blackthorn, and the masses of holly trees which have colonised the leafy lanes of the village I live in. That’s their sting. Their thorniness. Their armour, their protection. Sitting in front of that little hawthorn tree in the stone circle at Boghill, I understood that this was the common feature that seemed to be drawing me to these plants.
Flash forward a couple of months, to a weeklong creative retreat for women I was running at the threshold of the Beara Peninsula, in West Cork. We had been talking about boundaries, about how difficult some of us find it to be thrown so intensely into the company of others; how we can’t always share and sometimes just want to retreat. I had been explaining how this was a core feature of my own way of being in the world – how I’m drawn to share stories, and to teach – but how I only ever have so much to give before I need to head off into a wild, silent space to tend to the solitary wellspring which makes it all possible.
That night, I had a dream. I was standing in my garden, which has many wild patches, filled with nettle and bramble. The garden was in full bloom, filled with fruit and trees and birdsong. Along the front boundary was a giant, impenetrable wall of hawthorns. It was a beautiful, vibrant green, and obviously simply glowing with life. I looked at it, and exclaimed to my husband – what an absolutely beautiful, healthy wall of thorns! I’ve never seen anything so beautiful! And I woke up understanding the beauty of a wall of thorns. That instead of apologising for that need to wall myself off sometimes, to clothe myself in protective armour, or thinking of it as a failure of generosity, or a withholding of a gift I ought to be giving more freely – a wall of thorns can be a beautiful, healthy thing, which enables everything behind it to grow safely, and to flourish in its own unique way. And I remembered in that dream that, along the back boundary of the garden, everything was open. Open all the way across the bog to the beautiful grey Maamturk mountains to the north. Something in the protective wall at the front allowed the openness at the back. You don’t always have to wall yourself completely in; there’s always a back entrance.
To me, these are the ways in which the plants and animals and stones – all of the other beings in the world we inhabit – teach us. They teach us through stories, through the ways in which they infiltrate our imagination, through the dreams they bring us in the depths of night. They teach us at all levels of this many-layered world we inhabit – if only we can learn to pierce the veil.