Pluck will I the catkin wool, The lint the lovely Bride culled through her palm, For luck, for success, for increase, Without loss of means, without loss of friends, As was spoken in the prophecy, From the bosom of the God of Life, And the courses together.
The woolly willow is a Northern tree, growing mainly in Scandinavia but also endemic to the North of Scotland, where the charm of the catkin wool was written down in the Carmina Gadelica. In a family of trees which release their seeds as airborne fluff on the wind, the woolly willow is exceptionally fluffy – but the ‘lint’ described in the charms of the catkin wool will be familiar to anyone who has watched willow seeds drifting on the mild May breeze.
These charms follow a similar pattern to the the charm of the tree-entwining ivy: the speaker positions themselves in the role of ‘the lovely Bride’ or ‘the Mother of Christ’ and appeals to a pattern of success and increase as set out by a prophecy or higher power. The mention of ‘the courses together’ brings to mind the conscious directing of all the different currents and eddies of randomness, chance, consequence, and possibility which we step into when we speak a charm and send our wishes out into the world.
I grew up with the playground tradition of wishing on dandelion seedheads: close your eyes, make a wish, and blow. If the seeds dispersed, they would carry your wish out into the world and it would grow to become true. This act of making a wish on fluffy, airborne seeds will be familiar to almost everybody reading this post – much more so than, say, plucking an ivy vine or writing a petition to the lady of the forest. It is playground magic, the commonest and most resilient kind.
Like the lover in Coleridge’s poem, this moon we pass forth into light and find ourselves beneath the most beautiful of forest trees.
Birch and snowdrop sound a similar note in the song of this place, snow-washed and clear. Although the ground has barely thawed between fresh falls of snow, the snowdrops are in full bloom and the first hints of yellow are beginning to appear among the budding celandines. The sun lingers in the evening sky for a full hour longer than it did in December. Light and life are returning to the valley.
Perhaps we find ideas when we need them most, or perhaps ideas find us when we are ready for them. The same book read 100 times can spark as many different insights and impressions because of what you bring to it each time you read.
Last May, after a death in the family, I came across a beautiful article ‘On Grief, Joy, and Saying Goodbye’ in The Voyage of the Dawn Treader: ‘In the end, Reepicheep dies.’ It made a quietly profound impression on me. When I found a complete set of The Chronicles of Narnia in our local secondhand bookshop, the day before the current lockdown started, I decided to read them all again. This time, I had the Great C.S. Lewis Re-read on tor.com as my companion, leading me along new paths through old familiar places.
The light and the dark; the revelry and the rest; the long night of the year: the Winter Solstice marks the feast at which the Holly King presides, and I love it.
Holly – like ivy, like yew – is attributed by Culpeper to Saturn. But this is a different side of Saturn: Saturnalia, the feast in the fast of Winter. The contrasts between cold woods and cosy hearths, or frozen fields and full kitchen cupboards, invite us to consider the purpose of feasting, the nature of revelry, the meaning of celebration. Especially now.*
Into this midwinter feast the Green Knight enters with a sprig of holly in his hand.
Based on my experiences so far, I would swap the yew with the ivy in the order of the year. When I sketched out my approach to the calendar, I tried as far as possible to anchor the cycles of the moon to the fixed dates given by Graves, where the logic of the timing allowed. Ivy is an excellent companion in October, but yew would be just as appropriate for Calan Gaeaf and Hallowtide, while ivy also lends itself a little more to the gathering pace of the end-of-year revelry. If nothing else, it makes a more festive and less deadly poisonous decoration.
I am also, inevitably, swapping the elder for the holly this coming cycle of the moon. It feels too contrary not to focus on a tree which is everywhere at this time of year, bright with berries in the depth of winter and obscure among the foliage of summer. Holly belongs in December.
Silence. As you enter the grove, the scent of centuries of fallen needles mingles with the earth. Tread softly. The rich wood surrounds you with a sense of sanctuary; the deep shade draws you into stillness. All around you, berries shine their sweetness and raindrops gather silver on the boughs. Stay vigilant. Taste nothing from this tree, for you walk now in the realm of the dead.
Silence. A fraught presence for me in this cycle of the moon – sought after, crowded out by my commitments, and finally imposed by a sudden inflammation in my finger joints. Typing is still difficult, so I have written less this moon, but maybe contemplated more: sitting still in meditation has been one of the few things I can do. And the yew invites stillness, and silent contemplation.
Ivy – despite seeming soft [was] fierce in the fight…
Cad Goddeu / The Battle of the Trees – translated by Williams and Lewis
‘The melancholic and the prosaic beautifully combined‘ is Richard Mabey’s apt description of this familiar yet enigmatic plant. The melancholy associations of ivy with death, particularly through its presence in graveyards, is a theme that will continue into the next cycle of the moon as I explore the yew tree. But to give ivy its due, on this last day of the lunar cycle, I want to revisit some of my experiences and reflect on some of the unexpected lessons that they brought.
Melancholy is, of course, an influence of Saturn, the ruling planet of the ivy and a presence heavily felt these last few weeks. Ivy teaches us to take things seriously. In divination, it is used to put things to the test: to tell whether someone is a witch or a liar; whether a couple is well-matched; whether someone in the house will fall ill or even die before the year is out. Ivy sets tests it is possible to fail. In magic, it is used for binding, and binding is not to be taken lightly, but that doesn’t mean it isn’t sometimes good. We included ivy in our wedding flowers, and – as many misgivings as I have for involving the law in our relationship – that act of binding has brought stability and joy to both our lives.
While writing about ivy, I have noticed that my sentences tend to twist back upon themselves, sprouting clauses, nestling observations within observations. Perhaps this is just how I write now; I’m rusty. But perhaps something in the nature of ivy can only be expressed this way, through twisting language.
The twisting path of ivy has led me to some unexpected places as the last moon of autumn waxed and waned. This part of the journey ventures into gnosis which is wholly personal in nature but – I hope – speaks to a wider experience that each of us can encounter, in our different ways, with ivy as a guide.
I caught one last glimpse of him through the crowded beer garden in The Rake, late in the summer of 2009. He had obviously seen me, too, so I slipped away from my friends, through the crowd, to his table.
‘My little one!’ he said, by way of greeting, and I was so relieved to see him, upright and well, that it didn’t bother me at all (his endearments – ‘my acolyte-lite!’ – had always ruffled my feathers, but there was affection on both sides beneath it). He was looking frailer, thinner, with less of his wispy grey hair pulled back over his head now, and an impossible amount of lines etched into his face – but he was alive, here, where he belonged.
‘It’s the first time I’ve been back in months,’ he told me, as I pulled up a stool and sat down. ‘They removed half of my intestines, knocked me out with morphine. And I don’t take heavy drugs, I’ve never dabbled in any of that. Knocked me right out of my body. I died on the operating table. The doctors told me I was gone, officially dead, for almost 7 minutes.’
Nos Galan Gaeaf, the night that heralds winter, is a traditional time for telling fortunes. Ivy has its fair share of phyllomantic customs for this time of year, many of them dream-based. Corinne Boyer describes two traditions for placing ivy leaves under the pillow for dream divinations about love. The first, for seeking a wife, involved picking ten ivy leaves and – intriguingly – throwing one away, placing the remaining nine under the pillow. The second, for seeking a husband, involves the following rhyme:
Nine ivy leaves I place under my head To dream of the living and not of the dead, To dream of the man I am going to wed And see him tonight at the foot of my bed
On a darker note, pinning an ivy leaf to each corner of your pillow will invite the Devil into your dreams, according to a snippet of Cornish lore.