Collecting Materials

My friend Elen Sentier and I, with two whippets (on a lead), headed off today to have a walk in the woods, it being a beautiful sunny day.

We came to a troll bridge. The troll was happy to let me pass (with the dogs) when I offered hazelnuts and water from my own water-spring at home, but only if I placed them at the top of the rocky gully his stream ran down. I unclipped the dog-lead from round my waist and handed it to Elen, then set off up the gully, climbing up the rocks to put the nuts on a flat bit of rock, then carefully pour the water next to them. I was about to climb down when I was told to refill my flask from the dribble of water below where I’d left my offering. I had to put one foot on a rock the other side of the gully and bend almost between my own knees to reach, in a sort of weird shamanic yoga pose.

It’s never simple and easy.

I took the water back down and shared some with Elen and the dogs, then clipped the lead back around my waist and waited while Elen talked with the troll. A silvery-grey barked length of rowan wood wanted to come with me, so I picked it up. The troll, meanwhile, told Elen to give me a length of wood from the other side of the stream, a piece of young birch with its beautiful red bark.

We thanked the troll for his gifts, then crossed the bridge and went on. Before long we swung uphill, the open young woods of birch and cherry giving way to older oaks on steep slopes either side of the track, with pines mingled in here and there. Elen was waylaid by a troll behind me and I carried on up with the dogs until two pines creaked to and fro across the path. I stopped.

“May I pass?”

“If you’ve silver for the toll.”

As it happened, I’d left my purse in the car but I had picked up a bit of rock with a glorious surface layer of silvery mica. I took it out of my pocket and tilted it to and fro so the sun gleamed off the smooth shiny mica.

“Oh, that’ll do! Put it up here, up in this little dell.”

Fifteen feet up the bank, which meant climbing up the boulders and then crawling under a fallen tree.

I unclipped the dog lead, placed the sticks on the ground and waited while Elen extricated herself from her troll encounter and caught up. She held the dogs again while I clambered up the boulders and crawled under the fallen trunk to put the rock in the little dell. I clambered back down again and clipped the dog lead round my waist, then picked up the stick again.

Fifty yards further on, a pine had fallen across the path and been cleared back a bit with a chainsaw, but a willow bush was entangled in the fallen tree and it was clearly another moment to pause and ask permission to go on, not to push in uninvited.

“May I pass?”

“Who are you?” they demanded. I gave my usual shamanic name. “And who’s that?”

They kept that up while I worked my way through nearly twenty years of names and titles, collected in similar encounters in one world or another. Eventually I ran out of all those and there was a short pause.

“So you know the four elements. Do you know plants?”

“Somewhat.” It pays to be a little cautious on questions like that!

“Pick a flower and a leaf from each of three edible plants, carry them in your own hand up the hill to the top, leave each with its like. Bring back a leaf and a flower from each of three different edible plants, to do the same after you start down again. But they mustn’t touch the ground until you put them each with its like! Also bring down one edible plant that never flowers. Will you do that?”

“I will, if I can.” (Never make promises you can’t keep, either!)

“Then you may pass with our blessings.”

I looked around. Violets, with their edible flowers, one of the first new things in the spring. Bittercress, which is great in scrambled eggs and, again, early to grow in the spring. And wood sorrel, that delicious tangy leaf that quenches thirst. You wouldn’t try and make a meal of any, but they’re all edible! I took a flower and a leaf from each, placed them carefully in one hand, arranged the stick and the dog lead in the other, thanked them politely and moved on.

It very quickly became evident that one of the dogs had her own tasks, involving – as far as I could see – sniffing every tussock of grass and peeing on certain ones. The other dog, looking long-suffering, was being pushed from side to side and kept stepping over the lead to get it between her legs. Each time, I had to halt them both, put the stick down, pick the dog’s leg up, put the leg down the other side of the lead, gather the lead up again, pick up the stick and then move on. Without dropping or crushing the flowers in my other hand.

We reached the top of the hill and lay down for a rest. The dogs wanted a drink. I put the flowers and leaves carefully into my left hand, unbuckled my belt pouch with my right hand, fished out the flask, clamped it between my knees to unscrew it, then managed to pinch the flask between thumb and finger on my left hand to pour the contents into my right palm for the dogs to lap.

When they’d finished, I performed the whole dance in reverse. Couldn’t put the flowers and leaves down, nor let anyone take them for me!

After we’d got our breath and quenched our thirst, we carried on. Now I could look around for matching plants and lay down my three little burdens. The habitat here was open heath with young birch and rowan, not the old mixed oak and pine woods where I’d found them. It took some careful peering around to find a patch of wood-sorrel, and then I put down the leaf and flower. There was tormentil nearby – not, strictly speaking, a food plant, but certainly medicinal, so I decided to push on that point as ‘edible’ in contrast to ‘inedible’ rather than in the sense of ‘makes a good pot of stew’ edible. Sometimes you do need to justify your actions and having your defence thought out ahead of time helps!

We moved on, pausing frequently for dog-disentangling purposes, and I managed to spot violets, exchanging them for stitchwort, and then I spotted fiddleheads, the still-curled just-up heads of bracken that can be fried in butter. Bracken, of course, never flowers – it sets spores instead. Moving on, I traded the bittercress for dandelion, and then spotted some primroses, which I’d definitely seen in the lower woods, and decided to swap that for the stitchwort, which I didn’t remember spotting lower down. Nobody said I had to bring the first edible plants I found, after all!

We continued around the top of the hill, which involved some magnificent tilted slabs of metamorphic rock. Navigating down these brought challenges – in my case two dogs yanking on the lead while I walked down a thirty-degree slope on smooth rock! We got round, though, and back to the place where we’d come in (and they had a sneaky trick on us before that, involving a very similar-looking junction going down the other side of the hill! We weren’t deceived, though, and spotted a magnificent oil beetle on the climb back up from that little tricksy spot as a reward. I’ve never met such a big beetle, a full two inches in length and a glorious green-blue shade in the sun.

Finally we got back to the downhill trail and I started looking to match like for like again. The bracken was fine, there was a patch right by the track. After that it was the tormentil, a few yards further on. The primroses made up for this convenience by being twenty yards into the wood, the far side of a ditch with a stream in it that I had to cross by leaping over where the local deer clearly leap over.

One-handed, as I teetered on the top of the landing slope with my feet slipping in the deer tracks.

It was a massive relief to find a dandelion in the middle of the trail, near the bottom of the hill, and to walk back past the troll. We bowed in thanks after crossing his bridge again. Just round the corner I was rewarded with a third chunk of wood to bring back – this one the dark, dark red-black of young cherry.

One light, one red, one black. A set of three drumsticks for me to craft, apparently.

It was a very good walk in the woods!

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