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Bracken folklore and history

Bracken leaves in window

YOU CAN LISTEN TO AN AUDIO VERSION OF THIS ARTICLE HERE

Knowing a bit more about the world around us, the plants, the rocks, the birds, the insects helps us to rewild ourselves.
Knowing their names and properties helps us notice things. Knowing the history of a plant makes us see it better.

Stories are particularly potent in this - they can take us back into a previous time, a time before we separated ourselves from the natural world, a time when knowledge passed on through being spoken.

In folk tales and fairy stories it is the everyday plants that take the starring roles - endowed with magic powers, removed from the everyday and yet well known and comforting, marvellous and quixotic.

So it is with bracken. In past times bracken wasn't the pernicious weed of today. It was used in many ways, valued as part of the domestic economy, its usefulness keeping its spread in check.

Dried in great heaps for animal litter, for making root clamps to store carrots over winter, stuffed into packaging crates to keep cargo safe, used as a thatch, as a mulch, the ash used as a fumigant, in soap making, in glass making . . . The gathering of the bracken was a job done mainly by women, a hard, back breaking job, out on the moors, pulling the bracken and binding it into great bales to carry home.

Like many plants in Celtic lore, bracken crosses the paths between paganism and Christianity. In Ireland the plant was known as The fern of God - it was claimed that a cross section the stem cut low down, gave the sign of the cross, whereas cutting it in three places further up would spell out GOD. Thatching a house with bracken was said to deter both lightning and witches. In Scotland in contrast bracken was known as the devil’s footprint and seen as a gateway to the fairy kingdom or underworld.

There is a beautiful Gaelic song Tha mi sgith (I am Tired) which is sung from the point of view of a fairy who has fallen in love with a mortal girl, helping her with the bracken gathering on the hills, until her brothers discover their trysts and hide her away from him.

bracken fronds unfurling

In Irish folk history Nechtan. King of Munster, outwitted Bres, King of Ireland over the paying of taxes. Bres was told that to cure his wife’s infertility he should drink mammoth quantities of milk, so he got his supply by taking all Irish households 100 cans of milk from each hornless dun cow. Dun cows are a greyish brown and Nechtan owned rather a lot of that colour of cow so, to evade the milk tax, he built a big fire of bracken and mixed the ash with flax seed and water, smearing it onto the cows to turn their coats black so that they didn’t get counted. Other versions of the tale have him driving the cows through burning bracken fires so that their fur gets singed black, but all have the bracken in them. It is likely that both the rubbing of the ash into livestock’s coats and the fumigation with smoke were general practices at the time to deter insects.

Bracken soaking for dye

Bracken reproduces by spores which are invisible and are carried on the wind - and this seemingly magical trick connected the plant to the powers of invisibility. The spores were thought to become visible once a year, on 23rd June - the Eve of the Feast of St John the Baptist and handily near midsummer - and it was claimed that gathering them would give you the gift of invisibility for that night.

Now bracken is being cropped again - mixed with wool and comfrey to make a peat free compost. It is handy for lining hanging baskets and padding wreath bases, it is the perfect weed suppressing mulch for the base of trees . . . research is being done into whether it stops nitrogen and potassium leaching out of the soil.
Now of course it is harvested by machine, there is no chance of a fairy lover arriving to help with the labouring.

bracken plant lore and legend

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Stillness is such a difficult skill to acquire.  I suspect that so much of the rushing about that we do is simply an attempt to avoid being still.
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For if we stopped, paid attention to ourselves, to the world around us, let everything sink in - well that might be very scary.
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But I do think it is the most important skill - a five minute pause, a checking in.  I'm not talking about meditation here - nothing as formal as that - just a stilling and listening and paying attention. Appreciation, recognition, renewal.
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It is something that I am very bad at by nature - but I have been taking lessons from Dixie. 

For if a spaniel can relax into stillness, nosing into a shaft of sunshine, then I'm sure I can.
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Teasel isn't quite there yet.

#aseasonalway #springerspaniel #springerspanielsofinstagram #slowlivingforlife #lessonsfromdogs #bringyourdogtowork #storiesoftheeveryday
One thing that gardening teaches you year on year is that so much is beyond your control. Some things will thrive, others won’t, and mostly it will be nothing to do with anything you’ve done. 
Some years will be great for one crop, terrible for another. This is a great year for garlic here, awful for beans. 

It’s the same with business - a lot of things happen that are due to the ‘weather’ of the world. We can pivot and turn, change our tactics, Google ‘how to make reels’ and so on - but we can also choose to embrace and lean into what is working well. 

My Friday letter today is about social media and all the ways I’ve used to connect with people over the past 21 years - if you fancy a read you can sign up in my profile. 

And in the meantime I’d love to know what’s growing well for you. Or indeed, what has been a disaster! 

#theartofslowliving #livethelittlethings #nothingisordinary #natureandnourish #embracingaslowerlife #aseasonalway #seekthesimplicity #scotlandsgardens #growyourownfood #cornersofmyworld #greenthumb #rusticgamesttong #cornersofmyworld #simpleandstill #vintagegreenhouse
Each year I have a personal project running.  Something just for me. Something that allows me to experiment and play. 
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The first year that I became obsessed with using the plants here to dye textiles - back in 2019 - it was twelve skeins of a raw slubby silk yarn that I  had been hoarding for decades. They became a patchwork cable blanket that now sits on the back of the sofa.
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In 2020 it was double knitting yarns, in dozens of colours, knitted into a stripy jumper to keep me cosy in the Studio.
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Last year I dyed linens and am gradually making them into patchworks and appliqués - many I am squirrelling away for a project that I may or may not ever begin.
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This year I am using mini skeins - in an attempt to keep it more manageable - and exploring the differences in colour caused by the pH of the original extraction. 
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There are four skeins for each plant, two for neutral extraction, two for alkali - with one of each pair being dipped in iron to 'sadden' the colour.
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If science had been like this at school I might have paid more attention . . . .

#botanicaldye #alchemy #growyourowncolour #gameoftones #plantdyed #naturallydyedwool #plantdyersofinstagram #craftwithconscience
#shadesofnature #extractedfromnature #inspiredbynaturesbeauty #plantdyedyarn #naturaldyedyarn #foragedcolour
This is a tomato salad that was inspired by one I ate a few years ago in a cafe in Mingun, Myanmar,
There it was mainly made with green tomatoes, sharp against the shrimp powder.
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In Myanmar the military junta have begun to execute activists arrested after the coup in February 2021. The brutality and violence continue, the quashing of democracy, the corruption. 

11,759 people, arrested after the coup, remain in detention, 78 people, including two children, have been sentenced to death.
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You won't usually find much out about Myanmar in the 'fed to you' media, but this week there has been reporting and a Dispatches programme about mass killings  was on Channel 4 on Monday.  The Guardian has consistently been the newspaper reporting most on the aftermath of the coup and you can also follow hashtags like #whatishappeninginmyamar here. 
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There may seem little we can actively do about the horrors in the world, but people involved always say that what matters is knowing that people care, bear witness and don’t simply forget when the news cycle moves on.
We always have a slight breeze here - a blessing as it stops the midges flying.
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It often gets up at night after a warm day, seeming to breathe its way round corners. 
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If you walk through the garden in the evening at the moment, the scent of Lilium regale drifts about you in eddies of spice.

#simpleandstill #capturequiet #beautyyouseek #calm_collected #aseasonalway #aseasonalshift #cornersofmyworld #slowlived #slowandsimpledays #quietchaotics #ofsimplethings #beautyinsimplicity #floralstories #allthingsbotanical #underthefloralspell #livethelittlethings #thehappynow #ihavethisthingwithflowers #moodforfloral #aseasonalway #slowlivingforlife #aflowerfilledlife
The more I travel down this road the more I realise that deciding how you live, which values you honour, what you will prioritise all have to be deliberately chosen. 
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You can’t just drift into a slower, more intentional life. 
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You can’t buy it. 
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You have to make a commitment to actually live it. 
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And that’s not always easy. 
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It is why I go to events like last weekend’s summer camp @thegoodlifesoc . 
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It is also why I surround myself with a supportive community where my choices don’t seem weird.

It is why my to do list today has sitting with a coffee taking in the swoony scent of the sweet peas on it. 

#howihueit #simpleandstill #capturequiet #beautyyouseek #calm_collected #aseasonalway #aseasonalshift #cornersofmyworld #slowlived #slowandsimpledays #quietchaotics #ofsimplethings #beautyinsimplicity #floralstories #allthingsbotanical #livethelittlethings #thehappynow #ihavethisthingwithflowers #moodforfloral #cornersofmyhome #aseasonalway #slowlivingforlife #aflowerfilledlife
This is the actual physical Studio.
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It is a little cabin between meadow and wood - a space for creativity and connection a space that I deliberately and intentionally worked towards for a number of years.  There is a sunny deck looking onto trees for the summer, a wood burning stove for the winter.
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The Studio is also another thing - it is a club of amazing people who are intentionally prioritising their creativity and connection to the natural world. 
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It is a community of great humour, support and inspiration - the best thing that I have ever had a hand in.
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The Studio Club is closed to new members at the moment and the doors will open to new members again on the Autumn Equinox. 

I'm currently working with @fbarrows, who is providing a gentle and encouraging outside eye, as I decide on what we will be doing in the club over the next six months.
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I've been surveying all the members to find out exactly what it is they enjoy most, what they feel I could do better. 

In this week’s Friday letter I've included a link to a short survey, because I  think it would also be useful to know what people who follow me, but are not members, feel about these things. 
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If you get it, it would help me so much if you could take a minute to fill it out - there are only five questions and there is also a bribe . . . .

#slowlivingforlife #simplelife #whereiwork #simpleandslow #creativelifehappylife
The more we actively take time to pause, to sit still and watch, the more we see. 
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My Friday Letter this week is all about taking advantage of some unwanted early wakening and starting to use the binoculars which have been hanging on the coat rail for eighteen months.
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Twenty minutes with a cup of tea, the binoculars and a lawn full of early birds and their worms.

#momentslikethese
#the_gentle_manifesto
#daysofsmallthings
#natureandnourish
#aseasonalway
#daysofsimpleandslow
#ournaturedays
#aquietmoment
#pocketsofslow
#thesweetlifeunscripted
#folkandstory
#pause
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In the Studio Club I gently guide you through bringing the changing seasons into your daily life, helping you slow down, so that you can experience increased well being, calm and creativity.

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