#52weeksofnaturepoetry, Poetry

A Plea to the Wizard’s Tree (or Fid Na Ndruad) – Week 49 #52weeksofnaturepoetry

Oh, Rowan! Fine, sturdy tree!

Won’t you grow beside our house

to repel wayward spirits wishing harm?

Mischievous fae; witches

threatening to curse family, crops

and land.

Your clusters of cream flowers

invoke days full of joy,

and each sour, scarlet fruit

wards against malevolence.

From the silvery grey of your bark

to your feather-like leaflets,

you could shield our grounds from unsavoury folk

without even trying.

In return, we’ll protect you

from woodcutters’ metallic bites,

mulch the ground by your roots,

restrict the harvesting of your berries

(which, you should be proud to hear,

 make wonderfully tart jam)

so each thrush, redstart, blackbird and waxwing

who visits won’t starve.

Dear fid na ndruad,

I don’t believe you acknowledge

how wonderful you are:

spoons turned from your fallen wood

keep milk from curdling,

a charm of bark in our pocket

eases rheumatic limbs,

and when we find our path unclear,

you’re the key that helps us divine.

So please, I know it’s a lot to ask,

but would you kindly indulge us

one last time?

This poem is part of a project I’m doing to raise money for the RSPB, a UK wildlife conservation and protection charity. If you’d like to help, please share this poem to encourage others to take joy in nature, and if you have the time and means to donate, you can do so here. Let’s help keep our wildlife wild!

#52weeksofnaturepoetry, Poetry

Conversation With A Flower – Week 39 #52weeksofnaturepoetry

Oh, purple, pouting flower

towering over me,

won’t you tell how you got your name?

Through tales of gifting socks and gloves

to heavy-pawed foxes

(thereby lessening the chance of them alerting prey).

Are they true?

These legends, these yarns?

Who can say, curious one?

I have flowered and perished

and flowered again

many times.

Any tales about my past

may contain slices of truth,

or none.

Surely you must know

of one that’s factual?

Come on, share.

Please.

Have you heard of dead men’s bells?

No?

An alternative term spoken in some parts,

spun from whispers

discussing my aptitude for raising the fallen

and souring the living.

You’re a wild thing, then?

Doing what you will

with any who trample your roots?

Nay, it’s simpler than that.

If a failing heart and high blood pressure

lay among a person’s troubles,

ingesting the right dosage

of my leafy makeup

can send the reaper scarpering from their door.

Nip too much, however,

and even the healthiest of souls

might find themselves snoozing

with the worms.

And other creatures?

What do they think of you?

Ask the carder bees.

Watch them kiss each tubular set of lips

and run off with pockets full of brilliant powder.

Listen as their buzzing wings proclaim

not all riches are jingling coins,

and I am a mine of treasures.

This poem is part of a project I’m doing to raise money for the RSPB, a UK wildlife conservation and protection charity. If you’d like to help, please share this poem to encourage others to take joy in nature, and if you have the time and means to donate, you can do so here. Let’s help keep our wildlife wild!

[Apologies for how these poems are formatted. I do write them in stanzas, but WordPress rarely decides to keep them, no matter how much I argue with it.]

Uncategorized

12 Plants of Christmas!

Hi everyone! I thought I’d do something a little different from my usual ramblings, so here’s a list of plants associated with Christmas/Winter Solstice. Some are used specifically for decoration, others are used for cooking, and some are used for both. I’ve also made some notes on either the traditions behind each plant, or how they’re used now. Enjoy!

Holly – A very hardy shrub, holly is the sacred plant of Saturn, the Roman god of agriculture, who was celebrated around Winter Solstice time. As Christianity took over, the use of holly as decoration was adopted from the older festival.

Ivy – A climbing (and potentially invasive if left uncontrolled) evergreen, ivy was used initially by pagans to decorate their homes in winter due to its rich green tones that brim full of life. Due to its ability to latch on to almost anything, it often represents faithfulness, friendship and loving relationships. It was apparently banned by the church at one point though because of its shade loving nature, which gave it associations with shady (no pun intended) or inappropriate behaviour.

Mistletoe – Partly a parasitic plant, as it takes nutrients from whatever it’s growing on. Apparently, druids believed it to bring luck and ward off evil spirits if hung around the home, and in Norse mythology, it is a symbol of love and friendship. In more modern times, having mistletoe around at Christmas comes from the idea of bringing something living into the home at a time when most plants die down. As mistletoe produces berries in winter, and those berries contain seeds that in turn become new plants, kissing underneath it became a sort of good luck act for couples wanting to have children.

Norway Spruce – Native to Northern Europe, it’s one of the most popular trees grown for Christmas. However, its popularity in the UK is fairly recent (compared to some other trees that are often used), and came about because of Prince Albert, who introduced the German tradition of decorating them with candles. As thanks for aid given to Norway during WW2, the Norwegian capital, Oslo, gifts large specimen trees to the cities of Edinburgh, London and Washington DC each Christmas, where they are displayed in each city’s largest square.

Poinsettia – Native to central America, poinsettias are actually a type of shrub, and their signature red ‘flowers’ are in fact leaves that change colour in response to lower light conditions. The real flower is tiny and clustered in the centre of the red leaves. These plants are associated with Christmas because of an old Mexican legend about a poor girl who had no gift to present to baby Jesus, so she gathered a bouquet of weeds instead, which then turned into bright red flowers. (Fun fact: you can keep poinsettias going long after the festive period as a year round houseplant, though you need to trim off the top bracts first as the flowering stems often die down once they’re spent. Once this is done, the growth reverts to the plant’s usual deep, lush green. It is possible to get them to change colour again, but it takes some investment. I’ve left mine green, and I think it’s just as lovely that way, and it’s gone woody too, so reminds me of a mini tree.)

Orange – Now quite affordable, oranges were once luxury fruits, and one of the stories as to why they’re traditionally put in Christmas stockings is down to a tale about old Saint Nicholas himself. It says that one day, Saint Nick, who was a somewhat wealthy and generous bishop, heard of a widower with three daughters struggling to make ends meet. So Nick snuck into their house and left gold coins in stockings left to dry by the fire, meaning that the girls had dowry money and could get married. Due to their initial rarity, oranges were used to represent the gold coins.

Rosemary – This perennial herb is used for so any things that it’d take a long time to list them all, but I’m sure most of you know it as a seasoning. It’s also long been used in winter decorating, and is now grown in shrub form as a small, potted Christmas tree. Historically, Roman priests used it as incense, and in other cultures, it was said to ward off evil spirits. It was also sometimes burned in the homes of people who had died from illness, as well as being placed on coffins before the graves were filled in.

Pear – Why was the partridge in a pear tree? (Or in any tree, for that matter, as they usually nest on the ground.) Well, I couldn’t find the answer, but pear trees, particularly wild pears, are said to represent good health and future happiness. Their fruit has also long been associated with the female form due to its curvy nature, so is often used in art and symbolism to represent femininity and fruitfulness.

Mint – This humble plant is used in a variety of foods during Christmas, from mint sauce to candy canes, and has many older uses, too – like being used to treat upset stomachs and being scattered around the home as a deodoriser. As it grows fast and spreads everywhere if you’re not careful, it’s very easy to get hold of. (It also grows well indoors too, though it can attract aphids.) Mint gets its name from Greek mythology, in which a nymph named Minthe tried to seek the attention of Hades, but Persephone grew jealous and turned her into a plant.

Brussels Sprouts – These small balls of green are often present at Christmas dinners, and seem to be the object of extreme distaste, particularly with younger family members. It’s also interesting that there’s not much in the way of records as to when or why sprouts were introduced into Christmas festivities, though food historians suspect the Victorians had something to do with it. The general thought appears to be that they’re easily grown during wintertime and produce good crops, therefore making them readily available during the season. (My personal thought on sprouts is that they’re edible as long as they’re covered in gravy and cranberry sauce. But they’re not my favourite vegetable by a long shot.)

Sage – Often used alongside onion as stuffing for the Christmas roast, sage is a very aromatic herb with interesting blue/purple flowers. Long before its use as a seasoning, it was grown for its medicinal properties, and indeed, its name comes from the Latin word ‘salvare’, meaning to heal or save. It has been used all over the world to treat a variety of ailments, and to protect against spells. (It’s also quite easy to grow, too!)

Cranberry – Commonly used as a condiment for Christmas dinner and also a popular winter fragrance, the wild cranberry is native to America, and was a popular source of food, drink and medicine for many Native Americans. However, the cranberry vine wasn’t commercially grown until the early 1800s, though once it was, its popularity steadily grew, and in 1940, its use as a sauce/jelly was born.  

So, there you are, 12 plants of Christmas. If you’d like to know what research sources I used for anything in particular or want further reading, just let me know in the comments. (I was going to leave a list of links here, but WordPress decided to auto-embed them and it messed up the rest of the post.)

Wild Ivy (Hedera Helix)

Reviews, Uncategorized

Non-fiction book review: Living on the Spectrum: Autism and Youth in Community by Elizabeth Fein

At the beginning of last month, I received an email from Elizabeth asking if I wanted a review copy of her book. She stated that there were some sections in it which looked at the connections between autism and fantasy literature, and thought I might find it interesting. (If you’re new here, hi, I’m autistic and write fantasy books.)[Also, please excuse the bird images, WordPress is being odd and not allowing me to use paragraphs, so I decided to cheat and break up the text this way.]
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Elizabeth Fein is Assistant Professor of Psychology at Duquesne University and a licensed psychologist in the state of Pennsylvania (as stated in her bio on the book’s back cover), and so actively works in the field. At first I was unsure of whether to take up her offer, not only because I find academic texts extremely hard to read, but also because I was afraid that the book would take a very medical approach to autism and possibly speak positively of a cure. However, after re-reading her pitch a few times, I decided that her approach sounded a lot more considerate of autistic people as actual people, rather than patients with something solely negative that needs to be removed.
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Here is the pitch she sent:
The book combines approaches from psychology and anthropology to look at how youth diagnosed with autism spectrum conditions reconcile controversies around autism as a disease vs. autism as an identity.  I spent several years doing research in places where people on the spectrum come together to work, play, live, love and learn. The book describes how youth on the spectrum are looking beyond medicine for narratives that make sense of their lives, re-telling their own stories through a shared mythology drawn from roleplaying games, anime, and other forms of speculative fiction.
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(The book delves into these things solely within America, as that’s where Elizabeth is based, and only briefly mentions other countries. It also mostly focuses on teenagers and young adults diagnosed with Asperger’s Syndrome.)
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The book starts with a very comprehensive introduction, which outlines how her research was carried out (lots and lots of field work, much of which was talking to autistic individuals and the people who work with them), where her personal interest in autism started (I found this part extremely heart-warming) and also a bit about the history of autism as a diagnosable condition – she mentions both Leo Kanner (who noted what is still sometimes called ‘classic’ autism; meaning individuals with high care needs who may be non-verbal) and Hans Asperger (who looked more at individuals who are often highly verbal and excel in topics they’re interested). She also mentions the controversy around Hans Asperger (which is highly Google-able), and notes how terminology around autism has changed over the years, and presently all variants of autism are diagnosed under one umbrella term of Autism Spectrum Condition/Disorder (some places prefer to say ‘condition’, others use ‘disorder’). When I was diagnosed early last year, it was under this umbrella term, though the psychologist I spoke to said the way my traits manifest are closest to what was previously called Asperger’s Syndrome.
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Elizabeth also notes that she uses both autistic person and person with autism to refer to individuals on the spectrum throughout the book, taking particular care to use the version the person she’s interviewing prefers. (Many people, like myself, prefer to say they’re autistic, however, there are some who like to say they have autism.) I actually liked this, as despite my own preference, I felt she was trying to be as inclusive as possible. Other notes she includes are that everyone interviewed has been given a different name in the book to protect their identity, and that as her research was done over a number of years, the way the participants referred to themselves in terms of gender may also have changed. There are many others, which all helped to put me at ease with the prospect of the topics the book talks about.
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Now, onto the main parts of the book:
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The first chapter looks at the idea of structured socialising, in this case through a live-action role-play camp specifically for autistic kids, and how having that structure can put people more at ease in social situations. Basically, the kids were given the ‘rules’ of the particular fantasy world and their characters, and interacted with those in mind. For me, the idea that having more structure makes socialising easier seemed kind of obvious, but then, as that’s how my brain responds best, I suppose it would. I also really enjoyed the journal/diary based style that parts of this chapter were written in – Elizabeth attended this camp and took a very active part in it.
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The book then moves on to looking at how autistic kids navigate school and followed a number of individuals and schools themselves. This section was particularly interesting for me, as because I was diagnosed as an adult, I attended mainstream schools without any assistance (I ‘coped’ by taking a lot of work home and getting my family to help), whereas theses kids were already diagnosed and trying to access the services they needed, which were often limited and difficult to get.  The difficulties in accessing suitable support for autistic people were highlighted strongly, which I appreciate. This isn’t often talked about.
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Following chapters talk about the different concepts of what autism is and whether the two main views of it can co-exist, and how individuals on the spectrum feel about them. One of the chapters is called ‘The Pathogen and the Package’. The pathogen part referring to the view that autism is a negative thing akin to a disease that is stopping someone from being the person they ought to be; whereas the package looks at autism as a different way of being that has positives and negatives, and that the idea of removing it (or curing) would change a person’s very being.
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This was the part that I was the most concerned about reading, and parts of it made me angry – not what Elizabeth herself was saying, as she deliberately maintained a very neutral discussion of the different views so as to fully explore them, but where she quoted speakers from talks she attended. She mentions the organisation Autism Speaks, fully explaining how it was formed and that one of the organisations that it’s made up of was previously called Cure Autism Now!. She notes how, because of the controversy of a cure, Autism Speaks removed finding a cure from their list of goals and also makes use of very careful language (which, as Elizabeth quoted so much of it, I interpreted as the organisation still being willing to spend money and resources on finding a cure while not directly saying that’s what they’re doing).
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There is a chapter where Elizabeth looks specifically at the idea of a cure and what people on the spectrum and their families think of the idea. This section was delightfully heavy in interviews with said people, and very much reflected the difference in opinion between autistic individuals and their family members. The trend seemed to be that the autistic people themselves viewed a cure as something that would stop them from being who they were, while their family members, who saw how much these kids struggled in the world, thought a cure may ease some of those struggles and thus might not be an inherently bad thing. Elizabeth speculated that this may also be because of the age difference and continuously evolving views on autism and neurodiversity as a whole. However, there were one or two autistic individuals who thought that maybe something like a cure would be useful, and I’m glad she included these too. 
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(My personal view is that my struggles are largely due to the fact that the world around me is not designed for people outside the norm; therefore, the problem is more with the environment rather than my brain. I’d hate not to have the insights and fascinations that come from being autistic. To my mind, non-autistic people miss a lot of things. Thus, I find the idea of a cure utterly repulsive.)
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The last chapter moves on again (or perhaps back) to looking at the use of fantasy in how autistic kids see themselves and their position in society. Again, this chapter made excellent use of interviews and quotes, and I identified with a lot of it. Many of the examples were of characters kids had made up based around their own behaviours. There were a lot of half-demon, half-human concepts, which I suppose reflect the things we struggle with and often feel we have to hold back versus the things we’re good at.
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Elizabeth ends with a conclusion, which summed up, says that autistic people should be allowed to carve out their own space in society and that perhaps current medical views and interventions might not be as effective as others involving more active settings (like role playing or going about town in a group to explore and learn how to do/interact with different people and things – something that I feel would have benefited me greatly, and probably still would).
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So, as you might notice by how long this post is, there’s an awful lot to consider about this book. As I mentioned at the beginning, I’m not very good at interpreting and understanding academic texts, and some of the sections were very heavy with that kind of writing, so my take on this book may well be very different to that of someone who is actually able to take in all of that rather than getting the general ‘gist’ of things. However, though I found parts difficult to get through or follow, the more narrative parts and interviews were very fun and fascinating to read. I think Elizabeth’s research was conducted in a very careful, considerate way with full respect for everyone involved (this is also confirmed at the end of her acknowledgements).
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Though I was worried about the segments surrounding ideas of autism as a disease and whether it needs a cure, the very fact that she was so thorough in every part of the discussion (everyone was given space for their voice to be heard) left me with little doubt that she is very much a person who cares about autistic people being allowed to be their own selves (and make their own choices). My one peeve about the book is that few individuals with more drastic care needs were included, however, the reasoning for this is clearly explained in the introduction, so I can’t complain too much. Still, it would have been nice to hear from individuals from all areas of the spectrum. I appreciated the voices from autistic adults as well as young people, though, as I feel that autistic adults are often forgotten about.
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I very much appreciate and respect the level of work that has gone into this book, and I’m more than grateful that she reached out to me about it. If you can happily read academic books or are open to the challenge, I would easily recommend this one. I hope it gets read and shared by as many people who work in the medical field as possible, plus many more (perhaps it should be a library staple).
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The book is published by New York University Press (www.nyupress.org), and I believe Amazon has it too.
Elizabeth book cover
Poetry

Mandrake

On the surface it holds up clumps of happy green,

and underneath the ground

the roots curl up snug, content and safe from everything.

 

Yet soon people come with spades and forks

to disturb its peaceful slumber

and dig it up without any thought.

 

So the mandrake bawls

when all the soil is brushed away from its face,

wondering why it couldn’t be left alone

for the rest of its days.

 

But the people have heard its bulbous roots

are more than what they seem,

and seek to use it as an ingredient

for all the medicines that they need.

 

So many little mandrakes

have suffered the same fate

that now they have learnt to vanish

from gardens and allotments without a trace.

Poetry

Daisy chain

Our link between worlds –

You, standing on a plinth of long grass,

looking across the clouds

to watch them take breath. Wild

flowers root at your feet.

Me, voice on the wind

ready to wake your ears

from the ballad infecting

your past. Fleeting,

barely a strand of thought

connects us, gone the instant it arrives.