#52weeksofnaturepoetry, Poetry

#52weeksofnaturepoetry Week 16 – Jelly Ears

Jelly-like ears cluster on trees,

livening up dying lower branches.

The latest fashion, you might think.

Beech, sycamore, ash – they all wear them,

but elder sports the most.

Legend has it

that for elder, the ears represent Judas’s tormented soul.

But perhaps the hardwood simply delights

in listening to the varied sounds of its woodland home

and so wished to collect more of them;

those reddish-brown kidney beans,

with their translucent undersides wrinkled into veins,

clinging to bark like folded ribbon.

Ruffle-tastic.

When the frosts arrive, they freeze solid,

becoming sugared sweeties in an elaborate window display.

Then, as they thaw, their cells jump into action

and off they go:

growing, growing, as if the pause button

had never been hit.

This poem is part of my #52weeksofnaturepoetry project to raise money for the RSPB . To find out more about the project and how to donate, please visit my Just Giving page here.

Sharing is also much appreciated, as I’m trying to raise as much awareness of our local wildlife as possible. The more people who appreciate nature, the more likely it can be successfully protected.

#52weeksofnaturepoetry, Poetry

#52weeksofnaturepoetry Week 9 – Says Hedera Helix

I cover the ground,

I cover the trees,

I snake up walls

and trail down my leaves.

When the year turns, I flower

and produce succulent berries

that hungry animals feast on

until they’re full and merry.

You’ll often find me

in the shadiest of places,

and for this I was once banned

from a range of holy spaces.

They associated me with

the untrustworthy and thieves,

refused to comprehend my emerald lustre

and took me down from the eaves.

But a mighty comeback I have made –

indeed, I’m even celebrated in song!

And regularly pepper festive décor,

remaining bright long after the season is gone.

For my roots, they are many,

and their determination always goes uncontested.

Thus, my previous worth has been reinstated and I symbolise

fidelity, endurance, and everlasting friendship.

This poem is part of a project I’m doing to raise money for the RSPB, a UK wildlife conservation and protection charity. Being autistic, nature is often my only place of solace, and I want to do all I can to protect it. As I’m not very comfortable around other people, most of the standard ways of helping out (volunteering, sport-style fundraisers etc) were not a good fit for me, so I came up with #52weeksofnaturepoetry, where I have to post a nature poem here on this blog each week for an entire year without fail.

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!

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: Diary of a Young Naturalist by Dara McAnulty

A few weeks ago, my nan told me about a book written by an autistic teenager that recently won the Wainwright Prize (which is a UK award focusing on books about nature) and offered to buy me a copy. Naturally, having a great love of nature myself and also wanting to read more autistic voices, I said I’d love to read it. (Though, amusingly, the book is yellow, which is the one colour that is absolute sensory hell for me – an easy fix though, as I simply turned the dust cover inside out.)

The book is written in journal format and is compiled into sections based on the four seasons. It’s difficult to fully articulate my feelings on it, but I’ll try. (A warning, though: this is likely to be a long and rambling post detailing some of my own life experiences rather than just focusing on the book. I promise it will be relevant, though!)

Firstly, Dara’s writing is very evocative and poetic – I had serious writer envy on this one. He seems to have the ability to place you exactly in the situation he’s describing; every detail fed to you as if your own senses were picking it up. At least, that’s how it was for me – maybe it’s because the way my senses work are very similar to his, but judging by the amount of praise this book has had, I doubt it’s just that. This did, however, present something of a problem in that it was sometimes too much for me to handle. My head would be reeling after reading a section just like it does when I’m experiencing sensory overload. I was also a little intimidated at the beginning by the sheer knowledge he has; every species and sub-species mentioned is identified, which meant a lot of names to get my head around. I did get used to it once I got past the first quarter, but it took some time. But nature has been central to his entire life, so it makes sense that his knowledge is so vast.

Secondly, his passion leaks from every word, and while noting the intricacies and completely fascinating things, he also goes into detail about the very real threats to the world (I would say the natural world, but we are part of nature rather than separate from it): climate change, deforestation, hunting, pollution, just to name a few. Now, as mentioned above, nature is one of my loves too, and I’m very passionate about protecting it. But over the years, the apathy and unkindness of others has beaten down my willingness to express why it’s important to me. I used to share all the petitions I sign on my social media pages, but now only share a handful, and in 2013, I tried fundraising for a charity (Cool Earth – check them out if you can) by getting tattooed in the armpit, only to have very little response. Realising that I’d pretty much silenced myself without even knowing came as quite a shock. And I felt like I’d let myself and the environment down, that I wasn’t doing enough.

But I kept reading, and as Dara also documents his mental health, having experienced intense bullying at school because of his interests, I came to understand that the key to why I stopped was because my own mental health wasn’t good enough to handle such negativity. That, and I get so overwhelmed about how much of a crisis the world is in that I feel like I might be crushed by it.

However, I also came to realise that though I haven’t been as vocal as I would like, I’ve still continued doing things to try and bring about the changes I’d love to see. I still sign petitions, and when my finances allow, I donate to relevant charities. I also sneak bits into my books to generate awareness, like including several stories focusing on endangered animals and deforestation in my short story collection, When the Bard Came Visiting, and having characters interact with nature in quite profound ways. So, while I might have too much anxiety to go to a climate march (not that that would be a good idea during the current pandemic), or experience too much overwhelm to constantly share facts about how much the rainforests have been cut down or the oceans have been polluted by plastic and oil spills, I can continue to do the little things within my area of expertise. And if I spark even one person’s passion for the environment, then it’ll be worth it.

Now, back to the actual book.

Dara’s ability to reflect on his experiences is really what makes this book come together, and though at first it seems quite simple, it covers an awful lot of ground. As I mentioned above, he talks about mental health and bullying, and how it’s often quite hard for autistic people to express themselves. I know from my own experiences how difficult it is – the ideas are there in my head but refuse to come out in any intelligible way. He also splashes in bits of Irish and world mythology here and there, which creates yet another layer to what he’s reflecting on. I really loved reading those parts.

In short (after taking far, far too much space going over the ‘long’), this book is a beautiful exploration of our world and being part of a minority within it, and despite the mental turmoil it caused within me, left me with an awful lot of hope, too.

If, as I would urge, you decide to pick up a copy, you can get it here. I would also encourage you to check out his blog and Youtube channel too.

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

Emerging from a fortnight-long hyperfocus on manuscript revisions.

My eye sockets are deeper than they were before,

I’m peering out from the backs of tunnels that are so long

it’s a wonder I can see at all.

The screen and its grey words (the font colour may state black,

but it’s never as black as the type on a printed page)

have attempted to stamp themselves into my pupils

for hours every day over the past two weeks.

I’ve seen them in my sleep, within a blink

and those frequent moments staring into space.

Think the code in the Matrix films, but horizontal –

only after intense study does it form a picture.

But I think I went beyond that

and started picking up the letters and rearranging their parts

while at the same time

they were rearranging me.

And now I’m awake again

attempting to shift back to my usual self.

It’ll probably take me a week to find all the misplaced parts.

Perhaps I put them in the teapot; seems as good a place as any to start.

Poetry

Cacti Nymph

She’s heard whispers of cousins who were born

from branches, from leaves

from soils full of treasured minerals.

The thought makes her climb down the spines to the molten sand,

dip in her hand

and bring a scoop of those yellow granules to her eyes,

wondering if they are bland

because they already used up their nutrients

forming her cactus mother,

or if there never were any

and she is either miracle or curse.

Poetry

Bellyache

The water cuts off suddenly; the spark died in an instant,

burnt out by the dragon’s unhurried burp.

He dams himself, lets it all build up around him

to cool the molten heat of his belly. Indigestion

from feasting on too many words of men,

paper crafted into delectable prey

that he swallowed too quickly, without taking

time to enjoy each morsel.

Poetry

They Come

The moon is out and with it come

the calls of the Wild Hunt. Do not

stand frightened if you see them. Gwyn ap Nudd

at their head will rally them away

unless you were to sneak into the rings only

those foolish enough not to believe in his forests

enter. I know you won’t, you wouldn’t

be so brazen as to think the roots,

the soil, the trees are for your own use

and pleasure. Listen, can you

hear them? They come.

Extracts/ Flash Fiction

A snippet of my WIP

Rae hazarded a look back down, but then wished she hadn’t. The dragon was following them as they’d planned, but it was only seconds away from snapping its jaws around Lady Olande’s rear legs. The dragon-woman made it back out onto the palace grounds, where her kin stood waiting, also transformed, just as the outer structure of the catacombs exploded from within, spraying rubble in every direction. In its place was the dragon, and as it saw how many people faced it, it licked its teeth hungrily.

The Drengin didn’t wait for it to attack; they made for the sky, joining the Ice sparrows still fighting the Fae soldiers. The dragon beat its wings twice in preparation, then flew up after them. Sure that it was following the main formation, Lady Olande discreetly changed direction and headed for the outskirts of the city, where the Grand Lubber would – if all had gone to plan – already be waiting with Silver, Gwind and Max.