Discover the natural magic of the British countryside and apply its
lessons to your life, wherever you roam.
Hedge-hopping and hedge sparrows
“What is the best way to introduce young children and teens to the ‘witch world’ without too much emphasis on the magic/ritual side of things?”
Many years ago, my friend and I passed those long, hot summer days of childhood roaming the surrounding fields and hedgerows. Then, we could disappear for hours, discovering the treasures of the season and enjoying the closeness of a silent companionship. Some sixty years and hundreds of miles apart, we still share those memories of knowing where to find the first flowerings, and close encounters with birds and animals of the hedge bank. “Do you remember …” frequently crops up in letters and telephone conversations to recall to mind some indelible memory of a bank of spring celandines; the glimpse of a hunting stoat snaking through the undergrowth near the ruined barn; Easter violets; the chatter of nesting hedge sparrows, or more correctly ‘dunnock’, who often play foster parents to the cunning cuckoo.
Hedgerows were a prominent and distinctive feature of the landscape when I was a child, and the oldest were probably remnants of the continuous woodland that once covered most of the land. As villagers and landowners cleared the forest for agriculture, they would leave the last few feet of forest standing to mark the outer boundaries of their land. A traditional witchlet instinctively knows that these boundaries have a special magical significance, especially at dawn or dusk when we encountered a tawny owl hunting along the hedge in the twilight – or ‘owl light’ as we called it.
Some of our most ancient hedges are the remnants of such boundaries, perhaps even now still marking parish borders. Hedges were also formed to enclose patches of land to contain livestock. This would have been done close to a farm or village, and in many places, these small irregular enclosures can still be recognised by witches of today, as indications of old field patterns and ancient hedgerow. The majority, however, were planted in the 18th and 19th centuries to enclose patches of land in order to establish ownership. Nevertheless, the older the hedge, the more we feel we are walking in our ancestors’ footsteps as we search for magical and medicinal ingredients. Probably the leaves of the hawthorn are the first wild vegetable country children learned to eat: widely known as ‘bread and cheese’ the young leaves have a pleasant nutty taste and we used to add them to our picnic sandwiches.
For both countrywomen and witches the hedge was extremely important. A veritable treasure house: a source of food, drink, medicine, shelter, fuel and dyes, while numerous superstitions arose around many hedgerow plants. The special plant community that makes up a mature hedgerow also offers a wider range of food for animals and birds than most deciduous woodland, making the hedge a very attractive habitat in winter. After feasting on the autumn harvest of elder and blackberries, birds turn to rosehips and haws, then sloes, and finally to ivy berries and this is where we become familiar with our totem animal or bird in its natural habitat. Here we often encountered a basking grass snake, or better still a shed skin that could be made into a witch’s garter.
The Romans introduced a large number of herbs to Britain, valuing them for their supposed supernatural powers, as well as culinary and medicinal uses … and many of these plants now grow profusely in the wild. By the Middle Ages, the use of herbs for magical purposes was commonplace, and every village had its own witch or cunning-woman. A medieval witch was an expert in the identification of wild herbs, and from the countryside surrounding her home she would gather the appropriate plants for scenting linen, flavouring sauces … or procuring an abortion. Herbs were so important in daily life that when people moved around the country, they took with them the plants and the superstitions surrounding them.
Dr Harold Selcon reminds us in The Physicians of Myddfai, that by the end of the 14th century a different class of medical herbalist was developing — the apothecaries — who purchased herbs collected from the countryside by wandering professional herb collectors, known as the ‘green men and women’. This occupation was a traditional one with a long history, and during the reign of Elizabeth I the ‘Wild Herb Act’ was passed, giving the ‘green-men’ the right to gather herbs and roots in wild uncultivated land. Nevertheless, prior to, and during the First and Second World Wars, Britain grew large quantities of its own medicinal herbs; while a significant quantity of wild herbs were gathered for commercial use. The ‘wild herb men’ finally went out of business in the early 1960s, although in December 1972, the East Anglian Magazine featured an article on one of the last men to gather wild plants for a living.
In fact, the use of common native plants in everyday home medicine is now almost obsolete, largely because it was mainly a DIY collection of first aid remedies, often passed on orally, rather than a written record. Although the growing pagan community has resulted in a resurgence of interest in these natural remedies, those who were fortunate in learning the language of the fields and hedgerows at an early age retain these early lessons in order to give a greater understanding of witchcraft in later life.
Traditional Witchcraft for Fields and Hedgerows by Melusine Draco is published by Moon Books ISBN: 978-1-84694-801-5 : UK£9.99/US$16.95
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