Thursday, 22 July 2010


I recently had an encounter with the plant meadowsweet.  I was on a course, camping, and my friend Anna Richardson suggested a tea of meadowsweet for the headache and aching joints Grace and I were experiencing, instead of the paracetamol we would normally have turned to. She handed me a sprig she’d picked earlier and we immersed it in boiling water. The taste and smell were amazing – a sense of hay and almond, a light dusty fragrance, full of sunshine. And that night, in the dark, my dreams and even my pee  smelled of meadowsweet. At the end of the course Grace and I made a pact to make our own herb teas this year rather than buying them.

Meadowsweet, with its frothy, creamy heads, is abundant in the ditches and meadow margins at the moment, and I went out to gather some on a hot afternoon this week on the back lanes. It’s drying on my kitchen table, now, filling the room with its presence. I rang my friend Haskel Adamson, the herbalist, for guidance about what to do next.

‘Now is a perfect time to be collecting herbs’, he said, ‘because the intense heat brings out the essential oils. I went on a walk last night,’ Haskel continued, ‘and I saw yarrow, agrimony, mugwort, St Johns Wort, self-heal and tansy, which all make good herb teas. And in the meadows I saw meadowsweet, vervain and walnut leaves.’

Plants from the garden include sage, lavender, thyme, and rosemary, which are good to dry now before the oils diminish in the winter time. It’s a perfect time to pick lemon balm, before it goes to flower, and it might then grow again before the winter. You can also pick and dry flowers for herb teas, such as marigold and borage.

To dry the herbs, says Haskel, either hang them up out of direct sunlight in a warm, airy place, such as your kitchen, or for smaller flowers, dry them on a rack or muslin in a similar condition then store in paper or fabric bags in a dark place for up to a year. It’s also a perfect time to make St Johns Wort Oil. Fill a jam jar with the flowers, cover with olive oil and leave in a sunny window for a month until the oil turns red. Remove the flowers and store in a dark place, using the oil for wound healing and aching muscles.

Of course, make sure you know what you are picking and don’t over-exploit them (the Wildlife and Countryside Act makes picking all wildflowers illegal). Pick only a small proportion of the plant, and check that there are plenty of other plants left.

For me, the experience of gathering and drinking herb tisanes involves a good deal of reverence and gratitude; isn’t it amazing how the plant nations all around us are there for our nourishment, healing and delight? Some might even say that we can learn directly from plants in much deeper ways. It seems to me that this re-connection with the plant world is pretty much essential for us to make the transition, to become healed and viable as a human race. Thank you, meadowsweet.  

Anna Richardson and Anne Lynn are running a plant journeying day on Saturday 31 July in a local woodland to learn how to deepen our relationships with plants 01273 858154

Haskel Adamson is available for herb consultation and remedies, and personal herb walks 07842192614. Picture from Wikimedia.

Thursday, 15 July 2010


As the summer reaches its peak, I’m immersing myself in nature whenever possible, and this year I’m particularly enjoying being naked wherever I can. There’s something about being bare that brings out the playful rebel in me. And I’m fascinated by what it brings up in all of us. When inviting my friends to the recent Pells Skinny Dip, the responses included What Fun! How Disgusting! How Embarrassing! and What’s the Point? To some extent, I agree with the latter perspective, the skinny dip being late in the day, most of us rather chilly and the setting rather un-natural. But I went there because I could.

My pleasure in nakedness has certainly increased with age. When I was younger there was always the real fear of being leered at by the male predator types. Now there is no chance of that, particularly since I now only have one breast, and that freedom from fear of being pounced on is liberating. When I had the operation last year I was grieving never being able to skinny dip again, but a friend pointed out that that was a ridiculous thought. Many women have lost a breast to cancer, and being relaxed about it would do us all a service. In some ways, being seen and accepted, scar and all, has been part of my healing journey and I wonder whether it’s not just being naked but being seen naked that is healing for others too.

I’m finding my favourite place to be naked is in deep nature, especially, this summer, in rivers. I’ve swum in the chocolate brown waters of the River Dart, under the cool, mossy oaks. I’ve dived into the muddy waters of the Ouse at the turning of the tide. And last week I swam at dawn every day in a Gloucestershire river that meandered through fields and woods. Feeling the smooth flow of cool water, standing in the hot sunshine with a gentle breeze, lying in the soft grass, unclothed, is, to me, a hugely sensory experience, one that’s available to anyone of any age or body shape. Being naked in wild places can be deeply empowering: at times I start to vibrate as I feel the earth’s energy flowing through me. At the same time, it can remind me of my vulnerability, as though, as we strip off clothes we strip off the layers of pretense and protection with which we clad ourselves in the ‘civilised’ world.

My friend Philip Carr-Gomm, a Lewes resident, writes about all this in his lovely, illustrated, new book A Brief History of Nakedness,
‘Awareness of ourselves as embodied creatures lies at the heart of our sense of self, which explains why so much money and effort is spent on trying to change and cover our bodies, since the way we perceive them and our appearance radically affects our experience of ourselves and of the world.’