I don’t know how she got here or where she came from but there she is, seven feet tall and standing in the potato patch and now I can’t imagine the garden without her. How often have I wandered away from other tasks to stand in her shade? Bindweed is climbing the onions, there are butterflies cavorting among the broccoli, I should probably have a barbecue and renew contact with my neighbours - but look at her. I stroke the silvery down on her leaves, soft as mouse fur, I rub her flower buds between my palms and breathe their forthright perfume and dream of the dune-side of the hedge, shipibo tapestries, the eyes of honey bees and that moment when the first big drought breaking drops of rain splash onto dusty, hot tarmac. The otherwise wonderful reference book, Flora Brittanica, says she can grow up to four feet tall. Wrong. This mugwort is surely going to double that. I secretly feed her comfrey tea and yarrow beer when no-one is looking. Weeds? No such thing. I’ve been studying the biodynamic methods of agriculture developed by the bracingly practical clairvoyant perceptions of the anthroposophist Rudolf Steiner. Every plant is an emissary, he says. I’ve begun to consider burying an ox horn among her roots…after all, aren’t bats the night-thoughts of the spiralling cosmos?
But mugwort seems to inspire superstitions, if superstitions are what they are. Of course I try to keep my mind open. But not so open that absolutely any old bats can get in. (Perhaps this is a tricky balance to strike in these times of fear and fantasy). Here in Wales it was the custom to hang sprays of mugwort over the entrances to houses on St. John’s Eve, June the 23rd, to protect the dwellers from evil. Throughout Europe, the plant is associated with midsummer - the strength of the sun - and the banishing of bad spirits. There’s a curious consensus that mugwort protects the traveller from tiredness, wild animals and sunstroke. An old Scottish story records the words of a mermaid, a selkie, a seal-woman, who observing the funeral of a girl who died of consumption, sang out this verse as she swam through the bay:
If they wad drink nettles in March,
And eat muggons (mugwort) in May,
Sae mony braw maidens
Wadna gang to the clay.
Her botanical name is Artemis vulgaris, Artemis after the virginal Greek Goddess of the wild and of childbirth. I realise I must be careful. In the ancient story, Actaeon, a young hunter, glimpses the naked Artemis as she is bathing in a lake. There are differnt versions of what happened next, but most agree that Actaeon was punished by being transformed into a stag - while retaining his human mind - and was hunted to exhaustion by his own hounds, and killed.
Modern day explorers and dabblers, rescuers of old recipes, druids and witches, suggest that smoking the leaves can alter the perceptions and induce lucid dreaming. I give it a try. I pick some leaves and dry them on a plate in the noon heat. Later, as the sun is setting, I crumble some into my pipe and take a few tentative puffs. A pleasant taste of bitter sage and maybe thyme, but nothing much happens. It’s unlikely that mugwort will be outlawed any time soon. But who knows how these things work? Because that night I do indeed have a dream…
I’m standing in my kitchen, struggling to open the fridge. I’m not strong enough, but I tug and heave and finally it bursts open and huge bales and bushels of mugwort leaf pour out and unfold themselves, covering the floor and now the door is open I can’t shut it and the leaves are pouring out. I open a cupboard and the same thing happens, mugwort leaves pouring everywhere, a torrent filling the kitchen up to my waist so I’m wading in leaves and some of them are popping like gorse pods and turning into mice - mugwort popcorn - and the mice are scampering everywhere and everything I touch turns into mugwort and pops and turns into mice and I’m drowning and I need to get out of here and then I notice her. Sitting calmly at the kitchen table. A seven foot tall woman with skin the colour of a sand lizard and a smile like foxes finding the hen coop and ‘Yes’ I try to say to her, ‘ok, yes, the world belongs to you now, yes….’ But my tongue was a mugwort leaf and my lungs were full of pollen as fine as the dust on a moth’s wings.
But now I’m awake. A world that belongs to plants? Aren’t humans the global superpower? But I think about it as I make a bowl of coffee. Professor Richard Doyle suggests in his dizzyingly strange recent study Darwin’s Pharmacy that the Bush government in the United States effectively ceded control to the plant kingdom when they decided on a strategy of adaptation to the realities of climate change, rather than attempting to halt or reverse it. And what the plants decide, in this scenario, if we can think in terms of agency - the world as “Gaia,” a self-regulating super organism - what they decide, we have to try to live with.
Madness or real politik? I think of that old saw: the universe is not only stranger than we suppose. It is stranger than we can suppose. If that’s true, then rationalism is narcissism. So I stir my pot of comfrey tea and brew my yarrow ale. Yes, I try to take good care of my unexpected visitor.
First published Fri, July 25, 2014
Kenfig Journal by Kristian Evans
Kristian Evans is an artist and writer from Bridgend interested in ecology and the ways we think about and interact with the “other-than-human” world. He has lived in Kenfig for five years. His performance installation “The Mirror’s Grain,” written with Tracy Evans, was launched at the Kenfig National Nature Reserve Centre in May 2010, as part of the “Mouth to Mouth” series of events organised by Arts for the Earth. The Kenfig Journal will appear here regularly.
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