Apr 13, 2017

The Kiss of Cottonwood & Amber: On Poplars

When the wild rose thorns catch your hair like a lover,
and the rain is but a mist that kisses your face,
and the cottonwood buds gift their aroma of honey and amber,
you will know that your heart is forever lost
to the forest and wetlands and overgrown places.


I've been running away. I have grown tired of waiting on spring, and so for the past couple weeks I have driven over to the next valley and kidnapped a friend who led me off-trail into a wetlands area where we got lost and felt our winter-weary spirits lift. The red willow was showing off its crimson bark. The wild roses were grabby and glorious, their bare, thorny limbs revealing little pockets of bird's nest treasure and strangely weathered strands of milkweed fluff that had caught there in some autumn wind and never escaped. We were watched by a mating pair of bald eagles and made eyes at them in turn until they grew shy and moved to a tree across the river. We picked up rocks and sticks, and then put them down again because we each have too many rocks and sticks in our collections.

Meandering our way through the floodplain, our fingers became sticky as we picked a few cottonwood buds here and there from each tree. We would stop from time to time, and take long breaths of the late winter air and swoon at the scent on our hands from the resin. The first time we went out wandering, a few weeks back, the snow was low on the hills and the buds were still closed tightly. Only a short time later the ice had melted from the river's edge and the buds were starting to burst open. (If you live in a climate where spring comes especially late, you may still find some buds to harvest, but time is running short.)


When the world is behaving badly, and your spirit is parched from a long, cold winter, and your green-soul knows that there is always something alive and speaking if you just pay attention, a walk in the wilds in early spring is the very best medicine. I have needed the outdoors so much this winter, so when the cottonwoods called, I answered.


In the interior of British Columbia, we use the terms "cottonwood" and "poplar" fairly interchangeably. Both cottonwood trees and balsam poplar can be identified as Populus balsamifera, though you will more often see black cottonwood specifically identified as Populus trichocarpa (and as you head east you run into variants such as plains cottonwood and eastern cottonwood, among others). The cause for the confusion is that the trees are nearly identical to each other and are known to hybridize where they meet in their environment. However, the sticky resin contained in the late winter buds is the same stuff-of-the-gods whether you stumble across black cottonwood, balsam poplar, or eastern cottonwood. Black cottonwood is sadly much maligned in my area due to the prolific downy seeds that fly through the air and coat our small town in whorls of white fibrous fluff.

If you listen carefully, cottonwood will whisper to you of thresholds and magic. A liminal being, it chooses to grow close to a water source, stabilizing the banks of rivers and offering shade.  It is prolific and grows swiftly, a benefit in our area where trees often fall to the beaver population along waterways. In my high valley desert (an unusual combination of rolling hills and mountains stuffed with pine and fir, and a valley floor dotted with lakes, with an arid region boasting desert sagebrush and bitterroot) it gets very dry from mid-May to mid-September, but cottonwoods are drought tolerant and laugh at the heat while their roots reach into the water table.



The resin found in poplar buds (sometimes called balm of Gilead) is a gummy, sweet-scented miracle. I usually infuse my harvest in oil and put it to use as a sore-muscle rub, or a chest rub when I have a cold. You can also add some local beeswax, and now you have a lovely balm you can employ for minor cuts (poplar is antibacterial as well as pain-relieving) or to pack around in your gym bag for a spot treatment for overworked muscles. I also cut a small amount of the poplar oil into my after-bath oil blend because it makes my skin smell like it has been blessed by some kind of heady temple incense. 

Magically, the honeyed resin has been used in healing and apotropaic work as well as in situations regarding love or reconciliation (likely owing to its sweet scent and sticky/binding qualities). There is also evidence that poplar was either added in kind with, or played host to, other psychotropic herbs in salves that would likely have been used as medicine, though would also have been considered 'witch's ointments.'

Possibly due to the goodly number of metamorphosis myths that the Greeks attributed to poplar, the tree whispers of shape-shifting and transformation, and the myths surrounding its connection to Hades (including his love(s) Leuce/Persephone) 
among others, hint at the tree's underworld connection. Poplar was also reputed to be one of the plants in the garden of Hectate. There are references, as well, to cottonwood being used in ceremonies for the dead within several First Nations tribes, and a rather fascinating belief of at least one tribe that the shade of the tree might host a spirit that could be willing to offer assistance if entreated respectfully.

Spend some time with the poplars in your region, if you can. Let them teach you about moisture and transformation while you watch the sticky buds burst open. Mind your allergies, but do delight in the snowy 'cotton' of the cottonwood seeds as they alight on the spring winds. Consider how these trees that stand at the mingling of land and water might offer insight into your own work surrounding balance, and the in-between places. Approach the shade of these great hardwoods with respect and perhaps you'll make an ally, or at the very least have a place to rest on a hot summer's day.


 *Please avoid using poplar if you have any aspirin allergies - like willow, the trees contain salicin which your body converts into salicylic acid.*

Of Interest:

Kiva Rose has a lovely post about cottonwood medicine here.

Gabby Allen writes her story of cottonwood here.

I've been gathering red willow (also called red osier dogwood) during the last month, and this post from Erin about the shrub is pure poetry.


Sources:
Greek myths - see Leuce, Hades
theoi.com
Hidatsa history and culture

Witchcraft Medicine - Claudia Müller-Ebeling, Christian Rätsch, Wolf-Dieter Storl Ph.D.

Jan 11, 2017

The Stirring

Fresh snow blanketed The Valley a few nights ago. It arrived late in the afternoon and flurried with such spirit, long into the next morning. It was almost invisible at first, but so quickly the feathery flakes multiplied and soon there was a good bit of weather happening beyond the warmth of my home. I never get tired of the sight of it. I long for spring, waiting impatiently for the first green to appear. I groan at the ocean of white beyond my window covering every field and hill, broken only by roads ploughed dutifully by the towns and districts. But when it falls... There is little that stirs my heart like falling snow.


I want to kiss when it snows. Long, deep kisses, with warm lips and tongues that taste like hot cocoa. I want arms around me, taking the place of the blankets that I drag around from room to room. I want to see candlelight flickering, its glow hunting shadows across the walls. I want good stories, low, murmuring music, and the sound of a snoring cat. I want my grandmother's shortbread melting in my mouth.

I'm fortunate to have some of those things. I'll manage without the rest somehow, while perusing a few of my favourite seed purveyors and contemplating how long it will take the snowplough to find my rural street. I have had a beast causing havoc with my lungs for the past week. It's left me weary and frustrated, but my daily application of a poultice has been a lifesaver, and I'm finally sleeping through the night without waking up in frantic fits of coughing. I take each day as it comes. Another mustard plaster. Another towel, warm from the dryer, slipped onto my chest when the mustard cloth comes off. Another cup of mullein tea.


Christmas tide a minute wide,
Twelfth tide a cock's stride,
Candlemas tide an hour wide.
(old saying that speaks to the increase of light after the solstice)

We've had a full ten minutes more daylight today than we did when the year turned over. That is no small miracle when you live in the thin portion of an hourglass-shaped valley that routinely gets socked in with low cloud. We greedily welcome every small measure of increase we can get, when it comes to light. I spent the twelve days following Christmas filling my journal with daily observances and insights. Some folks mark these days leading up to twelfth night or old Christmas (January 6th) as omen days for the coming year (and just to be particular, some folks start on old Christmas and count forward eleven days for what the next twelve months will bring). Each day might have a hint to give, as far as weather, health, or fortune. I found that I witnessed a large amount of wildlife this year. Hawks and eagles, a lynx, and several giant crows all crossed my path in late December and the first week of this month.

Now that all the modern and old holidays are tied up with bows and put away for another year and plough Monday has come and gone, marking a return to work, there is little to keep a distracted creature like myself from my daily duties and chores. I am a bear at heart, and am so content to hibernate in January (and much of February if truth be told) but this year I seem to be stirring - almost pacing in my eagerness to get out. The weather here in southern British Columbia has been bitter and the wind unceasing, and so there hasn't been much in the way of walks by the river or trips out to my fire bowl. We are at that strange still time of mid-January, post winter celebrations and yet not quite reaching the time for the observances of chasing away the cold season. Even the Wild Hunt, in some tellings of the tale, is said to have lost its ferocity after Twelfth Night (yet other tales speak of the Hunt riding racously into early February before it rests).


The times betwixt, when the division between the worlds of man and spirit loses what little solidity it may have , are in the West Country the 'wisht' or 'hood' times; moments bewitched or empowered.

~ Gemma Gary, The Black Toad: West Country Witchcraft and Magic

What is to be done in the betwixt time, when we are still in the dark, cold caress of winter's hands, yet the buds of the magnolia are fat and furry and the local vineyards are pruning in preparation for the waking of the grape? What do we do when we cannot rest as we might have once during wintertide, because the old guard has stepped down and the keys are about to be handed to those who are incapable of being good stewards? When what was hangs so precariously, like the last ice-bitten apple on the tree. What then?

We make magic. We call back the Old Ones - the ones that never left this land. We ride with The Hunt or form our own band of misfits, and we make beautiful trouble. If you can stand and fight, you do that. If you can heal or protect, then you do that. If you can curse...you know where I'm going with this. My work may be quieter than yours, but it is happening. I've picked up my feather robe again (I've been haunted of late by dreams of people in flight like wild swans) for there is work to be done in the air as well as on the ground.

Stir. Wake. Make magic. The Wolf Moon of January is here. The light creeps in. The earth is not dead, nor is her slumber as deep as it was yesterday. Find reasons to celebrate, because even in the time of ice and cold and darkness and in the face of an incoming tyrant, we live. Gather your forces. Your ancestors. Your spirits. Doreen Valiente said "Once a person has had even one of these experiences of contacting the forces behind the world of form he or she is no longer in mental bondage to that world." Shake free of your bonds.

I want to sit in front of a window and watch the snow fall, and kiss. I want to sleep. I want to wake and find the world as exquisite as it was on my very best days. It's okay to want those things. It's just fine to take a breath. To ask for someone to hold you for a moment. But then we get up. We move. We howl and keen, and call down the stars or call up the dead, or do whatever we need to, to make sure there is a world to awaken to in the spring.

We aren't just here to turn the wheel, and to be polite placeholders for the seasons. We are here to stir the pot. Paint grease on our broomsticks and fly. Cause mischief. I intend to resist. Stir. Create. Burn. 

I'll meet you at the fire.





Witch Notes ~ bits of this and that:

~ My friend's mother introduced me to a mustard plaster/poultice. Mix dry mustard with the smallest bit of water until you form a paste. Spread on a clean rag (you won't be keeping this cloth) and place over your chest, being sure not to let the mustard seep through onto your skin (it will burn, baby). Leave on for ten minutes or more if you can handle the smell and tingling, and then remove and replace with a nice hot towel from the dryer (or hot water bottle). It's a lovely, stimulating treatment for heavy lungs. Kiva Rose also recommends an onion poultice which I've used a few times and found quite nice (perhaps give your spouse a head's up if you are going to slather yourself in onions - just to be fair).


~ A 'cock's stride' or 'cockstride' is said to be a small measure, primarily one of distance or length (in regards to time). Interestingly, there is a good bit of lore that speaks of how ghosts who were banished or 'laid down' by a priest might be allowed to return to their home by a cockstride a year (generally after first performing some almost-unending task - you can imagine how long it might take a waylaid ghost to return to its preferred haunt at that rate). Folklorist Mark Norman speaks more of those tales here

~ Briana Saussy speaks of omen days here.


~ There are many stories and cross-cultural takes on the Wild Hunt. I rather enjoy the book Phantom Armies of the Night: The Wild Hunt and the Ghostly Processions of the Undead, by Claude Lecouteux. Another fair source is The Esoteric Codex: German Folklore by Delbert Geitzen (chapter 59, specifically).

~ Do check out a mid-winter festival near you. There are many ice festivals, winter sports-themed celebrations, and assorted pre-lenten revelries to take part in.


Sources:

A Dictionary of English Folklore, Jacqueline Simpson, Stephen Roud (see: cocks)

The New England Farmer, Volume 2, Thomas Greene Fessenden, pg 271
Ozark Superstitions, Vance Randolph, Chapter 2 - Weather Signs
Where Witchcraft Lives, Doreen Valiente, pg 89