Witch School


I’ve been slowly savoring The Living Mountain  by Nan Shepherd .  Ms. Shepard wrote about her experiences as a “hill walker” in the Scottish Cairngorms.   In one chapter, she writes about the plant life found on the mountains.  I want to quote her at some length because I think she shows what it can mean to be in touch with your landbase.

Plants then, as they go through the business of living, emit odors.  Some, like the honey scents of flowers, are an added allurement to the insects; and if, as with heather, the scent is poured out most recklessly in the heat of the sun, that is because it is then that the insects are out in strength.  But in other cases — as in fir trees — the fragrance is the sap, is the very life itself.  When the aromatic savor of the pine goes searching into the deepest recesses of my lungs, I know it is life that is entering.  I draw life through the delicate hairs of my nostrils.  Pines, like heather, yield their fragrance to the sun’s heat.  Or when the foresters come, and they are cut, then their scent is strong.  Of all the kinds that grow on the low reaches of the mountains, spruce throws the strongest perfume on the air when the saw goes through it.  In hot sun, it is almost like a ferment — like strawberry jam on the boil, but with a tang that tautness the membranes of nose and throat.

Of plants that carry their fragrance in their leaves, bog myrtle is the mountain exampler.  This grey-green shrub fills the boggy hollows, neighbored by cotton grass and sundew, bog asphodel and the spotted orchis, and the minute scarlet cups of the lichens.  Its fragrance is cool and clean, and like the wild thyme it gives it most strongly when crushed.

The other shrub, juniper, is secretive with its scent.  It has an odd habit of dying in patches, and when a dead branch is snapped, a spicy odor comes from it.  I have carried a piece of juniper wood for months, breaking it afresh now and then to renew the spice.  The dead wood has a grey silk skin impervious to rain  In the wettest season, when every fir branch in the woods is sodden the juniper is crackling dry and burns with a clear heat.  There’s nothing better under the girdle when scones are baking — unless perhaps small larch twigs, fed into a fire already banked.  Once, striking thick loose snow from low juniper bushes before walking through them, I surprised myself by striking from them also a delectable fragrance that floated on the wintry air.

She goes on to discuss how birch trees look when the leaves are just opening, when the trees are bare, and when their sap is rising, how rowan trees look in October, and how the whole forest looks in Autumn.

Dead fir roots make, she tells us, the “best kindling in the world.”  Tea made on such a fire seems to have a special flavor and, if your tea pot has a broken spout and:

tea splutters from it on to the open hearth and raises spurts of ash and steam, you can call it a soss or a libation to the gods as you feel inclined, but it will not make the tea less good nor the talk less racy.

Clearly, her descriptions of the mountain plants come from direct experience.  She’s spent time with them, watching how they change over the seasons, smelling them, paying attention to where they grow, using them, and so on.  It’s good training for any Witch (experienced or beginning) to pick an area and to do the slow work of getting to know it through the same kind of experience.  And, of course, plants are only one part of the picture.  There are animals, and rocks, and soil, and the character of the light, and so on.  When you cast a circle and call to the Powers of Earth, it’s a good idea to know what you’re calling.  It makes your magic stronger and safer.

Picture found here.

One response to “Witch School

  1. What wonderful evocative prose she made. 🙂

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