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In Praise of Witching Week & Being Idle
The period between Christmas and New Year that nobody knows what to do with is referred to by many names, (mostly cooked up by people who have nothing better to do than invent Instagram hashtags.) I’ve heard people call it “Twixtmas” and “Crimbo Limbo,” but this year was the first time I’ve ever heard the term “Witching Week” - a name I rather like, as it fits well with my experience of this stretch of time between the old world and the new.
In Norwegian, these strangely un-real days are known as Romjul - a word which combines the nouns for space and Yule, derived from the old Norse rúmheilagr which loosely translated means “not adhering to the rules of any particular holiday.” The Swedish word Mellandagarna (literally “intermediate days”) has similar connotations. It would appear that there’s an unspoken global agreement that, for this short window of time, it’s perfectly fine to become one with your sofa.
Every year I make plans to set aside this liminal time for work, but this year (as luck would have it,) the Universe conspired to ensure those plans went awry. For the most part this was due to a freak Monty-Python-esque accident involving a friend's Christmas tree, which meant I spent the last two weeks of December in agony, flat on my back, and unable to post the newsletters I’d planned to send out to herald the end of 2022.
As a person who mostly ambles through life like a tired toddler trailing ten steps behind a hurrying parent, for the first time in years, being immobile was the green light needed to properly take a breath and stop.
(A huge thank you to paid subscribers for bearing with me these last few weeks, during which time your billing cycles have been paused.)
Unlike plants and animals who have the good sense to do a thing called Wintering (clue in name,) we humans tend to push on at the speed dictated by the whirling forward motion of Society. I’ve come to the conclusion that the time spent on my back was time well spent. The world did not crash down around my ears because I didn’t get my Christmas cards out on time. Nobody died because I failed to promptly pay a bill. Once I realised that being immobile wasn’t going to cause dreadful, unspeakable things to happen, I began to rather enjoy the experience of idling.
Challenge: Try saying the word “idling” out loud. It’s a woefully under-used word whose meaning causes a quiver of excitement to rise up in your bones. If, however, you’re the sort of person for whom the idea of doing nothing makes you feel slightly uncomfortable, I encourage you to check out Tom Hodgkinson’s Idler Manifesto - a brilliant sideways view of this pastime, which was entirely responsible for me walking out of a crushingly unfulfilling job.
If this isn’t enough to inspire you, allow me to also share a few words written by Stephen Harrod Buhner; a most marvellous human being, and one of my all time herbal heroes.
“Those who go into the wilderness, into Nature that has not been tamed, are no longer under (arbitrary) human law, but under the all-encompassing, inevitable law of Nature. They go out from under human law. They are no longer citizens, they are not orderly, they are not civilised - they are outlaws. When you go into the wilderness, something happens, something that civilisation does not like. (That's why they cut it down, you know).
In sum, what I’m trying to say is that I’ve decided to do the unthinkable and am extending Witching Week for the entire month of January - during which time I’ll be devoting myself to the following pursuits:
For a very long time I’ve been promising myself a new bookshelf. The fact that my current tomes were beginning to form small cities on my office floor was the main impetus for indulging in the necessary expense. My recent busy-ness has meant that, although I’ve bought and started many books, I can count on one hand the number I’ve actually finished. During the holidays I discovered with renewed vigour, the pure pleasure of spending an entire afternoon lost in the pages of a story, and the satisfying feeling of discovering how it all turns out by turning the last page right at the end.
Introducing The Herbalists Bookshelf
As a student of herbal medicine before the internet existed, it was a challenge to find books on what was considered at the time to be something of a niche topic. My main sources of inspiration were charity shops, libraries and a small independent bookshop hidden away in the back streets of Warrington town centre.
I got to know that place so well. The owners were amazing, scouring suppliers for titles and imported or out of print books. I’m indebted to those folks, without whom I would never have been able to curate my herbal library - the contents of which are (to me) priceless.
To celebrate these great institutions, I’ve decided to support bookshop.org an affiliate “bookshelf” and ingenious idea which allows people like me to recommend books that have been influential, to readers who can then purchase said titles directly from an independent bookstore.
This brilliant system makes it possible to never again have to purchase from the large corporations which are slowly killing off our high streets and small businesses. I hope you’ll agree this is a laudable endeavour given the current climate.
I’ve spent the last few weeks curating a small collection of titles - all of which have a physical space on my own bookshelf, and have been of great value in my quest for herbal knowledge.
Purchasing a book through my bookshelf means that 30% of the cover price goes directly to the independent store who sold it (you can choose your favourite shop from the map.) Full disclosure - I’ll also receive a small commission on the sale - so by using this system, you’re directly supporting both independent booksellers and this newsletter.
Here’s what I’m currently reading:
It was with huge sadness that I learned of the passing of this great man via a recent moving Substack tribute bywhose words echo the feelings of many herbalists around the world. I hope he won't mind me quoting him here:
“Stephen served as a voice of leadership and encouragement, if not inspiration for a generation of herbalists, particularly those inclined to hear the plants speak to them, or for whom a walk in the forest, desert, or mountains was often (if not always) a spiritual experience.”
Buhner’s books have served as invaluable reference works over the course of my adult life, and were a literal lifeline for myself, my family and my patients throughout the pandemic. His passing will be felt very deeply, in that his wisdom, knowledge and the fearless way he spoke up for the plant world cannot be replicated.
His website contains a wealth of knowledge, along with many beautiful poems and wise words. If I only had one author on my bookshelf, it would be him.
See all of my book title recommendations in the bookshelf tab at the top of this page.
If it isn’t already apparent, I’m happiest when out in Nature. Rambling along the coastline or through the shady, tree lined, hollow ways always makes me feel like a small girl again - looking at the world with wonder and not caring about deadlines, schedules or the time on my watch. This year I plan to go really off-piste. I’ve been out and about discovering some lovely new off grid walks that I hope will give you that very same feeling.
The first foraging walk of the year will happen on Saturday 18th March. A handful of tickets are available here.
I’m pleased as punch to finally announce the launch of my new book “Modern Iridology” which can now be purchased on pre-order from Aeon books. As a special thank you to subscribers, for a short period of time copies will be available at 20% off the cover price (use code MI20 at checkout.)
The next few months will see a shift in focus for my Substack. I’ll be upping the content for paid subscribers - sharing much more detailed medicine making tutorials, foraging guides, growing experiments and seasonal recipes for specific medical conditions. Planned posts include the art of percolation, making hydrosols with a copper still, cultivating chillies, and detailed herbal treatment protocols for combatting anxiety.
Like all of us, I’m acutely aware that the purse strings continue to tighten, so if you’re currently on a free plan and have been considering upgrading - you can do this for the next 7 days at a 10% discount. Put into context, this works out at less than £1 per week (which probably wouldn’t even buy you a box of teabags these days, much less a half decent bottle of wine…..)
These activities are going to take precedence over my in-person courses which will be taking a back seat for the foreseeable future.
However … there is ONE community workshop I’ve committed to offering.
Practical Herbal Medicine For Anxiety is a 4-part workshop focused around how to incorporate anti-anxiety herbs into your everyday life. The course uses the concept of herbal energetics to teach you how to create your own range of stress and anxiety remedies uniquely suited to your own individual constitution.
Over four sessions, we’ll cover diverse topics; from how to create effective tea blends and make flower essences from wild crafted plants, to how to select (and make) high quality tinctures for yourself and your family.
The course will include hands on medicine making sessions, plant identification and nature walks, and is accompanied with detailed resources for home study. The workshop will take place at Newquay Orchard, and covers over 8 hours of material designed to provide you with the comprehensive tools needed to help you confidently manage your anxiety.
Due to the bespoke nature of this course, tickets are limited to just 5 people.
As always, thank you for reading this newsletter. I hope you’ll take some time this weekend to nurture your soul with the things you enjoy.