I’v been dipping into Geoffrey Grigson’s book “The Englishman’s Flora”, and the irresistable words in the heading come from the name of a book he mentions – Cockayne’s “Leechdoms,Wortcunning and Starcraft of Anglo Saxon England” (1866) – a sentence that, as I read it back to myself, makes me fear I’m treading on sacred ground once occupied by Flann O”Brien and Umberto Eco who loved to make fun of sentences exactly like this one.
But (straightening my roughed-up tie and recovering my hat) what lovely words – “Wortcunning” ,”Leechdoms”, “Starcraft” . I bought Geoffrey Grigson’s book, long out of print, for a couple of pounds from a second hand bookseller entirely on the recommendation in Richard Mabey’s “Flora Britannica” – another one worth getting.
It’s the only book I have that lists all of the folk names of the commonest British plants along with the uses to which they’ve been put. It’s not a medical herbal, not a flora you could identify a plant from, but an erudite and joyful celebration of a whole disappearing culture. Wortcunning is the loveliest way of expressing the deep knowledge of plants needed to produce a leechdom, or medicinal formula. If you google ‘leechdom’ you’ll find the whole text Grigson is referring to.
These three strange words are enchanting. Specifically they re-enchant the world of plants and evoke old, and new ways of relating to them. Language can make familiar things strange and present them to us in a new light altogether. It’s impossible to underestimate the power of playful and inventive words to enlighten our world and it’s not strictly necessary to invent them. Warcraft games, Tolkein, Alan Garner all do it powerfully but we don’t need to invent new languages – they’re already there – buried in the folk usages of the past. Waterpepper is botanically known as Persicaria hydropiper but its folk name, ‘arsemart’ tells you a lot more. The two names need each other in order to to flourish.
British wildflowers are all too rapidly becoming the exclusive domain of botanists and ecologists and their folknames and medicinal properties are disappearing from memory while plant taxonomists argue over their DNA. Is this a loss? Well, I can think of a couple of reasons at least why it’s a loss. The biggest reason is that we can’t protect something if we don’t know it’s there, and so there’s a danger that the argument about the building of a housing estate over the last outpost of a rare plant will sound like a theological dispute in the face of a housing crisis. It’s taken us a very long time to realize – almost too late – that our destructve selfishness in the abuse of the earth is leading to our own destruction. When we lose even the name of a flower, then we lose the flower itself.
Another reason for protecting this heritage is that language is a lot more that a list of words. Our world is constructed in language, and when language is impoverished the world gets smaller. We were walking through Leigh Woods to the West of Bristol many years ago, when a strange man, obviously sleeping rough in the woods, burst out of the scrub and grabbed me by the arm, talking wildly about “coming to see something”. He said “I’ve been living here in the woods for twenty years and I never saw one of these before!” We followed him – because we’re like that – and he dragged us to see a thorn apple in flower. The privations, discomfort and inner demons that probably kept him there had been blown away for a moment by finding a plant whose capacity to both lift his spirits by simply being there, or do him serious harm if he ate it, showed the dual power of plants.
Is this a hard read? I’m sorry but a blog is not much more than a message in a bottle – I throw it into the sea and maybe a handful of people will read it.
My mother knew many of the flowers by their local names, but then she could predict rain by looking at the sky over “Granny Perrin’s nest” – a group of tall elm trees behind the cottage she was born in. I don’t remember ever being treated for ear ache with a boiled onion, but even as she administered the latest medicine she would occasionally remember how the ailment had been treated when she was a child, living in the Chilterns.
We have to avoid all that Grigson calls “cross-gartered whimsey” in sentimentalising the past; we have to get it into our heads that the past is not an expensive Sunday night costume drama on the television, just as understanding the natural world is not the same as watching a few episodes of Countryfile. Wortcunning is not the hippy alternative to plant taxonomy, they’re like a divorced couple who really owe it to their children to start talking to each other again. Being learned in plants means embracing the whole of them, their histories, meanings and usages.
And while I’m on the subject of disappearances, whatever happened to that prolific social group of human beings like Geoffrey Grigson and Jane Grigson, vastly learned, filled with curiosity and interested in everything? Jane Grigson is one of my favourite food writers – and if I could invite myself to any household in history it would be to eat with them. Their daughter Sophie wrote somewhere that it wasn’t impossible to find the bath full of unspeakable bits of meat when she was a child. This brave new world of targets, spreadsheets and reviews doesn’t favour the long life, the full life – lived like the course of a river with its rapids and waterfalls, meanders, watermeadows and estuaries.
Back, however at the Potwell Inn my struggle with the unidentifiable Fumaria was finally rewarded by a confirmatory email from a proper botanist who confimed that (having looked at my photos), in all likelihood my plant is Fumaria muralis. We’re meeting at the allotment on Friday evening to seal the deal.