Wednesday, July 08, 2015

I thought about writing a fan letter

From Forest Choir, a series of prints by Jane Fordham
and a poem I wrote in response.
Does anyone write fan letters anymore? In my worn school cardboard case with its rusted catches (the kind with a tartan-style lining) I have an autograph book. Among my aunt's things when she died was another autograph book. 

Autographs aren't quite the same as fan letters, but amount to something similar, an acknowledgment of respect perhaps, in writing. 

With an autograph, the admirer's asking for the idol's unique signature. With a fan letter, the admirer wants their name to be read. The autographs in my book are notes from friends or family - my friends' signatures are round, immature, under jokey verses. My aunt has one celebrity, it seems, a Disney illustrator whose signature is a picture of one of the seven dwarves. 

I wrote a fan letter not too many years ago to a writer I admired. I wrote an email to another asking for help with my writing. I'm not entirely sure what the link in my head right now means, but it's mixed up with Margaret Atwood and it's come to me since I finished Maddaddam, the last in her trilogy.

It's nearly midday and I haven't been able to concentrate on anything else other than a short interruption to mend Giya's jeans before she goes to work. But Maddaddam seems to me to mix up the physical act of writing with healing, with the web... 
Blackberry from the 6th-century
Vienna Dioscurides manuscript

The elder tree's one of the recurrent symbols in the trilogy, particularly after Pilar's death. Atwood focuses on the elder berry, a superfood that can be dried as a substitute for raisins and which is ranked even higher than blueberries; a berry I've made into tincture and cordial, jam (mixed with blackberries) and chutney. It's everywhere on the racecourse and in Sheepcote Valley but several years ago I transplanted two seedlings from my garden to the allotment to provide shade. One was in the wrong place and impossible to move, so I cut it down before it grew tall. 

The other, on the edge of the raspberry patch, has become the other half of an arch with a bay tree, and this year produced its first really good crop of blossom. I've taken some for elderflower cordial and am leaving the rest for berry cordial, if the birds don't get them first. 
Elder blossom
The symbolism of the elder is ancient but I suspect Atwood's interest in it comes also from her passion for birds. One year Sheepcote Valley was stripped of berries almost overnight. It was uncanny. There must have been a migrating flock, or perhaps other food was scarce. Most domestic birds eat elderberries, but it's also important for migrating birds like the lesser whitethroat, warbler and blackcap. It supports several moth caterpillars too. The Woodland Trust floats the theory that since the anglo saxon word for the tree, aeld, means fire, the hollow stems of the elder were used as bellows. Apparently stems were also used for flutes. I don't know enough to know if that's accurate, but I have assimilated the folk knowledge that elder's associated with death and the devil. However, the berries are antioxidant and anti-viral, supposedly very good for boosting the immune system, contain iron and vitamin C. Elder helps you sweat. 
Project Gutenberg

Google 'elder symbolism' and all sorts comes up. I did and inevitably the goddess tree appeared. This website calls the elder 'the queen of herbs' which is Pilar's role in the trilogy as a gardener and bee keeper. And it appeals on another level too, the elder being associated with witches, old women. Cutting down a tree (as I did) apparently unleashes a witch. I'm intrigued to know where she's living. In the windowless shed with the nests, maybe?

Ashbolt Farm, which sells elder products, says the tree was in every herb, monastery or farm garden because every part of it was important. Ancient wisdom (another website) says this about it: "Elder indicates the end in the beginning and the beginning in the end. Life in Death and Death in Life." So this is my fan letter to Atwood, as the blossom's coming to an end and the berries are setting. I never spoke with her when she read at the Aldeburgh Poetry Festival the year I was also reading - I was too shy. 

But I'd like to tell her how much I've enjoyed the links she's made between Pilar and the elder, that I've been reading her trilogy as the tree's come into blossom, while making cordial and as the berries set.  I'm mulling over Pilar, Toby and Blackbeard and a suggestion, in that tentative record keeping, of old pharmacopeia. One of the books I carried with me from home in Farnham (one of my first independent buys) was Culpeper's herbal. One of the ways I lost myself as I began writing poems that ended up in WHAJ was to read about old cures online. I've lost a lot of those links somehow, but the title poem contains what's left of the reading. Atwood's trilogy, particularly this summer reassures me about growing, picking and drying as I attempt to get back into writing and move on. 

At Yale University Library there are some curious artefacts like
The Game of Medicinal Herbs (yes, a real board game).
At the British Library there are some fascinating digitised manuscripts.
Here's an interesting man, Thomas Hatsis and here's a link to Nicholas Culpeper who made herbalism accessible. 
Growing herbs.