Monday, July 16, 2012

Rue, mother of herbs

John Everett Millais' Ophelia
Frustrated by this second disastrous summer in a row, I started moving herbs to create a currant and blueberry patch for next summer. A large rue plant was squashed between two bay trees and I decided to put it at the bottom of the allotment which is more shaded and overhung with sycamores. I like its grey-green leaves and bizarre bitter smell and it always reminds me of school, Hamlet and learning quotes.

Two days after transplanting it my forearms flared into blisters - my skin sunburnt from wrist to elbow. What I didn't know about rue, also known as witchbane, herb of grace, mother of the herbs, praised by Culpeper and historically used as an antidote to poison, is that it can photosensitise skin so it burns in the sun. I wear factor 50 as a matter of course since I'm pale anyway. Nearly a week later, my arms are still red and itchy although steroid cream and antihistamines have got rid of the blistering.

It's the most extreme reaction I've had but not unusual according to the Poison Garden website I discovered after talking to the brilliant pharmacist in Elm Grove when my arms were at their worst. He and his team stood in a semi circle around my arms speculating about sap and allergic reactions. An elderly man behind me reminisced about his time in the UK military police when he was used as a guinea pig for mustard gas - his skin looked like mine, apparently.

Later  I remembered moving the rue and googled it, discovering stories like mine where the reaction was delayed but set off by intense sun (amazingly, an hour or so last Wednesday).

Almost everyone I ask associates rue with Ophelia dispensing flowers in her madness: 'there's rue for you; and here's some for me....' Sorrow and repentance - Shakespeare created a perfectly poised line for a plant that is such a powerful healer and simultaneously so dangerous to the skin.

Redon painted Ophelia and flowers too

Mary Anderson played Ophelia in 1884
The Royal Horticultural Society's website has a section on harmful plants :

Tuesday, July 03, 2012


Stormy sky on coastal path to Par, with crows and sheep

"Self-doubt remains an essential part of my make-up. But, as I think I've made clear, ultimately I see it as a strength and not a weakness."  Alastair Campbell on self-doubt for The Essay: The Case for Doubt

My view of Alastair Campbell was altered forever when I was on a ferry to France with my daughter and watched an interview with him on a French books programme. He's fluent in French and I was watching a person I'd never seen before on British TV. Then I read his essay - a call for the value of doubt among all the self-help and management advice on how to eradicate it. 

Right now, I equate self-doubt with the slugs and snails on my allotment. I don't know why, but I can't do much about either. Campbell has some great insights, mainly relating to depression. I know my doubt right now is inextricably linked to finishing a collection. The poems are in the word file, in an order that's changing at least twice a week. I've been adding little ones. I've put one or two back and will take some out again. The collection's still a little fluid. Three sections are clear and any changes I make to these will be relatively small. 

Then there's the fourth section where my doubt squats. I am trying to understand it. How do these new poems sit in relation to everything that's out there now and is due out? My doubt might be healthy, right, a way of scrutinising this section of the book until it slots into place. Yesterday I spent three hours trying to recreate the thought pattern that led to one of those poems! It felt like the fear of leaving the grill on I had on the way to a ferry once. Good friends put a ladder up to my flat to look into the kitchen. It was before mobiles. I rang them later from a call box. 

I did find the thought pattern and remembered what had brought the poem to life. Remembered why I wrote the 492 words in the poem and what each word represents. It was important, because it's a poem of repeated words and the numbers are crucial. So this self-doubt is just a question of checking the moorings, the locks, the keys, the dials and the knots linking these poems, perhaps?