To live as a pagan, as a traditionalist, as a European, to live a self-sufficient lifestyle, it is crucial to know the European landscape. Those living in the colonies should be returning to Europe as soon as possible, especially with the increasing uncertainty caused by what appears to be a manufactured pandemic, impending economic collapse and the ever-looming threat of “World War III”. In the meantime, they would do best exploring landscapes reasonably close to those in Europe, learning and foraging for plants similar or identical to those in Europe, and farming European plants and herbs in kitchen gardens.
In prehistoric times, our ancestors would have travelled vast distances. They knew ancient pilgrimage routes, some of which are practised today, such as that between Glastonbury Tor and Stonehenge, which could well have been a significant pilgrimage site not only for the inhabitants of Britain, but for those on the continent as well. France has its precious caves with their remarkable paintings, Scandinavia has its rock carvings, the classical world has its ruined temples, ancient tomb complexes and barrows can be found throughout Northern Europe as well as the eastern steppes in former Scythian territory. The list goes on, and in the event of a collapse of civilisation, and the means of communication we have come to take for granted, it would be wise for traditionalist pagans to visit and memorise these holy sites. The more we work them into our memory, into our hiking and camping routes of Europe, the more likely fellow self-sufficient pagans are to meet in the future, when civilisation’s lights go out.
The other main reason our ancestors had to travel across and recall large areas of the European landscape was for survival. They were nomads, and would travel to areas of forest particularly good for hunting, they would travel to trade, and would travel in relation to the change of seasons. In an age when there was no need for writing, when everything was preserved in oral tradition, our ancestors remembered more, and through travelling across these familiar routes across vast areas year after year, they would have built up a mental map of Europe’s landscape that we would no doubt find astonishing in its size and detail.
Another aspect of this we can consider is that as omnivores and hunter-gatherers, our ancestors would also likely have built up a good memory of the flora and fauna of each region, particularly favourite hunting spots, knowing what variety of plants they could expect to find in each region at what time of year.There are some things we must consider here:
- The biodiversity would have been far greater in prehistoric times. Not only was Europe far more densely wooded, on a much greater scale, but populated with naturally developed, ancient woodland with real biodiversity. There would have been more to see and more to remember, as well as a greater supply of wild plants that are now uncommon or rare, and in some cases illegal to pick (wild pennyroyal in Britain, for example).
- How generally well-learned communities were in the past regarding herbs, “weeds” and wild food sources, which was considerably more than we are now. The role of women was drastically different, the role that folk medicine played was far more prominent, being passed down through oral tradition, and through increasing industrialisation, urbanisation and intensive agriculture, we in the modern period began to view so many of these incredibly useful plants as “pests” and “weeds” that need to be uprooted whenever we come across them. Therefore they would have had a keener eye for these plants anyway, but just as the diversity of the landscape – forests, mountains, plains – that they came across would have captivated them, so would the rich diversity of invaluable plants at their disposal have captivated them on these voyages.
- Their lack of awareness of levels of toxicity in some plants, especially in excessive regular use (comfrey and coltsfoot, for example)
- How drastically this has been affected in recent centuries, particularly since the industrial revolution, due to increasing reliance on agriculture, urbanisation, population growth and industrialisation, and how limited areas of ancient woodland are. Many of our local woods are relatively modern nature reserves, and some will have little to no real biodiversity.
With this in mind, I decided to take you on a “tour” of my local woods, just to give an idea of what it’s like to build up this memory and be in this mindset. This particular area is very local to me, and though not very large, or particularly diverse, I have built up a reasonable “mind-map” over the years of what I can expect to find where, and when. I hope to demonstrate this in pictures I took.
My choice to do this in winter of all times may seem odd, but when there is much less to look at, you notice things more. At this stage at the beginning of March it’s a good time to see early spring shoots when there still isn’t a huge amount of green growth around. You’d be surprised at what you can still find in winter. I am considering turning this into a series of articles, featuring different walks, to demonstrate further, but I shall see.
This is near the entrance of my usual walking/foraging walk through here. Around here is where I would expect to find, in addition to the usual nettles, brambles and cow parsley, dead nettles (white archangel). No sign of them this time of year, unless I’m confusing the low stinging nettle growth with what dead nettles might be coming up:
Here is a picture of the dead nettle in question I took late last spring when in season, most likely in the same place (with some goosegrass/cleavers):
Some uses of the white deadnettle: (tea) as a uterine tonic, irritable bowel, cystitis, diarrhoea, catarrh; (poultice) burns, bruises, splinters, cuts.
Shortly into my walk I soon see early shoots of common hogweed (pictured here with young cleavers shoots):
Hogweed has a unique taste that’s hard to describe for anyone who knows it, but though I know roughly what patches in particular to find it down this route, it is a very common and widely seen plant. Treat it as a wild equivalent to asparagus when cooking (it is not recommended raw). At this time of year, the young shoots are good to eat. Later in the year, stalks can still be good before they get too woody, the “broccoli”-like young flower buds, and later on (late summer-autumn) the dried seeds can be used as a cardamom substitute.
Regarding cleavers, this a good time of year to use them as they are in salads while the shoots are still young and not too stringy. Later on in the year they can be boiled or steamed, but I am not a huge fan of them at this stage personally (they are very stringy). Some uses of cleavers: (poultice) sunburn, burns, psoriasis, open sores, blisters, nettle rash; (juice) swollen glands, fluid retention, tonsillitis, bladder irritation; (ointment) dry skin, burns.
Nest I come to a decent stretch of brambles. Blackberries are, of course, out of season this time of year. I know where to look for them when they are in season, though:
Bramble leaf tea is good for : diarrhoea, mouth ulcers, gingivitis, sore throats, colds, flu and fevers.
Next a little further down the path I notice the first signs of hawthorn coming out:
Hawthorn is easily recognisable by its lobed leaves (both native types of hawthorn, though size and shape of both berries and leaf is noticeably different). Flowers are similar on both this and blackthorn, but flowers come first on blackthorn, whereas the leaves come first on hawthorn. Hawthorn is particularly notable for being excellent for general heart and circulation health. Later in the year when ripe the pectin-heavy berries can be made into a fruit leather. Uses: (leather) heart/circulation; (berry syrup) heart, hardening of arteries, to regulate abnormal (both high and low) blood pressure, mild angina, anxiety, palpitations (I experienced these out of the blue this week and a hawthorn tea immediately settled them down). Leaves and flowers have similar uses.
Next I hit the jackpot. Because of the stormy weather lately, several pine branches had fallen, so I gathered what I could to fit into my back to make pine needle tea with later (several evergreen species are good for making tea with, just check which ones):
Pine needles are a good vitamin C source, and a useful survival food to keep in mind when there is not much else growing in winter. I soon come across more hogweed shoots:
Further down the path I am soon greeted by the first signs of blackthorn/sloe blossom:
Sloe flowers are edible but contain toxic compounds (including cyanide) as well as acting as a laxative, so are best not overindulged in. The berries are inedible when picked due to sourness, but through exposure to frost, crushing or through being mashed they can me made palatable and potentially relied on as a widely available food source (and stored by pressing into cakes to make fruit leather). Also good for gin and for making jellies.
I then came across more hogweed shoots and brambles, and was greeted by the first of a few sad sights:
At first I wondered if this was storm related, but these appear to have been sturdy, healthy trees. I also wondered if it was the local conservation group, as they tend to cut down tree saplings to keep our nature reserves (“parks”?) tidy, but apparently this is the work of the local council who periodically cut down trees in a nature reserve and wreak havoc, the reason being that it “interfered with overhead power lines”. Guess what? This was nowhere near power lines…
Seeing more brambles and young hogweed and cleavers, I came to several patches of arum/cuckoo pint:
Some have purple blotches (there is also the variegated variety):
These grow for much of the year, are very common and later in the year develop their distinctive flower and berries. Those who know them recognise the arrow-shaped leaves, and you want to, because they are an extreme irritant, causing blisters if mistakenly eaten (potentially dangerous swelling if swallowed) and are important to identify to to their commonness and it being easy for novices to confuse the younger leaves with those of common sorrel or wild garlic/ransoms. The root was once cooked as a food source, but apparently you can’t even guarantee the toxins are removed through “proper” cooking preparation, so it is best avoided.
Around here I also see some healthy growth of cow parsley:
Cow parsley is one of the first plants to come up after winter, and is very common. Its taste is similar to celery and parsley, being in the same family. It is vital that you know how to properly identify this, as for a novice it is so easy to potentially confuse with seriously poisonous plants, such as fool’s parsley or the worst of all, hemlock. I generally avoid it even now due to this lingering caution, but it’s distinguishable by its smell, hairiness, grooved stem and leaf arrangement. A safer wild parsley substitute harder confuse is the invasive ground elder that the Romans introduced.
Next I come to a spot I always remember, because of two particular trees that grow there across the path from each other. The first I couldn’t quite place exactly, due to lack of foliage, but I know I can find a rowan here (berries are edible but need to be cooked, and can be used for jelly):
Across the path is the other tree I recall, wild cherry plum:
The blossom is out. I personally love cherry plums to eat, but I often badly time my forages and miss out on them. Here is a picture from a previous year with the reddish leaves more developed and the young fruits:
Further down from here I see more carnage:
I remembered that around here I can expect to find several patches of garlic mustard/hedge garlic. Sure enough, I managed to find some young leaves appearing:
If you know where to look, you notice things you might otherwise miss. Garlic mustard is very common, often growing beside paths, in towns as well. This is one of my favourite plants to forage for salads, its taste and smell is indeed like a mixture of garlic and mustard or cress. It tends to spread out well via its seed pods, and has similar medicinal properties to other plants in the mustard family due to containing the same chemical (which includes, if I am right, anti-cancer properties).
Soon after this, after a walk through a (fairly barren) field, I come to a patch I can usually rely on for a good amount of hawthorn berries come autumn:
I also remember that a little further down from here, I can always expect a decent amount of garlic mustard (as well as cleavers). Again, I find the young leaves starting to appear:
I see many young shoots here too, which could well be even more garlic mustard, in amongst the cleavers and arum:
Further down the path I find a young thistle (I am not particularly good at identifying the different thistle species):
Around this area I am also fairly certain that, last summer, I found and identified fool’s parsley. It smelled a bit strange, and had the right sort of (more carrot-like) foliage. I couldn’t spot it today, but it’s useful to keep an eye out for toxic and dangerous plants, in order to be sure you can properly identify them when you do stumble across them. A little further down I see a couple of patches of common (curled?) dock (again commonplace):
Dock is useful for skin complaints, commonly used to treat nettle stings (I prefer plantain and especially ground ivy, personally), and has uses as a tincture as well. Look out for the closely related, but much tastier common sorrel. After this I was expecting to see some hogweed, as I rembered a lot growing down here whenever I went through during the spring and summer before:
Further down this path I reach a mound as the path bends round by a field. On this mound I can always count on a decent crop of coltsfoot. The flowers are coming up:
Later in the year the leaf that it presumably gets its name from can grow to an impressive size. the “furry” substance on the underside of the leaves was apparently used to make tinderboxes once. Uses (tea) coughs, bronchitis, throat irritation, mild asthma; (poultice) boils, sores, ulcers. I have also seen it sold online in smoking blends, so can presumably be smoked like nettle for lung-related ailments. This contains an alkaloid, the same as that in comfrey I believe, so should be avoided if pregnant or breastfeeding, and should not be consumed regularly for long periods of time due to the damage it can cause to the liver. Use with some caution. I have collected and dried a lot of this to use in teas, it has a pleasant taste.
In the next field, I know this is a good place to find blackberries and rosehips at the right time of year. It is now reasonably barren, I do see a few surviving rosehips here, however:
rosehips are an excellent source of vitamin C, and important winter crop to keep in mind and collect for storage. Uses: (vinegar) colds, sore throats; (syrup) colds, sore throats, vitamin C intake.
Across the path from this I soon come across teasel that I can always find here:
Uses: (teasel essence) exhaustion, chronic fatigue, joint pain, muscle aches. The field has had water sitting on it for so long it actually has algae growing on it:
Past the field I soon come to the usual birch trees there. I remember where to find birch trees in these woods, but I am hardly in a position to use them for wood or to harvest the birch bark, and though I have tried birch tapping before, it can be a fiddly process, some methods of which can potentially harm and infect the tree. Also, any method of harvesting birch sap is very time consuming. I might give it a proper go someday.
After this I come across a thistle, in an area I know is also good for sloes, or has been in the past:
Shortly after I see more sloe blossom.
Soon after this I see yet more damage down to trees sadly:
I am nearing the end of the usual walking route down here, but I have come down to this area because last year I finally spotted meadowsweet growing around here. There is a lot of young cleaver and nettle growth coming up:
I wander down the path a bit further, checking both sides, to see if I can see any signs of meadowsweet starting to surface (before the nettles take over):
I see a few small meadowsweet leaves coming up. I have grown this on at home, and harvested large quantities to dry for tea. It’s a brilliant natural painkiller and good for headaches, containing the same chemical as willow I believe (and therefore similarly acting as a “natural aspirin”). Some uses: (tea) indigestion, heartburn, arthritis, rheumatism; (glycerite) indigestion, heartburn, arthritis, rheumatism; (ghee) muscle aches and pains, back ache, painful joints, arthritis. It’s easy to identify by its distinct leaf shape, red stem when more mature and, most notably, its lovely smell, which is similar to that of wintergreen.
I don’t go any further than this, as past a field I know to expect mainly blackberries and sloes, which aren’t in season at the moment anyway. I wander back, and to my surprise find a few surviving hawthorn berries:
I pick what rosehips I can forage as I go:
Then cool my feet off on the way out:
I hope you enjoyed reading this article and got something out of it, that you can appreciate the importance of revisiting a wilderness, even a small one, to get used to what grows there and when. We need to know our land again, and we also need to get used to eating in accordance with the seasons again. These are forgotten traditions these days, when we are reliant so much on sat nav for navigation and on imported food all year round instead of what should be in season.
I hope to follow this up with a similar journey at some point somewhere else. Watch this space.
Hedgerow Medicine: Harvest and Make Your Own Herbal Remedies – Julie Bruton-Seal & Matthew Seal
Wild Food – Ray Mears and Gordon Hillman