We have had an extended period of late summer sun, really glorious. I am preparing materials for a workshop I am planning for the Glen in September. Since hearing about the Alder grown for making charcoal at the Gunpowder Mills I have wanted to make some Alder charcoal for drawing.
I’ve gathered both Alder and Willow trimmings from the park. I had an old biscuit tin left to me by an emigrating friend and I measured and cut lengths that would fit snugly into it.
The Willow flesh was moistly smooth and, after slicing a zipper like gash, the bark slipped off easily, leaving a perfectly formed and silken limb. The Alder wasn’t quite so accommodating, being a little woodier, it felt more like a paring than a peeling. I made two forays into the Glen to have enough pieces to fill my tin snugly as my googling advised.
I punctured a hole in the top of the tin for letting off steam from the raw wood inside. I lit the fire in the late afternoon light, using wood from an old bed frame, one of A’s bunks, timber that she grew out of, that later trans-morphed into makeshift shelving in R’s study…. so many transformations come to ground in fire.
I am thinking again of the Rosebay Willow Herb – Fireweed in the USA, Bombweed in London. Before the age of easy access to encyclopedic knowledge Londoners were suspicious of the plant, and a superstition grew up around the Rosebay Willow herb during the Blitz, as it grew so rampantly on all the sites left devastated by the German bombs, and so one of its many given names was London’s Ruin, due to this first major appearance on the London stage since its debut for the Great Fire in 1666. Others called it London’s Pride.
Rosebay Willow herb loves burned ground, and I’m thinking of the Glen burnings, that ritual for generations of Northside boys, to set light to the gorse – I believe in celebration of the sun, as the first glimmer of warmth awakens the radiant yellow flowers, letting off their heady scent and their promise of summer. Much as i appreciate this innate feeling for fire I was saddened by the casual burnings of last year, seeing the blackened and destroyed stumps on great cloaks of charred earth, on the edges the still intact but ashen bushes prickly still, but dead. Last year the gorse kept its flowers for the whole of the winter, by the time spring came round this year they seemed to have exhausted themselves and we got no real show of the fiery gold of the Gorse in 2021.
Now I see clearly the interactions of human and plant behavior, all that burning prepares the ground for a bounty of Willow herb; this year I worry about the scant burnings, and the profusion of bracken that engulfs the Glen Valley’s slopes. What will next year bring? I wonder.
I find that Ivan Chai or Koporye had been very much appreciated across the UK before the East India Tea company discredited it and pushed it out of popular consumption and living memory.
A wonderful post by a fellow willow herb lover – Rosebay Willow herb jelly anybody?