Although months later than usual, today I did one of my favourite annual rituals of taking a yield of beautifully scented wood from the Vitex agnus-castus known along the ages as Chaste Tree, Abraham’s Balm, Monk’s pepper amongst other mysterious names.
History of The Chaste Tree
Chaste Tree has an ancient history, with its use referenced in literature and poetry. It is still used today in herbal medicine practices.
In a medieval poem The Floure and the Leafe which was written anonymously in Middle English, a beautiful lady in white wears a crown of Vitex agnus:
“On her head, of leves fresh and grene, So wele wrought, and so mervelously, That it was a noble sight to sene. Some of laurer, and some ful pleasantly Had chapelets of woodbind, and sadly Some of Agnus castus were also Chapelets fresh.”
According to its effect on the human body, if Chaucer’s characters for example, had ingested this herb more, let’s just say that The Canterbury Tales would certainly have less rudey-bits and rumpy-pumpy! This herb could have saved me from SO MUCH blushing as a Medieval Literature student when having to read Chaucer aloud!
Harvesting Vitex agnus
I have written about this annual task before because of how seasonal the task feels as a ritual. I only began to value it in this way, as a recurring seasonal task after spending six months with my head in a permaculture course. I discovered that the actual yield is not about measuring the yield of wood…which is quite small.
It’s more about connection to the cycle of seasons. Thinking about the ancient history of this tree, valued enough to be in poem and story. A sensory trigger from the feel and scent of the beautiful wood.
You can cut Vitex down to ground level and you can grow it as a single trunk tree or shrub.
What I love about this task is the scent of this wood. It is really unique and hard to describe. It reminds me of patchouli wood perhaps mixed with pine but far more distinct. When dried it retains its scent and burns sweetly.
The white spikes of summer flowers are very similar to Buddleia and attract many butterflies, bees and hover flies. I’ve observed that native Australian blue-banded bees seem to find the white flowers fascinating, even though their preference is for blue hues.
Vitex agnus is just one of those quiet plants that I don’t see often, but is a special, brilliant and appreciated part of my small permaculture inspired garden.
I was lucky enough to spend a few months wandering wild places and towns in England, Scotland and Wales in April and May with my little family.
With little time for writing, it is probably all going to emerge in bits and bobs and scratched together from hasty notes and reflections.
My first 6am cup of tea in the very early morning outdoors in the mountains of Scotland was magical. It is a time to listen and watch, so I fight the urge to photograph, and just try to etch mornings like these in memory.
Although tempting to gaze south-east at the stunning Ben Nevis range, which I certainly did photograph (above), I turned my back on such well-known beauty, clutched my tea and crunched through frosted grass to the edge of the western boundary. From there, the edge, I could watch the cloud transform the smaller mountains to the North and West, where the sun and cloud were playing.
I have no words for the morning. There was bright and complex bird song in the forest. Birds I can’t yet name. The light on the mountains was salmon-pink and sherbert-orange. I stood still and saw cloud spilling down the hillside, creating almost the sense of a rainbow as it played with sunlight on slopes. I heard the wings of birds in the stillness. Nearby, below the grassy slope, I heard the soft tread of sheep.
Wispy and slow, cloud came curling down towards me, brushing the tips of pine trees, before quietly and secretly seeping through every branch. Dampening everything from birdsong to vision, there is nothing more gentle in nature that steals away so much beauty, creating a new beauty of its own. It was hypnotising, leaving nothing but a veil of white in its wake. The gentlest wave.
Tea in cold dregs, I turned around to go back to the cottage to find the cloud had also been creeping down my neck behind me.
All was cloud and cloud was all, and that is all. For now.
I discovered Charles de Lint books when I really needed to.
A bookish life
It was 1995. I was an undergraduate uni student, studying librarianship and majoring in literary studies. I had never imagined going to university. No one in my family had been. I was shy and scared of people. I felt a sense of awe and terror that I was actually studying James Joyce and Chaucer in heritage listed buildings in the city. I also felt very so very out of place there. I thought someone was going to wake me up and tell me there had been an admissions mistake. I even began to have panic attacks on the way to Middle English literature tutorials because I didn’t feel good enough to be there.
Struggling financially to afford textbooks, living at home and travelling into the city each day to study books felt like a fanciful luxury. An income would have been preferable to help our household. I needed work to stay in uni, at a time when part-time jobs were hard to find in Adelaide.
I had always dreamed of working in a bookshop. I could be brave in writing, so I wrote to all the bookshops in the city and told them how much I wanted to work there. I received lots of rejections.
However, for one shop, the timing had been perfect. I met the bookshop owner and soon had my own set of keys to the shop in my first job! It was an hour on the bus which gave me plenty of time to read two novels a week. I had taken on an extra literature subject at uni so that I could study more genres.
Every minute of the day was about books!
The bookshop dream
The book shop I worked in itself wasn’t fancy. It had bright red carpet, trestle tables stacked with books and chipboard shelving around the edges. It was a small business in the city, run by a mother and father who had a baby daughter. It was partly a remainder book shop. The owner would sometimes travel to the UK to buy remainders and bring them back to Adelaide to sell. Our collection is what made us. If you could look beyond our lack of high-brow atmosphere, you could find sought after quirky titles, gorgeous art books and hard to find gems. We had a loyal band of customers ranging from bargain hunters, people just waiting on a bus, to those who knew what they were looking for. Our word of mouth trade was amazing.
The shop also had a few small shelves of full price novels.
It was at those shelves, in my first week there that Moonheart written in 1984 by Charles de Lint cast its spell. It fell onto the floor at my feet. Whilst this wasn’t unusual with our packed shelves, I still get an odd feeling when I think about that moment. As if this book actually wanted to be read. The cover art by David Bergen was undeniably part of the enchantment.
Finding Charles de Lint
The funny thing about finding Charles de Lint was that in 1998, Charles de Lint was impossible to find in Adelaide in other bookshops. I know because I tried. We stocked them even though our fantasy section was incredibly small.
I was allowed to read a little in the shop, if it was quiet. I think we sold more Charles de Lint books by having them noticed on the counter. The magic of those David Bergen covers. As I had so much other reading to do for my studies, this is how I read de Lint. In snatches of time, in the in-between places. Late night buses home.
It may have been the cover that grabbed me, but it was Charles de Lint’s writing that owned me.
The mythical and magical woods
After that one book, Charles de Lint catapulted to be being my favourite author. I read Greenmantle, SpiritWalk, The Little Country, everything, until we ran out of de Lint paperbacks. De Lint stories taught me something that changed the way I looked at the world. I found a way to celebrate always feeling like a misfit at a time when I was in a place where I felt that I didn’t really belong.
Charles de Lint’s urban fantasy stories are rich with relatable folk musicians, bikers, creative thinkers, fringe dwellers, down to earth and relatable female characters and wild gods that walk in urban neighbourhoods. They are true-hearted everyday dreamers and artists. Urban places in countries far away are linked to the magical mythologies of others. In Moonheart, that began with modern downtown Ottawa to the wild mythology of Wales.
The sound of reading
Charles de Lint also included references to celtic folk music, a love that spawned in my 20s. Characters tapped their toes to real bands like Silly Wizard in the text. In the Author’s notes he cited other musical influences the book was written along to.
Those stories helped me see the magic in everyday little things, wherever I was. They also helped me overcome my shyness. At the time, I learned to value the interesting wanderers who would come into the shop on Sunday afternoons especially. Those who wanted small talk with their books. My favourite became a bearded wizardly gentleman who I secretly affectionately called ‘Merlin’. He would come in on the weekends and there would be conversations about some very esoteric philosophy. He could have walked right out of a de Lintian novel as an echo of ancient Taliesin.
Newford and Tamson House
A series of Charles de Lint books is known as The Newford series. They are all set in a fictional version of Ottawa which straddles the Otherworld, with characters that return throughout the series.
Newford, although fictional became part of my inner cache of imaginary geography. Tamson House, an immense artist share-house with three towers and a “sense of Gothic” still feels like a real place years after reading these books. I would love to wander in the four acre wild garden in the middle, filled with fruit trees, ivy, birch and oak trees and vegetable beds accessed by cobblestone paths.
Ouch, that’s a lot of time. In 1998 you couldn’t just order books online easily. I couldn’t find them in my local library either, so it would be a few years before I moved to the UK and had enough disposable income to continue to explore Charle de Lint’s incredible output.
Now I have a modest shelf of Charles de Lint books, including some special editions I have bought over the years. How I see the world is still influenced every day by these stories that showed me the wonder and wild of everyday magic. A reminder that there is always some way of belonging exactly where you are.
Charles de Lint has given readers decades of stories that have a power far beyond what he might have ever intended to send out into the world. They reached a young girl, living in a council house with her mum and brother and stepfather in the suburban outskirts of a city in Australia. They made the feeling of being an outsider, that feeling of being from the wrong side of the tracks, something to be proud of. I learned to tap deeply into those dream trees growing all around me. I understood how to grow other people through writing.
If I ever met Charles de Lint, I would try feebly to say how lucky I am that those stories came to me in my 20s. I would not be a wisp of the person I am today, without them.
I will not treat your dusty path and flat, denoting this and that by this and that, your world immutable wherein no part the little maker has with maker’s art. I bow not yet before the Iron Crown, nor cast my own small golden sceptre down.
Tolkien – Mythopoeia
I can remember the first time I discovered my favourite word, over twenty years ago.
I had never heard of it before. It was like a spell and a word that I have revisited in wonder, trying to understand it.
I didn’t discover this word in a place that made me feel connected to something else.
It wasn’t when I was standing in the ancient forest of Broceliande.
Or The Old Library in Trinity College.
Or when a gilt title of a book glinted out of the corner of my eye in a bookshop in Edinburgh’s Old Town.
Or among the stones of the Ring of Brodgar on the Orkneys .
Or in a thunderstorm at the tomb of Newgrange in Ireland.
Or when a dragonfly landed on my hand, when I had just asked it to.
Not even in the dawn, as the sun rose on the raw red rock face of the rugged outback landscape that I was born surrounded by.
No. It was in an unexordinary discount city-centre bookshop in the city of Adelaide, rummaging through the sale bin.
There, I found a book. Just one copy. In 1998.
A word jumped out at me
The book was The Magical World of the Inklings by Gareth Knight, about J RR Tolkien, C S Lewis, Charles Williams and Owen Barfield written in 1990.
The preface is titled On Mythopoeia and Magic.
Mythopoeia as I first understood it, standing in that bookshop, is a word that Gareth Knight equates to the word magical in the introduction.
Writers who were “capable of creating a ‘magical world’…a way of evoking the creative imagination of the reader to participate through story and landscape and characters in a deeper level of truth or reality.” (p.4 Gareth Knight)
This treasured book helped me understand the deep power of storytelling, the power of language and how some writers quest to create a sense of myth and legend in imagined worlds.
It is a word on the tip of my tongue in every landscape that moves me as I grapple to find words for what feeling is. It is the love and the longing to explore literary landscapes.
In more recent years, the word mythopoeia has been conjured through reading mythologist and storyteller Martin Shaw’s books, particularly Scatterlings (which I will one day write an entire post about!)
For the last 20 years I’ve been taking people out into the wild places, the few remaining wild places in Britain. And also that to a certain curiosity into where does wildness still reside in language itself? Could there be places witin stanzas, within stories, within poems where old gods still reside? And so quite naturally I’ve been brought back into story as a way of articulating wild information. Information from the ages.
Martin Shaw – Storytelling from the edge
I still don’t understand what I mean when I say mythopoeia, or try to describe it. I do know what it feels like.
I love when I get a chance to mix books with coding. Particularly using free software like Scratch or low-cost technology like Makey Makey. I would love to share more of this and it’s a passion that I fit into my spare time around work and volunteering. I try to use these little maker projects in the Code Club I volunteer in so that kids can enjoy hacking them too!
As we know, at the start of the year, students of Hogwarts School of Witchcraft and Wizardry stock up on school supplies from shops in Diagon Alley. I’m willing to speculate that the required magical textbooks costs as much as Muggle textbooks! This also doesn’t include working your way through Hermione Granger’s recommended reading list.
What is a young budget-concious student wizard to do?
Save money on textbooks by transforming any old hardcover book into a do-it-yourself version of the essential textbook for Hagrid’s Care of Magical Creatures third year class, The Monster Book of Monsters.
I converted an 1800’s (already damaged) Latin book into my very own monstrosity. I used some air drying clay and a $2 blanket I bought from a charity shop.
My creation wasn’t perfect. My teeth sculpting skills are a bit naff. I took this book out to Harry Potter events, mostly embarrassed by it. To my amazement, lots of people wanted to pat, stroke and cuddle it. Many loved that it was a real book. Perhaps I do have a career in magi-orthodontics ahead!
But, something was missing. In the Harry Potter stories and films, The Monster Book of Monsters is an untamed beast of a book. It constantly attacks anyone who comes near. I soon began to imagine how wonderful it would be if my book could made a sound in response to Muggle touch.
A book that bites the hand that reads it.
“Hasn’ — hasn’ anyone bin able ter open their books?” said Hagrid, looking crestfallen. The class all shook their heads. “Yeh’ve got ter stroke ‘em,” said Hagrid, as though this was the most obvious thing in the world. “Look —” He took Hermione’s copy and ripped off the Spellotape that bound it. The book tried to bite, but Hagrid ran a giant forefinger down its spine, and the book shivered, and then fell open and lay quiet in his hand. “Oh, how silly we’ve all been!” Malfoy sneered. “We should have stroked them! Why didn’t we guess!” “I — I thought they were funny,” Hagrid said uncertainly to Hermione. “Oh, tremendously funny!” said Malfoy. “Really witty, giving us books that try and rip our hands off!
Chapter 14 Harry Potter and the Prisoner of Azkaban
Hooking the book up to Makey Makey and Scratch so that anyone could make their own monsterous sound effects play when the book was stroked, was the next evolution for this old book.
We walked into our tiny local library on Christmas Eve, and in a serendipity that felt magical in itself, there, on full display on top the children’s shelf, was A Darkness of Dragons! As my daughter had a huge tower of books, I begged her to let me read this first while I had a gap between deadlines for reviews of other books…
Be still my heart, this is one of the most achingly engaging fantasy adventures I have recently read.
Although I am supposed to be purchasing fewer books, I’m afraid this is going straight to my must- purchase pile after reading it.
Sincerely this:- if you love tales of fantasy adventure, this book should be your next read.
I’m sorry that my review of this book is quite long, but I need to say all of this, even if it is just for me to capture the feeling of reading it for the first time. If you are short on time, don’t waste time reading my words, just go out and read this book now!
However, if you need convincing, I’m going to try and write clearly and sensibly…actually…nope… I’m not, this is going to come right from the heart…
In A Darkness of Dragons, S. A. Patrick takes me back to the feeling I got when I began reading some of my most loved series. Phillip Pullman’s His Dark Materials. J K Rowling’s Harry Potter, Tolkien’s Lord of The Rings. Most recently, the same with Jessica Townsend’s Nevermoor. This story has a dark edge a bit like Alan Garner’s books. A spookiness of Robert Holdstock. A darkness of Susan Cooper. Within a few chaptersA Darkness of Dragons earned a permanent place in my inner cache of imagined fantasy literary worlds that I can call on when doing mundane tasks like hanging washing. (I hope everyone has one of these inner caches, otherwise forget I just mentioned this!)
An epic imagined landscape
The story opens in the village of Patterfall, clad with pines, mountains, snow and forest. There is no map in the book, but there could be. (Maybe in Book #2??) The story traverses landscapes of mountains, forests, seas and vividly described vistas with names that remind me of imaginary childhood adventures, lying awake in Australia listening to the exotic names of the BBC shipping forecast at midnight on the radio and dreaming of adventures beyond my town. (Again, ignore this if it’s abnormal). It’s difficult to describe the feeling of a new fantasy world that feels so very plausible and believable. The laws and ways things are, are unreal, but in a way that does not jar with possibility. It’s actually very hard to cast such a spell with an imagined world with so many characters this quickly, but S. A. Patrick does it. What really excites me is that it feels so very richly mythopoeic, even having its own language, Merisax. Patrick’s world of Patch Brightwater and his friends is instantly habitable, and yet it also has some incredibly biting edges too. I could feel the darkness creeping in chapter by chapter. This contributes to the absolute compulsion to carry this book everywhere with me so that I could snatch a read at any opportunity.
Three friends on an adventure
Patch Brightwater is an instantly likeable, imperfect 13 year old. (Note: some descriptions say Patch is 12, but there are multiple specific references in the book to Patch being 13, the same age as his friend Wren). On the surface, his recent illegal acts make Patch a criminal. However, Patch’s compassion, acts of kindness and charity, truly challenge us to think about how the judgement of good and bad deeds are made. Patch’s friends, Barver the dracogriff (half dragon, half griffin) and Wren, a girl who is cursed by a sorcerer to live as a rat are inspiring, brave and wonderful characters. They are complex and believable as friends. I developed a soft-spot for Barver’s personality quirks. S. A. Patrick has created a believable half dragon, halfgriffin who interacts seamlessly with a diverse spectrum of primary and secondary characters. This isn’t easy writing territory! The dialogue emerges from diverse characters ranging from salt-of-the-earth personalities through to the cruel and deranged. We meet powerful and imposing law keepers, dragons, rats, sorcerers, witches, monks and more, all who feel so very genuine.
A dark spin on a terrifying folktale
At first, the idea of a retelling of the “fairy tale” of the Pied Piper of Hamelin didn’t immediately appeal to me. I thought I already knew how that story would go,because my own childhood had rather sugar-coated versions of this story. Although I love folklore, not knowing the depth of the Pied Piper of Hamelin story, I was a bit concerned that this might be tame tale territory. I urge you to let the title lead you. There is a terribledarkness in the original folklore of the Hamelin Piper, a German folk story dating back to around 1284. Various versions evolved, based on real events, twisting branches from the original story. S. A. Patrick has a gift in conjuring an ancient evil from the roots of the story. It will thrill young adults and grown-ups alike.
There be dragons…and music!
Although Songs of Magic as a series will undoubtedly attract fans of dragon-based tales, there is another theme accompanying the fantasy. The magic of making music. S. A. Patrick’s ability to weave in the art of piping, whistling and playing music through Patch as a young piper, should pull at the heartstrings of anyone who has ever trembled because of a piece of music. Patch’s description of piping skills led my thoughts to the ghosts of my grandfather and those before him as traditional Scottish pipers. I remember my failed childhood attempts at trying to cast a single note on a bagpipe chanter, and then watching spellbound as my grandpa produced songs from the chanter, his fingers waving and moving as if conjuring magic. The passages describing Patch’s playing took be back to these childhood moments. For younger readers, Patch as a thirteen-year-old discovering his own music is so relevant for readers in this age group. Afer all, music is often the first time we can find a way to express the complexity of what we hold inside us, that words sometimes can’t muster.
The real magic
This is S. A. Patrick’s first novel for younger readers, but under his name as Seth Patrick, he has a series of horror for grown-ups (The Reviver trilogy) if you are so inclined.
I also had a moment of enlightenment on reading that Seth Patrick has a game programming and mathematics background. This makes a lot of sense! I can begin to understand where his power as a writer and scaffolder of imagined worlds emerges from. In A Darkness of Dragons, Patrick is beautifully demonstrating my belief that computer coding and computational thinking have elements transferable to creative writing. I wonder if this is the secret ingredient that I can’t quite explain as to why this imagined world works its enchantment so quickly. Patch’s world unfolds with a structural efficiency, a necessary underlying logic and a sequence needed to lay good strong foundations for a first-in-series fantasy novel. Yet, whilst staying true to the conventions and rules of a novel, there are still so many surprises, unexpected results and lingering questions for our minds to ponder. Although there is structure, there is space made for big hearts to feel things keenly, and amusing comments and asides to explain context so that everything feels naturally unfolding. There is a perfect tension of order and chaos, compiled with enough complexity to keep you turning pages.
Songs of Magic – the series
I truly can’t wait for Patch Brightwater’s next adventure with his friends. I hope some small snippet of my raving enthusiasm encourages you to read it and also purchase this novel to support an incredible author of young adult stories, S. A. Patrick.
This is an unsolicited and personal review of Patrick Ness, A Monster Calls. Illustrated by Jim Kay. Special Collector’s Edition, Walker Books, 2016. ISBN 9781406365771
I’m not sure how long I spent imprisoned in an ancient twisted yew tree back in 2016, but clearly it was long enough to have have missed the existence of both the book and film of A Monster Calls by Patrick Ness. I arrived at this book after recently reviewing the paperback release of Jim Kay’s illustrated version of J K Rowling Harry Potter and the Philosopher’s Stone. This is part of why I love the partnership of authors and illustrators, as illustrators sometimes wander you off your usual garden path, into the words of a wonderful author.
I have wanted to read the Chaos Walking series by Patrick Ness, but it has been a while since I’ve felt able to find the emotional space for a dystopian series, so I’ve waited. I wondered if A Monster Calls was going to be terrifying and I steeled myself. The cover of the special collectors edition that I bought and the amazing ink-black illustrations by Jim Kay were definitely pointing to things crawling out from nightmares.
This is a darkly spooky tale, but within it, is the most moving story. Conor is haunted by a monster. From the cover, there is no mistaking that the monster is a terrifying tree beast. This constant haunting is entwined with the story of how Conor deals with the cancer that his mother is fighting. Instead of being spooked by this story, I found myself in tears, but also still spooked because the monster is unavoidably confronting and so raw and wild in its pursuit of what it wants from Conor.
Patrick Ness has won a range of awards for this story, and although primarily dealing with grief and bravery, if you are interested in wild nature mythology and the folklore of trees there is enough fantasy and nature mythology to root this firmly in the fantasy genre. Jim Kay’s incredible illustrations, dark, inky and shadowy enable the twisted-limbed monster to skulk through every page, looming around the text or imposing its fear in double-page spreads that made this feel as luxurious as a graphic novel.
Patrick Ness completed this story for another author, Siobhan Dowd who passed away before she could take her concept further. This additional layer of poignancy is so powerful because the circumstances and story around this are explained up front.
The collectors edition contains the novel, plus additional material the background story of the book and the making of the film. A truly beautiful book to be revered, particularly because it is printed onto the very paper soul of a tree that once stood in the earth.
This was a heartbreaking and beautiful read, suitable for young adults and adults.
Patrick Ness, A Monster Calls. Illustrated by Jim Kay. Special Collector’s Edition, Walker Books, 2016. ISBN 9781406365771
Catherine Doyle, The Storm Keeper’s Island, Bloomsbury Childrens Books, 2018. ISBN 9781408896877.
This is an unsolicited and personal review.
The Storm Keeper’s Island by Catherine Doyle is a luminous flame of a story! Smouldering in the pages mingle the wild, ancient strengths of nature and family love.
The story is set on Arranmore Island, a real island , Árainn Mhór off the west coast of Ireland. Fionn and his sister Tara have come to the island to stay with their grandfather, who is candlemaker. Malachy seems grown from the island and part of the ebbing tides of sea and the cycles of island folklore.
As Fionn and Tara try to settle into island life, the wellspring of ancient island magic stirs. It calls for the powers of the Storm Keeper of Arranmore. There are signs that times must change forever. New friendships must be forged and old ones mended. Finn must survive betrayals and peril, to quell an ancient evil that is rising to destroy the island.
This story is a wonderful read for middle-grades to young adult. It tackles the complexity and frailty of memory and time, as well as family relationships.
Wildly enchanting, there is also a bright light flickering on the horizon! This isn’t the end of Fionn’s story!
The next book in the series is due out in July 2019.