After surfacing from the spell of the related novella, Silver in the Wood by Emily Tesh, I could not stop thinking about the opportunity to return to the leafy paths of Greenhollow Wood in Drowned Country. I have never been so eager to be lost in the woods.
Drowned Country is a story of epic love, and the complexity of the burden of love too. Set within an ancient mythic forest, every character seems to have an archetypal echo. Yet they battle with the boundaries of their power so entangled in human flaws. The deep love between Henry Silver and Tobias, both enigmas to each other, is not just their love story, but the timeless ever told tales of the wild man of the woods, green man stories and the kings and queens of fairy.
In Drowned Country, more of Greenhollow’s folklore is unearthed to readers, from supernatural dryads and demon lords to the human folklorists who have both kept and destroyed the history and stories of the forest. Perhaps the most fearsome power of all is Henry Silver’s mother, who despite being quite mortal, seems to have the most formidable control of all.
The seasonal cycle of dark and light in the forest and the recurring patterns of folklore and myth whirl the reader along with Henry Silver, Tobias and company, as they venture across the threshold of the wildwood into faery to find a missing girl, Maud Lindhurst. There are unforeseen and epic consequences. Although an expedition tale, I love the pace of this story that pauses for delightful dialogue and description of Greenhollow’s forest glades. It’s a tale told in the mystery of old forest-time, over aeons and day.
I could read so much more of Greenhollow Wood, and Tobias and Henry Silver. I hope that Drowned Country isn’t the last time the thorny thickets and brambles beckon readers through a gap and into this world of wild gods.
The forest of Greenhollow feels like a personality in itself, alive and interacting in the story. In this way Drowned Country reminds me of powerful mythopoetic stories of portal woods, such as Mythago Wood by Robert Holdstock. Lovers of the likes of Neil Gaiman’s Stardust or Jonathan Strange and Mr Norrell by Susanna Clarke will particularly enjoy the dark brooding menace of fairy in this adventure beyond the mortal boundaries of Greenhollow Wood.
From mid-July to October, my life is temporarily shifting gear a bit. We were asked to use up excess leave at work. Usually, this leave would be preciously cached for school holidays. I’d use it to look after my children in the summer holidays or family trips to see our loved ones who are overseas. Things are of course very different in 2020.
Whilst I could usually easily fill the time with house chores, cooking, D.I.Y., reading novels and walks to wild places, I have also been facing a new health challenge since March this year. It means that I really don’t know how much physical work I’ll be capable of over the next few months. I’m immunocompromised and my physical abilities have fluctuated over the last few months. Things may get worse before they get better. I know it’s time to be serious about it and to properly respect my limits. I start a journey of seeing specialists next week and I have really no idea about what this will involve.
To tackle a period of uncertainty like this, I just need a plan. At the core is something to keep my mind engaged, with a bonus if my body will allow me to do anything practical.
Frugally hedonistic retro suburban sustainable living (!)
Back in February 2020, my husband converted the bespoke kid’s cubby house at the bottom of the garden into a roomier version that would be a potting shed for me. The kids had outgrown it and he achieved the transformation by dropping the floor height and cutting a larger door and patching up the floor.
I had never had my own shed before. I decorated the inside with things that I have had forever and leftover paint. I probably got slightly carried away, because The Burrow became something far more than I imagined.
Potting sheds for practical magic
I didn’t imagine how important having a potting shed would be. I didn’t imagine loving a shed.
It is practical for gardening, because it makes seed keeping and sowing easier. I can now always find my tools and access things to keep my chickens happy.
But also, on another level, because I made it a place of whimsy, it’s just a quirky little space, a sanctuary where I can just have a cup of tea for five minutes. Where I feel connected to growing, the garden and permaculture thinking.
I can fit regular small-scale seed sowing in more easily to life because it is an organised space. The kids have used the potting shed too, planting radishes and drawing art for inside it.
There is just something about it that feels…otherworldly. Looking at it, and stepping inside is strangely comforting. It’s real magic.
Reusing and upcycling
What I loved about this project was that we reused and recycled what we could. We bought the minimum items needed where we could not source second hand. My husband found an incredible old door for sale nearby and converted it into a half-opening barn door.
Inspiration for “The Burrow”
Our chicken coop is called “The Bothy” so I needed a name for my potting shed. It felt right to call my potting shed “The Burrow” – a name borrowed from the Harry Potter series.
All fantastic worlds collide in my head, and my shed!
I used anything I had in the house – like a teapot that I loved but being clumsy, I had dropped it and broken the handle. Perfect for a bit of fun in the potting shed…
Gardening like farmer, farming like a gardener
With a green man keeping a watchful eye on the outside of the burrow, it seemed right to have one on the inside. Who better than the source of inspiration for all my gardening adventures in Australia, but Costa Georgiadis!
I had a magazine page (from Earth Garden magazine) that I had stuck onto an old baking tray with a quote from Costa Georgiadis…
“And at the end of the day, it’s all about gardening like a farmer and farming like a gardener”
My brother and sister in law know I am a Costa Georgiadis fan and had bought me this beautiful art by local artist Joan and Rose. It just felt right to have Costa as a green man in the potting shed and I’m fairly sure it’s why the chickens love visiting the shed so much.
I had an epiphany learning how to build soil through his series ‘Costa’s Garden Odyssey’. Having Costa as the Southern Hemisphere green man of the inside of my potting shed seems right and I hope he doesn’t mind.
On a sunny day I can brew water for tea in my Sun Rocket solar camping kettle. The potting trolley (“Any plants from the trolley?”) was our second child’s baby change table, which my husband converted into a moveable potting table.
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.