Dear Readers, as we come to the end of our holiday, even the weather seems to be colluding with my low mood. The pathetic fallacy (the idea that nature reflects our thoughts and feelings) was alive and well in East Finchley on Saturday, as I grumbled through the drizzle and raindrops dripped off my nose.
Grumble, moan, grumble, moan. What pleasant company I must have been for a whole half hour, as I paused to take photos in the rain and to dab the raindrops from my camera lens. My long-suffering husband took it all with a barely supressed grin. He knows that something will soon happen to distract my attention and to make me aware that nature is just going about her business and could care less about me having to go back to work.
Look at this tiny mushroom, for instance, heralding the start of fungi season. All summer long the fungi have been growing underground, and any day soon their fruiting bodies will burst forth as if by magic. It is a sign of autumn, and that’s my favourite season, so already I can feel my mood lift.
When we first moved to our house in Seven Kings when I was fourteen, we woke one morning to see a perfect fairy ring of fungi in the garden. The mushrooms were purest white, and of differing sizes. We stood agape at their surprising perfection. There was a very old apple tree in the garden (which sadly fell down the following year), so maybe this was related to the phenomenon. I rather like the alternative interpretation, that the rings are caused by the tiny feet of dancing elves or fairies, although the consequences for a mortal enticed into the centre of the ring can be disastrous: it was said that the person became invisible to anyone outside, and that the fairies might try to keep the mortal imprisoned forever.
Help is at hand, though! Touching the enchanted person with iron or a branch from a rowan tree might help to lift the spell, and throwing wild marjoram or thyme can also befuddle the fairies. If you are tempted to pop into a fairy ring, you should first run around it nine times under a full moon, and in the direction of the sun. Doing a tenth lap is apparently a recipe for disaster.
It’s strange how the sight of a single mushroom can bring back some many memories.
On we go, with the rain heavier but my heart lighter. We decide to stick to the leafier parts of the cemetery, and I am suddenly much taken by the bark on this tree.
Judging by the leaves, I would say that this is a goat willow (Salix caprea), but I have never seen one with such a lattice-like pattern on the trunk. This must be quite an old tree – goat willows can live to 300 years and grow to 10 metres tall. This one can’t be far off that height. Also known as the pussy willow, this tree is an invaluable source of early pollen for bees, and I remember seeing one at Crossbones Graveyard in South London that was absolutely covered with honeybees on a warm spring day.
Willow bark from all species contains salicin, from which aspirin is derived: in medieval times the bark was chewed to alleviate toothache, which just goes to show that our ancestors were well attuned to the different characteristics of wild plants, even without knowing the chemical justification. The bark was also boiled in water and used to treat sore throats and to reduce the joint pain from arthritis, surely one of humanity’s most ancient banes. I remember seeing the skeleton of a stone-age person who had lived into middle-age, and her joints were eaten up with arthritis. I hope she was able to use some of nature’s painkillers to ease her suffering.
And then we emerge onto one of the avenues in the cemetery, the rain lifts just a little, and I stop to look back.
The horse chestnuts are shedding their leaves and their conkers, but there is a brief golden glow as a stray sunbeam grazes the tops of the trees. And then the rain really starts, so we hustle back home for a feta and spinach slice from Tony’s Continental (our local greengrocer) and a nice cup of tea. Yet again, the nature cure seems to have worked.