The Library of Obscure Wonders

Rain, Toads and the Alder Tree

I’m in Cornwall again, staying in the woods as before. It is raining ferociously which makes my plans of sleeping under the trees redundant, but it is still amazing. I like the rain, I don’t know why but I always have, perhaps it was because at school it used to mean games would be cancelled and I hated games. I remember once in a physics lesson leading a rain dance ritual to the horror of the physics teacher, because games was scheduled that afternoon. A few drops of rain landed on my nose that afternoon, but not enough for games to be cancelled.

I think it is the smell and the bright colours that rain brings which are now why I love it. Lou, whose wood this is, has just given me an article on the smell of rain. Apparently it is from bacterium released by the soil when it rains which humans are particularly sensitive to.

There is a big Alder tree by the river, I got a little wet trying to sketch it from the other side of the river yesterday. A curious tree, it has been cut back many times and regrown, I wonder how old it is, alders only live to about 60. I spend all afternoon studying it and the moss that crawls up its sides.  There is a summer house nearby so I don’t get soaked, but do feel somewhat heroic being out in the cold and rain.

The Alder tree was once seen to symbolise the balance between male and female as both male and female catkins appear on the same branch. It has also been associated with courage, strength and resurrection. In Austria it was once thought that Alder trees could raise the dead.

For me there is something friendly and strong about the Alder, I can’t say what, but it makes me feel comfortable. Though in the past some have thought of it as unlucky or hostile, perhaps because when cut the Alder turns an orange colour due to the sap which can look like blood.

It is a pioneer tree, fertilising the ground for future species, growing to around 20 m tall, it grows in wetland, swamps and by the side of rivers. Alder roots are visible above ground and often provide homes for otters, or fish. The flowers are in the form of catkins, the male catkin are long pendulous and yellow, the female are small, rounded and green, with 3 to 8 on a stalk. They flower between February and April and are mainly wind pollinated, though occasionally visited by bees.

The Alder lives in a symbiotic relationship with the bacterium Frankia alni. The bacterium lives in the root nodules of the Alder tree, these can grow to the size of a human fist, where it absorbs nitrogen from the air and makes it available to the tree. The Alder in return provides the bacterium with sugar through its photosynthesis. This relationship is very beneficial to the soil, fertilising it and providing nitrogen for the plants and trees that follow.

The roots of the Alder are particularly tough in water and can become like stone. They are very resistant to rot when in water and were often used to shore up river banks. Due to this resilience under water the piles on which Venice stands are made of Alder. However when out of water in the open air it does rot, so is not so good for  building outdoors. It is good for making whistles and flutes. Fender guitars are made from Alder because of the smoothness of the wood.

Red dye can be made from the outer bark and yellow dye from the inner bark, green dye can be made from the flowers and is apparently what Robin Hood and faerie folk dyed their clothes in.

Alders by rivers and swamp can create a mysterious atmosphere indeed. They were thought to be closely connected to the faerie folk. In Irish mythology the first human is thought to be made from an Alder Tree, the first woman from a Rowan.
The giant and king, Bran the blessed, is connected to the Alder. Bran (meaning crow or raven) in Welsh mythology is said to make the bridge between Wales and Ireland for the Welsh to walk across in the battle to rescue his sister Branwen, similar to how the Alder has been used to build bridges. Bran was killed in the battle, but the welsh won. Bran’s still talking head remained talking after it was chopped off, and even managed to entertain the troops. It was eventually taken and buried where the Tower of London now stands.

Medically Alder has many uses that benefited the celts and native Americans alike. Put Alder leaves in your shoes before a long walk to keep your feet cool and prevent swelling. Alder contains salicin which is an anti-inflammatory. It has been used to treat skin irritations, insect bites, lymphatic disorders and tuberculosis. It is also thought to be of benefit in the treatment of some tumours.

Back to my Alder by the river. In the evening the rain ceases and there is a calm mist over the whole wood. We have a fire in the summer house. I listen to the water rippling and the birds in the tree, now the bats start to swoop through its branches. I drink my kings ginger nightcap and Mike, Lou’s partner, talks of his time in Cambridge studying philosophy, he recommends David Hume. On the way back to the house we come across lots of toads on the path. Fat beautiful creatures with warty skin in interesting patterns. The perfect way to end the night.

When I get back to London I will paint another toad picture on handmade paper, this paper seems to suit toads flesh. Maybe I will attempt to make dye from the Alder bark to paint it in.

Sketch of the Alder tree whilst in the rain.

 

The Black Poplar Tree and naked flying

poplarcatkin 2

I really enjoyed drawing this part of the poplar tree. I’d never looked that closely at a poplar before and didn’t realise how sticky the balsam is or how sweetly it smells. I highly recommend drawing it.

The other day I went into the garden to plant poplar tree sticks. They are sticks left over at the end of a botany class. I took loads of different sticks and put them in water in a tall glass jar. Their buds sprouted into leaves which I’ve been drawing, and amazingly the poplar sticks have started to grow roots. It gives off lots of very sticky sweet smelling treacle like substance, the balsam. I dug three holes in the garden, two near the fence where an old tree used to be, and one over the other side in the shade. I’ve no idea if they will grow, but it seems a shame not to give them a go now they have started rooting.

The treacle substance can be turned into a balm. It used to be very poplar with the witches for its flying properties. Poplar balsam was used in flying potions. I read that if I smear it all over my naked body and get on my broomstick I will be able to fly far and wide through the night sky. Smeared on certain parts of the body prior to ritual or meditation it can help with astral projection.

The wild poplar is very rare in Britain now, though it used to be native. There are many cultivated varieties though which can often be seen in parks. There is a phantom tree planter who has spent the last 30 years going round Britain planting Black Poplar trees where ever he sees a bit of space. He doesn’t bother getting permission, well then he wouldn’t be a phantom would he.

Black Poplars can grow to 30 metres tall and live 200 years. They grow very quickly and are best suited to damp marshy landscapes. The bark is a dark brown often appearing black. The leaves are triangular shaped and tremple and quiver in the wind, often sounding like they are singing, it was said that this is the tree praying.

Male and female catkins of the Poplar grow on different trees (dioecious), the female catkins are yellowish green, the male catkins are red and it used to be said that these red catkins, once fallen, were Devil’s fingers and bring bad luck if picked up.

Once fertilised the female catkins turn into fluffy seeds which fall in late summer, very attractive but difficult to draw.

Poplar wood was used to make shields by the Celts, and seen as very protective. The black poplar is sacred to Hecate, the death goddess. There was once a tradition of burying lamb’s tails under newly planted poplar trees at lamb docking time, as a sacrifice to the goddess of death.

It is the sticky balsam that most interests me at the moment. Its origins are explained in the Greek legend where Phaethon asks his father Helios, god of the sun, if he can drive his chariot of the sun across the heavens one day. He was not very successful at this, he did not have the strength to control the horses and the chariot was taken off course, taking the sun so close to the earth it nearly burnt. Zeus was very cross with this and killed Phaethon with a bolt of lightning. Phaethon’s sisters, who had helped convince their father to let Phaethon drive the chariot, saw his death and weeped so bitterly that the gods decided to turn them in to Poplar trees and their tears to amber tears formed by the oozing balsam.

The balm made from these tears has been used for many medical purposes such as rheumatism, gout, coughs and colds, but I’m going to use it for flying! One warm night this summer I’ll be venturing out to find a suitable black poplar, lying under it’s singing branches, covered in sticky balm I will go into a trance and I shall astral project myself to who knows where. Unfortunately I probably won’t be sky clad, as crowded London doesn’t lend itself to such freedom.

Stinging Nettles: Protection, Exorcism, Lust and A Soup Recipe

nettle2
So I’ve agreed with some friends to help them out with their garden. I decide I’m going to do little pencil sketches of plants in the garden (see above) and write a blog about each.

The first thing I do is clear away some weeds. The place is covered in thick stinging nettles that go up to my knee. I dig them up, but it seems a shame to just throw them out so I make nettle soup. It’s nice once I get the hang of it, a little “textured” but I imagine that wouldn’t be the case if I had a food blender. The second day it tastes even better. I also make nettle tea in a lovely china teapot a friend gave me. It tastes of nettles, I would be pleased only I’m getting a bit nettled out now, my hands and arms are stinging permanently despite having worn gloves. I decide to lookup what benefit all these nettles might be doing me:

Nettle is very high in vitamins and iron. They stop bleeding and used to be ground into a fine powder and used as a snuff to stop nose bleeds, or used in an infusion. They are also good for treating colds. The leaves are said to improve ones complexion and circulation and can be used to clear the chest of phlegm.

As for magic, the nettle apparently has powers of exorcism, protection and lust. It is seen as masculine, comes under the planet Mars and the element of fire.  It belongs to Thor, the Norse god of thunder. To remove a curse and send it back carry a sachet of nettle around with you. Sprinkle nettle around the house to keep evil out. Throw it into the fire to avert danger or wear it as an amulet to keep ghosts and negativity away.

It has been used as a lust inducing herb, used in purification baths and the irritant within the hairs has been used as an aphrodisiac to stimulate the sexual organs.

I’m just sticking to the soup.

Recipe:

Nettle tips
Onion
Garlic
Rice
Vegetable stock
Salt and pepper

Cut and wash nettles tips (whilst wearring gloves)
Boil in a saucepan of water for a couple of minutes. This removes most of the sting
Slice them into small pieces and remove tough stems
Fry some onions and garlic in a pan with butter till the onions go soft and golden (I love butter but I suppose you can use oil if you choose)
Add the nettles
Add some rice
Add a good amount of hot water with vegetable stock mixed in
Bring to the boil and simmer for 15 to 20 minutes, or until the rice is done
Add salt and pepper to taste (I add loads of salt, but then I’m addicted to the stuff and my blood pressure isn’t high)

And there you have it, very simple , tasty and good for you, just be careful not to get stung to pieces like I did.

Dung Beetle – The Lousy Watchman

dorbeetleThis picture is of a Dor beetle. The Dor beetle is a type of dung beetle under the family of Scarab. It looks very much like the ancient Egyptian symbol for the god Khepri. He was thought to roll the sun across the sky everyday in much the same way as a dung beetle rolls dung. For this reason the dung beetle represented recycling and reincarnation, the sun going each evening and coming back each morning.

I think the dung beetle is a good symbol for recycling and reincarnation anyway, for its use of dung helps return the nutrients  (for there are plenty in dung!) back to the soil for the plants to grow. The Dor beetle is known as an “earth-boring dung beetle”. They usually work in pairs, a male and a female will dig a passage in the earth under a pile of dung. They then dig side passages off of this and into each one a piece of dung is placed. An egg is laid into the dung and the passage is then closed off with more dung. The larvae hatch from the eggs and feed on the dung for a year until they pupate and adult beetles emerge.

I came across this beetle on the body of a recently deceased stag. It is not unusual to find dung beetles on carcasses, the “Beetles that eat bodies” webpage lists them as one of the beetles entomologists look for on cadavers to help determine the time of death. The one I watched was determined to get on the top of the stags shoulder, it kept trying then falling off, then trying again. Whenever it fell off it rolled over onto its body and then I could see its metallic blue and purple underbelly and legs. It really was a very beautiful creature. Unfortunately I did not take a photo so these drawings are done from memory and what I could find on google. The beetle’s determination paid off and eventually he climbed onto the shoulder and, seemingly proud of his accomplishment, strutted across the body.

The Dor Beetle is is also known as the Lousy Watchman because if often has small mites living on its belly. I couldn’t see any mites on the one I saw, this may have spoiled my vision of it as a lucky omen.

fullsizeoutput_87

Underbelly

Brief History of Botanical Illustration PDF

brief-history

“The ancient Chinese, Indians, Egyptians, Babylonians, and Native Americans were all herbalists. The oldest known list of medicinal herbs is Shen Nung’s Pen Ts’ao or Shennong Ben Cao Jing (c. 3000 B.C.), a Chinese herbal that is probably a compilation of an even older oral tradition.”

University of Virginia

Oak

oak

The first tree that particularly fascinated me was the Oak. I have always felt a certain warmth for Oak, as many people do. They are strong deciduous trees found in British woodland and indeed in many other parts of the world.

Today I walked through the local park looking for an Oak. I found a large one up against the wall. I sat myself down to draw it , but I could not get far enough away to see the whole tree and it was so criss-crossed with its branches and the falling leaves that I soon got lost trying to draw it. I feel that this tree was going to take a lot more investigation than just a quick sketch. Then, with some amusement, the thought came into my head to look for the Green Man in it’s trunk. The Oak is often associated with the Green Man. At first I noticed nothing, the trunk looked the same ridgety complication all over. Then I flippantly asked the tree where the Green Man was, I looked again and there he was! Clear as anything, with a strong nose and brow.

The Oak has been called the “king of the woods”. A symbol of strength, protection and longevity, it was the tree sacred to Zeus in Greek mythology. Priests would read the pronouncements of the gods by reading the rustling of the Oaks leaves.

It was also sacred to the Norse God Thor, the god of thunder. Curiously the Oak is struck by lightning more than any other tree – unlike the Holly which detracts it – so much so that people would collect blackened pieces of Oak tree for good luck. I read recently that the Druids would not meet for rituals unless an Oak tree was present, so important was the Oak to their belief system. The old name for Oak is Duir and the name Druid is thought in part to be connected to the Oak, meaning “people of the oak”.

The Oak has been seen as the gateway to the Otherworld. In folklore the Oak is linked to the sacrificed king whose ritual death happens in midsummer. An old story about the Oak, popular in the medieval period, had the Oak as the king of the summer. Each year the Oak King fights the Holly King of the winter, each new spring the Oak King wins the battle, each new fall the Holly King wins.

An Oak can live to a thousand years old. Their powers of protection are thought to be great. Two twigs of Oak, bound with a red thread so that they form an equal armed cross, makes a safeguard against evil. It should be hung in the home. If someone is sick in your home and you have a fireplace make a fire of Oak wood to draw out the sickness. Carry an acorn against sickness and pains and to give you longevity. Carrying any piece of the Oak brings good luck. Carrying an acorn can increase fertility and increase sexual potency.

In spring Oaks produce both male catkins and small female flowers , their fruit is the acorn. It is a keystone species in many habitats, a number of types of truffle have symbiotic relationships with Oaks, and the small bird known as the European pied flycatcher builds it nest solely in Oak trees. Acorns and Oak leaves are poisonous to cattle, horses and sheep, but pigs can live off them and were often reared in oak forests. Indeed acorns formed an important food source for many early human cultures.

The other night i slept under the Oak tree in the park. It felt like a very safe place to be, though the knat stings were dreadful!

 

Garlic

Garlic cloves

Garlic cloves allowed to grow. Limited edition print by Jo Fisher Roberts

Garlic, Allium ursinum, has been used by people for over 7000 years. It grows in Asia, Africa and Europe. It’s planet is Mars and its element fire, it’s deity is Hecarte. Garlic was eaten at festivals to Hercarte, and left at crossroads to her name. Often planted in the garden or worn around the neck to protect against evil spirits garlic has also been used to help  boost the immune system, protect against hepatitis, to guard against foul weather and as an antiseptic. It was used in Ancient Egypt to give the builders of the pyramids energy and strength.

Moon Poo, Wolf Milk, Tree Hair And other types of Slime

slime moulds

An illustration of slime moulds

“There is only one rule to life” said my biology teacher on one of his more whimsical days “for every rule you find you can always find something that breaks it”.

Ignoring the obvious contradiction he preceded to educate us in a creature that was not animal or plant, not multi-cellular or single cellular, but very possibly alien.

In 1973 in Dallas, Texas, firefighters were called out because a strange yellow blob was attacking a telephone pole. The firefighters tried to subdue it with hoses, but the creature grew bigger and climbed up the pole. Locals feared an alien invasion. Yellow blobs had recently been appearing on their lawns and now this giant blob was seemingly eating the telephone pole. Luckily, a local university scientist identified the oozing slime as F. septica. a harmless slime mould.

It is unusual for slime moulds to be this large, they are usually tiny, very slimy and not a mould. Having been banished from the fungi class in recent history for having very little relation to a fungi, they now have their very own kingdom, yet still perplex scientists as to where exactly they fit in. They come in many different colours – yellow, pink, white, green, brown, black – and have many different common names such as Tree Hair, Bubble Gum, Chocolate tubes, Wolf Milk , Dog Vomit and Caca de Luna (Moon Poo) which I’m informed is delicious when fried.

There are two main types of Slime Mold, the Plasmordial – basically one great big cell with many nuclei – and the Cellular – these spend most of their life as single celled amoeba but when food gets short a chemical signal is released and they come together to form “slugs”, with head part, body and tale, that go wondering off to find somewhere better.

At some point they then turn into fruiting bodies, with some of them being sacrificed in order to do this. Their life cycle intrigues scientists for the questions it raises about altruism.

A fairly recent Slime Mould discovery is that although they don’t have a brain, or anything even approaching, they do use a type of external memory. Hansel and Gretal style. Build a small maze in a petri dish, on one side of the maze put your Slime Mould, on the other put a delicious food supply. The Slime mould will work its way round the maze leaving behind a slime trail so it knows where it has been before and doesn’t return there.

Life Cycle of Slime Mold

Life-cycle of a Slime Mould

Whats more these things are all around, everyday, lurking in the corners of your life, in the garden, in the town, maybe in your house. So with their ability to exist as both single and multi-celluar organisms, their altruism,  being able to find their way through mazes, and most of all their ability to still completely baffle humans, slime moulds are fantastic!  (And are the future)

The Snake Amongst Rubbish.

Art work - Snake painting

Watercolour and Gouache on handmade paper, with bed springs and litter.

This beast has just successfully got to America, much to my relief. I could see the authorities objecting to rusting bed springs in a package arriving from across the continent, but it got there safely. It is one of my earliest experiments in embedding and painting on handmade paper. It is an incredibly lengthy process with a high possibility of it going wrong at any stage – the paper-making, the drying, the embedding, and when it comes to the image, well you can’t rub out on handmade paper! The error possibilities are enormous, quite crazy in fact, but it is very rewarding once finished. There is also the curious thing that because it’s created from recycled materials the materials and the making process play a role in how the final image turns out, almost tell their story by influencing my decisions as I make it.

I found the bed springs in my garden, when I was trying to build a pond. An entire mattress is buried under the ground, rotten away so that it is just a huge bunch of strings and wire. I thought I saw a snake slithering amongst the strings, but it was probably my eyes playing tricks on me again.

The snake is a fascinating animal. The word snake comes from the term “to creep”. The forked tongue smells as well as tastes, and is constantly in motion sampling particles from the air. Many snakes also have infrared-sensitive receptors to detect the heat given off by warm blooded creatures. Most impressive, from a visual point of view, is their  jointed skull and highly mobile jaw which enables them to eat prey far larger then their heads, and often live.

Dr. BoBo Chaplin’s Cabinet of Curiosities

481px-PhrenologyPixThese photographs are of the notable Cabinet of Curiosities belonging to charismatic phrenologist “Dr. BoBo” Chaplin (1792-1864?) born in Zion House, Twickenham, London.

Phrenology is a process that involved observing and feeling the skull to determine an individual’s psychological attributes. Dr. BoBo believed that the brain was made up of 27 individual organs that determined personality. He would run his fingertips and palms over the skulls of his patients to feel for enlargements or indentations. He would often take measurements with a tape measure of the overall head size and more rarely employ a craniometer, as displayed in the cabinet.
The contents of the cabinet were dispersed in 1968 after disagreements over its rightful ownership (Chaplin vs. Adams, June 1967). It is thought that many of the pieces were lost during this period. The relatively small collection of exhibits which remained in England are currently on display as part of the Library of Obscure Wonders at The Hundred Years Gallery until the 2nd March 2014.

Inside Dr.BoBo's cabinet

Inside Dr.BoBo’s cabinet

A photo of the insides of Dr BoBo's cabinet.

A photo of the insides of Dr BoBo’s cabinet.