Down the rabbit hole: from parts to whole
By wildcurious, Nov 4 2017 10:28AM
This is the time of year to surround oneself with rich and earthy fruits and nuts, with the smell of wood smoke at dusk, watching bats flit at close of eve over the sleek surface of the river. It is a time for warm toes, woolly hats, for earthy and sweet flavours and for fireside nourishment.
Sweet chestnuts (Castanea sativa) surely evoke memories of autumn, of their deliciously creamy, earthy sweet roasted scent filling the streets by Christmas markets, or at the fireside.
A deciduous tree, sweet chestnut is very much at home in our island, having once travelled across from western Asia and north Africa, and now found widely across the continent, particularly in southern Europe. On these shores, it is said to have been introduced by Roman armies, playing the long game, because chestnut takes can take decades to begin to fruit heavily.
Through spring to mid-autumn, its beautiful glossy green toothed leaves atop the often corkscrewed, furrowed and twisted trunk mark its presence in the landscape. It expresses itself with a dramatic flourish, as if caught mid dance. And what might it have witnessed to spur such a dance along its hundreds and sometimes thousands of years of presence?
As summer turns to autumn, sweet chestnuts ripen on the tree branches snugly encased inside their green crowns before dropping shiny brown edible starbursts to the ground.
Chestnut offers us many layers of utility beyond just food; the leaves once used widely as medicine for respiratory complaints, as an astringent for staunch bleeding, a treatment for fevers, as an anti inflammatory for joint and muscle pain (and much more). Its timber is still is used for building, for making charcoal, and tannin from the bark was once widely used for leather tanning.
On the continent the trees are grown commercially for their nut harvest, particularly in France, Portugal and Spain. Corsicans once prized chestnut so highly that they used it as a currency and still make a polenta and beer from dried and ground nuts.
The nuts are high in starch carbohydrates and vitamin C and have copper, B vitamins potassium, magnesium and iron. Indeed they may one day offer us a necessary alternative to grains for a carbohydrate source in a changing and unpredictable climate.
Chestnut has been known as a charm to encourage fertility and abundance, and to help ground and focus one's energy. But also also as an early Christian symbol of chastity. Dualistic dancing indeed.
Near the beginning of my plant journey I began to develop a different relationship with sweet chestnut as I delved deeper into being-in-the-world, and as I began to meet wild plants relationally. To know them rather than to have knowledge about them.
I was drawn to chestnut, I suppose, because of the magic I still hold from my childhood associations of collecting shiny brown nut treasures and eating hot melt-in-the-mouth roasted chestnuts. These memories and feelings represent a nostalgic and slightly fantastical connection to a bygone era, and with it a desire to know and inhabit a time where we lived with less of a distance from plants and trees.
As a forager, developing a relationship with plants is a dynamic process; it cannot be any other way. And to really begin to understand the life world of someone or something one must enter into it.
With plants this means getting to know the plant on its own terms; where and how it grows, its relationship with other plants and creatures, how it unfolds through its life cycle and how it expresses itself across seasons. Understand its living, breathing, dynamic character.
To encounter the wild we must open up a part of ourselves to wildness. In this way, the experiences with wild plants, and literally taking wild food in can become a doorway, a rabbit hole through which to discover our wild self.
Losing time with chestnut helped me to begin to peel back layers of experience with the wild, opening myself up to see its pattern and potential, and the way one small nut expresses the qualities of something much bigger.
Watching, drawing, touching, smelling, roasting, eating. As I focussed on the unique qualities of chestnut, some kind of magic happens. A flow that began from noticing the nut’s minutiae and onto imagining the dynamic life force contained within it. That although on first glance the nut is a static object in my hand, it contains all the energy and life force to become a great tree.
An air cleaner, an oxygen giver, a food provider, a nutrient cycler, a communicator, a home, a healer, a water cleaner, a giver of beauty.
Working with wild plants, when we begin to make connections between what ‘is’ in the present moment with what ‘might be’, we can begin to feel the animism of that aspect of the natural world. So it becomes alive and dynamic rather than a static object to be understood with static thoughts and ideas. So it leaves an imprint within us which may make space for really experiencing the dynamic reality of the wild, and for our intuition to find its voice.
How does time spent in wild spaces with wild things help us connect back with our wild and precious home? How does it bring alive the storyteller within us?
My experience of developing relationship with chestnut guided me through a transition from building knowledge of chestnuts to really knowing Chestnut, where knowledge is picking up pieces of information from which we build fragmented parts of a picture, and knowing has hidden depths which catalyse an intuitive journey to a bigger whole.
So yes, there we have it. I am in deep awe of chestnut, a self confessed sweet chestnut lover and ponderer.
I invite you to develop your own depth of encounter that leaves a part of the wild whole within you.
If this has sparked something in you, why not join us under the trees and around the fire to explore in a guided and sensory wild food escape. Click here for details
To see the world in a grain of sand
And a heaven in a wild flower flower
Hold infinity in the palm of you hand and Eternity in an hour...
…Under every grief & pine
Runs a joy with silken twine
And when this we rightly know
Thro the World we safely go…
Auguries of Innocence: William Blake