We find ourselves in the traces of what has gone before...
‘…I am not fully known to myself because part of what I am is the enigmatic traces of others…’ Judith Butler
I keep on returning to this quote, like a waypoint. I found it (or should that be, it found me?) five years ago, tucked into the pages of a book left behind in an artist’s bothy in Evie, on the mainland of Orkney. It meant something to me then, still in the rough-edged lost world of early grief after my mother’s death. I wrote it down, and carried it with me, waiting to see what incantation it would reveal. I did not know then that the trace would begin with the sequencing of DNA.
As I learnt the names of the genetic mutations that have shaped my body since birth, this quote came to mean something else - a search for traces within my blood, to tell my story; to give names to the parts. My face, no longer just carrying the shape and shadow of my mother, my sister, but further back to those I did not know; those whose stories were still wrapped in silence and secrets, A trace became a line, became a map, became a quest to find my way home, to some place of belonging within the landscape of my body.
I began that story in Orkney. A few words left scattered from another author’s story. Now, thirteen years after we first visited these islands, my son wrapped in a red rain suit, asking to be lifted above the waves; and five years after I tucked those words into the folds of my journal, these islands are our home.
Here, we are blow-ins, or new-islanders - the first implying the accidental arrival of those blown off-course, the second holding the spirit of the settler, uprooted, in search of new land.
I am both of these. Lost. Found. My course unfiltered by loss, by illness, by a pandemic that doesn’t end for us. Uprooted. Yet, those traces still hold. My blood, my skin, my bone. I am, and I am not, my past; that tenuous tether felt by those who live outside of where they belong.
Yet, this is my new home. My place of be-longing. The garden, stubborn to let me in, mistrusting of my intentions, has finally allowed me to put down roots. Small seedlings grow in the heart-meadow at its centre. Carry-ins of lemon balm and mugwort, mint and yarrow begin to strengthen into the soil, stretching upwards to the lengthening summer sun. There is still resistance, but we are communicating now.
Spring is different here. I cannot find the usual signs of its arrival: small shoots of woodruff, the scent of ramsons along the damp beck, the blackthorn hedge coming into its blousy flower, white against the greening of ground. It doesn’t come. Instead, the light shifts position as the sun rises higher. Days lengthen. The perpetual alchemical gold of winter transmutes into silver and sharp blues that stretch long into the night hours, and I wake too early, confused. On the cliffs, I find pillows of thrift just pinking, tiny creeping juniper, artic willow tufting yellow. The seals are no longer here, but oystercatcher and curlew dance through the sky above my head as I walk the bay. We wait for these returning, the migration of birds as fixed in this landscape as the hedgerow blossom was in the one before.
Other things wash in too: a gannet dead on the shore, its elegant beak slightly open, its dimmed eyes staring blind; a large jellyfish, a translucent, quivering orb caught at the high tideline, beached and waiting for the sea to return. Don’t worry, I am told. The sea will take it home but, when I go to check the next day, it is still there, now nothing but a trace of something viscous, clinging to stone. A reminder not to hold on to the shore too long.
I am translucent right now. Part veil, part flesh, fading, phasing, caught in the buffer zone. It is as if grief has worn thin a place in me, rubbed away at my veneer until, atom by atom, wound by wound, I disappear. Weightless, without weight, not quite formed. It is at once liberating, and lonely. The cat and I walk the shore in a slow meditation. It is familiar, the same stop-start-look rhythm of early childhood, my son running ahead to see what he could discover. It is important not to look too hard. A process of looking without looking. If I stare too hard, all I see are the rocks. If I pass too quickly, I miss the small treasures below my feet. I must walk and observe without seeking, slow enough to notice, but not focused only on the find.
I learn to spot patina, colour, shape, the ageing lines. Stop, bend, turn, pocket. Our house fills with fragments of glass, old bottle tops, broken pottery pieces scattered and worn. I tuck them away, trying to piece together something of a story in these cast-off bones. One day, I tell myself, I will create a mosaic of these parts, let these fragments come together in all their broken parts to tell a new story of home, and belonging, and things that once whispered in the dark.
And around the broken parts, the garden begins to find its form.
Short read from All My Wild Mothers
“…When people ask me where I am from, I never know what to respond. My husband’s family live in the same small town where they were born, but mine? Even when we were staying still, we were always moving, looking for the next life, trying it on for size, as if the one we lived indeed not fit. In a way, it never did.
For my family, life was a windblown, scatter-seed affair, no sense of root or route; and yet, those roots were there. My father’s were grown in Cumberland, deep in a seam of iron and coal, but when the mines closed, poverty forced his family south, three hundred and forty miles to the mouth of the Thames. If it had not, my own story would not have begun…”
(extract from Oxeye Daisy, All My Wild Mothers)
Plant of the Month
Poor-land flower, dog daisy, maudlinwort, moon-penny, poverty weed
To dream of your future lover, place daisy root under your pillow and your shoes outside your door
Oxeye daisy is associated with the goddess Artemis. The plant is similar to chamomile and was traditionally used to treat ‘women’s complaints’, including menopausal symptoms and night sweats. It can be applied topically as a poultice or wash to treat wounds, burns, bruises, conjunctivitis and chapped hands. Antispasmodic, tonic and diuretic, it can improve appetite and has been used to treat liver and chronic gallbladder complaints, reduce fluid retention, reduce fluid retention, relieve chronic coughs, treat colds and fevers and soothe sore throats. The unopened buds can be pickled like capers.
Oxeye daisy grows voraciously in disturbed ground.
(from All My Wild Mothers)
Brew of the Day (from the apothecary garden)
For when the weather is heavy and the pollen is high. A brew to bring energy and relief.
Elderflowers, mint, lemon balm and ribwort plantain
Combine fresh ingredients in a teapot and cover with boiling water. Steep for at least 15 minutes. Drink throughout the day, hot or cold.
Read of the Day
Secrets from a Herbalist’s Garden - Jo Dunbar
‘A beautifully illustrated guide to providing safe herbal remedies for common health conditions, while restoring our comforting connection to the year's natural rhythm.
There is nothing as magical as picking a weed from under a hedge, brewing it in the cauldron of your teapot, and using that potion to restore health. It’s everyday alchemy, and it transforms us from the base metal of material gratification into the gold of recognizing the exquisite power of nature.
Secrets from a Herbalist’s Garden meets the pull to recover from illness or to alleviate a long-standing condition, as well as the yearning for a new way of life, where growing and harvesting herbs with the seasons is adopted as a new holistic lifestyle. You might consult the text with a specific ailment or a plant to harvest, but it would also guide you to a more spiritual and seasonal lifestyle.’
All My Wild Mothers - news
Recently, I have been chatting with Prompted by Nature and Caravan of the Heart, on nature, creativity, connection — and the need for reclaiming and nurturing our wild spaces - within ourselves and our world.
I travelled to Edinburgh to meet up with the lovely Kerri ni Dochartaigh, whose recent memoir, Cacophony of Bone, has just been published by Canongate. We met in the gorgeous garden at the Lighthouse Radical Bookshop, to talk nature, change and belonging, for their Wild Bones event.
Coming up in June, I am thrilled to be taking All My Wild Mothers to Borders Book Festival. Tickets available. What better place to take this story than the beautiful Harmony Garden…
A bit further ahead, All My Wild Mothers is going on a bit of a road trip in July. See below for dates. Tickets available now. I hope to see some of you along the way.
13th July 6.30pm - Waterstones, Kendal, Cumbria
14th July 7pm - Dogberry & Finch Bookshop, Okehampton, Devon
18th July 7pm - Westwood Books, Sedbergh, Cumbria
19th July 6.30pm - Verey Books, Pooley Bridge, Cumbria
In a time of algorithms and over-saturation of social media, a quiet debut benefits a lot from reviews on Amazon, Goodreads and Waterstones sites. More than that though, it is like receiving a postcard home to let us know what adventures our books are having and the friends they are making along the way. It has been really lovely to receive reader reviews of the book. Knowing how and where these wild seeds of my story land is so important. I have been moved by the warmth and generosity of these responses and I am grateful for every one. Sharing a few here, with my deep thanks. And if you have read and liked All My Wild Mothers, please do leave a review in the above places. It makes a huge difference.
I was bereft at returning this book to the library yesterday. You know when you are reading something exceptional when you are hesitant to read the final pages. Wanting to savour the book and slow the reading down to extend the experience. This is a memoir filled with emotion. From grief and sadness to utter joy, it is equally heartbreaking and heart warming ... Read it and be swept away by the depth of the writing.
This is such a beautiful, raw and real book, something I will cherish and revisit to remind me of what's important in this short life. I absolutely loved how the plants and nature entwine in the love and loss of the author's journey. A must-read for mothers and nature lovers. Thank you for this wonderful book.
I don't think I will ever find enough words to express how profoundly beautiful this book is. It is so loving, gentle and full of wise words of wisdom ... I feel that in years to come I will come back to this book.
A wonderful book - lyrical, tender and deeply moving. I was absolutely spellbound by it. Poetic, compelling, heartbreaking yet hopeful, it’s beautifully written ... a deeply moving meditation. I cannot recommend this book more highly
This is a wise and loving book that cries out at injustice and re-values the quiet and gentle and unregarded things ... It carries its spirituality and traditional wisdom lightly. I found great joy in being offered an intimate window into undramatic, imperfect but resiliently loving lives
'All My Wild Mothers' is almost unbearably beautiful, and I didn't want it to finish …
I loved this book. It was full of hope, love, grief, and healing. This will have a special place in my heart forever. I was completely captivated by it and finished it with a sense of hope in my heart, sometimes even in the darkest moments of our lives we still find hope blossoming.
A breathtakingly beautiful memoir, the best I've ever read. This is a book to take your time with, read again and again to savour every precious sentence, delight in the dexterity of the text and the moving accounts of overcoming grief and loss, marvel at the delicious insights, and emerge wiser to life itself.
A beacon of hope and a must read for our times, when far more of us need to start gardening in harmony with the natural world.
Perfect from start to finish. Loved the plants opening each section, learning about their medicinal and traditional uses. Thoughtful, sad, hopeful, interesting. Best memoir I’ve read.
Thanks for supporting this Wild Woman Life. That’s all for this month. If you like the newsletter and want to share from it, please remember though to credit me for images and text when you do.
Wild wishes, Victoria
For more information on All My Wild Mothers, the garden, and other wild words, please visit my website victoriabennett.me
p.s some of you who have been receiving the newsletter for a while may have noticed a couple of posts have been withdrawn. Nothing sinister. They have found a new and exciting home in a forthcoming anthology, and I couldn’t be happier for them…
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