Scenes from a Witch’s Cottage (Part 2)

Well! It has been quite some time since I’ve had a chance to focus on this blog. I do apologize for not keeping up with yours; I will try to catch up soon. I hope everyone is enjoying the newly-minted summer. Happy Solstice!

For the last few weeks, I’ve been on a mission to spruce up my Etsy shop. I hadn’t made anything new for quite some time, and many items have been languishing on my work table, waiting to be finished, or to be photographed, written up and posted. I’ve now added several items, including a new line of beaded gemstone jewellery which I’m really excited about, and will soon be posting more.

I’ve also been wracking my brain, trying to come up with a new shop name using gillyflower somehow, so that the shop, this blog and my Facebook page are all tied together. (Wood So Wild was fine, but it seems removed from what I do here.) “Gillyflower” was already taken, so I’ve pestered my friends and co-workers, and even held an informal Facebook contest; the winner gets a custom-made item from my shop if I end up using his or her suggestion. There were some good submissions, but none was exactly right.

It was just this week, when I arrived at work, that my friend and co-worker gave me a wonderful book called An Encyclopedia of Fairies: Hobgoblins, Brownies, Bogies, and Other Supernatural Creatures by Katharine Briggs (1976, Pantheon Books). This volume, which is an alphabetical listing of all manner of mystical and mythological beings, customs and lore, was originally published in England as A Dictionary of Fairies by Allen Lane (Penguin Books). It was a lovely and welcome surprise!

As I flipped through its pages, looking particularly at the G’s (to alliterate with gillyflower), I came upon a term (not a G) that was so obvious – and so perfect – that I wondered why on earth I hadn’t thought about it before!

I still have work to do before I’m sure I can use the name. Etsy has rules about such things, and I will secure a domain name, too. Then there are the not inconsiderable tasks of switching the name wherever Wood So Wild appears in my listings and across other social media platforms. And, of course, I do have to come up with a new photograph for my shop banner, and design and order business cards and branded packaging. If all goes well, I’m hoping to unveil the new name this weekend and spend the next little while making the transition. And I owe my friend a piece of jewellery, for, although she didn’t suggest the actual name, she did give me the book from whence the idea came! Fair is fair, after all.

I haven’t had much time to read, so I’m still enjoying Dark Witch by Nora Roberts. Yesterday, after a spectacular lightning storm had ravaged the night, a gentle, nourishing rain fell steadily throughout the morning and afternoon. I read a little, worked on this article, and tended my herbs before heading off to work. My window garden has expanded to include a selection of culinary and medicinal herbs, and they’re all coming on nicely. As I was potting up a couple of new ones, this scene played in my mind:

Last e’en, lightning flashed and thunder shattered;
today the storm’s settled to soft June rain.
The hedgewitch steps barefoot from the garden,
basket a-brim with lavande and fresh thyme.
Rosemary, too, to remember with,
and basil – well, that’s for supper!
The warm windowsill waits with aloe for balm,
and oregano grows to flavour a stew.
What shall it be, this aft, for the cauldron?
A tincture, an oxymel, chamomile tea?
In leather-bound grimoire, receipts will be written
in spidery hand and iron gall ink.

Scenes from a Witch’s Cottage, Part 2
© 2017, Valerie Barrett

Cauldron Bubble: 7 best books featuring wisewomen, witches and woad

DSC_8657 (3)Fragrant bunches of rosemary and thyme, hung to dry from the beams of a thatched monastery workshop. An old village healer, stirring mandrake into a simmering potion as her lovestruck client looks anxiously on. The nurse with an interest in botany, searching for a rare medicinal plant amongst ancient stones. Girls warding off evil spirits with curses from their Book of Shadows.

Any novel featuring such characters or scenes has me from the faded title on its well-thumbed front cover. An introverted and highly impressionable youngster, I always had my nose buried in a book, often sneaking reads by flashlight long past bedtime. I was entranced by the, er, charms of fantasy and historical fiction, especially if those stories involved herb-growing, mortar and pestle-wielding, spell-casting crones. I longed to be there with them, in that dimly-lit herbarium, grinding exotic cardamom to a fine powder and concocting chilblain-busting salves. My fascination with herbs and, more widely, things mystical and magickal, owes a great deal to these shiveringly evocative tales.

The very same volumes which kindled such sparks within me as a child and young adult still grace my dusty bookshelves today, alongside more recent and equally entertaining efforts. On the parchment below, in no particular order (I cherish them all), I hereby enscribe my seven favorite witchy works:

  1. The Witch of Blackbird Pond by Elizabeth George Speare (Dell, 1958). A wise woman and her young apprentice, both social outcasts, face prejudice, ignorance and accusations of witchcraft in 17th century New England. 1959 Newbery Medal winner for best American children’s literature.
  2. Double Spell by Janet Lunn (Peter Martin Associates, 1968). This spooky mystery involving an antique doll takes place in my native Toronto. Not a lot of witchery here, but … Toronto!
  3. Victoria by Barbara Brooks Wallace (Dell, 1972). A huge influence on my preteen self, this coming-of-age novel makes delicious use of an isolated boarding school, secret societies and a little black book.
  4. Mary Stewart’s Merlin trilogy, The Crystal Cave / The Hollow Hills / The Last Enchantment (Hodder and Stoughton, 1970 / 1973 / 1979). The Arthurian legend masterfully told from the wizard’s perspective.
  5. Brother Cadfael, a 12th century crusader-turned-healer/monk, steeps herbs and solves murders in The Cadfael Chronicles, Ellis Peters’ prolific series, beginning with A Morbid Taste for Bones (Macmillan, 1977). Perfectly interpreted for 1990s British TV by the great Derek Jacobi.
  6. Thornyhold by Mary Stewart (Hodder and Stoughton, 1988) blends some of the best and most effective ingredients into the brew: plucky, resourceful woman, deserted English cottage, herb-filled stillroom, ghosts and a gall-darned happy ending. A clue to the book’s magickal motif comes from the heroine’s name – Geillis (Gilly) – a traditional moniker for a witch. Reference is made to real-life Geillis Duncane, who was tried for witchcraft in 16th century Edinburgh.
  7. Geillis Duncan appears again, this time alongside time-travelling healer Claire and her Scottish wonder, James Alexander Malcolm MacKenzie Fraser, in Diana Gabaldon’s outrageously popular Outlander book and TV series (Delacore Press, 1991). [Haven’t heard enough about Outlander yet? Dinna fash! I may just mention it a wee bit more!]