In the beginning, in even the coldest forests of the North, grew a tree with so much power that her flowers could cure blindness and the healers of many peoples held her in the highest regard. A tree so sacred that her limbs couldn’t be gathered without permission and her body was never to be burned. In this tree was the conception of goddesses and stories. Her name is Hylde Mor, and she guards our forests still.
On one level it’s difficult to remember the first plant that piqued my interest in the herbs and healing, there were so many moments and plants that brought me to this place of dedication, adoration and communication with the plants — and on another, I remember the moment perfectly.
Much of my earliest reading was based in mythic fiction such as the Lord of the Rings, C.S. Lewis, George McDonald and Jane Yolen. There were also those worn clothbound books of fairy tales inherited from my mom and her siblings. The many, if vague, references to people healing with plants always triggered a great feeling of longing and familiarity.
I always had a ken for the haunted, for tales fraught with mystery and the touch of the fae. Not Victorian cherubs bearing too perfect garden flowers, but rather the winsome, wild and edgy creatures that permeate the edges of the oldest forests. And the recesses of every child’s imagination.
The myriad variations on the myth of Hylde Mor, the Elder Mother, filled me with a great wistfulness. Her gentle healing ways combined with her demanding fierceness made her just the person I’d been looking for. At six, I began scouring books looking for more references to her curative powers and fairytale history. These stories are well told in recent herbal records, as can be found on this blog as well as in the books, blogs and classes of my fellow herbalists.
Next, came looking for the Elder herself. This quest became a constant wherever I lived, through all of our endless moving. At every new place, I scouted out the nearest incarnations of the Elder Mother. I was far too worshipful and tentative to actually try gathering any of her bounty back then, but her medicine was still strong for me. I loved the protective crowding of her limbs, and the enchanted veil of her flowers drooping over me, and then carpeting the ground. And whenever anyone showed up to a church meeting or pot luck dinner with a jar of Elderberry preserves or syrup it would very likely disappear into my pocket as I sneaked out the backdoor to enjoy my magical treasure in the tip top of a nearby tree. I also managed to indulge in a few too many pieces of Elderberry pie more than once, but I never minded the bellyache after such an amazing treat.
Even in the Canyon, I felt forlorn at first, looking and looking for one of my favorite friends and unable to find her. But you know how the plants are, a bit shifty and often requiring a bit of focus and a lot of respect. So I shouldn’t have been terribly surprised when one day while gathering Wild Rose petals I looked up to see a creamy clusters waving in the wind on a trail I’d taken dozens of times. I cried with the joy of it, especially to have the Wild Rose and the Elder as such close neighbors, I thought I might just take up residence in that very spot, sleeping between my best beloveds, and eating flower petals for all my meals.
Once upon that time, as a little lost girl I heard the Elder Mother’s song, a gentle lullaby for a lonely child hungry for the magic of the primal woods. In her embrace, at six years old, I allied myself for the first time with an ancient green being.
She seems to me –then and now– a wise woman of the First Forest, a teacher of the oldest ways of healing and wholeness. In her I found a role model and helpmate, and also the roots of the path I walk today. You won’t be surprised then, gentle reader, by the proliferation of Elder posts in this blog, or how I can’t quit talking about her in person. In her capacity to heal I found my own, and she remains one of my greatest personal symbols for the work I do as a mediator and matchmaker between human and plant, between the ancient and the now. She is protectress of children, keeper of mystery and an eternal bridge between faery and human worlds.
In those moments between dusk and dark, dream and daylight, I still hear her song.
She sits beneath the elder-tree
And sings her song so sweet,
And dreams o’er the burn that darksomely
Runs by her moonwhite feet.