Aurochs, Shells and May Bells

Walking on the beach last Sunday, the sand was jewelled by shells and stones, shining smooth and bright in the afternoon sun. Pieces of shell grabbed our attention with their creams, mauves and pinks. There were igneous rocks of dark green and grey. A sedimentary rock had weathered unevenly to become scalloped, the softer ochre mudstone waisted between red iron lines. I picked up a grey stone with a pattern of like a white network of neurones on it. My thumb fitted into a depression in the stone and I put it in my pocket.

 Neurones in a mouse brain. Photo shared by  Neurollero .

Neurones in a mouse brain. Photo shared by Neurollero.

It’s Spring in Australia, and as I walked along the warm sand, I reflected that a few months ago, in the charged emotional landscape of bereavement—my wife Claudia’s parents died within nine months of each other—Claudia and I were able to achieve a dream. It was a dream I cherished through our long days as isolated, exhausted carers.

All I wanted was a few hours alone in nature with my beloved. It was very sad that we did not have the support to do so, earlier.

We went for a walk in the forest.

As it turned out, this was no trek with packed rucksack and efficient walking poles—just a wander along a stony lane-way in ripe summer. We made forays into the dense shade of the towering firs and spruces that give the European Black Forest its name.

The forest path was bordered by plants and flowers of my childhood storybooks, some of which I never saw back in Australia. Buttercups and dandelions I knew. If the yellow of the buttercup reflects on your skin when you hold it under your chin, it meant you liked butter. An appealing idea to a butter-loving girl.

There were red and white clovers there too, which my grandmother taught me to make into daisy chains. Clover flowers were bigger and brighter in Europe, as were the dandelions.

 The Black Forest in Summer. Photo by Claudia Jocher.

The Black Forest in Summer. Photo by Claudia Jocher.

We saw bounteous berries, which Claudia told me a little about. They had a range of distinct flavours and uses. Red currants here made a lovely jelly. There was the one her father used to flavour schnapps. Some were so fine and local they didn’t have English names. That pretty blue one was poison.

After rain there were plentiful mushrooms—smooth, hearty and fragrant. Again, you had to grow up there to know which were safe to eat.

Along with the clovers and dandelions—medicines for hot flushes or a seedy liver—there were the juniper berries that I was taught could strengthen kidneys, although possibly not when used, as it is most commonly, as a flavour for gin. The roots of the arrowroot could be boiled or roasted for food.

The densely shady horse-chestnut contained medicine to strengthen blood vessels. On the ground, the horse-tail fern (Equisetum Avense) was rich in silica and said to strengthen the hair and nails. I was struck by how the forest seemed to overflow with useful food and medicine plants—just as the wilderness was back home in Australia. I wondered if the Black Forest, like the Australian bush, had actually been cultivated by humans over millennia.

Most of the European forests are man-made now, I’m told. Many are plantations of trees in rows, more dutiful than beautiful.

Claudia felt, when I asked her, that it was more a matter of humans learning about the forest that was already there. I did some reading and can see that there’s been a dynamic relationship.

Humans evolved in and around forests. Making the forest your home meant learning about the character of plants and animals: which would sustain you and how, which would harm you. Hunting, gathering firewood, vegetables and herbs, gathering and cultivating honey and nuts—all of these shaped the forest. Where people mined ores, they needed the wood to extract metals and felled trees as they mined.

Cows were led into the Central European forests for hundreds of years to forage, chewing and trampling soft plants, herbs and budding trees. I love eating cattle bodies, and the crafted foods people make from cows’ milk, but the animals are not a good fit for some climates. They have been a cause of similar deforestation here in Australia.

Fouling of precious waterholes by cattle was an important factor in the dispossession of Aboriginal peoples in arid areas. Many massacres were triggered by Aboriginal people stealing cattle that had taken possession of their stolen and despoiled land.

On a less emotional, more intellectual level, I’m fascinated by the story of the domestication of cattle. It seems likely that for hundreds of years the wild and terrifying ancestor of domesticated cattle—the auroch—was worshipped by humans.

The bull was ritually killed by the Celts and the Romans in Central Europe and Britain. Its beautiful horns, along with many valuable objects, including highly-worked metal, were placed ceremonially in the rivers at places where the river-goddesses were venerated and used to commune with gods and goddesses of naturally occurring hot springs and spas.

 Mosaic of an auroch from the Ishtar Gate of Ancient Babylon, c.575BC.  Brewbooks  pic.

Mosaic of an auroch from the Ishtar Gate of Ancient Babylon, c.575BC. Brewbooks pic.

Before they were sacrificed, the aurochs were kept in pens beside temples, according one of my university lecturers when I studied the development of agriculture. The Minoans of ancient Crete had rituals involving bulls. The Egyptians had cults of the bull, including prognostication from the actions of a specially selected animal. He was a bull oracle. A special bull was the oracle of Ptah, who was what philosophers call a demiurge—the god whose thought gave rise to the creation of the world.

It’s possible that cattle were domesticated through awe and veneration. Cats might have been, too. Maybe people have been deriding statements they disagree with as a load of old bull since the beginnings of Christianity.

Taking the cattle into the Central European Forests encouraged the growth of plants they did not eat, like juniper bushes.

Forest knowledge, arisen through thousands of years of study and experience, formed the basis of many of our medical sciences. Before the Industrial Revolution, there was willow bark for pain. That became aspirin.

Cardiotonic glycosides from foxglove brought us medicines to regulate an erratic heart. Foxgloves seeds, leaves and flowers are all highly poisonous. Despite this, it was judiciously used in preindustrial medicine. Safe medicinal use no doubt involved the sacrifice of early trial participants.

In the forest with Claudia, the path was lined with newly sprouted and still unfurling May bells, a flower with an exquisite perfume. It’s also fatal to consume. I’ve heard that the most common way people were poisoned by May bells is by drinking the water out their vase when drunk.

 Author with lily of the valley in the Black Forest. Photo by Claudia Jocher.

Author with lily of the valley in the Black Forest. Photo by Claudia Jocher.

More commonly called lily of the valley in English, it was also used in strict ways in folk medicine and contains, like foxglove, many cardiac glycosides. I picked a little bunch in those days of our mourning. Their perfume was, indeed, a tonic to the heart.

I still have the pebble I picked up from the beach last week. I’ve used it as a comfort when meditating some mornings.

As I calm my busy brain, I realise that I have good shelter, an easy food supply, tools for my trade and love in my life.

I value that patterned little stone—and Claudia loves her shells—beyond any of the pretty objects we could buy in shops, especially for the feeling it imparts that our planet offers us gifts.

A good story of an oracular auroch and a walk to listen to the rocks or flowers are all I need to know that I’m living a rich life.