The Silence You Can Hear

Click! I have just turned off the TV. Every channel, every internet news hub, every radio station, every newspaper, all I can hear screaming at me is “COVID-19”. I had a chat with some ham radio buddies on other continents the other day, Africa, New Zealand, the US, they all said the same thing… “you can’t get away from it”… not the virus, but the words; the incessant mill of talking over the same facts and figures again and again, all day long, like some kind of global brainwashing programme. Wash, rinse, repeat, wash, rinse, repeat… did I mention repeat?

Sounds familiar? I have been listening a lot to something else that sounds familiar, yet it is something I have heard less and less of for a number of years now. It is the sound of silence.

I remember as a child going out into the fields, climbing trees and fishing on the riverbank, when there were surprisingly few man made sounds. Even when it was quiet, it was if the sound of nature had been punctuated by some sort of silence that had a shape, conveyed some sort of meaning or information to me about where I was, though I would have struggled to put it into words back then. In classical music this is called tacet, so this is nature’s classical music and we are talking about the shape, of a pause.

For a number of years I have been noticing that there is something odd about the sound of silence. Do you know what I mean? It is as if the animal in me goes on alert when I hear that silence. Is it too quiet? Nature, in all her grace, is full of noise, but this is a silence itself punctuated by distant man-made noise and shaped by the reverberations of a man made world. It defines the shape of that noise, just like the negative space defines the objects in a painting. The scene somehow conveys to me the information of risk; it coaxes me to be aware, not to settle in too much, or to lose my alertness, because I might need to leave in a hurry. The sound, or scene, is hard and abrupt at its edges; it is not bounded by soft curving boughs or the shimmering riffles of a brook in the sunshine. We are all animals and even if we are not consciously alert to the information being carried to us by our silent surrounds, the animal within knows all too well what they mean.

Imagine my joy then. I stepped out of the back door and heard another silence today. It was familiar, sweet, charming my heart with whispers of adventure, of encounter with the natural beings, flowing between intervals of bird-call, billowing grass, rustling leaves and accompanied by an orchestra of smells; flowers, damp soil – known as ‘petrichor’ – named in the Greek from petra, stone and ichor, the divine fluid that (still) courses in the veins of the gods.

Image: Venus pulling a thorn from her foot in beautiful countryside. Pierre Audouin (1768-1822), after a drawing by Pierre Bouillon (1776-1831) after a painting by the School of Raphael, (1482 – 1520), Wellcome Museum

In this cacophony of sound, of smell and of silence, I remembered. A word itself that describes the re-uniting of severed limbs or a conjoining of old friends. I remembered, but the memory was not a single event, not a period of time so to speak, but it was of a state of being. As if transported, I was taken to a place so easy and free in my childhood; the days of wind in my hair and mud between my toes, and though it bought deep deep joy in those days it went unnoticed. Unnoticed because the deafening bars of the ‘man man mancub’ were not hemmed so close together around this silence back then. Instead, its edges were defined softly, the time signature of the tune also not as intense as it has recently become. Yes, I stepped out of the back door and the silence I heard was the old silence. Spontaneously, I ‘remembered’.

I understood its presence. It spoke to my animal. It spoke to me of hope. It spoke to me of the crippling pain of the world that we have created and it called to my soul for the mancub to waken, to change the sound by changing the beat of its heart. To pull out the thorn. I shed a tear, then many tears.

So how does lockdown look in my world? It looks, sounds and smells like the old silence.

I have been out tending the garden now for many many days. My hands in the soil, planting food and the medicinal herbs that we may need more of in the future. Creating habitats and feeding the wildlife, listening to the sound of calling-birds looking for new mates, hearing the rustling of the leaves and imbibing the complex symphony of smells. All of this is information that I know what to do with in the very core of my being, as do you! Information that we are hard-wired, through millions of years of evolution, to understand. It is too old for language and though the poet will grapple to put it into words yet still it can be understood by all. It doesn’t matter what language we speak, all of nature is part of the same orchestra and the arrangement is always perfectly composed for the ear. I am a forager and a herbalist. There is still time for these activities in the lockdown life and foraging puts fresh, valuable, very very local food on our table. What I gather on my daily walks and in the garden amplifies the dictum of Hippocrates; “Let food be thy medicine”. I would very much like to add to this advice; “Let the shape of silence be a guide unto your life”.

St. George’s Mushrooms and Morels, the Time of the Green Man

This is a blog post about the tradition of St. George and the St. George’s mushroom. For details of the forthcoming St. George’s Mushroom Champagne Picnic please go here. 

St. George’s day approaches (23rd April) and heralds the beginning of spring revelry.  The Catholic St. George was a graft onto older stock and the slayer, or perhaps handler, of dragons is found throughout Europe, the near east and Russia today as a protector and patron saint. In earlier times he took the form of the ‘green man’, representing the rejuvinatory power of spring and the mysterious balance of light and dark, growth, decay, winter and summer that is central to the farmer’s and the forager’s year. In Orthodox Christianity as well as in Russian folk magic and even among the shamen of Siberia, the protector George is often called upon, consulted and prayed to before going ahead with any major work

Green man  - by Grinagog

The Green Man – by Grinagog (

Al Khidr, the Green Saint of Islamic folklore is perhaps another guise assumed by George, or perhaps more accurately another echo that has come down to us via that same ancient river of belief. In the holy-land they are venerated together at one and the same shrines (for example in Bethlehem and Jerusalem) along with Elijah, bringing Jew, Christian and Muslim to enter the same places of worship.  Similarly, in parts of India the cult of Kwaja Khadir is observed by both Muslim and Hindu. In some areas of Eastern Europe the festivities of Green George (Gergiovden) are marked by decking a young man in foliage resembling very much the more modern Hastings Jack in the Green and often he is paraded through the streets prior to being given a good ducking in the village pond or local river.  This festival is very popular in many regions, particularly among the Romani, taking place over the feast of St. George as rendered before post-mediaeval calendrical changes on the 6th of May.

Very soon too, in English fields and meadows, it will be time to make May garlands and walk among the wildflowers of spring purely for pleasure and contentment. In the folk customs surrounding our old May-day the ‘Green One’ will be readied to marry the May Queen, his bride. In England too we have our own traditions to commemorate his life and his passing, as in the (probably now garbled) Padstow Obby ‘Oss song…

“O’ where is St. George, O’ where us he O’
He’s out in his long boat, all on the salt sea O’.
Up flies the Kite and down tails the lark O’
Aunt Ursula Birdhood, she had an old ewe
and she died in her own Park O'”

In contemplation and in honour of these cycles of time and of the year, take a walk out into the grassy meadows and limestone woods to seek the plump creamy-white fruit bodies of St. George’s mushroom. A sign given forth by the earth herself to warn us that night time frosts are now coming to a close and it is the time to be industrious in the fields.

Calocybe gambosum - St. George's mushroom

Calocybe gambosum – St. George’s mushroom

It smells pleasantly ‘floury’ (as if fresh from the miller’s wheel) and often occurs in large wheels in the turf. St. George himself was said to have been ground into flour or ‘broken on a wheel’ at his execution and spread upon the land by his Roman captors, as commemorated in the lines of the old English mummers play “I’ll grind yer bones to dust and send you to the Devil to make mince pie crust”.

St. George's, chickweed and dandelion blooms

St. George’s, chickweed and dandelion blooms are a good combination!

Be very careful to identify it correctly as there are some other whitish mushrooms that are very poisonous. St. George’s mushroom is very tasty though and highly sought after and prized in Italy and France. In Britain it has undergone something of a revival in recent years and it is to be found on the menu’s of many of the better restaurants and gourmet pubs. It can be sautéd in butter and goes well with shallots, asparagus, bacon, eggs and dandelion blossoms. It can also be pickled. The delicate complex flavour is easily overpowered by bolder ones and this is a mushroom to use as the feature of a dish, not a side portion, so take some care about who or what you partner it with.


A warm tossed St. George's salad

A warm tossed St. George’s salad

Also highly prized at this time of the year are the elusive morels, often appearing in limestone woods and on sandy soils during the spring. The caps of these fungi, (there are several species) have an irregular honeycomb like appearance and the cap and stem are hollow. They are difficult to find but highly regarded as a cooking ingredient.

Morchella esculenta - Edible morel

Morchella esculenta – Edible morel

Morels should be dried for storage and re-hydrated using warm water, herbs and a little salt for half an hour or so before cooking as this improves their flavour considerably. They go well with cream based sauces and add something very special to many dishes. Fresh morels can also be stuffed – one popular recipe uses crab meat, egg, mayonnaise and breadcrumbs – and baked for 15 minutes at 180°C. Be sure of your identification and do not confuse them with the poisonous gyromitra or turban fungus that looks a bit similar. Never eat morels raw as occasionally this has caused poisoning! Once again, if in doubt a visit to an expert is required.

If you’d like to sample the joy of Finding your own St. George’s mushrooms then why not try out our St. George’s Mushroom Champagne Picnic on Saturday 7th May 2016. You can find out about it here.



A Day with the Bohemian Mojo Project

The following extract comes directly from // and you can read it directly (with images from the day) 

The Wild Side of Life is proud to support the wonderful, inspirational Bohemian Mojo Project

“The idea of foraging conjures images of grubbily rooting through muddy undergrowth in the heart of some primeval forest. This was only half true on our amazing day with Fred Gillam, the foraging wizard…

 Part I

The morning was cold, windy and threatened of a downpour as we piled in the car, trying our darnedest not to be victim to Mojo Meantime again! Today we were foraging with Fred Gillam, the amazing forager. We didn’t yet know just exactly how amazing he was but were excited to find out.  I have to admit even though I was excited to sightsee I was a little skeptical at what we might be foraging at Uffington White Horse which was where we to start our adventure for the day. What could we possibly forage on an open hillside? Didn’t foraging require the dank, damp, and brooding underbelly of ancient forests???

Fred met us in the parking lot; only slightly behind schedule we bundled up and began heading up the hill.  As we stepped out onto the expanse, I couldn’t help but pause for a moment to take in the amazing view around the valley, sobering my thoughts as I tried to imagine how this must have looked centuries upon centuries ago and Fred began filling us in on some ancient history.  Suddenly, it occurred to me that this was going to be no ordinary day; we were in the presence of yet another MajicMaker and could expect an adventure for sure.

As we fought the wind and traipsed up the hill Fred began pointing out the flora and fauna and my eyes began to see the landscape in a whole new way.  We befriended Nettle, tasting its succulent little leaves with no adverse effects (once Fred taught us the secret). We collected small bits of Yellow Dock, Amaranth, and even sampled some Hawthorne berries.

Walking along the impressive ridge, we worked our way over to Dragon Hill; which possesses an unassuming, yet somehow riveting presence. Legend has it that this is where St. George slew the Dragon (a legend I find quite distasteful for a variety of reasons) and the small, bare spot in the middle of the hill that will grow no foliage is where the Dragon’s blood was spilt.  I liked Fred’s suggestion much better that this was indeed a place for ritual and sacred activities.  There is a Hawthorne tree at the entrance to the hill so I picked a few berries and walked onto the plateau, allowing the land itself to draw me in. The sensations that happened next were unexplainable as I felt a heaviness settle onto my heart, perhaps it is no accident that Hawthorne grows in ready reach. 

As the wind buffeted, I left the hilltop filled with a sense of having touched the primordial pulse. As I was wondering how to clear my head and my senses and dive back into the day, the most perfect downhill slope presented itself…Nothing for it but to tuck and roll! It was perfect medicine as I bounced down the hill, smelling the sweet grass and rich earth with each rotation, finally coming to rest on the valley floor. Silly with laughter and a bit dizzy, I was ready to plunge on to the next phase. Looking back up the hill to see if there were any other takers, I clapped and cheered as Fred the Forager and Michelle follow suit, bounce, bounce, bounce. After a little more wandering and learning we made our way back to the cars, ready to get some lunch and continue to the Savernake forest. 
As we left White Horse Hill, I again was struck by the history and pre-history of this place, stopping on the car park ridge for one final sweeping glance of appreciation.

 Part II

We got to the Pub for lunch just in time as the sky opened the floodgates and rain poured. After our lunch of traditional fish and chips, cider, and plenty of heartwarming conversation we were now fast friends and ready to move on to the Savernake Forest….but not without stopping first at King Alfred’s blowing stone. The Mojo team was a twitter, what the heck was a blowing stone??? According to legend, the blowing stone was how King Alfred summoned his troops to fight off the Viking hoards and further legend reports that anyone capable of blowing the stone correctly, which will allow it to be heard up on White Horse Hill, is the future King of England.; Needless to say, none of us are going to be ordained as royalty any time soon. We all took several attempts, allowing ourselves to settle into the good humor of the ridiculous attempts to make a stone produce a magical note. By the time we were all light headed from our attempts, we decided it was time to continue to the Savernake. On to the mushrooms!!

The Grand Avenue into the Savernake Forest is impressive. The ancient trees and overgrowth instill a sense of mystery and hushed appreciation. We climbed out of our cars and were immediately regrouped by Fred’s command that for the next few hours we pick nothing, touch nothing, that he didn’t approve of first. We had no idea there were so many varieties of mushrooms with so many adverse effects! The rest of the afternoon was spent rummaging under fern leaves, looking into piles of leaves and the underside of felled trees. Majken proved to be the master of forest foraging. Her skillful eye and quick hand soon filled our foraging basket under Fred’s careful and informative tutelage. Soon we had enough mushrooms and other foliage like wild cress and rocket to compliment a lovely dinner. The rain began to pour again so we decided to adjourn to Bridge Cottage and prepare our day’s efforts. Alun graciously provided and prepared wild partridge. Fred cooked up our mushrooms, and the rest of us tossed up a wild salad and poured the wine we had acquired just the day before in Wales.

Dinner was served!! Cheers to fabulous friends, foraging and rekindling curiosity for forgotten times.”

With warm thanks to Stephanie, Michelle, Majken and of course Alun!