British folklore, Britishness, culture, myths and legends, plants, symbolism, UK

Poppies: Lest we forget

It’s amazing just how much symbolism can be attached to plants without most us even being particularly aware of it.

 

Take the poppy, for instance. The first thing that springs to mind for many of us, particularly around Remembrance Day on 11 November, is the little paper flower sold by The Royal British Legion on street corners. The charity’s aim in selling it is to raise money to look after serving and ex-servicemen and women plus dependents in need of financial and other support – an activity that it’s been involved in since 1921.

 

But while the poppy may be a motif that we all know, it wasn’t actually the UK that first appropriated it as an emblem of remembrance/the fallen, hope/rebirth, war/death (delete as applicable). It was in fact one Moina Michael, a US-based professor at the University of Georgia who began making and selling a silk version of the flowers after war had ended in 1918 to raise money for wounded armed forces’ veterans.

 

She had read and been moved by the now famous First World War poem ‘In Flanders Fields’ written by Canadian doctor, Lieutenant Colonel John McCrae, after it was printed anonymously in the UK’s Punch magazine and reprinted around the world. Although up for debate, it is most commonly held that McCrae wrote the work on losing a friend in Ypres in Belgium while tending to the sick, after seeing a carpet of beautiful corn poppies growing in the churned mud of combat-scarred fields.

Poppy field
Poppy field

As apt coincidence would have it, blood red poppies were one of the few plants resilient enough to grow in the otherwise barren battlefields, representing in the process nature’s endless cycle of birth, life, death and renewal. And so these simple but poignant flowers came to represent the ultimate sacrifice made by those who perished in what US President Woodrow Wilson had idealistically named the “war to end all wars” – as well as the seemingly endless conflicts that have, unfortunately, followed since.

 

Funnily enough though, despite being such a poignant emblem for many Brits, the now iconic red poppy that was assigned its meaning by a Canadian and marketed by an American, was actually first brought to our shores via a Frenchwoman, Anna Guerin. She had worked with Moina Michael in the US and persuaded Field Marshal Earl Douglas Haig, founder and president of the British Legion, to adopt the flower as the organisation’s symbol – which on recognising its fundraising potential, he duly did.

 

But that is not to say the poppy hasn’t been without its critics. While for some the flower is all about family memories and the sacrifice of venerated ancestors, for others it is a symbol of death and support for war, of British nationalism, of oppression, abuse and atonement still to be made.

 

So it isn’t to everyone’s taste – despite the pressure to conform and wear one, particularly among those in the public eye. This scenario has led to widespread claims of “poppy fascism”, something you’d have thought was the last thing our late warriors would have wanted.

 

Political symbol?

 

So given the mixed feelings about the emblem, which like everything else these days seems to split the country, perhaps it’s unsurprising that the poppy, which has been classed as a political symbol by international football association FIFA, has been banned for use on the pitch.

 

The matter so incensed the English and Scottish football associations though that they chose to defy the ruling. Sending their teams out wearing black armbands embellished with the forbidden image on Armistice (Remembrance or Poppy) Day anyway, they vowed to contest the likely fine.

 

But it’s a testament to just how important these everyday symbols unconsciously are to all of us that, even in today’s prosaic age, wearing an apparently harmless flower can still cause so much angst. Interestingly though, the symbolic meaning of poppies has changed little throughout the ages. Often associated with ephemeral pleasures, sleep and oblivion, they have also been emblematic of new life and bloodshed since Ancient Egypt.

 

One of the most popular garden plants of the time along with cornflowers and mandrakes, in a culture that held to the Hermetic tenet “As above, so below” (because everything is interconnected, what you do as an individual will affect the heavenly spheres too and vice versa), they were also used in funereal tributes to the dead who, after a suitable rest, would be resurrected in the next life.

Demeter
Demeter

But the poppy was no less symbolic in Ancient Greece. At that time, Demeter, the goddess of agriculture and harvest, had her beautiful daughter Persephone stolen by Hades, the god of the dead and the underworld, while out gathering flowers. Demeter, who was grief-stricken, searched for her daughter in vain, but as her unhappiness mounted, the crops began to suffer.

 

So to ease her pain and help lull her to sleep, poppies started growing at her feet. In fact, the Greek name for the flower to this day is still ‘nepenthes’, which means ‘potent destroyer of grief’.

 

While Demeter slept, Zeus, god of the sky and king of the gods living on Mount Olympus, visited Hades and persuaded him to allow Persephone to return to earth from the underworld for two thirds of the year. During that time, she would live with her mother, who would make the fields fertile again. But on going back to the underworld at the end of summer, the earth would grow cold and barren again reflecting Demeter’s winter grief.

 

So in this way, poppies came to be associated with regeneration, activity after sleep and the renewal of life, while their abundant seed heads represented fertility and the gift of life. Which is all very apt really – whether you celebrate Poppy Day or not.

 

 

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alcohol, environment, food and drink, lifestyle, paganism

Organic wine: Keeping it real

April, it turns out for all you imbibers out there, is Real Wine Month. Although the naïve among us may be thinking at this point, “well, isn’t all wine real?” it appears that some of it these days is more so than others.

 

So just what is Real Wine then, I hear you ask? First and foremost, it has to be organically produced – according to industry body the Soil Association, this means “lower levels of pesticides, no manufactured herbicides or artificial fertilisers and more environmentally sustainable management of the land and natural environment”.

 

And this approach, although scarcely ubiquitous, is definitely garnering respectable levels of sales since it started first appearing in supermarkets in the late 1990s. As a result, Bord Bia, the Irish Food Board, valued the UK’s organic wine market at about £12 million last year, while the Soil Association’s Organic Market Report 2016 indicated that organic’s share of the total UK food and drink sector was a respectable 1.4%.

 

So far, so good, particularly in a world where more and more people are interested in the provenance of their victuals and are keen to reduce the amount of chemicals smothering them at every turn of the production process.

 

But an interesting subset of the organic market is the lesser-known biodynamic movement. Started by Austrian philosopher and esotericist Rudolf Steiner in 1924, it aims to ensure that farms and vineyards are based on balanced ecosystems in order to “renew the vitality of the earth, the integrity of our food, and the health and wholeness of our communities”.

 

This means that, in the words of the UK’s Biodynamic Association, which was set up in 1929, these sites must become self-contained living organisms “with a healthy balance of animals (livestock), crops and wild plants”. But they also have to be ecologically, socially and economically sustainable in order to warrant using the internationally recognised but fiercely difficult-to-obtain Demeter Certification Mark, which covers both production and processing activities.

 

Biodynamics is not just of this earthly plane, however – it also has a spiritual element. As the Association points out: “It is founded on a holistic and spiritual understanding of nature and the human being”, which means that “the farm, its crops and the farmer becomes more attuned to local seasonal and broader celestial cycles and rhythms”.

 

To this end, an astronomical calendar based on the moon’s sidereal cycle is used to determine auspicious times to plant, cultivate and harvest. The soil must also be treated with special herb-based preparations. For example, compost is made from six medicinal plants including oak bark, which has to be stored in a mature cow, sheep, pig or horse’s head as this is said to act as a catalyst for fermentation.

 

Keeping it real

 

While such ideas may not be everyone’s cup of tea, the approach does undoubtedly seem to work. For example, my Beloved has developed an unfortunate intolerance to sulphites, which have traditionally been used as preservatives during the wine-making process.

 

Give him a regular glass of something and, by next morning, his poor lips will have swollen up like he’s just had a load of botox. But pass him a glass of pure biodynamic loveliness and everything’s fine and dandy. It may cost that little bit extra but it has to be worth it to lose that rather unflattering trout-pout look.

 

And he’s not the only one being won over. While Marks & Spencer already stocks a handful of such wines, Waitrose apparently sells more than 20 different biodynamic varieties and growing.

 

Even more intriguingly, both supermarkets also apparently arrange their wine-tasting sessions around “good” and “bad” days in the biodynamic calendar as they swear you can taste the difference.

 

So despite the fact that yields based on this approach are significantly lower than more traditional methods – 25 to 30 hectare litres per hectare compared with the usual 40 – interest is growing, especially among vineyards in the Loire Valley, Alsace and part of the Languedoc in France as well as in Penedes, which is south of Barcelona in Spain.

 

The final, and even more rarified, category of vino to fall under the banner of Real Wine, meanwhile, is natural wine. Although there is no official definition for or certification of this approach, it basically means producing your wine with minimum intervention, which includes picking all of your grapes by hand. You also can’t go around sticking little added extras into the mix such as sulphites, sugar or external flavouring from oak barrels, and you’re not allowed to take things away either, for example by filtration.

 

While there are a number of natural wine associations in central Europe and countries such as France, Italy, Spain, the most likely place to get a sip of the stuff is at events like The Real Wine Fair, which is taking place from 17 to 18 April at Tobacco Dock in Wapping, London.

 

But you never know, you might also be able to find it on the wine list or catalogue of one of the 200 or so restaurants, bars and independent retailers also taking part in the Real Wine Month festivities. Our very own Joseph Barnes Wines here in Saffron Walden, in fact, hosted a most enjoyable wine-tasting event last Saturday night – and much biodynamic merriment was had by all. Cos one of the secrets to success really is about keeping it real. Always.