A witch's guide to the year provides insights into our customs and relationship with nature – Laura Waddell

Alice Tarbuck’s new book, A Spell in the Wild, is a witch’s year committed to paper. A year of magic, making meaning, foraging, and feminism, engaging with the world in response to the seasons, and broken down for the reader month by month.

Wednesday, 14th October 2020, 4:45 pm
Halloween traditions like guising were more about a mutual exchange of luck and goodwill than the implicit blackmail of American-style ‘trick or treating’, says Laura Waddell
Halloween traditions like guising were more about a mutual exchange of luck and goodwill than the implicit blackmail of American-style ‘trick or treating’, says Laura Waddell

For this time of year, as the leaves turn colour and the dark creeps closer, it makes a perfect pairing. Tarbuck’s year of discovery starts in September, with a foiled apple harvest on the site of Edinburgh’s old Craig House, formerly a psychiatric inpatient unit now converted to luxury residences.

There hangs “a question, heavy in the cold air, about whether or not the developers have artificially tampered with the apple harvest to discourage the great unwashed from tramping about at the edges of their manicured, expensive show flat". The day is saved when a variety of interesting fungi pops up, and the little band go in search of more, the trip full of discovery after all.

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Moving on to October and Samhain, Tarbuck explores the Scottish history of guising and having to perform a ‘turn’, usually a poem, song or joke, in exchange for a handful of clementines and chocolates. Rather than American style ‘trick or treating,’ in which small children wield implicit blackmail should their lust for sugar go unplacated, the book makes me realise for the first time that guising is more about a mutual exchange of luck and goodwill.

It is a swap of pleasant things, an offering between neighbours. “There is, I think, of all the strange magic in the world, nothing quite so focused, quite so serious, as the poetic recitation of two little girls who believe, wholeheartedly, in fairies.” Hallowe’en was always, as a child, one of my favourite days in the calendar.

The benefits of sitting still

Key to the book, and Tarbuck’s precise and eloquent theory of accessible, intersectional, modern witchcraft, is how the external world impacts us as much as we impact it. It’s a call to think about things as one big relationship; what we do impacts the environment around us, and vice versa. It makes sense.

We understand this from a scientific perspective, but perhaps are slow to reflect on it from an emotional or spiritual one. I think about how porous I have felt this year, for much of it sitting, thinking, wondering when the crisis would be over but in the meantime newly attentive to the sights and sounds of my immediate surroundings, as though the wind were rattling through me for the first time.

“Nature writers will tell you, at great length, about what emerges from the world around you, if you will only sit and wait. And they are right. Deer across the hill, moving slow, seemingly oblivious to me. Birds of prey, cautious, then hovering again, as if I were a rock. The grass, moving in the wind. Spiders, small insects. The sound of the wind over rock. These things were beautiful, and I was glad of them. Sometimes, though, we ask more of an encounter. We are ready to receive resonance.”

Not sceptical, exactly

I am reminded of the comic scene in Ali Smith’s Autumn where a frustrated girlfriend flings her boyfriend’s work-in-progress nature writing out of the flat window, and pages scatter in the wind. But I also recognise this quest for meaning from occasions where I’ve gone on a walk specifically to let questions tumble around inside of me.

I went into this book about witchcraft not sceptical, exactly, as that feels too negating a word for the curiosity I felt. I have observed Alice’s wisdom and enjoyed her company; we were in the anthology Nasty Women together and I want to learn more about her perspective on the world glimpsed in her essay there. But I cracked the spine not quite knowing how I felt about magic, beyond scant insight from a historical, feminist perspective.

If I did have any lurking preconceived notions that the subject might be a little too esoteric, a little too woo-woo for me, I am brought quickly to ground in Tarbuck’s descriptions of a modern witch’s surroundings, more likely to be urban and messy, foraging around the edges of a supermarket car park, than the perfectly frosted moonlit moors of my imagination. The tips on washing plants explicitly reference dog piss.

In many ways, it’s one of the most realistic books in the nature-adjacent category that I’ve read recently, one of the most clued up about class and access to nature. I laugh along with her, when she panics visiting friends will accidentally poison themselves from the things in her kitchen cupboard, and phones to make sure they will not use anything unlabelled in her absence.

Careful placing of special things

What of the altars, where Tarbuck gathers resonant objects, or the tinctures she infuses with equal parts rosehips and meaning? Well, as she says from the offset, these are deeply personal. It is up to each individual how they are composed.

I might not wilfully urge anything to manifest, but is what she does deliberately really so different from my habit of placing special things on shelves? My habit of hovering over options, choosing things from a selection because they feel right in my bones?

The books I’m particularly drawn to that I prop up facing outwards (and which sometimes surprise me by their later resonance in my life), the twigs and shells I’ve compulsively picked up on days out, the little objects that bring a sense of happiness into the room and that I’m trying, in some vague, undefined way, to harness and prolong? Perhaps it is not only in my day job, as a writer and publisher, where I try to craft meaning from symbols.

At the end of the October chapter, I fold the flap over to bookmark it. I have decided to read in pace with each month. It is going to be my companion as I pay more attention to my personal mythologies and the eco-magic all around.

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