underGROWTH: Doctrine of Signatures

A wonderful milestone was reached in my residency for the underGROWTH project. The zine I have been creating has been sent to the printers, the proof has been approved, and soon I will be receiving a small print run through the post! I’ve enjoyed every moment as this project has come together: from the research, to painting the illustrations and having conversations, to writing the small number of new poems which will appear in the zine. This last aspect will be focus of today’s blog post.

A Human-less World

Right from the beginning of this project, I knew that each poem should focus on just one species of moss or lichen. Even before I had researched these organisms, I knew that each type, with its distinct colour, shape, and texture, had its own story to tell. Some could be seen almost everywhere; with others, it would feel like a rare treasure to discover it, on the underside of a log or on a branch deep in a hedgerow.

As well as writing about the species themselves, I also wanted to draw a connection between these organisms and human beings. But mosses and lichens pre-exist our species, homo sapiens, by millions of years. The earliest known fossil sample of lichen dates back to 400 millions years ago, around the same time as our oxygen-rich atmosphere; as scientists believe that ancient mosses created this atmosphere, the first moss species could have existed much earlier than that.

Millions of years, where mosses and lichens existed before people. What might that world have looked like, or felt like?

Yet to write a poem about moss or lichen requires approaching it with a human perspective, a human language, a human understanding. This is inevitable: the writer of a poem will always be human, and therefore this framing is inescapable. I could try to write about the rich, unspoilt wildness of that human-less world, but I would never truly capture it. Besides, I wanted the poems in this zine to connect people with these organisms, to help them to notice the mosses and lichens we share this world with. Or rather, that they share with us.

The connection between these organisms and humans is of interest to poet and performer Lauren Sheerman, one of the people I interviewed for the zine. For her, the ways in which women have used moss in the past, the untold stories and histories (or should that be herstories?) of moss, are particularly thought-provoking. In my first post, I touched upon the way in which sphagnum moss was utilised, with its absorbent and antiseptic qualities, as early sanitary products. For a long time, in many areas of the world, moss was used in this way, though most of the earliest anthropological records omit these details. Most Victorian anthropologists were male, and to such details were deemed unsuitable for publication. In her work, Lauren draws upon this historiographical neglect, and writes about issues around period poverty in the world today.

Like Lauren, I find the intersection between the life of these organisms, and our lives as humans, really interesting. How we see, understand, and relate to the world around us is so fascinating.

Discovering the Doctrine

Something that occurred to me, while I was researching moss and lichen, was how the folk uses of various species often aligned with how the organism looked – its colour, its shape, or its texture. Somewhere at the back of my mind, I knew this was a school of thought, and a quick search gave me the name. The doctrine of signatures is a medieval ideology that has roots in ancient philosophy, but is now considered a pseudoscience. The doctrine suggests that a plant’s medicinal benefits can be deduced by some aspect of the plant’s appearance. I was a few chapters in to Robin Wall Kimmerer’s Gathering Moss, but when, the next time I picked up the book, she mentioned the doctrine, I decided that this would form the basis of my poems.

I found quite a few examples of the doctrine of signatures in the world of moss and lichen. Sometimes it was the shape of the plant that resembled the human anatomy, sometimes it was its colour. As I looked at more species – even those to which the doctrine had not been applied – I could begin to see the thought process behind it. Taking a new perspectives of these organisms, as I wrote about in my last blog post, allowed me to make new connections between them and us.

I could begin to imagine how a medieval herbalist, desperate to find a remedy for her ailing community, could begin to draw patterns, make links, and build a sense of where humans fit into nature’s fabric. There was definitely a poetry to it, and many stories to unravel from these patterns.

The Poems

I began with an application of the doctrine I had found in my research – that of the haircap moss, explained above. I had been out searching for them in my local countryside, and had found dense clumps beside rivers and brooks, covering the earth like a great swathe of hair. I got the impression of something a little secretive, protective, but strong in its numbers.

I was writing this poem around the time of the Sarah Everard investigation, and the #ReclaimTheStreets movement that flooded social media in the aftermath. The vulnerability of women was in the forefront of my mind. I thought about how, if I felt unsafe, I might let my hair sweep across my face, to try and pass a little less conspicuously. The protective mats of haircap moss once again came to mind.

The poem begins with a catcall, and while we might associate this behaviour with our modern age, the poem doesn’t specify what time period it is taking place. I wanted it to be open, universal, eternal. The opening stanza details an encounter almost all women can relate to, establishing connection and empathy, before the second stanza changes scenes and grounds us in a time period: in the medieval chamber of Lady Godiva.

Godiva is best known for riding naked through the streets of Coventry, in a bid for fairer taxes for the people. In the legend, and in many subsequent depictions of her, she only has her long tresses of hair to hide her body. In the second stanza, I brought in the folk belief that a rinse of haircap moss would strengthen and thicken the hair. Before such a vulnerable display, I could imagine Godiva scrubbing her hair with moss in a bid to turn it into a vast and opaque shield. The third stanza draws these elements together, with a outcome that is as fanciful as the Godiva legend itself, but tinged with hope that women hold the power and autonomy to change the narrative.

In the second poem, I wanted to try to build my own folklore around the doctrine of signatures. For this, I combined the imagined perspective of the medieval herbalist with the knowledge of modern science, to begin to construct an ideology. I began with modern scientific understanding: the fact that pixie cup lichen contains didymictic acid, which can be used in treatment of tuberculosis. From ‘tuberculosis’, I began to explore the idea of the industrial Coventry of the Victorian period, when TB or ‘consumption’ was widespread. Then I began to connect the appearance of the lichen species with the physicality of this environment and this disease. What occurred to me quite quickly was how the dishes of this lichen look like pale, round faces, craned upwards on their stems. Then, as it so often does, it began with a line (and a rhyme):

She kneels down by the pixie cups,

[…] a thousand faces looking up.

I had other poems I wanted to write for the zine, following the same idea around the doctrine of signatures. Ultimately, I ran out of time to do any more than those I’ve outlined above. But I think those two poems sit nicely amongst all the other elements the zine has to offer.

Once the underGROWTH archive is live, I will post a download link to the zine in a post, here on my blog. I will also have a limited number of print copies available, too, which include a small resin charm containing a few moss and lichens species. Look out for how to claim one of these in my next post, too!

underGROWTH is a series of eco-art residencies designed to confront issues relating the Coventry’s environment. It is curated by Lauren Sheerman and George Ttoouli, with The Pod Cafe and allotments in Coventry. Learn more on Twitter at @underGROWTHcov, or on Tumblr here.

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