Monday, June 17, 2013

Wise Child

When I was a girl of 8 or 9, my dear friend Elsinore and I spent long afternoons in the hedges and flowers of her mother's wild garden, in the yellow roses, the raspberries, the shade of pear trees, pretending to be dorans, inspired by the magnificent Juniper of Wise Child. We set up a camping tent in the overgrown place called, by her mother, the Secret Garden, flanked with roses, left the door open, went about the garden gathering various plants to make herbal potions. We whittled ourselves wands from some tree, I can't remember which, and rubbed them with rosemary to make them "magic." Those wands of ours felt full of some immense but inexplicable magic. They didn't do anything, but they felt alive to me.We took paper bags of her mother's wool, and a spindle each, and tried to spin, to no avail— we had little patience for it. We carved little wooden necklaces, polished them using her father's toolshed, set in turquoise, tiger's eye, amber, very proud of our careful creations. One day, when we could spin and weave, we were determined to make our own doran capes, woven with the colors of our spirits, the animals and plants of our hearts.

I am still getting there, the whole cape part— all the skills are in place except for the cape itself, which is quite a large undertaking once you've learned to weave, but have only yet made a slender scarf! Elsinore, on the other hand, studied textile design at the neighbor-sister school to the one where I studied creative writing and mythology (the latter not formally, but in all my class-choices), and has by now woven many a river or fox or meadow-inspired textile, if not a doran cape, precisely....

Hawthorn berries and below, tree
That longing to be like Juniper has never really left me; that wise and elegant vision of the doran, as described in Monica Furlong's beautiful book (a Gaelic word that describes a person most closely resembling a witch, in the whole earth-magic Druidic sort of way), was, in a sense, what I wanted to be when I grew up. For Juniper, on top of everything, is a weaver of tales full of magic and the inextricable web-wonder of all beings.

The vision of Juniper's home, up on a hill overlooking a little Scottish town, has never left me— neatly swept stone floors, a capacious and generous hearth, an attic with a loom woven with beautiful, naturally dyed colors, a little stable for goat and mule, a cool stone shed for drying and processing herbs, a wheel-shaped garden with the most everyday and useful medicinal plants the closest in, the dangerous and strong ones the furthest out, and beyond that the woods and meadows full of creatures, wild plants, ocean winds, the wholeness of life.

And the education of Wise Child, which is the central arc of the book, has always struck me as the most profoundly right mentoring I've ever encountered in the Western tradition. The mornings of hard simple chores that force the mind and the body into presentness, discipline and quiet, the study of stars and languages and myths, the gentle teaching via example of the uses of herbs, their handling, of the plants that live out in the woods and how to gather them, the animals and how to interact with them. So much time outside. This is Coyote Mentoring, people—the basis, I imagine, of nature-based learning throughout historical and geographical time and space. Wise Child absorbs through being by Juniper's side, by coming to metabolize and be nourished by Juniper's own relationship to the world.

Of course the whole thing is immensely cosy as well, which I can never resist, in case you hadn't noticed: the simple wholesome comfort of Juniper's home, fire, daily routines, milk goat, herbal preparations, walks. Ah...

I think I have all along held Juniper somewhere in my mind. She has in some way reached out her gentle hands and touched my interest in wool, in sheep, in spinning, weaving, felting, natural dyeing, in the Old Magic of the world, of wild animals, their tracks, their signs. Most recently, I have started to delve into the learning of medicinal plants, their ways, their names, their magic— oh my, what wonders, and Juniper has been there all along, gently guiding.

Juniper tells Wise Child that being a doran is about seeing the patterns of energy that connect and move through all beings, the great web of things. She says that doran is related to the word dorus, meaning an entrance or a way—into seeing the life moving through all creation. About halfway through the book she begins to teach Wise Child a strange and frustrating language the girl can't understand but must memorize, for nights on end. In a scene of great wonder, in a gathering of other dorans, Wise Child realizes what it all means:

"The singing continued, and to my surprise I began to know what The Language was about, not just the part we were singing now but the whole poem. It began with the praise and joy in all creation, copying the voice of the wind and the sea. It described he sun and moon, stars and clouds, birth and death, winter and spring, the essence of fish, bird, animal, and man. It spoke in what seemed to be the language of each creature. [...] It spoke of well, spring, and stream, of the seed that comes from the loins of a male creature and the embryo that grows in the womb of the female. It pictured the dry seed deep in the dark earth, feeling the rain and the warmth seeping down to it. It sang of the green shoot and of the tawny heads of harvest grain standing out in the field under the great moon. It described the chrysalis that turns into a golden butterfly, the eggs that break to let out the fluffy bird life within, the birth pangs of woman and of beast. It went on to speak of the dark ferocity of the creatures that pounce upon their prey and plunge their teeth into it—it spoke in the muffled voice of bear and wolf— it sang the song of the great hawks and eagles and owls until their wild faces seemed to be staring into mine, and I knew myself as wild as they." (p. 162-3)

If that doesn't sum it up, well...

Wise and beautiful creature. Since I was young, a little horse-rider, I've always longed that we could travel about thus, on these noble animals, hoofs clopping, to get from town to town.
Juniper tree, High Desert

If such things move you, do read Wise Child. It is full of much wisdom; it helps to re-root the feet in not only the wonders of ecology, but also of the magic that holds all things together, otherwise known as life and creation, the seed growing, dying back, growing anew.
Elder mother

Once you've got your hands on a copy, settle in with a strong cup of tea, go out under the trees, and enjoy. It is a touchstone to me, a yearly read. 


  1. Oh my... just the sort of education I wanted as a child! The book rings a bell, but not strongly enough for me to remember if I've read it. I will definitely do so, thanks!

  2. The irony!--I'm reading the prequel to this right now. It's all about Juniper's younger years :]

  3. YES! I love Wise Child so much. And TIFFANY DAVIDSON, I am also reading Juniper right now! kindred spirits!! :)

  4. Just finished my yearly re-reading of the two books ~ these two are right at the top of my all-time favorite books list! Such pleasure to spend time with them, and wonderful to know that there are you others out there that love them too. Colman is the third one in the series and continues the story of Juniper and Wise Child (and Colman, of course.) Monica Furlong was dying as she wrote this one and so it is a bit less polished, a bit hurried. But I am so grateful to her for finishing it - what a gift of love to her readers - and so I treasure this one as well.

  5. One of my favorites too. I so wanted (want!) to live in that house, with its books and wonderful garden ... and the loom upstairs ... and Euny on her way.

    Some of the lines I love:

    “I want to be special,” I said obstinately at last.

    “So does everyone else. So we have to take turns.”

    ‘But some people are more special than others, aren’t they?”

    Juniper suddenly got extremely irritated.

    “The really special ones are the ones who don’t even think about it,” she said. (p.167)


    “You always feel someone must be to blame when you are cold or miserable or frightened…It may not be so at all — it is just the weather of life — but even if they are to blame…does it matter?” (p. 77)


    “There are many kinds of reality,” Juniper explained. “Only silly people think there is only one kind. I don’t live in the fairy and neither do you. I live in two or three kinds of reality, though. So, I expect, will you. (p. 68)


    1. Hooray for the Wise Child Clan!! This is so heart-warming to hear from all of you Juniper-lovers. Thank you for visiting as well, and many June blessings... xxx, Sylvia

  6. I just read your story in New California Writing and having grown up in Sonoma county your story felt so familiar and I looked up your blog. I smiled when I saw you wrote about Wise Child, which was a profound book for me as well as a child. On a visit home I just had brought it as a gift to my mom's neighbour girl. Just stopping by to say hi and share that really. :-)

  7. This is just the most loveliest review of this book I've ever read!
    And it is the loveliest book that I've ever read!
    You're a very good egg! It's a pity not to know you better!

  8. Dear Sylvia, dark mountain led me to discover your website, where I've spent the better part of this dark new england evening reading your expansive and serpentine tales. Wise child cast an unyielding spell on my psyche as a child and, at the heart of it, shaped my idea of a good life perhaps more than any book I've read; like you said, Juniper is really all I want to be as I grow up. The book is made all the more resonant by the fact that my mother's last name is Doran, and she is a philosopher, a seer of patterns and wise woman if I ever knew one. In my research of her name's etymology, I learned that Doran comes from a gaelic word that means stranger, exile, or pilgrim, though I couldn't find any traditional usage linking it to the doran we know from Wise Child. Nonetheless there is a kinship between the two meanings. Glad to discover a kindred spirit in the wilds of the net! Nat x