There is an old woman who lives on the edge of the forest, both the forest you can see and the one which lives in your mind and heart. You’ve always known her, even when you were a little girl, she walked near to you, a shadow glimpsed from eyes that weren’t yet veiled by the ways of the world.
I’ve always been drawn to this woman who lingers near the edge places of the world, the one with moss in her hair and the green and black of plant and soil upon her thumbs. Yesterday a friend came over for lunch and we got to talking about Jungian archetypes, and I told her about how drawn I am to the old woman in the hedge (or forest) and her response was ‘Well, that’s what you do, bring back tales from the other side of the hedge to share with people here.’ It struck a chord with me, because I suppose, it is what I do. I take down those glimpses I’m given ‘over the hedge’ and then transcribe them as best as I am able to. But I also feel it goes deeper than that, for me and for all women. Because we all know that woman in the hedge.
She is that old woman, the one you sense, the one that flits in the corner of your eye, more shadow than substance, or so it seems when you are young and cannot quite grasp the notion of being old, of having bent limbs and aching joints. She lives deep in the woods, in those Jungian forests of the primitive brain, the one which speaks loudest in times of fear and pain. She’s always just beyond the hedgerow, over the briars of wild rose and hawthorne, which both represent protected, undisturbed sleep. But this hedge dweller, this crone does not sleep, for she is busy spinning the fates of the world in her small cottage, hidden in the leaf flicker of the primeval forest. It is she who knows the words to speak to plants to release their full potency, she who knows the nine woods- which burn hot, which smoke out ghosts, which heal the invisible sicknesses. She knows the nine herbs too- those that are strewn upon ground and floor to make a bed for the midsummer gods to lie upon. It is she who sits by the fire, rocking, until her soul slips up the chimney, taking her to other dimensions where the view is both bigger and smaller, both universal and microbial.
I always glimpse her more easily this time of year, feel her wild nature shadowing my own. Perhaps it’s because this is a numinous time of year. You can feel the old gods rise as the sap does in the trees, as the shoots break the earth, as the flowers open and the birds hatch their young. You can feel that old woman- the one who has had so many names—Gaia, Isis, Durga, Freya, the Snake Woman, Danu, Artemis— rise from her roots, once again clothed in the green of youth. This feeling becomes more pronounced as the solstice approaches, and you know, or you remember in some primitive part of you, why people danced, why they went hand in hand off into the forest, to lie beneath a hazel tree away from prying eyes. You know why the fires were lit, and why you can feel the very earth hum beneath your feet, why the feminine was sacred— because she- this earth, this Gaia- was and is alive to the very last cell. This time of year is a rushing, it is being swept up with the ecstasy of the season- apparent in every budding flower and creeping vine, in every bursting tree and rising river. It’s in the beetle sleeping between rose petals, the bee drunk on pollen, the taste of lilac wine upon your tongue. It is the Mother in all her lush abundance.
The Goddess in her youth is represented by a birch, in motherhood by a hazel, and in the crone years by an alder. The ground beneath the alder was considered best suited for the psychic experience of the world of the dead. It takes the old woman of the hedgerow to straddle the boundary between worlds, to talk to the spirits and cut the ties of the world for them when it’s time. She is the wise woman, the crone, the hag. The Germanic Hagadise or hagdusse– means ‘hedge-sitter’- and from that comes the English ‘hag’. A hag sat in the hedgerow between nature and culture, between the world of the spirits and that of humans. She brought knowledge from over the hedge—that of time and medicine, of the sacred and the profane, of body and spirit. She knows and tells the stories of what was and what will be.
She is the woman who knows the herbs to banish ghosts (St. John’s Wort, in case you’re wondering), those to render a woman more fertile, or less depending on her needs. In darker times she was called a witch, and in the original sense of the word, she was just that. For the old words from which witch derived—wik and wid—merely meant to prophesy, to consecrate, to bend and fold, to be wise and to share that wisdom.
The woman who sits in the hedge has ears that prick like those of a wolf, and her shadow has four feet and pads silently along the forest pathways under a quarter moon, sharp as a slice of metal. She lives in her instincts, her wisdom that of blood and bone, of loss and rage. She is immanent in all of nature, there at birth, there at death. She is Hecate, guarding the crossroads of life and death. She lives both backwards and forwards in time, for it is no more than a river to her, where currents run both ways.
The old woman of the forest, she who sees both sides of the hedge, comes to us in dreams, in instinct, in our fear and anger at an unjust world. She comes in healing hands when we care for the broken wing of a crow, or heed the cries of an abandoned kitten. She is at the heart of every fairy tale, waiting in her hut in the woods for us to come to her, seeking wisdom. It is easy enough, because that old woman who lingers near the hedgerow, who lives deep in the forest with the knowledge of herbs and animals and life in her hands and blood, is you, is me, is all of us. It think it’s possible that we have never needed her wisdom more than we do right now.