Burnt Snow, my first novel, was released in 2010 by Pan MacMillan Australia. White Rain, the sequel, is due soon. As part of a trilogy about witches, earth magic, curses, love and revenge, this blog archives my research into the world of the witches - as well as my own magical saga as a new author.

Thursday, February 25, 2010

And today we'll be discussing the bay leaf...

This harks back to last post, on the nature of belief. The humble bay leaf, staple of both the kitchen cupboard and the charcoal burners of living oracles, has much to tell us about the nature of wishes and magic. It is also nifty in a pot of tea, or a bolognaise.


The Bay Leaf

I always carry a bay leaf in my wallet, in the section where the cash money goes. This is a habit I picked up last year, when I was writing furiously and praying daily for the miracle of a book contract. At the time, London was heading into winter, and with no income I was barely making the rent, let alone putting money in the electricity box. At that point that I was wearing six layers of clothing at my desk and lighting several candles trying to convince myself I wasn't freezing to a slow, cold death. With my hands going stiff at the keyboard, it is unsurprising that I literally struck folklore gold when I read about some mystical methods of moolah-making.

One of these was a variation on the Christmas clove orange; it was a clove lemon, with the added detail of pressing cloves into the unpeeled lemon in the shape of a pound or dollar sign. Another was a miraculous wet incense made with nutmeg and apple cider, that I'll discuss at a later point. Another couple pertained to the bay leaf; one wealth-wishing method was to slip a bay leaf in your wallet, another was to write a wish on a bay leaf in a pencil and burn it over a candle in a dark room, murmuring your wish to the cosmos.

Desperate, freezing, with kitchen cupboard not yet empty of bay leaves, cloves, nutmeg or lemons (and running down the road for some cider), I tried out everything I found. I let the incense boil for days, kept the clove lemon on my desk until the skin shrivelled and I still have the (unburnt) bay leaf in my wallet. Within weeks, I had an advance from my book, a little TV writing job, and some royalty payments materialise in my account. The heating went on and I got through winter relatively unscathed.

Did this happen because:

a.) I summoned the forces of darkness to do my bidding?
b.) It was a complete coincidence?
c.) I used symbols to motivate myself towards certain actions that had an impact on my life?

There will be people who believe a.) and b.), and I can't help that. Personally, of course, I believe c.) - because I used the rituals of the leaf-burning and making the lemon and the incense to create memories that would remind me of the situation I was in, reinforcing the need for me to be organised and to work, work, work. The smells of the incense, the sight of the clove lemon and that bay leaf reminder in my wallet kept me focused - and they remind me even now - that I had no money to waste, no time to dither, and had to stay on task in order to get paid and survive.

The book The Secret has sold a bazillion copies on the basis of wish-fulfillment advice that boils down to: successful people know what they want, ask the universe for it, and get it. This is not because the universe is running a concierge service. It's because successful people keep their eyes on the prize and structure their actions around attaining it. Every time I open my wallet I see a bay leaf that reminds me how broke I have been in the past and therefore how much I do not need: a new lipstick, another jacket, a piece of cake larger than my head. Amazing the difference that simple reminder to restraint makes to the monthly bottom line. Of course, if you want to call that magic, then you may.

For the record, and for all aspiring writers out there: I did not get a book deal because I signed a mystical contract with the fairies. I got one because I was willing to live in a bedsit with no heating, eat only oatcakes, multivitamins and tea and write 17 hours a day until it was done. Glamorous career, this!

Which brings me back to the bay leaf.

It is the lovely bay leaf, also known as the bay laurel, that crowns the heads of victors when it's woven into laurel wreaths - the words "bachelor" and "baccalaureate" in the academic context actually pertain to the wearing of the bay laurel when the qualification is won. 

The laurel was very favoured by Apollo, god of the sun, being the mortal remains of a young woman called Daphne; Apollo had tried to rape her, and to escape him, Daphne turned herself into the bay tree. Read whatever weird Freudian juju you think is going on with Apollo into that one, but it crowns his head in a Mythic Tarot deck, and the bay remains a symbol of protection. It is planted in gardens to protect the household, hung around the house it is said to ward off insects (and poltergeists), and popular belief attests that bay trees never attract lightning. Incense made by burning bay leaves on charcoal disks is said to break curses and banish negativity.

Sweetly, it is said that lovers can forge a contract by breaking a sprig (not a leaf, it will crumble) of bay into halves, and that their love will continue as long as each person retains their half. It is a popular ingredient in love sachets, and putting a bay leaf under your pillow is said to attract pleasant dreams. It is psychically potent stuff - the Delphic Oracle used to munch on it in order to provoke visions, and unless you want to end up saying lots of equally incomprehensible nuttery, use the leaves VERY sparingly in cooking and DO NOT eat it directly.

As bay has reputed tonic properties, a good herbal tea for cold winter days is in the Green Witch Herbal
  • Bay Leaf Tonic Tea: Put a single bay leaf in a teapot with some orange rind, pour boiling water over it. Cover and steep for 15 minutes. Drink with a teaspoon of honey, to taste.
And for the ultimate in family protection (maybe aka "where you have to get a meal if the bay leaf in your wallet can't deliver"):
  • Van's Dad's Infamous Bay Laurel Bolognaise: Heat a little olive oil in a large saucepan over a medium heat, add 250g of mince beef and 250g of diced bacon (or whatever mixture adds up to 500g) and cook until browned. Add 1 chopped Spanish onion, 2 chopped carrots, 1 clove of crushed garlic and 2 chopped stalks of celery. Cook these in the pan these until they are soft, but not brown. Add 2 tins of chopped tomatoes, a small can of tomato puree and a carton of pure cream. You can add half a glass of red wine if you want to. Let the mixture boil, and then add 1 bay leaf and the chipped rind of 1 lemon. Bring the heat down to a simmer and cook, stirring frequently, until the vegetables are completely soft. Cook it as long as you like for rich flavour. You can remove the bay leaf and the lemon rind before eating, or you can follow the Badham family tradition and just pick them out as you go along. Serve over spaghetti prepared from the packet, that's buttered and salted before you pour the bolognaise over it. Mmmm...

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