Written by Dyami Millarson
Winter is a good time for reflecting on this year’s foraging experiences. I felt motivated this summer and autumn to go foraging. I thought that the unusual planning of 2020 offered an excellent opportunity to seek out nature and improve our foraging skills which we had started developing last year. Foraging, for those who may not know, is searching for food in nature. This year I have foraged apples, stinging nettles, pears, blackberries, elderberries and rose hips for the first time in the vicinity of Leeuwarden. I foraged elderberries, stinging nettles and rose hips truly for the first time in my life, it was not just the first time in many years or the first time I did this in Leeuwarden after living in the Frisian cultural capital since 2009. I have wanted to forage stinging nettle for a long time already since my father told me that he had foraged stinging nettle together with my mother when he was my age and used it as a vegetable. Last year I began foraging acorns in the vicinity of Leeuwarden and apples on Schiermonnikoog. We learned to be more intimately familiar with wild-growing Germanic foods this year. The ancient Germanic tribes that inhabited Northwestern Europe were intimately familiar with all that grew around them, but this knowledge has been lost even though we speak Germanic languages. However, this knowledge can be easily revived because we still possess the words to describe our environment and all that we need to do is relearn these ancient Germanic words in order to classify our environment properly.
The botanical name for elderberry or elder is Sambucus. This botanical name finds its origin in Latin sambūcus elder tree, which is derived from sambūca a kind of instrument that was usually made of elder wood, which is derived from Ancient Greek σαμβῡ́κη. The Shire Frisian word flearbei, which means elderberry, consists of two elements: flear and bei. While the latter means berry, the former is derived from a West Germanic word, meaning elder(berry) or Sambucus. The Shire Frisian word for elder tree is flearbeam. The latter element is related to English beam. Bēam in Old English also means tree. The English and Frisian languages are closely related languages, and they have been grouped together as Anglo-Frisian since the 19th century for this reason, which is a linguistic grouping that has merit as it helps to draw attention to the close similarity between the Frisian languages, Modern English and Scottish.
Ierpelrisping potato harvest
As I talk about my harvesting and foraging experiences in this article, this article should have been more appropriately titled ‘2020 First-Time Harvesting and Foraging Experiences Around Leeuwarden’, but that would have been too long. Risping means harvest and ierpel means potato. There are many words for potato in Shire Frisian: jirpel, earpel, ierappel and ierdappel. Shire Frisians disagree among themselves on what is the correct form of the word, but one could argue all these forms are all equally Shire Frisian. Nevertheless, it ought to be noted in all honesty that ierdappel (literally meaning earth-apple) is the original form of the word and all the other forms are modifications of that original form. I harvested lemons, green onions and potatoes from my balcony garden for the first time this year. I had never tried my potatoes and green onions before. I bought my lemon trees in 2020. I had started my balcony garden in 2019. I harvested cutting beet (snijbyt, where snij- means cutting and byt means beet) last year and my cutting beet plants seeded this year. The cutting beet tasted delicious, so I thought it was a brilliant idea to collect the seeds for another round. I had planted many green onions last year, but I did not want to try them yet in 2019. Some of them seeded in 2019 and so I collected their seeds. I tried the green onions for the first time in December 2020. I noticed with everything I harvested from my balcony garden that to my surprise, the harvested foods tasted stronger and more delicious than in the supermarket. I did not know why this was the case, because I would have thought that an urban environment would negatively affect taste and growth, but I was proven wrong and it made me happy to learn my harvests were highly rewarding in terms of taste. I distinctly remember the taste of everything I harvested, because as I said, it tasted much stronger than what you would buy the supermarket.
Parren en apels pears and appels
To my grave disappointment, I discovered while composing this article that I had not taken any photos of the apples and pears that I had found in nature in 2020 in the vicinity of the Frisian capital, Leeuwarden. The pear was a Gieser Wildeman, a Dutch kind of cooking pear which is botanically categorised as belonging to Pyrus communis, which is a species of pear native to Europe. This species of pear was known to the Ancient Greeks and Romans. There is no native Germanic term for pear, which indicates that the Germanic peoples were originally not familiar with the pear in their area while it probably did not grow in Germanic Europe.
My father and I have not picked blackberries since 2008-2009 for making jam, even though I had fond memories of this. This year we picked berries again for this purpose for the first time in years.
Ikel acorn comes from an ancient Germanic word, which is derived from the ancient Germanic word for oak. The acorn was surely known among the Germanic peoples and the fact they had a word for it indicates cultural relevance; the Germanic peoples must also have consumed acorns, because acorns are very nutritious. However, the tannin needs to be removed before consumption and this can be done by soaking ground acorns in water ranging from a couple of hours to a couple of days for maximum effectiveness. Tannin is what gives acorns their bitter taste. Tannin is also present in wine and tannin was used in former times for tanning hides. The English verb to tan is ultimately not of Germanic origin, but it comes from the Latin verb tannāre. From the English linguistic evidence, it is not clear whether the Germanic peoples used tannin for tanning hides, but the truly Germanic verbs, which may shed some light on this while providing linguistic evidence for the notion that the Germanic peoples were culturally familiar with the concept of tanning hides and using tannic acid for this purpose, fall into two categories: the Dutch verb looien and the Frisian verb loaie belong to the first category which is derived from a Germanic verb meaning ‘treating with tannic acid derived from tanbark (bark of oak tree)’, and the German verb gerben, the Icelandic verb garfa and the Danish verb garve which fall into the second category which is derived from a Germanic verb meaning ‘making ready’. The verbs belonging to the first category provide the clearest evidence that using tannin for tanning hides was a Germanic cultural tradition, and if the Germanic peoples consumed acorns, they must have been familiar with the fact that acorns taste bitter unless you soak them in water for a while and the water, which is coloured brown from the tannin, may be used for tanning hides. There exists no doubt in my mind that the Germanic peoples would have consumed acorns and while the oak tree and its fruit, the acorn, held such cultural significant among the Germanic tribes, I am convinced they knew that when you soak acorns in water, you get tannin which may be used for tanning hides. As a testimony to the fact that the oak was held in high reverence among the Germanic peoples, it ought to be remembered that the oak was sacred to Thor and many sacrifices were made at oak trees. In fact, the essence of Germanic nature worship was effectively tree worship, which centred around the oak tree.
The central place of the oak tree in Germanic tree veneration gives you an accurate idea of how important the acorn was to Germanic culture, and therefore they would have known there is tannin in acorns. After all, as the linguistic evidence from Dutch and Frisian suggests, the Germanic peoples knew that the bark of oaks contains tannic acid which may be used for tanning hides, so why would they not have known that acorns contain tannic acid which may be used for tanning hides? The Germanic peoples would almost certainly not have wasted anything they got from nature and so if they had gathered acorns and soak it in water, they might have used that water for tanning hides. In addition, I should remark that Germanic culture was very pragmatic and the Germanic peoples did not consider anything sacred or holy unless it had a practical meaning to them, and since the oak tree provided food, shelter and tannic acid, it was so culturally relevant that the Germanic peoples could surely not escape considering it a holy plant with holy fruits. Particularly the fact that the oak tree provided food is symbolic, because this may indicate the relationship between Thor/the divine and human beings: the divine feeds humans. Thor as a God of the Weather may also be considered a God responsible for fertility, rainfall, and so forth; his role would have been linked to the production or growth of food in nature for humans. While this may be said of Thor in particular, it may also be said of the Germanic Gods in general, for humans had a relationship with their divine lords where the Gods were food-providers. The English word ‘lord’ is derived from an Old English word which means ‘bread-guardian’, which may indicate that a ruler in Germanic culture was considered a provider of food, whereas a servant was called hlāfǣta in Old English, which means bread-eater literally. Food was so highly important in Germanic society that it was a culturally and religiously determining factor, and food was what determined social hierarchy while wealth was defined particularly at that time in terms of abundance of food. Individuals who were good at providing food were perceived as having a high social status and those who were more or less dependent on others for food were given a low social status. Of course, the Gods of Nature (= the Gods of the World, to use a more authentically Germanic wording) were the best at providing food and so people brought sacrifices to them at oak trees. The Germanic tribes praised/venerated their ancient Gods and they consulted them for help with matters of food.
The animal that is brought into close association with the oak is the squirrel. The Frisian word for squirrel is iikhoarntsje, which is a Germanic word that is derived from oak. The squirrel also eats acorns and the ancestors of the Germanic peoples must have noticed this as anything recursively happening in the natural environment around them could surely not have escaped their attention; Germanic peoples, like other humans of the time, were good at spotting recursive or recurring patterns in the natural world around them. While the squirrel can eat acorns, the ancestors of the Germanic peoples must have concluded that they might also be able to eat acorns. This is one way in which the Germanic peoples could have learned that acorns are edible. It would not be strange if they learned it in this way, because they considered the squirrel to be some kind of divine messenger, while it climbed up and down the tree which they considered sacred to the Gods. After all, if the squirrel is a divine messenger, why would you not take cue from his divine message that eating acorns is an excellent idea for survival during the autumn and winter? For this reason alone, the squirrel could potentially be considered holy in a culture valuing food for its very survival. Then, if this were the case, it might be said that the squirrel brought the Germanic peoples closer to their Gods, whom they considered to be oak trees (spirits living inside oaks) or spirits living near oaks; in other words, it could be argued that the squirrel had a function of bringing the Germanic peoples in connection with their Gods through teaching humans that acorns are food. The most famous squirrel in Germanic folk religion is Ratatöskr, which carries messages from the eagle in the top of the world tree to the dragon at the bottom of the world tree. The theme of animals carrying messages or omens is common in Germanic polytheism. Although the manuscripts of the Edda say the world tree is an ash, which might be a mistake by a scribe, I would argue the Saxons and neighbouring Frisians believed the world tree to be an oak. After all, as I said at the beginning of this paragraph, the squirrel is associated with the oak, not the ash. I think the Germanic peoples originally believed the world tree was an oak, considering how they worshipped the oak and the fact that the Germanic peoples lived in oak forests. While it may be interpreted as a scribal mistake that the Eddaic manuscripts say it was an askr (ash) in Old Norse, the Old Norse text of the Edda allows for replacing askr with eik (oak) without changing the metre of the alliterative verse. The fact eik perfectly fits into the poetic text without constituting any significant change to the verse and the logical fact that a squirrel and oak make the most sense as a pair observed in nature and the fact the Germanic tribes evidently worshipped the oak make for a compelling argument that the Nordic peoples would have believed the world tree to be an oak as well. Nonetheless, if we are to interpret askr as genuine, the Saxon tradition of oak worship, most famously recorded in history with the felling of the Donar Oak, points to a belief that the tree holding up the heaven above and holding together the earth below – being none other than the world tree – was an oak among certain Germanic tribes, and this would mean there might have been different local traditions. But even if we were to grant that such an idea of different local traditions makes sense (while it may also be granted that there are historically fewer oaks in Scandinavia than other parts of Germanic Europe which were historically covered in a primordial forest consisting chiefly of ancient oaks), it still makes little sense to imagine a squirrel eternally jumping up and down an ash. Perhaps if the Scandinavians were not that familiar with squirrels being animals that usually climb oaks – which would be preposterous since both oaks and squirrels are native to Scandinavia – even though squirrels are, in the minds of all Germanic peoples to the south of Scandinavia, the animal that stereotypically eats acorns and therefore displays a natural behaviour of living in the vicinity of oak trees, such a Nordic modification as to the nature of the world tree could make sense in a local context, but common sense, which is based on observation of Germanic forests which are a source of inspiration about nature and the Germanic past even to this day, certainly leads one to suspect the ash and squirrel combination to be false and the ash and oak pair to be true; the latter pairing certainly seems much more attractive for a variety of reasons. In addition, one really has to ask why people living in oak forests wouldn’t consider the oak to be their world tree. The oak has so much going for it to be the world tree, as it even provides food to man and squirrel alike; nature itself provides a most compelling argument for the oak-squirrel pair in Germanic folk religion.
Tongernettel Thor’s nettle
The stinging nettle is a ubiquitous plant in Germanic Europe. The botanical name of this plant is Urtica dioica. It is hard to imagine that this wasn’t the staple vegetable of the Germanic peoples, because it is the earliest edible vegetable to grow after the winter and it is the vegetable to grows longest before the winter. In other words, it is the most widely available edible plant in the traditional Germanic regions of the world. I can also imagine that the Germanic peoples would have been fascinated with this plant because of the burning sensation it gives when touched with bare hands. One has to handle it with care. The Shire Frisian name brânnettel (burning nettle) is an attention to this. Since the Germanic peoples were firmly convinced that angry spirits inhabit the natural world, I reckon that they would have explained the burning sensation (brânend gefoel) as evidence of an angry elf or fairy living in the plant. I have consulted Dutch and Frisian folklore in the hopes of finding traces of such an animistic story, but for what I did find, I cannot give any certainty about whether it is an ancient tradition or a modern interpretation. Either way, it makes sense from an animistic perspective, because the Germanic peoples of yore would have believed that all plants, particularly those with special properties, were imbued with spirits or souls. After all, this is not an unscientific way of thinking because plants are living beings. I did find a traditional belief in the Low Countries that stinging nettle attracts thunder and people say it is called dondernetel in Dutch for this reason. This folk herbalist name for stinging nettle is highly intriguing because if this belief is indeed very old, and I so no reason to suppose why it shouldn’t be although we do not know much about the origin of this belief, we may indeed suppose a connection with Thor, the ancient God of Thunder, the son of the Sky God Othin and the Earth Goddess Jörth, that the Germanic peoples believed in. There are even place names in the Low Countries which contain the element donder- and these usually point to the popular worship of Thor.
Even the Dutch name of the week donderdag Thursday and its Shire Frisian equivalent tongersdei Thursday are reminders of this ancient God and his popular worship. So, the Dutch folk herbalist name dondernetel, which is nowadays usually called brandnetel in Dutch which corresponds to the Shire Frisian brânnettel, may be interpreted as Thor’s nettle. The Shire Frisian equivalent of the Dutch dondernetel would be *tongernettel, I have found this term nowhere else online, but I hereby declare it a Shire Frisian word because term dondernetel does exist in the folklore of the Low Countries and if this reflects a very old tradition, the reconstructed form *tongernettel would probably be merely a revival of an ancient folk herbalist name. Again, Shire Frisian has tongersdei as a name of the week and Dutch has donderdag, and if Dutch has brandnetel and Shire Frisian has brânnettel, then why should Dutch have dondernettel and Frisian shouldn’t? That genuinely wouldn’t be fair to the Shire Frisian language and culture, which are indigenous to the Frisian mainland situated in the Netherlands, and it ought to be recognised that folkloristic traditions preserved in one region of the Low Countries can be revived again in other parts, I see no harm in that. Quite the opposite, spreading old traditions further than before will help with the revival of folklore. After all, many old traditions were once widespread as well and when they started dying out, they became associated with particular regions which started seeing those once widespread traditions as unique to their local culture, but little do people know that this is common heritage. This is why I see no problem in adopting the term tongernettel in Frisian. Furthermore, I feel that brandnetel/brânnettel (burning nettle) conjures up a negative image of the plant, whereas dondernetel/tongernettel (Thor’s or thunder nettle) changes the image of the plant entirely. This is how language influences one’s mind. My father and I never call this plant ‘burning nettle’ during our conversations when we are foraging, but we always respectfully call it ‘Thor’s nettle’. We believe that our choice of name is much more conducive to the revival of traditional knowledge about the plant because it does away with the bad reputation of this plant and we also believe that Thor’s nettle will be a name that may help to popularise dishes containing this plant. As for the idea that it attracts thunder, Thor was believed in the time of yore to scare away demons with thunder. Scandinavian folk stories still portray giants and trolls as being scared of the sound of thunder.
Why foraging matters
I felt very enthusiastic about rediscovering ancient Germanic local foods in 2020. I rediscovered acorns in 2019 and I rediscovered both Thor’s nettle and elderberries this year. The rediscovery o folklore was a huge bonus for me, and philosophising about the beliefs of the Germanic forebears made me feel there is a profound, mysterious connection between the present and the past. Old traditions return in cycles and so the decline of old traditions may not necessarily be permanent. If the will is there, forgotten traditions may be rediscovered at any point of time and so this may also be taken as a sign of hope for communities that have their own endangered language and culture. In hindsight, it was only to be expected that as my herbal lore increased, my insights into folklore would expand as well. I have been playing a lot this year with the idea that developing knowledge of the local flora and fauna is not just a boon to ecological sustainability, but it is a boon to folklore as well. Knowledge of the local environment should definitely be seen in the same context as folklore, because traditional human knowledge of local ecology always included folklore. In fact, folklore aids our understanding of the environment, stories are important for humans because they are mnemonic devices that help us remember relevant facts and details about the local ecosystem in which we live that we may otherwise easily forget. Germanic folk religion with local Dutch and Frisian characteristics definitely harbours a huge treasure of wisdom that is still relevant for us today and for the sake of preserving the local environment, it is definitely worth teaching this to both adults and children. After all, the local environment cannot be preserved when knowledge of the local environment is not preserved. This knowledge has been lost, and it ought to be revived for the sake of protecting the integrity of the local environment.
When one does not know where one lives and what one’s local environment has to offer, it is impossible to know in any practical sense what we may lose if we do not stay vigilant. Ecology is a fragile balance. I studied the relationship between ecology and Germanic folklore/folk religion this year, and came to believe that these are inextricable. We have lost the sense that the world is magical, we have forgotten about the elves or spirits living in Thor’s nettles and other plants. I believe that the restoration of the magical world is a philosophical return to our innocent state of being, which translates to a natural and peaceful balance between man and nature. I was interested in 2018 in the relationship between Schiermonnikoog Frisian and nature as I saw a link between the Wadden Sea environment of the island Schiermonnikoog and the indigenous language of Schiermonnikoog. I saw this very concretely in the terms for ecological phenomena, such as the term flúedmúes which is a general term for natural and sometimes unnatural items washed up on the beach, and in the local belief in dune spirits. However, I noted that as the language of Schiermonnikoog is dying, so is the reverence for the dune spirits being forgotten. The island was protected by a fragile balance that existed between the speakers of Schiermonnikoog Frisian and the local environment, which was represented by the dune spirits. I would argue that the decline of Schiermonnikoog Frisian is not just a linguistic and cultural disaster, but an ecological one as well. For this reason, I am very determined to keep Schiermonnikoog Frisian alive and I will definitely teach this wonderful language to my children and grandchildren and I will tell them about what this language has to offer in terms of knowledge about the Wadden Sea environment. Surely, I will tell them the stories about the dune spirits that the elderly last speakers of Schiermonnikoog Frisian entrusted to me and urgently wished to be passed on to the next generations. I will definitely also go foraging acorns, elderberries and Thor’s nettles with my children and grandchildren because I believe it is very important they experience this. It has been an eye-opener for me as well because it made me realise the connection between plants and folklore.
While I studied the connection between language and nature in 2018 and philosophised more about it in 2019, I studied the connection between language and sustainability in 2020. Language and nature was a major theme of my studies in 2018-2019 and language and sustainability was the major theme of my studies in 2020 and it will continue to occupy my mind beyond 2020. I always attribute major themes to my projects as this helps to categorise the discoveries of my studies in an efficient manner. Of course, although my interest in the connection between language and nature characterised my experience of 2018 among other interests, but it will evidently continue to shape me in the near and distant future because these are recurring themes in my work and as my knowledge of Frisian languages is increasing, so is my philosophy becoming more matured. I hope to be able to return to the essence of things in the same manner that my father has always sought to do with his philosophy of oerfoarmen (primal forms). Perhaps it may be said that my father has always looked for the essence of forms, and I have always been looking for the essence of languages, cultures and religions. We are people who desire to know the essence of things, and that is why my father and I definitely share the same philosophical vision about Operation X, which is meant to help us pry into mysteries, go on an adventure of discovery in the hopes of finding the essence of life and consequently finding creative ways to express and encapsulate these insights. We believe that many insights are hidden in a forgotten past, and we are willing to treat paths that are not trodden by others, because that is where we believe the treasures of life lie. It is in local languages and cultures that we may find answers that we may not find elsewhere. They are worth studying, because they expand our philosophical horizons and they inspire us to live a good life.