Who knew that jet – a hard, black, organically-derived mineraloid commonly found in the gothic cliffs of Whitby in North Yorkshire, is formed from the fossilised remains of Araucaria araucana (Monkey Puzzle) tree?
‘. . .Araucaria is derived from the Arauco region of central Chile, where the Araucani Indians live. This is the land of the monkey puzzle tree (A. araucana), so named because the prickly, tangled branches would be difficult for a monkey to climb. It has been suggested that an armor of dagger-like leaves on ancient araucariads might have discouraged hungry South American herbivorous dinosaurs, such as the enormous Argentinosaurus that weighed an estimated eighty to a hundred tons!’
The Araucariacae family encompasses three genera: Araucaria, Agathis and Wollemia. Within these genera some incredible ancient trees can be found, some of which are at least equal in their outlandish beauty to A. araucana. Living fossil Wollemia nobilis (discovered in Australia in 1994) is definitely one of them.
‘Fossil evidence indicates that the Aracauria family reached its maximum diversity during the Jurassic and Cretaceous periods, between 200 and 65 million years ago, with worldwide distributions. At the end of the Cretaceous, when dinosaurs became extinct, so did the Araucariaceae in the Northern Hemisphere’.
So, Araucaria araucana probably became extinct in Whitby between 200 and 65 million years ago, and mindblowingly, the fossilised remains of those extinct trees now yield significant jet deposits along a very short stretch of North Yorkshire coastline, between Runswick Bay and just to the North of Whitby. The Romans loved it – York being the centre of the Roman trade – and Neolithic/Bronze Age examples of jet jewellery have also been found.
Jet was highly prized by the remarkably gothically-minded Victorians, who loved a bit of hard black shoegazing. Queen Victoria famously wore it among her widow’s weeds on the death of Prince Albert in 1861, and its subsequent links with mourning and Victoriana have been set in stone ever since.
Whitby itself is more or less the epicentre of English gothic high-kitsch, with vampire and ghost tours whispering their terrors on blackboards advertised around each cobbled bend on every Whitby street.
I have often wondered if the gothic legacy of jet itself is partly responsible for Whitby’s morbid obsession with all things crepuscular and dark. Bram Stoker’s 1897 classic novel ‘Dracula’, famously partly set at Whitby Abbey, obviously has more than a bit-part to play in the nocturnal notoriety of the town’s undeniable witching-hour romanticism.
It was a stroke of genius that Stoker chose Whitby, with all its associations with mourning, death and disaster, to frame his novel. His treatment of the town itself is decidedly anthropomorphic, with the town emanating a ghostly sea-misty malevolence compounded by many tales of shipwreck, gore-soaked whaling voyages seeking yields of whalebone for stultifying, suffocating corsets and stays, as well as blubber oil for lamp burners. Throw in a few biblical coastal storms and you have a potent briny literary brew which for me is completely unrivalled in atmosphere.
Luckily for Stoker and his iconic gothic novel, he seems to have divined Whitby’s ongoing knack for misfortune, which has only served to reinvigorate the powerful and magical dark mysticism invoked by ‘Dracula’. In 1914 Whitby Abbey (a glorious manifestation of incredible architectural gothic provenance and having survived centuries of assaults, including The Reformation) sustained further damage from two German battlecruisers Vann der Tann and Derfflinger. A hospital ship, Rohilla, was also sunk in the bay during the attack.
You can certainly feel a very peculiar ambience at the Abbey, if you brave the 199 steps to the top – even surrounded by hundreds of other tourists. Perhaps it is the dishevelled countenance of the Abbey, with all the sea and wind-pocked headstones and the merciless position high up on those precipitous cliffs. Or perhaps my knowledge of the Abbey’s tumultuous and tortured history is seeping in? I’m never quite sure.
What I am sure of is that Whitby is one of my favourite British seaside towns. As a child all those gothic tales and the beautiful black-as-night jet jewellery caught and charmed my imagination just as much as they do now. It was also a brilliant day-out escape from Hebden Bridge – which, as you will know if you have read my blog before – has a personal legacy of bleak gothic romance. Thank you very much rain, bleak industrial heritage, desolate moorland, Brontës, Sylvia Plath, Ted Hughes – and Kate Bush, you didn’t help either. From one cruel, windswept romance to another. HEATHCLIFF!!!
Plants of the Week
Book of the Week
‘Dracula’, Bram Stoker
Track of the Week
‘Night Shift’ from the 1983 album ‘Nocturne’, Siouxsie and the Banshees
‘Abbey on the Hill, Whitby, Yorkshire’ by George Scarth French
‘Nocturne: Black and Gold – The Fire Wheel’, James A.M. Whistler
Whitby Abbey: English Heritage
Corsetry: The Vintage Fashion Guild
Terminology: Checked using Oxford English Dictionary
Paintings: MyPaintings, Tate
Jet jewellery: British Museum, Wikimedia Commons
History of Jet, Geology: The Whitby Jet Heritage Centre, and british-history.ac.uk
Taxonomy/Distribution of Araucaria: The Gymnosperm Database
Photographs: Wikimedia Commons and my own
Other websites and relevant articles, click on the link
We depend on plants for our survival. We need them for everything. They play a central role in possibly every formal and informal human ceremony ever invented – births, deaths, marriages – and the very important business of our daily lives. Imagine the British without tea.
Tea drinking is part of being British. Bad day? Cup of tea. Friend round for a chat? Cup of tea. Wilting in the doldrums of the afternoon at work? Cup of tea. Whole life fallen down around your ears, wife left you and house burned down? Cup of tea. Most scenarios will usually involve some tea drinking, (unless it’s the evening, when we can be found indulging our other national drinking obsession).
Tea is made from the leaves of shrubs Camellia sinesis var. sinensis from the Yunnan province of China, or C. sinensis var. assamica, which is grown in the warmer climes of India and Southeast Asia.
We use plants not only for celebrations and rituals, but for enhancing our immediate environment, healing, medicine, food and spiritual sustenance. It would be a miserable, impossible life without them (especially in Medieval England).
Not many people would have had a reliably clean source of drinking water, so beer made with oats, (Avena sativa) wheat (Triticum aestivum) or barley (Hordeum vulgare) were often consumed as a substitute. Having been boiled during the brewing process, most of the harmful bacteria and micro-organisms would have been rendered benign. So it would actually have been safer to drink beer!
‘Some of the earliest chemical evidence for (barley) beer comes from residues – calcium oxalate, known as beerstone – inside a jar excavated at the Godin Tepe archaeological site in the Zagros Mountains of Iran that is dated to between 3400 and 3100 B.C.’
Undoubtedly-many festivals and rituals have evolved from beer drinking – some relatively recent and others ancient. Oktoberfest in Munich is famous for its excess, but is relatively recent (1810.) The Peruvians also have some interesting modern beer drinking rituals as well as a labyrinthine and vast pre-inca brewery, discovered in the Peruvian Andes in 2004.
Unfortunately ‘They destroyed the site in an elaborate closing rite, setting fire to the entire brewery and throwing their ceramic drinking vessels onto its burning embers.’
Maybe one of their master brewers got carried away, made a crazy percenter and everyone went a bit doo lally?
I’ll continue the Peruvian theme by looking at some of their ritual plants, so I can revel in my fantasy of living somewhere lush and exotic for a bit, where it’s not considered deviant to be completely out of your head.
Or you could just go to Hebden Bridge* for the latter experience. However, you may end up in a hippy’s** attic surrounded by pot plants and not a tropical rainforest, or a majestic Andean jungle. Don’t say I didn’t warn you.
In the Peruvian Andes, the immeasurably more exotic ayahuasca is a potent brew made by indigenous Amazonian plant shamans who claim that they receive directions about the benefits of all the plants used in the preparation of ayahuasca directly from plants and plant spirits.
Ayahuasca is prepared with infusions from the Banisteriopsis caapi vine, and has some colourful common names, including ‘Doctor’, ‘Vine of the Dead’, and ‘Vine of the Soul’. The plant itself is a beautiful large vine, which occasionally flowers, like this:
The leaves of DMT-containing species of shrubs from the genus Psychotria (usually P. viridis) are used, along with Justicia pectoralis, or ‘Tilo‘. The leaves develop a rich, sweet smell as they dry due to the formation of large quantities of coumarin – a fragrant crystalline compound which is often used in a Peruvian psychoactive ‘snuff’ and in a ridiculously high percentage of all perfumes.
Justicia is used as a traditional treatment for fever in some parts of the Carribean, and is widely used as an anticoagulant.
The brew is said to induce life epiphanies, cure depression and be spiritually cleansing. But you have to endure a living nightmare for a few hours to get to the good bit. An American egghead has even done a study on ayahuasca:
‘The unconscious mind holds many things you don’t want to look at. All those self-destructive beliefs, suppressed traumatic events, denied emotions. Little wonder that an ayahuasca vision can reveal itself as a kind of hell in which a person is forced—literally—to face his or her demons.
“Ayahuasca is not for everyone,” American egghead Dr Grob warns. “It’s probably not for most people in our world today. You have to be willing to have a very powerful, long, internal experience, which can get very scary. You have to be willing to withstand that.”
Unlike most common antidepressants, which . . . can create such high levels of serotonin that cells may actually compensate by losing many of their serotonin receptors, the Hoasca Project showed that ayahuasca strongly enhances the body’s ability to absorb the serotonin that’s naturally there. . .
The main chemical in the brew, dimethyltryptamine (DMT) . . . though chemically distant from LSD, (DMT) has hallucinogenic properties. But it is ayahuasca’s many plant ingredients cooperating ingeniously to allow DMT to circulate freely in the body that produce the unique ayahuasca experience.’ National Geographic Adventure, 2006
If you are particularly interested in ayahusca ceremonies, watch the legendary episode of ‘Amazon’ with Bruce Parry.
So while ayahuasca ceremonies seem to be about connecting with spirits, ancestors, spiritiual healing, exorcism and catharsis, the Mexican Day of the Dead is specifically about celebrating the idea of inviting the dead back in the world of the living, and the continuing roles that the dead have to play in the lives of their descendants.
Tagetes are the symbolic flower used in the Mexican Day of the Dead celebrations – (not to be confused with Calendula officinalis.) The incredibly pungent smell of the flower when handled is said to be the reason that Tagetes are used to decorate gravesides – the idea being that the smell is strong enough to rouse the dead.
Roses are often used, as are Celosia cristata, Matthiola incana, Gladiolus, Gypsophila paniculata, and Chrysanthemum morifolium – all of which have symbolic significance in the festival.
Book of the Week
Two books this week. ‘The Doors of Perception/Heaven and Hell’, by Aldous Huxley and ‘Memory, Wisdom and Healing: The History of Domestic Plant Medicine’, by Gabrielle Hatfield.
Other Significant Plants in Ritual Use
Lophophora williamsii (Peyote cactus)
Coffea arabica (Coffee)
Theobroma cacao (Cocoa)
Calea Zacatechichi (Dream Herb)
Artemisia absinthium (Absinthe)
Agathosma betulina (Buchu)
Echinopsis lageniformis Bolivian Torch Cactus
Track of the Week
Plant of the Week
*This link will take you to a New Statesman piece about Hebden Bridge – the most interesting thing about it is possibly the debate sparked by residents and anti-Hebdeners:
“Hebden Bridge is a dump and its citizens are segregated losers.
The closest the residents of that vile place get to ‘culture’ is when it appears on their discount supermarket bread which lies rotting in their dilapidated homes.”
What a guy.
** I was going to put a picture of a Hebden Bridge hippy in here. I could have raided my photo albums, but when I did a google search one of the first photos I found was of my stepdad, followed closely by several people I know. So I’m opting out. You’ll just have to use your imagination.
Subjects include links from the following:
Camellia sinensis: http://www.kew.org
Hebden Bridge: New Statesman, Independent
Ayahuasca: National Geographic Adventure, The Ayahuasca Project, ‘Amazon’, with Bruce Parry
Modern Peruvian drinking rituals: Footprint Guides
Images: Wikimedia Commons
General research: Wikipedia and associated sources