In the past, I often had the problem to find catching headlines because I liked writing about several perspectives in the same text. I quickly get bored with singled areas of knowledge neatly filed away in category drawers, but I got never tired of investigating what was hidden under, behind, and between these drawers. In my school time, there were not yet tendencies like intersectionial or interdisciplinary thinking. My need to see unusual combinations together was even downright physical.
I live not far from the German-French border, born on the German side and living on the French side. So, I could never imagine being locked up in an inland region for more than a few years. I have practised physical border crossings since my early childhood and later learned in EU projects how fantastic it is when you bring different cultures and landscapes together to create transfrontier projects. „In varietate concordia“, United In Diversity, is the official motto of the European Union. I was not interested in the perfectly built „inner part“ of physical or thought drawers with their safety fences. If you seek movement and development you find it in the open spaces in between.
It’s not easy to think out of the box. Even the book market is neatly sorted into bookstore shelves. And if you think aloud on social media or blogging platforms, big players try to sort your thoughts by algorithms into trending topics. Therefore we are used to drawing clear dividing lines and pulling up our thought fences.
Through a French talk show in the early 1990s, I learned that it can be done differently. The world-famous palaeontologist and palaeoanthropologist Yves Coppens, a scientist through and through, was talking to a supercomputing centre expert about how digital methods could be used to uncover the secrets of Carnac. There was talk of ancient traditions and magic as naturally as of scientific facts. What could they find out? Since then, I have been fascinated by the question of what old texts and cultural heritage can reveal to us when we re-read them with our nowaday eyes. I try to do it now with a feast in France. Writing the text without a plan, I was surprised that behind all these „magical“ recipes and rituals of only one day we even can find the climate shift, the changes of biodiversity of a region. Join me wandering the traditions of Northern Alsace on August 15th!
„Assomption“ (Assumption of Mary) on Aug 15th, is a holiday here in France. In German language we have the alternative name „Kräuterweihe“ (consecration of herbs) that reminds much better to the pagan history behind that date. Indeed, it was one of the most important days of agricultural cycles. Here, I talk about the cultural heritage especially in Northern Alsace, about its connection to nature and even climate change – not about the Catholic idea. It’s a day which should change the date: weather traditions don’t work anymore.
I was not Catholic but I remember that in my childhood, we all joined the ritual in church when bunches of symbolically important herbs were consecrated. In the villages, still herbalist women lived at that time who explained to us: „On this day, we collect herbs for the last time in the year. Up from tomorrow, we only collect stems and roots because the energy of the plant goes to the sky in summer, then down to the soil.“
These women had never heard about the osmotic flow and turgor pressure in plants transporting water and mineral solutions which is responsable that a plant has enough energy to survive. Today we can measure the differences of osmotic pressure of phloem sap between roots and leaves, or different seasons and temperatures. These herbalist women worked by feeling the stability of a leave with their hands, they used their experience and handed down their knowledge. Some of them were only superstitious, others would have been naturalists, if they have had the chance of education. But it doesn’t need fine instruments to know when herbs over ground were dying and their roots had reached their maximum growth for the year. You know that phenomenon for the potato harvest. Most of us only have lost this ability to observe nature closely.
Many of these „magic“ things were attentive observation of nature and plant cycles. Like many animals, humans observe their umwelt. It is the interpretation that changes, over the centuries, the cultures, or one’s own background. In former times, people relied on rituals or magic, later on established religions against inexplicable natural phenomena or catastrophes. And so Mary shot up to heaven for the last time like the plant sap of the herbalist women. In early Catholicism Mary played even a very magic role.
But does traditional knowledge apart of all magic, handed down by generations, still function? In our region some rituals and symbols of that day don’t work anymore because of climate change.
Assumption happened between the Feast of St John (June 24), the summer solstice ersatz, and the beginning of the harvest feasts. Historians assume that the plant rituals were connected with harvest traditions of August, long before they were adapted by the church. In Alsace, the earliest written Catholic ritual of the consecration of herbs is found in chronicles of the 16th c. These ancient chronicles are important not only for medical history but also for questions about the biodiversity of former times.
One custom is similar in Alsace as in southern Germany: the days between the Assumption and the Nativity of Mary (Sept 8) were called „Frauendreissiger“ (Women’s Thirties). People believed that herbs collected during these days had the greatest power. This was intensified if the moon happened to be waxing, they said. The custom, although christianised, also indicates that the origin lay in the cycles of nature.
The Strasbourg pharmacist H. Brunschwig wrote in the 16th c about the most important herbs of the day: Hypericum perforatum, Artemisia vulgaris, Ruta graveolens, Succisa pratensis and Buxus sempervirens. To cut a long story short, the bouquets of herbs varied according to region and century. In the past, this was thought to be coincidence or magical thinking. Today, scientists compare the chronicles and can learn a lot about biodiversity: What flowered where and when? What grew there and is perhaps no longer in use today?
Take Hypericum perfolatum, St. John’s Wort. We still collect it today. But for the famous red oil, you need the freshly blossomed flowers. In today’s climate, they are only available in June, often already at the end of May. Due to heat waves and drought, the whole herb often disappears in July. In our region and in the plain, the days when we could collect it in August are over due to climate change!
Take Succisa pratensis, devil’s-bit (yes!) or the later variation Knautia arvensis, the field scabious. The former prefers moist soils near forests, and grasslands traditionally managed with cows. Due to increasing stabling and droughts, the plant is retreating to the Vosges heights. I haven’t seen it in a meadow for years. In the 16th c, it was described as absolutely common for our region. The field scabious is still blooming but became rarer because of intensified agriculture. Their flowering time is given as July to August, but even that has moved well backward in the year.
Far from superstition, these plants tell us how we have changed nature over the centuries. Through industrial agriculture, through lack of appreciation, but also human-made climate change and its extreme weather.
Many of these customs are increasingly forgotten or dismissed as „old stuff“ or superstition. Yet they are a valuable source of knowledge about how people adapted to nature, and what they valued or demonised in former times. Farmers‘ calendars were slowly adapted to natural cycles but not the dates for the feasts.
Today, people feel as never before that the weather is „going crazy“, that they don’t recognise their meadows or that a landscape is changed beyond recognition by wildfires or floods. In the past, rituals and festive days provided support. A seasonal calendar promised a future because every autumn was followed by winter and then spring. Life could still be so hard on you if it only snowed at Christmas or if you went swimming in summer. It was the magic of anticipation because you didn’t have everything available all year either. What does it do to people when calendars are no longer right? Can we find our footing in other ways?
Something has remained: the traditional way of dealing with nature and the course of the year is characterised by a deep knowledge of becoming and passing away, birth and death. Nothing is irrevocably fixed, everything is in flux. At first, humans were observers, they blended in. They protected themselves with magic, talked to plants.
At some point this turned into exploitation and greed. And strangely enough, this change increased the need for everything to remain „traditional“ (often terribly romanticised or even ideologised), irrevocable, and supposedly simple. Could it be that the more we look at ourselves, the more we lose sight of the swirling cosmos, of the connections we could create with other humans and more-than-humans?
The precious part of cultural heritage knowledge seems to be lost when farmers have to book harvest vehicles according to the availability of machinery and not the weather. When off-nature punters bet on food in advance on stock markets, they are neither interested in traditional wisdom about our food nor in biodiversity and ecosystems. Reading old texts doesn’t mean that we should go backwards romantising hard times. But they are a great help to reflect us in the connections of time and space – in our changing landscapes.