Motherhood, Loss and an Apothecary Garden
I loved this book, a kind of hybrid memoir that combined a passion for herbal folklore and a creative project, the building of an apothecary garden in a location where there were many obstacles to overcome, environmental and human, while exploring and healing from the loss of a loved one.
It reminded me a little of the experience of reading Helen Macdonald’s H is For Hawk, another memoir where the author takes on challenging project while navigating the tumultuous waves of grief – in that case, training a goshawk.
The memoir began at a moment in the author’s life when there was an unexpected death in the family; grief and coping with it, learning how to manage its lingering presence, is one of the themes she reflects on throughout the book.
At the time of this initial event, she is pregnant with her first child and as the story continues, her son becomes as much a part of the narrative as the author herself.
Victoria Bennett grew up in a large family, one that due to her father’s career, relocated countries often, that fragmented when some of the children were sent to boarding school, and even when they did settle down, did not partake in community life. They were self contained.
Used to living in places where they were outsiders, it became a way of being, even in their country of origin, England. In a conservative rural community, her mother wore hot-pants and homemade kaftans, had an art studio in the shed and had once offered to liven up a craft show with an exhibition of nudes.
Due to circumstance, Bennett and her husband move to a new social housing estate in rural Cumbria, built over what was an industrial site, a barren, rubble-filled, now rule-restricted, wasteland.
Mother and son slowly repurpose their backyard, building an apothecary garden – a construction of permaculture beauty, an appreciation of nature, an alternative education – yet encounter resistance, judgement, complaint and obstacle as subscribers to a more authoritarian rule, attempt to oppress or stamp out their initiative, unable to see the bigger picture of a more sustainable, kinder way of living in the shared world we inhabit.
Bennett’s quest, to build an apothecary garden and educate (home-school) her son, was in part, an effort to integrate into the community, to overcome an inherited sense of not belonging, a deconditioning of learned ways. She overcomes anxiety, often lead by her son’s enthusiasm, to become more participative.
Despite her reticence, she had been raised by a feminist, ‘my mother was fierce about being fair,’ her sisters were outspoken, when Bennett discovers that her efforts to create something sustainable are being undermined by neighbours, she sets out to inform and educate them all.
“When we first moved onto the estate, the garden was a patch of newly sown grass, a thin layer of topsoil, and several metres of rock, rubble, and industrial hardcore. With no money, and only the weeds we found growing on the building site, my young son and I set out to see what we could grow. What was once a wasteland, became a haven for wildlife, and a balm for the body and soul. “
For a memoir that navigated emotions, it had a good solid structure within which to contain the outpourings – each chapter began with a different plant, starting with the intriguing medieval, magical perception of it, including stunning yet simple black & white woodcut illustrations, the medicinal properties, a bit of folklore and where it might be found. There followed a meandering through events, memories and reflections from Bennett’s life, that often ventured off from an aspect of the plant’s curative powers.
Sow Thistle, Sonchus Oleraceus
Milkweed, swine thistle, turn sole, hare’s colewort, soft thistle
Hang sow thistle in the home to drive out melancholy…
Sow thistle grows abundantly on rubbish dumps, wasteland and roadsides.
All My Wild Mothers is also a reflection on motherhood, of one woman’s experience, given her own inclinations, personality and the effect of being the youngest in a family of six children. It is a celebration of the power and reward of maternal nurturing, of focusing on the development of a child according to their individual needs,
It is sensitively narrated, introspective and a tribute in particular to her sisters and her mother and a celebration of her son, for all that he teaches her, that he reflects back to her, due to the way she parents him and the way he in turn reminds her what it is to be a child, the gifts they offer having been nurtured, loved and allowed to grow into themselves authentically. He is a less conditioned mini human than most and Bennett’s articulate expression and capturing of his innocent yet profound utterances are a gift to all who read her prose.
Children can teach and remind us of so much that is simple and good in life, sadly conditioned out of us by the effect of a societal system that squashes it before it can have enough of a chance to flourish.
I absolutely loved this quiet book, that celebrates the wisdom of small children, nurtured through the early years and the symbiosis of mother and child.
“What is grief, if not love persevering.” WandaVision
Victoria Bennett, Author
Victoria Bennett was born in Oxfordshire in 1971. A poet and author, her writing has previously received a Northern Debut Award, a Northern Promise Award, the Andrew Waterhouse Award, and has been longlisted for the Penguin WriteNow programme and the inaugural Nan Shepherd Prize for under-represented voices.
She founded Wild Women Press in 1999 to support rural women writers in her community, and since 2018 has curated the global Wild Woman Web project, an inclusive online space focusing on nature, connection, and creativity. When not juggling writing, full-time care, and genetic illness, she can be found where the wild weeds grow. All My Wild Mothers is her debut memoir.
In 2022, her family made the difficult decision to leave the garden and follow a long-held dream of moving to Orkney, where they will discover anew what wildness will grow in a new soil.
For a Peek Inside the Garden + some of Victoria Bennett’s herbal potion recipes
N.B. Thank you to the publisher for the ARC (Advance Reader Copy) ebook provided via NetGalley.