Monday, 6 February 2017

Working with herbs by Su Bristow - Sealskin Blog Tour

I am delighted to welcome Su Bristow to my blog today for the Sealskin blog tour, to talk about working with herbs. Sealskin is being published in paperback by Orenda Books on 15 February 2017. You can read my review here.

Working with herbs
By Su Bristow

When I first qualified as a medical herbalist, I was living in a small village on Dartmoor. Although it was a much more open community than the one I’ve described in Sealskin, some of the same rules apply. There’s a very efficient bush telegraph! If I hadn’t managed to help my first few patients, my practice would never have got off the ground. Fortunately, I did, and that meant it grew far more quickly than it would have done in a town or a city. My children went to the village playgroup and school, and other mothers brought their children to me. The local doctors knew me, and some of them are still my friends. 

Of course, there’s a darker side as well. Some people thought I was a foreigner, or a witch, or even (there are some very conservative Christians in rural Devon) in league with the devil. Like Bridie, I sometimes met with suspicion and distrust, although people would rarely make any direct challenge to your face. But the tradition of using herbs is still alive and well, especially among farmers treating their animals, and on the whole it was accepted and welcomed. 

I’ve been in practice for thirty years now, and in that time I’ve met people from all walks of life, and helped with everything from childbirth to allergies to auto-immune problems, from acute infections to cancer. But it’s not about the ailments, really. Herbal medicine is a three-cornered relationship between the patient, the herbalist and the herbs themselves. Plants are living beings with their own characters. Understanding that, and choosing the right herbs for the individual, and herbs that will work together to feed their vital energy, is what it's all about. 

For example, everyone knows about Echinacea and its immune-boosting action, but there are plenty of other herbs that help immunity in various ways, and Echinacea isn’t always the best herb for you, or for your particular symptom picture. Equally, a combination of herbs may be more effective than a single herb on its own; Echinacea plus Elderflower and Yarrow for a cold, for example, or plus Thyme and Elecampane for a chest infection. Knowing how to balance the prescription is part of the art of herbal medicine, and you need that as well as the science.    

But it’s not just about the herbs, and the wonderful support they have to offer. It’s also about being able to listen, and keep company with people who are in distress. In traditional tribal medicine, which I studied at university before I ever thought of becoming a herbalist, there’s a lot of ceremony that goes along with the medicines given to sick people; and that, sometimes more than the medicine, helps to give them the strength they need to get well. Here’s a link to a performance of Nkisi, a monologue I wrote about a shamanic journey:

In Sealskin, Bridie is named for the Celtic goddess Brigid, patron of childbirth, healing, fire, poetry and unity. She was later Christianised into St Bride or St Bridget, who was said to have been midwife to the Virgin Mary. 

I think a lot of me went into the character of Bridie - or rather, me as I’d like to be. You’d have to ask my patients about that... 

About Su Bristow
Su Bristow is a consultant medical herbalist by day. She’s the author of two books on herbal medicine: The Herbal Medicine Chest and The Herb Handbook; and two on relationship skills: The Courage to Love and Falling in Love, Staying in Love, co-written with psychotherapist, Malcolm Stern. Her published fiction includes ‘Troll Steps’ (in the anthology, Barcelona to Bihar), and ‘Changes’ which came second in the 2010 CreativeWritingMatters flash fiction competition. Her debut novel, Sealskin, is set in the Hebrides, and it’s a reworking of the Scottish legend of the selkies, or seals who can turn into people. It won the Exeter Novel Prize 2013. Her writing has been described as ‘magical realism; Angela Carter meets Eowyn Ivey’.

Su's weekly herb blog appears on

About Sealskin

By Su Bristow
Published by Orenda Books (E-book - 22 December 2016; Paperback - 15 February 2017)
ISBN: 978-1910633601

Publisher's description
What happens when magic collides with reality? Donald is a young fisherman, eking out a lonely living on the west coast of Scotland. One night he witnesses something miraculous ...and makes a terrible mistake. His action changes lives - not only his own, but those of his family and the entire tightly knit community in which they live. Can he ever atone for the wrong he has done, and can love grow when its foundation is violence? Based on the legend of the selkies - seals who can transform into people - Sealskin is a magical story, evoking the harsh beauty of the landscape, the resilience of its people, both human and animal, and the triumph of hope over fear and prejudice.

My verdict
Here's a snippet from my review: "I tried to read Sealskin slowly, as I wanted the book to last, yet it was so compelling that I struggled to put it down. I really didn't want the story to end - and felt bereft when it did, surrounded by boxes of tissues. I'm sure I'll be reading this book several times to feel that magic again and again."

Read my full review here.

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