“Please tell us a story!” cried the littlest rabbit.
“Yes, a story! A story!..” chimed the others in unison.
Mother Rabbit surveyed her litter of kittens, as they danced and leapt. She was feeling tired, and the sun was now dipping low over the meadow, its rays turning the world a uniform gold.
She paused for a moment, and smiled at their keen expectant eyes. She nodded, and the crowd burst into ecstatic squeals. And so she began.
‘Long ago, soon after the first rabbits had been made and the badger and the weasel were still our friends, there lived Prince Sandalfoot, the most cunning rabbit of all.
‘His sister may have been faster, and his brother stronger, but Prince Sandalfoot’s keen eye for tricks was so renown that all the creatures in the land could recount at least one of his stories, for they spread like whispers on the wind.
‘Like when he stole the King’s cabbages by disguising as a shadow?’ piped up one of the kittens.
‘And when he escaped from the army of foxes by appearing to fly over their heads?’ squeaked another.
‘Yes, that’s right,’ Mother Rabbit smiled gently. ‘And in particular, he loved nothing more than outwitting his arch-enemy, Sir Cowparsley, whom he tricked many a time.
‘But pleasing to him as these victories were, he wanted to do something even more daring, more dangerous; something for the whole world to remember him by.
‘And then, one night, after a supper of mugwort, he had a dream. In it, he conceived of the boldest scheme ever devised. He woke up with such feverish excitement, that he immediately paid a visit to his closest friend, Violet.
‘“Well,” declared Violet, ”if you were to succeed, even the foxes would be reciting that story to their pups forevermore!”
‘“Too true, too true!” agreed Prince Sandalfoot delightedly. “But I need your help..”
‘And so next morning, Prince Sandalfoot and Violet set off towards the sun, just as it was peering over the faraway hills and their patchwork meadows. They made their way across fields of rapeseed, whose bright yellow blooms swayed in one long languorous dance. They crossed over high green pastures, where clumps of dandelions and sow thistle provided sustenance, and the early morning dew quenched their thirst.
‘Days came and went, and they passed through dales and valleys, woods and wetland. And at night, they took shelter in a hollowed elder or under a thick set of brambles; the hoots from owls reverberated overhead and badgers rustled about in the undergrowth.
‘Still they pressed on, the sun beat down harder and the land became flatter and wilder. The sky grew and grew, stretching out ever wider, a yawning blue canvas for the passing white clouds. And on the wind, an unfamiliar scent of brine tickled their noses.
‘Until one day, the land abruptly stopped beneath their paws. Below them, white chalky cliffs tumbled into water that stretched on forever as though a thousand rivers had come to meet.
‘Prince Sandalfoot and Violet looked out, entranced by this endless field of blue. “We are here..”’
‘“This is Paradise?” wondered Violet. Like most rabbits, she may have heard of Paradise, but in truth she had no idea of where it was, or how one got there, or even if it truly existed.
‘“No, not yet,” replied Prince Sandalfoot, in a tone that for him was unusually hushed and reverent. “This is just where the land ends. But, according to my dream, something grows here that will help me to Paradise, something to smooth the journey.”
‘“The journey?..” asked Violet.
‘“Of the spirit. A journey that needs no legs to run on or whiskers to find the way. Just the wits to get past The Rabbit of Darkness, the rabbit who carries our spirits to the realm beyond.”
‘“But surely that would mean death?..” Violet whispered the final word with such foreboding, as if saying it any louder might have invited down The Rabbit of Darkness himself.
‘“Yes, that is the normal path. And no, I don’t plan to do anything so.. final. Just a brief trip! At least until I get a good fill of Paradise. Ah, those endless rows of carrots as sweet as honey, cabbages larger than laburnums..” Prince Sandalfoot continued dreamily.
‘“But, I do need to trick The Rabbit of Darkness into at least thinking I’m dead. And for that, I need to find this particular flower that only grows in these parts..”
‘And at that, Prince Sandalfoot darted along the cliff edge, stopping here and there seemingly at random, whiskers held aloft and twitching in the breeze. Violet looked on quizzically, as she watched her friend zig-zag his way across the clifftop.
‘“Ahem,” interrupted Violet. “Is there anything I can do?..”
‘“Well, actually..” Prince Sandalfoot. And he proceeded to whisper into her long tumbling ears a ream of instructions. He then handed over a small clutch of prickly nettles that were growing close by.
Violet looked on at him, and then the nettles, her whiskers twitching away nervously.
‘“No! That is much too perilous..” her voice wavered. “Please, don’t..”
‘“I’ll be back in a blink of an eye, don’t you worry!” he reassured. “Oh look, there’s some of those flowers, just by that patch of clover. Just like in the dream!”
‘And at this, Prince Sandalfoot drew up to a glorious spray of sunny sea poppies, their bright yellow petals quivering in the breeze. He glanced back at Violet, smiled warmly to her, and then began nibbling.’
‘Suddenly, Prince Sandalfoot’s world spun round and round, a blur that grew blacker and blacker as if night had come and its moon and stars had been whisked away..’
At this, the group of little kittens gasped out loud, their eyes wider than chestnuts and their fur bristling like burdock seeds.
‘Ahem..’ Mother Rabbit coughed, causing the kittens all to startle. They began to frantically whisper amongst themselves: ’Why, oh why!’, ‘What will become of him?’ and ‘Oh poor Prince Sandalfoot!’
Mother Rabbit waited until the clamour had subsided, and then continued.
‘Suddenly, a bright light pierced the darkness, a light that grew larger and larger, until it surrounded Prince Sandalfoot. A splash of colour appeared, a green here, a yellow there, then a blue and a red.. until eventually the whole scene was awash with colour and a bright landscape appeared before him.
‘Prince Sandalfoot stared all around him. Emerald fields stretched into the distance, a sapphire blue stream trickled beside. And just in front loomed a large shadowy figure, three times the size of a normal rabbit, and whose outlines rippled and blurred into the ether.
‘“Ahh, Prince Sandalfoot.. I wasn’t expecting to see you so soon!” greeted The Rabbit of Darkness in a deep calm tone, his mouth remaining disconcertingly still and motionless throughout.
‘“It must have been something I, erm, ate, my Lord.” Prince Sandalfoot coughed, fully aware of the being in whose presence he was.
‘“Well, everyone finds their way here eventually, by some means or another. Be they prince or digger. The question is, are you worthy of Paradise? Or does your destiny lie in the desolate expanses of the Fields of Eternity?..”
‘“Oh Paradise, I’m sure!” replied Prince Sandalfoot optimistically.
‘“Really? You seem rather confident. Paradise is only for the very few, and not all your actions have come from a kind heart..”
‘Prince Sandalfoot stared back at The Rabbit of Darkness, confidence draining away like a lone leaf swirling down a whirlpool. He was Prince Sandalfoot, a member of the royal household and famous all over the world for his cunning tricks; surely this alone would grant him a place in Paradise.
‘The shadowy figure paused for a moment, then nodded. “Still, I see in your heart lies a deep love for your people, and you care for them very much. Very well, Paradise shall be yours..”
‘“Oh thank you, thank you sir!” Prince Sandalfoot replied rapturously.
‘The Rabbit of Darkness then led the prince towards the stream beside him and commanded him to enter.
He approached tentatively. Its water felt neither cool nor even wet – instead it was like the wind on a summer’s day, and it soon carried him off and away, faster and faster through an endless blur of emerald fields.
‘It eventually deposited him on a wide grassy bank. He stood up on his hind legs and looked around in amazement, for ahead of him stretched row after row of bright orange carrots, and cabbages the size of laburnums.
‘“Paradise!” exclaimed Prince Sandalfoot victoriously. And celebrated by gorging himself on all that he could eat.
‘Meanwhile, back on the cliff-edge, whilst the sea continued to pound the rocky shore, and the sun and moon had swapped places twice in the sky, Violet ended her vigil beside Prince Sandalfoot’s dormant body.
‘She began to nudge his face and blow into his ears and when this failed to rouse him, she firmly scratched his paw. But still he remained in deep slumber, his chest slowly rising and falling like the breaking waves beneath them.
At last, as per his instructions, she got the clutch of nettle leaves and proceeded to press them over his eyes, their pupils as tiny as poppy seeds.
She waited, but he did not stir. Panic descended upon her. She began desperately rubbing the leaves all around his eyes, but they still remained unerringly pale and dull, his spirit hanging indeterminately between the world of the living and that of the dead. Finally, she sunk despondently next to his body, hope all now but lost, as the sun made its way impassively across the sky.
‘By now, Prince Sandalfoot had finished yet another feast of carrot and cabbage. He rolled onto his side and let out a sigh. As good as all this was, he was wondering why he had not yet returned to the world of mortals. Much time had passed, something he knew instinctively. He now sat up alert. Yes, he should back by now.
‘He began to hop about nervously, dashing about here and there, surveying the fields as if trying to catch sight of a way back home. Then a large shadow loomed over him, and he turned round.
‘“Good day, Prince Sandalfoot. Are you liking it here?” enquired The Rabbit of Darkness.
‘“Erm, oh yes, very much so..” Prince Sandalfoot muttered.
‘“And yet you seem a little flustered?”
‘“Oh no, not at all. How can anyone be anxious in such a wondrous place!”
‘“Of course! Well, good to see you..” said The Rabbit of Darkness as he ambled on his way.
‘And at this, Prince Sandalfoot realised to his dismay that his plan had failed. He would never get back home. And as perfect as Paradise was, his heart still pined for his people, rabbits he had sworn to protect with his cunning and his tricks. He needed to be there with them, for them, for that was whom he was.
‘“Excuse me!” called out Prince Sandalfoot. And The Rabbit of Darkness turned round and faced him. “I think that there might have been just a little misunderstanding. You see, erm, I’m not really supposed to be here. At least not just yet..”
And as he proceeded to confess the whole sorry tale, The Rabbit of Darkness stared impassively throughout, until at the very end the shadowy figure broke the silence.
‘“Sea poppy, you say? How very interesting. I wonder how you thought up this idea?”
‘“Oh, it just came to me in a dream.” answered Prince Sandalfoot. “And when I..”
Prince Sandalfoot suddenly faltered, and looked over at the giant expressionless rabbit in front of him. And then it dawned on him.
‘“You?.. You sent me this dream?” stammered Prince Sandalfoot. “I don’t understand.”
‘“Yes, Prince Sandalfoot. It was I who brought you here, to this very place. I wanted to present you with a quandary, a dilemma, a choice – for you to decide whom you wished to be. Too long have your tricks and schemes been for your own gain and vanity. But you have forgotten about your people, and your duty to protect them all with your cunning.
The prince stared down dismally at his paws.
‘“But, I think you realise this now, yes?..” continued The Rabbit of Darkness.
‘And at this, Prince Sandalfoot nodded, humbled and subdued. For once, it was he who had been tricked. Even if an important lesson he had learned..’
And as Mother Rabbit said this, a little voice rose from the back. ‘But what happened next? Did Prince Sandalfoot get back home? Did he see Violet again?’
‘Oh yes,’ Mother Rabbit replied. ‘He did return. The Rabbit of Darkness made it so. And when Violet saw his eyes suddenly light up, and heard him draw in a deep breath of the morning, she skipped and danced with such joy.
‘And from then on, Prince Sandalfoot vowed only ever to use his cunning to help his people, for he loved them so, and they loved he..’
‘And did all the creatures hear of his journey to Paradise?’ asked another.’ And do all the foxes tell their pups the story, just like Violet said they would?’
‘No,’ replied Mother Rabbit. ‘Only Violet knew the truth of Prince Sandalfoot’s journey to Paradise, but eventually she told the tale to her own kittens, and they told theirs, and that is how we know of the story today.’
By now, night had fallen, and the moon and the stars glittered high in the sky above the rabbits. ‘I see it’s now time for bed..’ smiled Mother Rabbit, and she began corralling them back into the burrows, the sleepy ones needing an extra nudge or two.
And as they settled down, she gave each the fondest of nibbles at the ears. But only a few were awake to hear her final words: ‘Sweet dreams, my little kittens. Sweet dreams..’
☘ 🐇 ☘ 🐇 ☘
Even if rabbits could speak, they probably wouldn’t have a word for “foraging”. In fact, apparently even some human cultures don’t have a word for it – so ingrained and commonplace it is in their everyday lives, there’s just no need to give it a label.
In the UK however, despite its ancient traditions, it’s remained something of a novelty, leftfield even. But recently there’s been a resurgence – people have become more sympathetic to the provenance of food, whilst others have been inspired by restaurants that champion foraged ingredients. And of course there’s the financial climate – after all, why turn your back on free food growing on the doorstep, right?
For me, it was all those things. And so when my wife handed me a gift of a guided foraging in London with Forage London, I couldn’t wait to go.
At that point, if I were to conjure an image of what foraging involved, it’d probably be a daring Bear Grylls-esque escapade through a landscape that’s distant, wild and dangerous, scavenging acorn husks and hunting squirrels for survival, with a couple of sticks on hand to start a fire, a machete gripped tightly between the teeth, and a rabid look in the eye.
However, that’s not an experience likely to be going down in Dulwich Park, where my foraging tour was due to take place. Or, if it was, you’ll probably be snapped up by the police pretty pronto.
Still, there’s a lot to be said for a foraging expedition around one of South London’s salubrious suburban spaces – less inaccessible, less chance of snake-bite, and less likely to bump into a lost contestant from ‘I’m a Celebrity..’
Moreover, I was genuinely intrigued at what could be found in our local environs, on our very own urban doorstep. After all, much of South London used to be rural until relatively recently – Dulwich Park itself had been vast fields and wild meadow until 1890 – so beyond the landscaped lawns and children’s playgrounds, perhaps some vestiges of wilderness could still be found.
The instructions advised to meet by the park café. So when I turned up on a gloriously sunny Saturday morning, my eyes scanned over the milling crowds, trying hard to pick out the guide.
Now, amongst the well-heeled throngs of Bugaboo-pushers and skinny-latte addicts, there appeared one decidedly hirsute man sporting a green woollen jumper, a bushy ginger beard, and long locks of hair that were wound up into a tight bun; he was lightly armed with a sizable wicker basket.
And even though I was earnestly trying hard not to stereotype what a forager may possibly look like, sure enough it turned out that he indeed was the guide.
Jason looked such the part that I felt immediately in safe hands. And indeed he turned out to be an excellent guide. When he talked about foraging, his passion and enthusiasm just shone through what was otherwise a calm measured voice. And with a Masters in Ethnobotany (surely that’s even better than an “-ology”!) and working as a researcher for Kew Gardens, he was clearly deeply knowledgeable about the subject too. He kept our group utterly engaged and enthralled throughout.
Like Prince Sandalfoot searching for the sea poppies, Jason would stride out across the park lawns, closely attending to the nature around us, spying for something of interest no matter how elusive it was. At times, he was like a predator stalking some prey, except instead of a sudden death-leap onto a timid kudu, it’d be more of a calm gesture towards a clump of mugwort.
That said, mugwort proved to be more thrilling than you’d expect. After all, it is a close relative of wormwood – the primary constituent of absinthe, that renowned hallucinatory tipple of French fin-de-siècle painters and poets. And mugwort is likewise associated with lucid dreams and even distorted perceptions.
It was mugwort that Prince Sandalfoot ate prior to his dream of sea-poppies. And, had we also nibbled on a few leaves, it’s quite possible that our foraging tour might well have descended into a Dulwich Village equivalent of Fear and Loathing in Las Vegas.
In fact, the humble mugwort pops up all over the world in a mind-bending array of guises – in Japan, it’s a key ingredient in mochi rice cakes; in Korea, it’s a core component of ssukguk, a soup of mugwort and clams; and across much of the Far East, it’s used in a type of esoteric acupuncture called moxibustion, where the herb is burnt over acupressure points up and down the body. And when burnt, its aroma is sufficiently resemblant of weed that it’s often used as a cannabis substitute in theatre productions.
Next up we came across yarrow, a sweetly-scented plant with clusters of little white flowers. At this juncture, we paused as Jason amiably poured out some yarrow and rosemary tea from his thermos – the fresh hoppy aroma and deeply herbaceous flavour perfect for a brisk walk in the winter sunshine.
He went on to explain that yarrow’s traditional use as an astringent and promoter of blood-clotting has earned it names such as ‘soldier’s woundwort’ and ‘staunchweed’. Fortunately, such medicinal properties weren’t needed during our leisurely jaunt, but still good to know in case we collided into one of those rental recumbent bicycles that can be found whizzing all over Dulwich Park.
Then we came by some stinging nettles. We learned how cooking transforms these much-maligned plants from the scourge of the rambler to the delight of the chef – it’s the wilting off of the spicules, each one barbed with a battery of chemical weaponry, that apparently does the trick.
And soon afterwards we spotted some purple dead nettle, which isn’t a true nettle at all, but a cunning species of mint that pretends to look like nettles in order to ward off predators. And then we saw some ground elder, which likewise isn’t an elder at all, but a type of wild carrot.
Meanwhile we learned that true elders – famed for the cordials and syrups made from their flowers and berries – were once so revered in ancient folklore that one had to ask permission from its native tree spirit before cutting any branches, lest bad luck befell you.
We thereby paid our respects to the elder, and moved on to spy some wood avens. Jason reflected that the roots of this ubiquitous plant smell so similar to cloves, that it’s a wonder and tragedy that whole battles were waged, and far-off lands conquered, by 17th Century Europeans warring over the clove trade, when such a close substitute grew so abundantly at home.
Meanwhile, fast-forwarding to the 19th Century, when London imported a whole load of Australian eucalyptus trees – a key ingredient in cold remedies and vapour rubs – in order to freshen up the city’s smog-ridden air. Indeed, we came across several specimens in the park, so we stopped by to revitalise our own nostrils on their bracing aroma.
Jason was now imparting so many fascinating titbits, it was hard to keep up. Who knew that the thistles of burdock gave inspiration for velcro; or how cherry blossoms share a similar biochemistry as almonds, both unnervingly containing a certain quantity of cyanide; and how the deadly hemlock is ubiquitous in London but can be easily mistaken for the benign cow parsley.
Overall, it was an inspiring afternoon foraging in London. And although it didn’t quite leave me equipped to survive an apocalypse, I did at least come away with a soupçon of knowledge and a strong sense of awe for the natural world.
Paradise to Prince Sandalfoot may have been endless manicured fields of cultivated vegetables, but actually I think it’s the rabbits’ more customary foraged diet of wild leaves and berries that humans can learn much more from. And you don’t even need to wait for an apocalypse to do it. So go on, go learn to forage!..
My rabbit fairytale is a homage to my favourite childhood book/film – Watership Down. Not only is it a ripping yarn, but the emotional weight and themes of mortality and self-sacrifice in Watership Down touched me then, and still has me in tears even now. For a very different type of fiction that I wrote, feel free to check out my story ‘Plot’, starring a kick-ass clone trying to save the world. For more on foraging in London, here are links to Forage London and Jason’s own website, Forage Wild Food.
Foraging in London with ‘Forage London’ – inspired by Watership Down