Category Archives: Seasons

Spring and Cowslips

How spring plays out in terms of wildflowers varies a lot from year to year and from place to place. This year, the celandines and violets have appeared in remarkable profusion around my home, and I’m still seeing a lot of them. Fruit trees have been abundant with flowers as well. I don’t have a fantastic visual memory but even so I’m confident I’ve seen more flowers on blackthorn and soft fruiting trees than I normally would. However, I hear from friends that their apple flowers locally are late.

In the last week I’ve seen my first buttercups and cowslips of the season.  I’m watching for the kingcups, but I’ve not seen any of those yet. Soon, it will be time to go looking for orchids. Last year I only found one bee orchid, which was an unusually low number.

There must be a lot of variables impacting on plants. How the winter went, what the spring temperatures are like, how much rain there is – and different plants are all adapted to thrive in slightly different conditions. Sometimes, if you know a plant well you might have a sense for how it will respond to the conditions as a year unfolds. I don’t have that depth of connection and am generally surprised.

I watch with interest to see what flowers when, and enjoy watching for new plants as the year progresses. The cleavers seem to be doing really well this year, and the garlic is growing large and lush.  I don’t know if I’ll be able to get onto the hilltops for the bluebells and wood anemones, but remain hopeful.

Cowslips are especially significant for me, because they were rare when I was a child. A plant pushed to the edge, they have somehow made a comeback during my life and as such are a symbol of hope, to me.


Happy Hana Matsuri

My plan for this year was to honour Japanese festivals as part of what I do with my altar. This is partly because I’ve been trying to learn Japanese. I’ve not made much headway in the last month, but there we go.

Today is Hana Matsuri. It’s a festival celebrating the birth of the Buddha, and it is celebrated much earlier in Japan than anywhere else. This is a consequence of Japan adopting the Gregorian calendar and having a date shift on festivals – something that may also have happened with traditional festivals in the UK when said calendar came in.

I spent some time wondering what, if anything I was going to do, and in the end I’ve not done much. I’m not a Buddhist. I’m really not a Buddhist in that many of my personal beliefs are at odds with Buddhism.  I’m not held by a cultural context that celebrates this as part of its calendar – and I think that would be very different. Japan has festivals that are secular (as with the doll festival last month), there are a lot of Shinto festivals – about 300,000 of them, focused on local shrines. There are Buddhist festivals, the western New Year, Christianity has been present in Japan for some time…  It’s very different showing up for a festival that isn’t part of your religion but is part of your culture.

I have longstanding unease about the way in which western Paganism appropriates from eastern cultures. We’ve lifted so many things, taken them out of context and bundled them together. Such that a person can talk about mindfulness and chakras in the same breath without flagging up that these come from totally different backgrounds. I am deeply uneasy about the way many modern Pagans take Zen out of context, and talk about it with no reference to the history, and culture it comes from.  The only Pagan writer I’ve ever seen talking about Zen from the basis of having spent time in a Zen Buddhist Monastery had a radically different perception from every other white Pagan I’ve seen trying to talk about these concepts.

Today I am not celebrating Hana Matsuri, because I don’t know enough about it, and because I don’t have a context.  I’m honouring the festival by talking about it, because that’s something I can do.

Projection and fantasy are always potential hazards for anyone following a spiritual path. We should be extremely vigilant when we’re attracted to practices from living traditions to make sure we aren’t appropriating, misrepresenting or exploiting. Taking those traditions and turning them into what we want them to be isn’t respectful, or useful. No one really learns from perpetuating their own fantasies, or gains much from studying the fantasies of other white westerners.


White Violets

Wild violets are small spring flowers, and you will tend to find them in woodland and on banks and verges. They can be tucked in among other leaves and plants, so are quite easy to miss – especially the actually violet ones. White violets are a bit more self-announcing, their brightness makes them stand out amongst the greens. Later in the spring there will be other white flowers in the British woods – wild garlic and wood anemone.

One of the good things about focusing on plants when exploring the wheel of the year, is that they tend to stay still. You can admire them, and come back the next day with a camera, or a book to find out what they are. If you aren’t in the habit of spotting things, looking for wild flowers is a good place to start – simply scanning the edges of any path you are walking along will increase what you see.

It can take practice to spot birds, mammals and insects – but the more time you spend looking, the more you will see. The habit of a soft gaze, being gently attentive to what is around you will make wildflowers visible. It’s startling how oblivious we can be – I say this having taken urban pagans into the woods and supported them through the process of realising how much is actually there. When we’re caught up in our own concerns, we do not see the small beauties around us. Actively looking out for wild flowers is easy and rapidly rewarding and helps a person open themselves up to the natural world around them.


Equinox hare

I always find equinoxes challenging, as there isn’t a vast amount in the folk tradition I can draw on. There aren’t a lot of traditional songs with obvious connections to this time of year – that’s always an issue in rituals. I contemplated going with the ‘balance’ theme, but again there’s not much to draw on from my own culture. I thought about the Libran scales in the zodiac, but that’s an autumn sign. I thought about the Yin Yang from Taoist tradition. I have a deep love for and respect for Taoism, and it’s something I’ve explored a bit, but not enough to feel I should but a symbol on my altar for the spring equinox.

I settled on a hare because they are part of my local landscape. The mad March hare certainly has seasonal relevance, too. I put celandines and violets in the foreground because those are both seasonal plants. I’m happiest drawing plants, the hare was a bit outside my comfort zone, but it’s good to push sometimes.


Hinamatsuri and the wheel of the year

Learning a language means learning about the culture the language comes from. The two are profoundly linked. My memories of school are of studying languages (French and Spanish) with nothing much about culture or history. Perhaps the assumption with European languages is that the cultures are enough alike not to need to explain much.

This certainly isn’t the case with Japanese, which I’ve been studying slowly for some months now. There may be no ancestral language linking Japanese and English, and if there was such a thing, it would be a long way back in pre-history. There are radical differences in the kinds of concepts the languages exist to express and literal translation is often perplexing at best.

As part of my learning process, I thought it would be interesting to add recognition of Japanese festivals into my wheel of the year. Today – March the third, is Hinamatsuri- which is Dolls’ Day or Girls’ Day, although its origins are in a peach festival. Traditionally, dolls are displayed on a red carpet. Not having the space or resources for actual dolls, we made 2 out of paper – both are musician dolls. Mine is the blue one, and Tom did the orange one. Paper is an acceptable alternative.

If would be more normal if there were only two dolls to have an Emperor and Empress, but as grubby peasants we felt more affinity with the musicians and opted to start there. Perhaps, in years to come we can build up a full set of paper dolls. For now, they’re in an entirely unsuitable setting on our small altar space because that’s what we’ve got.


Blossom on the branches

This is a wild plum that grows on the cycle path near my home. It’s a beautiful tree, and one of the first trees in the area to blossom in early spring. The plums that come from it are very small and tart, and I usually manage to eat one or two in the autumn.

Seeing this tree flower always lifts my spirits. It’s an important marker of the turning year, for me.

The odds are that the tree was planted by someone throwing away a plum stone. Fruit trees are generally propagated via cuttings and grafting because that’s the only way to guarantee what the fruit will be like. Anything that grows from a seed is unpredictable. Even if the fruit it came from wasn’t wild, I think the resulting tree always is, because it wasn’t created by human intent.


Spring arrives

Last weekend it was definitely winter – cold, grey and a bit grim. Spring arrived suddenly, having flirted with us a few weeks ago, it has now moved in. The light is brighter, the air is warmer and the birds are much more active.

I’m especially noticing the woodpecker calls. I haven’t seen the woodpeckers themselves yet, but no doubt will. Last year, a pair nested somewhere near the flat and their calls were a constant presence through the summer months. I suspect they are going to do that again this year.

For a week or so now I’ve been really conscious of the growing length of the day. I’m waking earlier as a consequence. This is the first winter in many years where I’ve not been following clock time and have not had an alarm to wake me. I’ve always hated having to get up in the dark. Rising with the light has been so much more comfortable. Now, as we move into spring, the light comes earlier.

I hope that as we move into the lighter part of the year I will be able to keep rising with the light. I love walking in the early morning in summer. Much depends on whether I can then nap later in the day as I really don’t do well with reduced sleep and this is always a problem for me in the summer.

The most comfortable times of the year for me are spring and autumn, when the temperature doesn’t mess with my body, and the balance of light and dark best suits how I sleep. It’s a good feeling, moving into those weeks when I’ll genuinely feel in harmony with the natural world, rather than having to work out how to cope with it.


On the cusp between winter and spring

There were some days last week when it felt like spring. The wild garlic is coming up, there are snowdrops blooming, and the birds were singing in that way they do when they are thinking about mates, territories, nests and eggs.

Then we were down below freezing again, and there will be a few days of bitter cold. The transition from winter to spring is seldom smooth, which is one of the great challenges for everything trying to breed at this time. Start early and maybe get an advantage and time for a second brood.  Or get caught by the frosts, and set back – it’s true for plants as well as creatures. Spring is a gamble, one way or another.

Often at this point in the year I am so deep in the darkness of winter that I feel out of kilter with signs of spring. This year I feel ready for spring, I crave the sun more than ever, and I am heart open to those hopeful signs of life. I too need to put out fresh leaves, unfurl a bit, work out how to make new and to come back vibrant and entirely alive.


Nature in January

My relationship with the cycle of the seasons is weakest at this time of year. I don’t reliably go out every day, and when I do go out it isn’t for as long and I don’t walk as far, so I don’t encounter as many wild things.  But at the same time, this is a response to the season and a consequence of the nature of my own animal body.

January is a variable month – it can be freezing, it can be mild, this year it seems to be shifting between the two.  For me, it always feels like an in between month. In terms of wild things, mostly what I’m looking for is how early things are that I think should be showing up in February – the snowdrops, the buds fattening on trees, the first green shoots at ground level. This year I note tree leaves already opening, primroses in bloom and other unseasonal things.

My body does badly with the cold. I am more sore, and more stiff in cold weather. I layer up, I wrap up, I do all manner of things to protect against this but even so there’s an impact. Being outside when it is very cold takes a serious toll no matter how well dressed I am. That notion that there is no bad weather, only bad clothing is fundamentally wrong if you have body issues and/or a limited budget. I can’t afford to get soaked to the skin in winter. I know that my coat cannot fend off the worst of the downpours. Sometimes, I really can’t afford to go outside much.

‘Get out into nature’ is not a universal cure-all, and sometimes smacks of ableism. Winter can be limiting, not all bodies handle it well. If we are interested in encountering nature, we have to start with how we manifest it – our bodies are nature too. Nature is not always kind or convenient, and this is true of human bodies also.  It’s best not to assume anything about how the nature in a person’s body interacts with the wildness outside of it. 


The Festive Aftermath

I’ve never been a fan of Christmas. I have no unease with Christians celebrating their festival – I rather like Christmas carols. What I can’t bear is the Commercialmass that goes alongside it – the overconsumption, the waste, the pressure on poor people to overspend, the stress, misery and damage. The amount of wrapping paper we have to send to landfill because it’s not recyclable is hideous.

Having a minimal, lockdown Christmas has helped. I bowed out of gifting this year – we just couldn’t cope on top of everything else that has happened. It was a relief not to have to deal with that, and not to deal with the shopping, and the people in shops, and all the rest of it. Having a little more space has really got me thinking about why this festival is so pressured.

We’re seeing the same pressures build around other points in the calendar – Valentines, Easter, Mothering Sunday, Father’s Day and Halloween are all becoming commercial festivals with pressure to spend money. This is what constant growth looks like – we have to find more things to spend more money on, because if we don’t, we can’t have growth. Our economic structures depend on growth, which is a design flaw, not something inevitable.

It struck me, in thinking about this, that wanting economic growth actually creates pressure for population growth. A shrinking population would tend to shrink an economy. It’s the poor workers at the bottom of the ladder who create the wealth, and as ever more wealth gets siphoned off by those who already have most, we will need more people to create more economic activity to create more wealth for the few.

This is not something we can easily tackle as individuals. However, we can challenge the stories about what’s good during festivals – we can put forward alternatives and resist engaging in throwaway consumerism. Better to go for a small amount of what’s good and valuable rather than lots of tat that will end up in the bin. We can stand up for other people’s rights to control their family sizes. We can resist stories that simply blame the numbers of poor people for pressures on the planet – because while I would agree that a smaller population would be a good idea, it’s the ten percent who have most that need dealing with far more urgently than the fifty percent who have least.

What we need, when we celebrate, is human contact and meaningful engagement. You can’t buy that. It doesn’t come from a store. Beyond a certain point, more wealth does not equate to more happiness – once our needs are met, wealth does little good for a person. We need festivals that enrich communities and bring us together, not festivals that make us poor and damage the planet with over-consumption.