Category Archives: Seasons

How winter impacts on autumn

For most of my life, my experience of autumn has been coloured by what winter has meant for me. It’s been difficult to enjoy the many lovely things autumn offers, because of the threat of winter. Being cold radically increases my pain levels. I get chilblains. Everything domestic is that bit harder. Winters when there wasn’t enough money to be really warm, have been horrible. I can end up a lot more isolated in winter, and I hate walking on frosty and icy surfaces.

I’ve blogged in the past about how being able to enjoy the winter is a marker of privilege. It’s impossible to enjoy the lead-up to winter when winter itself is a grim prospect.

This year I find myself in a different sort of position. Despite the upheavals of summer, I’m on a really good footing financially. I’ve got the right technology in place to deal with some of winter’s practical issues. In my case that means a de-humidifier, and a really good spin drier. I’ve got good boots and a decent winter coat. I’m thinking about upgrading to an even more waterproof coat for walking in, if I can. Maybe a new pair of waterproof trousers as well. I feel very, very fortunate in all of this. I am aware that for many people, this winter will be as much of a nightmare as any of the winters before it, and for others, struggling in winter is a new problem which they don’t yet have the skills to deal with.

I’m going to make a point of writing about small seasonal shifts this year. Partly I’m doing this because I’m changing my relationship with the dark half of the year. Partly because it’s a good theme to write on. I feel that no longer struggling quite so much, I might be more comfortable talking about what’s hard in the darker months. Often it’s easier to write about something when I’m not living in it.

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Autumn leaves

The horse chestnut near my flat decided to get autumnal some weeks ago. Partly because of the drought I expect, and also partly because it has some sort of tree disease and tends to shed its leaves early. Said horse chestnut has nearly bare branches already and what leaves remain are the kind of brown most other trees won’t develop for more than a month.

Around it, most of the other trees are still green. At this time of year, the green of leaves is dark and tired looking compared to the fresh, bright tones of spring. A few of the trees are also yellowing – ash and elder specifically. These are usually some of the first trees to turn at this time of year. At least here. I have no idea how exactly autumn plays out anywhere else.

I think it’s really important to observe the seasons as they occur for you, not as they are supposed to occur. Far too many pagan books tell us what the eight festivals mean in terms of nature, and are mostly wrong – because of regional variation, shifts from year to year and so forth. No one can tell you how the wheel of the year will turn for you.

It’s also good to think about key seasonal markers and what those are for you, and how they manifest around you. What kind of trees grow where you live will very much affect your experience of the season. If you mostly live with evergreens, you won’t have colourful leaves. Here it’s predominantly beech, so those tend to turn a little later than ash and chestnut, and produce intense and coppery colours. For me, full on autumn is a beech wood, but for my husband who came from Maine, autumn means maples and birch, which we don’t have in the same way. We get the odd birch, but not enough to define the season.


Early signs of autumn

By nine am yesterday, it felt like summer, and anyone not outside much before then will have emerged into another lovely, late summer day. Warm, but not too warm, with a beautiful sky.

At first light, it’s cold now. Walking in the morning I was glad of my gloves. The morning shifted from autumn back to summer, and I peeled off layers. Although I work from home much of the time, being a parent had me up and out for many years and I got to experience this change more directly. I realised yesterday that because I’ve been tending to walk later in the day, I’ve been missing this seasonal shift for some years.

One of my problems with focusing on eight rituals as the wheel of the year is that it encourages us to think about the seasons as events. What happens is a process, one day to the next. Within that process there are key moments – when the leaves start to turn, and when they fall. The first frosts. The cold mornings, seeing your breath, needing a coat to go outside. And of course these, and many other markers vary from place to place and year to year. There is no one generic model for the coming of autumn, each one is unique and each one of us will experience it individually.

A life lived mostly indoors, in cars, and with little attention can miss the small day to day shifts of one season into another, and may only notice seasons when they hit their peaks. I know this because there was a time in my teens when I wasn’t connected to the seasons and was largely oblivious to the natural world. I had to learn how to show up and notice things. What I notice varies from year to year depending on what I’m doing and when I go out. I have no doubt that it is better to notice, and to feel engaged in the day to day shifts.


Feeling and listening to the spring

Yesterday’s post was very much about the visual side of the season, so, for balance, some more thoughts about experiencing the season with your body.

It is of course the point in the year when windows can more reliably be open. So long as you don’t fill your home with artificial noise, you can let the sounds of spring in. The birds are singing a lot more now than they were a few weeks ago – lots of territorial cries, alarm calls to protect nests, and communication between mates. Blackbirds singing the sun down is one of the great things about summer, for me, and they’re getting into that now.

With the windows open after dark, I can often hear owls. Sometimes I hear foxes and badgers at night. There’s a lot to be gained by listening to the spring from inside your own home. If you can get out, then the sound of wind in leaves is now a possibility while the undergrowth is lively with birds and rodents. There’s the hum of insects, and the prospect of that increasing in coming months.

I experience a distinct shift when I can go outside in the daytime without a coat, and a second such shift when I can be out at night without one. Not needing gloves changes how I experience the world around me. Able to shift from my heavy walking boots to lighter summer shoes means I feel more of the ground. Lighter clothing allows sun and breezes access to my skin. On drier days I can sit on the ground for short periods, and feel the earth with my body and the plants touching me.

With more growing, there’s more to sniff, and more to eat. I like nibbling from hedgerows – it’s something I’ve written about before, along with the sniffing. It creates a powerful and immediate connection with a place. It is important to know what you can safely put in your mouth.

If we just look at nature, we place ourselves on the outside, as observers viewing the scenery. To be participants, we need to bring our whole bodies into play and use all the senses at our disposal. Looking at nature isn’t the only way of connecting with it, and not being able to look at it need not be a barrier to connection.


Leaves and sky

One of the things to love about this time of year is the beauty of bright new leaves framed by bright blue skies. While the leaves have been unfurling in my locality for weeks, we’ve now got to the point where most trees have at least something going on. More importantly for me, the beech leaves are out.

I live in an area dominated by beeches – the hanging beech woods of the Cotswolds helped shape my childhood. I feel less homesick when I’m away in places that also have beeches. Around beech trees, I feel more rooted and connected. When beech trees first open their leaves, they are an incredible, radiant green. This will slowly darken over the summer, but right now, it’s wild and vibrant. Look up at a beech tree with its stunning new leaves glowing against the backdrop of a bright blue sky, and for me, that’s pure magic. It fills me with feelings of wonder and delight.

Copper beeches are also a thing. Usually, chlorophyll is green, but it can also be red, and it’s the red chlorophyll that gives us the copper beeches. As their leaves first open, they look like they’re on fire. I’m blessed with two copper beeches close to home.

Experiences of wonder and beauty are as much about how we look at the world as what’s around us. Every day has scope for beauty in it if you’re willing to take a little time and look.


Druidry at twilight

One of the most important points for me in the wheel of the year, has happened this week. It’s the time when the evenings are light and warm enough that I can go wandering at twilight. There’s a point in the autumn when I have to give it up again, but that can be harder to spot, not least because I’m often a bit in denial about it!

Sauntering about at twilight, I get to see a lot of wildlife – rabbits, and foxes in the fields. Small birds still active in the trees. Owls emerging to hunt. Bats taking to the air. In many ways it the best time to see wildlife because so much of it is active in the twilight. However with the light fading of course, it can be harder to make sense of what I do see. Yes, there was definitely something moving at the top of the field. No, I have no idea what it was!

For me, this is the Druidry of showing up. There are no rituals involved. I’m mostly quiet. The walking is contemplative, but not meditative – there’s no structure to what I do with my head and no intention. Some evenings I am more present than others. If I need to think something through, I do that. As there’s no intention, I’m simply open to whatever happens. Mostly I do not have mystical experiences. Usually I see something beautiful.

I’m fortunate in that there are a number of paths in the area that are flat, have trees along them and are safe enough for me to be walking them in poor light levels. Clearly this is not an option everyone will have. If you want to be all ‘back to nature’ then a path with no lighting, to which you do not take an artificial light, will serve best. But, there’s reasons we have street lights and they are to do with not falling in holes or being an easy target for muggers.

You don’t have to be out in the wilds to have wildlife encounters after dark. Mostly you need to be out and looking. Cars will insulate you too much, but anything that allows you to trundle about at low speed and engage your senses, will work. Sitting in a stationary car with the door open would be worth a go if moving about independently isn’t viable.

Wild things usually have territories and habits, so once you know where to look, the odds are you’ll keep seeing things. Or hearing them – listening to foxes and owls at night is a joy.


Return of the green

Greenness has been returning to my local landscape for weeks now. The slow unfurling of buds, the return of undergrowth, the shift in colour. The re-greening of spring is a long process, not an event. As I get outside every day in the normal scheme of things, I engage with this aspect of spring on a daily basis. I can heartily recommend it.

There have been years when I’ve failed to engage with the spring – mental health issues have been a big part of that. Experiencing it not as a daily development but as a dramatic moment is easier when you aren’t properly paying attention. That in turn is disorientating and has, in some years, left me with a profound sense of dislocation from the season.

‘Out into nature’ doesn’t have to be a big or difficult project. If there is anything non-human living where you do, then there’s scope to engage. Grass changes colour with the spring, becoming much more lush as it starts growing again. Flowers and small plants, even saplings will grow in the least promising of places. Any neglected ‘wasteland’ is soon reclaimed. Nature is not away, somewhere pristine and free from human meddling. Nature is with us all the time. Street trees do not consider themselves inferior to forest growth. The sparrows roosting in the street trees do not consider the trees to be anything other than their proper home.

When I was out yesterday, it felt like the greenery had reached a critical point. It no longer felt like it was getting started, and now feels like it is all under way out there. The green has returned. Small, opening leaves are everywhere. From a distance, the trees can look pretty bare, but up close, the unfurling is obvious. It’s also the smaller trees that leaf first – taking advantage of the light before taller trees get going – so to see what’s going on, you can’t view the wood as a whole thing from a distance.

For me, connecting with the plants is one of the easiest ways to connect with spring energy. Even if I’m not feeling so lively myself, I can delight in watching everything grow.


Celebrating without ritual

I’ve been celebrating Imbolc for more than a week now, in a non-ritualistic sort of way. I get outside every day, normally. There are snowdrops in bloom and hazel catkins in abundance. I can see leaves coming up from the daffodil bulbs, and there were a few of those in flower at the weekend. I’ve seen winter jasmine and gorse as well. I see pair bonding activity and territory setting in the local birds.

When you celebrate as part of a community it makes sense to get together at a time that helps you connect with key changes in the seasons. When you work alone, the changes aren’t an event, but a day to day progression. The days get longer, the nights are not quite so cold. I’ve ventured out without my winter coat, and I can be barefoot in the flat without my feet suffering. The first signs of spring are here, but this is also a time in its own right.

One of the dangers of being too involved with the wheel of the year narrative, is that we come to see it as eight events. Eight big points of change when we honour the shift from one season to another. In practice, every day is part of the cycle of ongoing change. Every day at the moment, a bud fattens, a new plant pushes up through the soil, a seed stirs. Nests are built one stick at a time. There may still be days with frosty starts, there may be wintery storms, and the earliest starters may find themselves set back if the season doesn’t go smoothly. At this time of year, a warm, sunny day inviting spring feelings can lead to a clear, cold and lethal night.

For some time now I’ve been making a point of celebrating the seasons in a way that doesn’t focus on big events. I’m celebrating my own experience, day to day. I’ve done pretty well this winter for not falling into total gloom, and part of that is because I’ve been getting outside, noticing, and participating a bit more in the season. I doubt I will ever love the winter, but I can appreciate the beauty in it, and that helps me get through. My body doesn’t do well in cold conditions, and the increase in warmth makes a huge practical difference to me. This is nature as it manifests in my own body.

When you explore the seasons in a day to day sort of way, there’s more room to have your own relationship. Hitting a major festival, with all its ideas and baggage and stories and assumptions can be really uncomfortable if your lived experience doesn’t match it. Working day by day creates very different stories. Today the path is clear and the flowers are coming up. Tomorrow, everything is wet and impassable. A few days hence, a sudden frost kills the new growth. Next week, spring reboots. It stops feeling like a simple progress narrative and becomes a complex mix in which some things do better than others. Watching closely, it becomes obvious that ‘nature’ as a whole isn’t perfectly in synch with the progression of spring. Some things will be too early for their own good, and some come too late.

All we can do is be alive and aware of what’s around us. Some years we will be creatures who time it perfectly, opening our leaves at just the right moment. Some years we will act too soon and get frostbitten. Maybe we’ll restart successfully, maybe we won’t. Maybe we don’t have buds, maybe we are like foxes who have carried on doing fox things all winter. Maybe we are more like migrant birds, or the night sky. If we put down the big stories about the seasons, we might find more space for our own stories in the details of day to day living.


Seasonal wandering and snowdrops

This is a difficult time of year for walking. Footpaths through fields and woods are muddy, which can make them slippery and treacherous. For anyone less than perfectly confident on their feet, this kind of walking condition can be really off-putting. Add to that the unpredictable weather conditions, the cold, the potential for ice, or for rain turning into ice as it hits the ground, and it really isn’t walking season. Shorter days in terms of light also make longer walks less feasible.

However, walking is what I do to commune with nature, it is a big part of my spiritual life, so even in January when it’s cold I need to get out. I’m lucky in that there’s a lot of canal towpath in Stroud, and a good length of cycle path – both of which are reasonably passable in all weathers. There’s also a fair amount of lanes in villages around the town, so winter road walking is an option.

Lane walking is a bit of a mixed bag. On the whole lanes are good because they take you through the countryside without requiring you to tackle a mudslick at any point. Predictable footing is worth a lot. Mostly lanes are quiet, and you can hear vehicles coming. However, close encounters with passing tractors can be unnerving, and all it takes is one idiot racing round the bends at high speed to make it a dangerous place to be. Having done years of walking and cycling in country lanes, I remain unscathed, but I’ve been worried a few times.

The margins of lanes tend to be good places for wildflowers throughout the year. That starts now, with snowdrops putting up leaves and already flowering along the lane margins.


Winter Dawn Chorus

The dawn chorus is most often talked about as a summer thing, when it can be a dramatic to encounter. It still happens in the winter, but it’s much easier to miss. Birds tend to sing just before and as the sun is rising, and people are perhaps less likely to be outside at this time in winter hoping for bird song. I also have my windows shut, so I’ve got be really alert to hear it.

The winter dawn chorus tends to be very short. This morning there were perhaps a handful of bird voices, a brief exchange of sound and then a falling away into silence. Singing takes energy, and there’s frost on the ground, birds don’t have so much to spare for singing.

To me it sounds like a check in with other birds in area. A quick interaction to see who survived the night, and a statement of having survived. Perhaps there is joy in it, for having got through the night without freezing to death or being eaten by an owl. Coming out of the darkness of a midwinter morning, it sounds to me like defiance and hope, as well. I’m probably projecting but I firmly believe that all living things have their own forms of thoughts and feelings.