Category Archives: Seasons

Approaching the equinox

I’ve never been very good at equinoxes in terms of celebrating the wheel of the year. Even when I was doing ritual regularly, they were the ones I found hardest to honour. It’s curious, because these are distinct events marking key shifts between the light and dark halves of the year.

There’s a disconnection for me in the way we talk about equinoxes  as times of balance, and the way I experience them. At the equinoxes, we have the fastest day by day change in the balance between light and dark. At this time of year, heading towards the equinox it becomes most obvious that the nights are drawing in and the dawn is later. I feel the shift, not the balance.

This may be one of those cases where modern Paganism has come at something intellectually not experientially. Somewhere in the midst of all this change there is indeed a balance point, but in terms of how we live through these days, that moment is almost invisible. It’s only really there to experience because we’ve agreed that it is, and that agreement may be taking us away from the experience of equinox.

I’m feeling the change and the shift into autumn. I’m feeling the changing length of days, and how different from summer the light is now when I get up in the morning. I’m feeling sleepy earlier in the evening. The smell of the air has changed, the nights and early mornings are colder. It’s a period of intense change, soon to be amplified as the leaves start changing colour and the woods around me shift dramatically from green to golden and brown.

I don’t feel balanced in myself, either, I feel the rush of change, the scope for everything to be different. If I am still now, it is because I’m being tugged in a number of directions and am waiting to see which pulls are the strongest.

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The final flowers

There are flowers on the brambles still, and I’ve seen ragged robin and campion in the last few days. At some point, I will have seen the last of these. There are already summer flowers I won’t see again until next year.

First appearances are easier to spot than final showings. When will I see my last bat before they go into hibernation? When will I see my last swift or swallow for this year? It’s not usually until some time after the event that having seen the last one – or the last one for this year – becomes obvious. Spring announces its new arrivals, but as the autumn moves in, those key points of final sightings just aren’t so clear. It means the letting go process is much less defined than the welcoming in.

Of course there are things to welcome in autumn – I’ve seen my first conkers. Leaves changing colour, fruits and nuts ripening, and later in the year, the arrival of winter migrants – these will all be easier to spot. But, the end of summer feels like a falling away without quite knowing what you’ve lost.

It’s useful to reflect on this and spend some time with it. In so many aspects of life, we don’t know when we’ve had the last, or the best of something. People we don’t get to say goodbye to. Things that will never come again. It means that you don’t know how important a meeting is, or a parting, because we never really know who, or what we will see again.

It’s so important not to be complacent about things – you never know when something important may leave forever. Hopefully, the swallows will be back next year, along with the wildflowers and the new leaves. Even that doesn’t feel so certain anymore.


Apple harvest

At the weekend, I had the lovely opportunity to be involved with harvesting and processing apples. It was a small, non-commercial thing, helping out friends whose garden has a lot of fruit trees. I picked apples, cut apples, spent quite a lot of time extracting juice from apples. I drank freshly squeezed apple juice – which is wonderful. Someone else made apple crumble, and we ate it together. There were some spontaneous bursts of collective singing, and an improvised apple shanty.

This kind of seasonal working and feasting creates not only a sense of community, but also a rich relationship with the time of year. For me, it also creates a sense of connection with ancestors. I’ve found that around jam making, preserving, making Christmas puddings and other seasonally specific domestic activities. I feel it at the first point in the year when I can hang washing outside. These are the things people have been doing for a very long time. The technology changes, a bit, the recipes evolve, the songs get new words, or new songs are added, but the essence remains the same.

Ever since the industrial revolution, working people have been sold an idea of convenience. That it is better for us to work just the one job, and buy most of what we need from other people who are doing just that as their job. Before then, most of us would have been much more involved with the practical realities of daily life. We get told all the time how much we want and need convenience – usually this information comes in the form of adverts for products.

We get told that doing a job the slow way and by hand is drudgery, old fashioned, and undesirable. My experience has always been that going the slow way gives me more. I can’t do it for everything all the time, in no small part because I don’t live in a space that would allow that. I need a bigger kitchen, some workshop room and a bit of garden. Maybe, one day this will be possible.

Self sufficiency is clearly hard work – but it also isn’t what most of our ancestors did. When you work together in a community, any given job doesn’t take so very long, and you can focus on what’s most urgent, and share the loads out and deploy people where they are more useful. As an ambidextrous person, I was able to work the apple juice machine faster than a single-handed person could, I enjoy the opportunities to use my hands that way. Other people are better suited to other things, and sharing the work out this way has its advantages.

Communal working for the good of your community has a very different feel from paid work. There’s more investment in doing the best possible job, there’s no incentive to rush, and there’s room to have fun while you’re doing it. ‘Convenience’ offers none of that.


At the end of summer

It has been an odd summer to say the least. Climate change is very much with us and climate chaos is clearly our new, abnormal norm. There have been days of intense, unbearable heat. There have been many days of torrential rain. High winds have brought down trees. Some days have been so cold and grey that it’s felt like late autumn.

For anyone whose spiritual life is connected to the wheel of the year, this is challenging stuff. Our stories about what the seasons mean aren’t going to hold up in face of climate chaos. The things we look for in the wild world won’t happen when we expect them to. It’s disorientating. To be a nature-worshipper with the natural world in a state of wounded disorder, is to also feel that woundedness.

The sun cycles are dependable – the nights are drawing in, and the dawns are a little later. The quality of light when I first wake has changed, feeling less like summer and more like autumn. But, what does autumn mean this year? We could have a late burst of summer weather – it’s happened before. We could be plunged further into cold, damp darkness under heavy cloud and relentless rain. Harvests are already suffering. It will not be a season of bounty.

I’ve taken a decision in recent weeks that is going to influence how I do my Druidry. I am alarmed and distressed by what’s happening, and the reasons for it, and the lack of political will to deal with the harm we do. But I also know I can’t live like that. Climate chaos is probably here to stay. I have to be able to make sense of my days, and I do not want to feel radically out of kilter with the wild world around me. So I have taken the decision to love the excess. I’m going to love the wild, lashing rain, the flash floods and the challenges they bring me. I’m going to love the high winds, no matter what damage they do. I am going to love the extremes of temperature even when I have to also hide from it. I am going to open my heart to all these things and make room for them and live with them.

Wounded beings lash out, even when you try to help them. This is no different. A being I love – this living planet – is wounded, and lashing out. I will undertake to love her anyway.


Owlet season

Last night there were two, possibly three tawny owl chicks near my home. I saw one of them, and they were calling in a way that meant two were definitely present, but three seemed a possibility. Young owls yell constantly so their parents know where they are. Those yells become very excited when parents arrive with food – I’ve seen this happen in previous years. Last night I didn’t see any adults, but there were several rounds of excited yelling, followed by more yelling. I wonder if I was hearing two unfed owlets continuing to call while the third one ate – it was impossible to tell.

Young owls move about before they can fly – the term for this is ‘branching’ where they hop and flutter about along branches and between trees while waiting for food to arrive. In previous years I’ve been fortunate enough to see this happening. Owls can be active before sunset – especially at this time of year when the nights are so short.

Once the young owls can fly more effectively, they will go off with their parents in the evening as they learn how to hunt. Owlet season seems to be somewhere in May and/or June – there was one on one of my regular routes some weeks ago who has since stopped shouting at night. It’s the best time to see a tawny owl – the young ones are so self-announcing that you have a decent chance of spotting them, and if you can see a young owl, you’ve a chance of seeing a parent come in to feed it.

Here’s a page full of owl calls if you need help figuring out what you’re hearing – http://www.wildowl.co.uk/owlcalls.html 


Flowers, margins and trees

Where I live, we’re now at the point in the year when the summer flowering has begun in earnest. Many of the spring flowers appear in the woodlands – getting in before the canopies closer over. The summer flowers can generally be found at the margins – woodland edges, alongside hedges and on road verges. My locality is blessed with some large open commons where orchids and cowslips bloom in profusion at this time of year. We also have a lot of fields that are rich in wildflowers.

There’s been a great deal of intense growth in recent weeks. The cowparsley now comes up to my waist. The cleavers are, where they can lean on anything, about the same height. Ragged Robins, campions, great hairy willowherb, tall grasses and all manner of other wild flowers abound. Beautiful to look at, sometimes challenging for the nose and eyes!

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Margins tend to be the places with most biodiversity. The edges of woodlands are especially lively places. What ideally we need are large woodlands with plenty of room for open glades, thus maximising the scope for life. Butterflies especially like this kind of habitat. One of the reasons cutting small areas of woodland in cycles is good, is that you open up more margins.

Of course to many people this seems unnatural – humans manipulating nature. However, you have to consider what is no longer in most of our woods. We don’t have wild cows, let alone giant aurochs. We don’t have wild boar in most woods, or wild horses or ponies or anything else that might clear out areas of low growth. We used to have these larger mammals. We also used to have beavers.  It is their activity, in the past, that would have created clearings, and in the case of beavers, would have created pools as well.

The other major mechanism for naturally creating clearings is the death of old, massive trees. For this, you have to have a steady supply of massive ancient trees. We don’t have those. There are no giants whose falling will open up a large area – certainly not in most smaller woodlands. We’ve got hundreds of years of work to do if we want to restore them.

Our woodland ecosystems are damaged. If we want the best woodland we can have – and by best I mean most diverse and able to support the most life – we have to help. At least for now. Perhaps one day we’ll have enough woodland to have room to support the boar again. Perhaps the European program to recreate aurochs from what’s left in the DNA of domestic herds will work out… perhaps we’ll have our beavers back to manage water systems and thin out trees. If we get there, we won’t need people to do the work, but in the meantime, people are needed to make up for what’s missing. We have to compensate for the mistakes our ancestors made.

The image in this blog came from The Woodland Trust (with permission) and you can find out more about how The Woodland Trust takes care of woods here – https://www.woodlandtrust.org.uk/about-us/ancient-woodland-restoration/ancient-woodland/why-is-ancient-woodland-special/ 


Horse Chestnut in May

The tree that has most folkloric associations with May is of course the hawthorn – whose flowers are also called May because they appear at the start of the month. However, the tree that has most impact on me at this time of year, is the horse chestnut. This is simply because there’s a large one right outside my window.

Over the last few weeks, my chestnut has come into leaf. My view previously had a lot of sky in it, and now it is a vibrant green instead. It’s a dramatic seasonal shift for me, because my workspace is at the window facing the tree.

In recent days, the horse chestnut has flowered – producing tall white candles of blossom in great profusion. It’s a lovely sight, and I appreciate it every time I look up from the keyboard – which is a frequent occurrence.

Here’s a lovely video from the Woodland Trust tracking a year in the life of a horse chestnut –

 


Druidry and the seasons

When I first came to Druidry I put in some years honouring the wheel of the year. During that process, I learned that what I was working with is a modern system, inspired by Celtic practice, but not an authentic historical model for nature worship. There’s lots of evidence from the alignments of stones and burial sites that our ancestors honoured the solstices back into pre-history. There’s far less for the equinoxes, and little folklore to go with them. As for the ‘fire festivals’ of Imbolc, Beltain, Lugnasadh and Samhain – these are not universal Celtic festivals. Those are Irish names, and my understanding is that there’s little evidence to suggest any group of people historically honoured all of them. (Ronald Hutton is my source here)

The wheel of the year is a useful system for organising people to meet up and share ritual in community. On those terms, it doesn’t really matter what its origins are. The reason it exists in both modern Druidry and Wicca has a great deal to do with the relationship between Ross Nichols and Gerald Gardner. It can be useful, but if it isn’t, don’t feel restrained by it.

The trouble with the wheel of the year is that even within the British Isles, we don’t all get the same seasons at the same time. We may well also get local phenomena that are important to our landscape but that don’t fit into the wheel of the year. I live close to the River Severn, and the bores on the river are of great local significance. We get migratory swans coming in for the winter. We’re traditionally a sheep rearing area, but there are no lambs in the fields at Imbolc, they’re out now.

Over recent years, I’ve built up a seasonal calendar of things that are part of my landscape –much of it has to do with which flowers bloom when, and I make a point of going out to see them. It’s all very personal and immediate to where I live, and it shifts year to year depending on the exact weather conditions. It’s also a constantly expanding process as I learn more, or find new places to see particular things.

Rather than celebrate the wheel of the year, I’m in a week by week process of encountering the slow turn of the seasons. I don’t know how my Pagan ancestors celebrated in this landscape – there was a temple on the Cotswold plateau, but I do not know what they did there. Roman ancestors in the area likely honoured Orpheus, if the mosaic at Woodchester is indicative. Anyone living near the Severn will have honoured the river, and some of them called her the Goddess Sabrina, and I expect some of them honoured the elvers who used to be a seasonal feature and a significant part of the local diet.

There are many barrows in this landscape. They are in exposed, hilltop locations and if you want to spend time with them you really have to be there in the summer, because in the dark half of the year, the perpetual wind around them, and the cold makes them inaccessible. You can’t do ritual around a barrow when the wind takes your voices. Whatever was done here with the barrows, I feel confident that the end of October was not a focus.

I find it hard to imagine that anyone round here was, before the arrival of modern Paganism, celebrating Irish-named festivals. Aside from being confident about the river, I don’t know what people might have celebrated. Thus it makes more sense to me to develop my own relationship with this landscape, as I encounter it now and not how it may have been in the rather different climate of two thousand years ago and more.


Seasonal greening

There have been leaves emerging and plants growing in my area since late February. However, in the last week, there’s been a distinct rush of growth as many of the trees have come into leaf. The difference has been visible day to day.

The slowest trees – the few local oaks – still haven’t started, and the ash is slow. What dominates around here is beech. The smaller trees have their leaves, and the large ones clearly aren’t far behind. From the hilltops you can see how patches of woodland are developing – and each wood is different depending on how its slope relates to the sun.

For me, the new beech leaves are a seasonal wonder. They unfurl as flimsy things, incredibly pale so the light passes through them. When the sun is on them, they seem to glow, and they slightly colour the light as it passes through. A spring beechwood has a distinctly otherwordly feel to it.

As the year progresses, the beech leaves become darker and more substantial. The whole character of the woods changes, as shade deepens.

Alongside the trees’ unfurling leaves, there’s an eruption of foliage at ground level as well. On the commons, the cowslips are blooming in great profusion, and I’ve seen a few early purple orchids.

As the leaves change, my relationship with the sky will change, too. With the hotter part of the year underway, I will seek the welcome shade of trees, and tend to avoid the large open skies – except at twilight. I’m grateful for the opportunities to do that, also.

 


Spring in the microclimates

Stroud has a lot of microclimates. The folds of the land, and how they catch the sun at this time of year produces little spots that are not only a bit different in climate when you enter them, but can even have different relationships with the seasons.

Over the weekend I found a south facing bank, protected from the wind. On it there were violets and wood anemones, in bloom. It’ll be some weeks before those show up at some other spots around here. Wood anemones usually bloom with the garlic and bluebells, in early May.

The shape of the land in relation to the sun equally creates places that are darker for longer, where frost and snow linger after everything else has melted.

The process of winter turning into spring, from Imbolc to the spring equinox, is complex. It doesn’t all move at the same speed even over a small geographical area. The seasons are not events, but a day by day shifting of warmth, light, growth and life. If we focus too much on the seasons, or on specific Pagan festivals, we can easily miss the details. It is all about the details really – our arbitrary divisions of the year into four seasons and eight festivals is misleading and can take us away from the everyday nature of seasonal change.