I’m not great in the heat. I’m not the sort of person to rush enthusiastically into the blazing sun with the expectation of being able to do stuff. However, the sun and the summer are part of the natural world, and furthermore, I pledged some time ago that I would undertake to love the world as climate chaos manifests, and not in spite of it.
How does a Pagan who does not cope well with hot weather honour the sun while trying not to go out in it?
On some of the really hot days I’ve been unable to function at all in the afternoon. I’ve had to flop out, and this has meant being entirely focused on the conditions, as I could think of little else. It’s possible to be intensely involved with the sun and the heat without being directly exposed.
I’m outside more at twilight. For me, the summer evenings and the night time are central to how I experience summer, because I can safely go out and do stuff. Twilight is as much part of the summer as the sun is, and many creatures are abroad at this time who also avoid the heat of the day. As the air cools, I notice where the ground and the brickwork are still hot from the day. I experience the residual heat. There’s something magical about being able to feel cold at night when the day has felt like being in a furnace.
Experiencing the sun is very different if you are under trees. This landscape should be wooded. Most of our ancestors had far more access to trees than we do. I’m lucky in that there is a shady cycle path close to my home, and I can be out on it without overheating. You can experience the sun in nature without being directly under the sky.
Humans do some rather odd things in response to heat when you compare us to other mammals. That we work, and don’t normally change our sleeping and eating habits in response to the conditions is unusual. Most mammals aren’t active when it’s hot. Anyone wearing a fur coat is obliged to take things gently in hot conditions. Anyone who isn’t wearing a fur coat is at high risk of sunburn.
I spent some time with some pigs recently, and in the hot part of the day they just flopped out in the shade. Many of us are not cut out for sun worship, and there’s nothing unnatural or un-Pagan about that.
Recently I wrote about the limitations I’m facing around pilgrimage and my desire to see some of the specific seasonal plants. There are plants I become particularly obsessed with. However, there are seasonal plants outside my door. While my ideas about how I want to engage with the season have been thwarted, my actual ability to engage with the season isn’t really that compromised.
A very short distance from my home, the buttercups are flowering exuberantly. I don’t have to go far to see how glorious they are in the fields, even if I don’t get into the fields. The cranesbill is out, and the campions. There are foxgloves on one of my regular routes. They are glorious, and extravagant, and I am very fond of them as part of the summer.
I have a small pot garden, and a few wild seasonal plants have shown up there – granny bonnets, wood avens, ragged robin… I’ve got small plants whose names I don’t know cheerfully blooming. The grass is full of daisies, and I’m also really appreciating the groundsman who doesn’t mow very often and lets things flower.
I may yearn for particular encounters with specific plants and landscapes, but the season is here. Summer is right outside my door. Seasonal expressions are all around me. It’s important not to lose track of that through focusing on what I can’t have.
The 5th of May is Children’s Day in Japan. It’s not a religious festival but a cultural one, and I’m marking it as part of my ongoing efforts to honour Japanese festivals. Last year, this was the first Japanese festival that I was properly aware of, as Dr Abbey sent me photos of fish kites flying in Tokyo. My honouring festivals is very much about being a family even though we are in different countries.
I’m not in a position to fly a fish kite, so have drawn one instead. The carp represents strength and success – they’re a fish that swims upstream, like the salmon, so their ability to overcome adversity is important. There is a Chinese legend – imported to Japan – about a carp who, having swum upstream is turned into a dragon!
Households with sons have traditionally flown fish kites on this day. The festival is currently known as Children’s Day but used to be Boys’ Day – to match Girls’ Day earlier in the year. I’m not sure why the change occurred.
There was one spring, more than twenty years ago when I remember the leaves not coming out until Beltain. This year, the spring in the UK has been unusually cold. Some of the trees have leaves, some are starting to open, but there are a lot of bare branches out there. It still doesn’t feel like we’re easing into the warmth and bounty of summer.
A certain amount of variation is normal and natural, but this cold, and this late greening feels like climate change. The unpredictability of the weather makes it hard for everything – me included to adapt.
Some time ago I made the decision that I would do my best to love the natural world in an open-hearted way, regardless of the impact of climate chaos. That I would try to embrace and love as much as I can. I find the absence of leaves, the lateness of leaves really hard. But, I can celebrate the ones that are already here, and I have felt their presence keenly.
I note that in the wooded places, the undergrowth is unusually verdant. The jack in the hedge is really tall, the nettles are flourishing and the garlic is prolific. There’s a lot more happening at ground level than happens most years. This may well be a consequence of the late leaves. In the absence of one kind of greening, we get more of another. What that means is hard to say.
We’ve made a hobby horse, based on the Padstow May day obby oss. Which on closer inspection doesn’t look a great deal like an actual horse at all. It feels like a lively, slightly tricksterish, unpredictable sort of energy to have invited into our home, but there he is, and he seems happy enough for the time being.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.