Tag Archives: imbolc

Imbolc in nature

Round here, the snowdrops and catkins come out typically a week or two before the calendar date for Imbolc. So, if you go with the date, these seasonal markers aren’t the ones to focus on. If there are pregnant or lactating sheep in area, I don’t get to see them.

What does appear reliably at this time of year, are elf caps. These are a small, red fungi (see the video below for examples!). They have a much longer season over all, but where I live, they are absolutely something that shows up for the start of February.

The relationship between what the rest of nature is doing, and the calendar date varies according to where you live. Druidry can be a bit generic about seasonal celebration, which I think is a real weakness. We need to dig in with whatever we’ve got where we live, and make that the focus, or shift our dates so they match what the season means to us.

 


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.


The Imbolc Labyrinth

It was cold, I grant you, but not too cold. Making a labyrinth is, as I discovered back in 2016, an intensely physical business taking me an hour to an hour and a half (depending on extra hands). But, it’s not the kind of physical activity to make you warmer, so I was unsure as to whether we’d get away with it in early February.

We did.

The making process means a person has to engage with the great outdoors for the duration, and that in turn prompts meditations on the season and its implications. I can’t say I went into the labyrinth with a clear head and walked it in a perfectly contemplative state, because my concentration wasn’t equal to that. But, I walked it twice, thinking about spring, and listening to the bird song – which has noticeably increased in recent days. I walked thinking about my intentions for the year and what I want to bring into the world. Each time I walked out of the labyrinth feeling clearer in my sense of direction.

The process of building and walking inspired me to think about when and where I want to make future labyrinths, and who I might want to make them for. I also came away with the certainty that I need to make a bag for the labyrinth to live in when it’s at home, and I need more material. I became aware of how the things I use for building only have this role, and have a growing identity as a labyrinth. I need to build on that with a labyrinth bag.

I find rituals difficult if it’s just me, or me and my immediate family – three isn’t enough people for ritual. It is enough people for a labyrinth. I can accommodate more if I need to. There’s little planning- just pick the time and place. At the moment, the labyrinth seems like a better answer to seasonal ritual for me than actual seasonal ritual. It will be interesting to see how this plays out through the year.


Signs of Imbolc

Late January into early February isn’t a great time for walking in the UK – The weather is unpredictable, but tends to be unpleasant. If we’re going to get any snow at all, the odds are it will come now.

Fortunately, the vast majority of seasonal things I am interested in, are not hard to find and don’t require long or complicated walks. Snowdrops are all over the place, including on the cycle paths and towpaths that are frequently part of my routes. Little white flowers that will come up through snow, for me they are the emblem of the season. They are easy to spot as well, but they certainly aren’t the only thing waking up.

In some places crocuses will be out, and a little behind the snowdrops are the celandines – a low to the ground yellow flower. On the towpath, celandines and snowdrops are blossoming together. The blackthorn flowers about now as well – more delicate white flowers on its as yet unleafy black branches. Other fruit bearing trees also put out flowers – I’ve seen cherry and a wild plum in this last week as well. The pussy willow will be opening out its soft and fuzzy catkins, other trees have their catkins on. Anywhere that has anything by way of green spaces will likely have signs of spring as well.

The traditional association with Imbolc is lambs, and the first ewe’s milk. This is not however a time of year for seeing lambs in the fields, at least not in the UK. The lambing season has been artificially extended for a long time, for the convenience of people. Lambs born in winter are born in sheds and stay indoors until the weather picks up – which is also more about our benefit than theirs. When they go out will vary depending on the weather and when, exactly, they were born. I’m lucky in that there’s a field nearby where I can reliably see lambs most years, and I can watch out for their coming. I don’t have to take any extended walks on the off-chance of seeing sheep.

One seasonal shift that particularly affects my walking options at this time of year, is the increase of light. Back on Christmas day, being out the door at 7.30 am meant leaving in the dark, but now the sky is significantly lighter at this point. I like early morning walking when it’s quite, and Imbolc marks the time of year when I can start doing that again. I now also have some semblance of twilight, and the option of twilight walking. At midwinter when the sun sets at four, what twilight there is largely passes me by. Having twilight for a while in the evening, when I’m not working and may be out and about delights me. Not being able to engage with the twilight through the two darkest months is tough for me. The return of evening twilight means soon I’ll be seeing the other crepuscular creatures again, and this cheers me greatly.


Emerging from the cave

Yesterday I attended the Cotswold Pagan Society Imbolc ritual held in Clearwell caves – Druid led but not just for Druids. It was a really interesting experience. The caves themselves are a mix of natural formation and iron ore mining that dates back into pre-history. Clearwell, in the Forest of Dean is part of an area where coal and iron have been mined for a long time, much of it by surface digging. The landscape is hillocky with leavings from mining efforts such that much of the place has been shaped by ancestral activity.

It is a place of my ancestors. My father’s mother came from the Forest, so I assume given so many people there were miners that I probably have an ancestor or two who worked those caves. In youth, before it was all organised and a centre, my father and his friends wandered about down there, he was clearly a braver and more adventurous soul than I am! I’d be nervous doing that in the dark, it would be so easy to get lost.

I’ve never done a ritual in a cave before. I’d also not previously done anything so formal, planned and scripted, so that was an interesting experience. Despite the OBOD training, I’m too much the bard to want paper in hand. If words need to be fixed I feel a need to learn them – for me that’s part of the bard tradition. Really I prefer to wing it, finding inspiration in the place and the moment. I’m aware that comes from a long history of improvising – with music, mumming, writing, I’m in the habit of doing things in the moment. Many people aren’t, and a lot of life doesn’t encourage us to open up to sudden flows of creativity. One of the things yesterday left me with was a sense of being fortunate in the skills and experiences life has brought me. There must be many people who need the support of the written word, the permission inherent in a ritual script, to make Druidry available to them. Taught as we are to follow and regurgitate, it seems like an act of ego, insanity or self importance to be burbling away off the top of your head. At least, it does at first… Druidry has to start places people can cope with, and sometimes the reassuring bit of paper is needful.

During the ritual I found myself thinking about Stone Age cave painters, mysteries explored in art in the deep darkness of the earth. I thought about the hibernating bear, and also the mystic cave dwellers, the dragons and goblins, and wondered who, traditionally, inhabited those forest caves. I thought about the association between caves and hermits seeking inspiration and closeness to spirit. Inevitably I also thought about the womb of the earth, especially as we walked the steep and narrow path up towards… not rebirth in daylight, but the gift shop. Ah, modern humanity…

I spent so long running rituals, or being at the running end. It’s really good to stand in circle without any particular job or responsibility, to just be there and see what happens. It’s a relearning process for me, in all kinds of good ways. I have no doubt that at some point I’ll be setting up some circle of my own, quietly, but yesterday reminded me of how much work goes into making those big, public circles happen. All kudos to the people who pour their energy and creativity into such events around the world. It’s such a valuable service, connecting communities and letting inspiration flow, but I remember all too well how it used to wash me out.


The season of rebirth

There have been springs when I knew I wasn’t feeling it, so much of my life innately wintery that emotionally I couldn’t engage with the return of light and life. Emotional winters are a lot easier when the rest of nature reaffirms them, but once all the nest building and sap rising gets going, it can be hard not feeling like a part of that. This winter has been deep and dark for me. I’ve been really bodily ill, I’ve gone through yet another round of awful depression, I’ve had a real intellectual crisis around my work, and some kind of emotional meltdown to boot.

The sun is out today, the snowdrops are up, and Imbolc approaches. The time of seasonal rebirth is upon us. This year I’m not feeling a barrier between myself and the season. I can go with it. I’ve had some profound revelations about the changes I need to make in my work. Opportunities have opened up, and my body is healing. I have a long legacy of fear and distress to deal with and a pressing need to rediscover myself and figure out who I am. That’s all a part of the rebirthing process, some of it may hurt, but, so be it.

I’m aware of how much my upheavals and dramas impact on the people around me, how they can be interpreted and understood. I’ve been told that, having found the person I claim as my soul mate, I ought to be able to get on with living happily ever after. I think there are times when Tom feels he ought to be able to magically fix everything for me. Of course that’s rubbish, and the love of other people is never going to save anyone. Support, comfort, friendship, patience and encouragement are incredibly valuable, but you cannot forcibly love someone out of depression or personal crisis. You can just keep holding them and reminding them how to keep going. Rebirth is not the same as birth – no one else can do it for you, or to you.

That said love has always been an essential part of life for me. Love where what you give is returned, is a healing and inspiring experience. Love that seems one sided, that becomes an excuse to cause pain, love that is all about demand, and ownership, and control, is only love in name, and what it does, day after day is to make it harder to give and to care. I’m starting to recognise how shut down I’ve become, how unwilling to share my heart. It’s not just a fear of rejection, it’s a fear that I am somehow an affront to other people. That’s my history speaking. I’ve been told how destructive and hurtful my love can be, but I don’t have to believe that any more.

The sap is rising, and by slow degrees I can feel my heart opening up again. Tragic news stories make me want to cry. But that’s okay, and perhaps as it should be. Depression is a non-feeling state, a defensive retreat from painful excess. I don’t want to be there anymore. I do want to care, and feel, and open my heart and give more freely of myself. I know that birth is a messy, visceral, dangerous and painful sort of process. Without birth, you don’t get life. Time to come out of the darkness and learn how to love again. How to love life, and people and places. Also, how to love myself, which has always been beyond me. That needs to change.

I’ll end with some lovely words from a February song by Jehanne Meta

I’ll not expect this year to bring
A fortune then, or anything
But love, and just the chance to sing
All these new songs in my pocket.

I’m working on the new songs, too.


Imbolc

Theoretically, Imbolc is at the beginning of February. It’s one of the ‘Celtic’ festivals, also called fire festivals, and cross quarter festivals. Along with Beltain, Lugnasadh and Samhain, these are festivals of the agricultural year. In England, Imbolc is the time of snowdrops and traditionally the first lambs would appear. If you don’t happen to live in a region with similar seasonal cycles, this festival may not work in the same way.

 

It’s easy to assume that for a UK druid, Imbolc happens by calendar date and you just get on with it. That’s fine if you’re a living room druid whose relationship with nature is all about what nature is supposed to be doing right now. Nature has cycles beyond the seasons, that bring us ice ages, mini ice ages, hot years, long winters, short winters. Even in the UK, the first signs of spring cannot be relied upon to have shown up for Imbolc.

 

When I started running rituals, I ran headlong into the question of what are we celebrating? Are we honouring those calendar dates, or are we working with the seasonal changes they are representative of? As a group we contemplated the natural triggers, and where possible responded to those, and not the dates. Of course that’s harder to do. Our pagan ancestors probably had more room to flex and less need to have predictable weekends laid out in advance for ease.

 

In the last few days, there’s been a change here. Daffodils are sending up leaves, and the snowdrops are out. The birds are singing with more enthusiasm, and I think the songs have changed. In the winter the occasional calls of territory and affirmation are different in tone from what I hear as the pair bonding, nest site hunting and hopefulness of early spring. For Tom this has all been very strange as he comes from a part of the world that will remain resolutely wintery until March at the earliest, and very likely later. Today we’ve had a sharp frost and the boat glitters with ice crystals. The canal is misty and very cold. Yesterday felt like time to celebrate the first signs of spring, today less so. Early next week perhaps?

 

The timing of rituals is one of those things that creates tension between Celtic revivalism and responding to the land. I’m not a revivalist. You have to ask if it’s the date that matters to you and what that may have represented to our Celtic ancestors, or whether it’s a seasonal event, and if it is, what represents that event? Even in a place as small as the UK there are a lot of regional variations and the precise signs of spring vary. For me this year, the departure of the bewick swans will be a big part of that, but different places have different visitors and migrants.

 

I know of druids all around the world, whose seasons and experiences are inevitably very different. To me it seems a better expression of druidry to respond to the land. When we carry the practices of one land into another, and do not listen to the new space, we easily become dogmatic. We risk becoming separated from what’s around us. If nature is the core of our spirituality, then what nature is doing surely has to come before how exactly we think our ancestors responded. This begs a question about what druidry is, and how we can possibly hold relationships with the original druids if we’re not doing what they did. And again, I think this depends on what we understand as being important. Is it the names, dates and UK based associations that make for a druid festival? Or is it the process of recognising what is essential in the seasons, of relating deeply to the turning of the year and the ways in which it impacts on us? Is the Celtic calendar something to follow, or a model for helping us create our own responses? If the ancestral Celts had found themselves in South America, Australia or Alaska, what would they have done?

 

There will never be any certain and clear cut answers, all is speculative. I think it is vitally important to speculate, to engage imaginatively and philosophically with these questions. Whatever we choose, we should do it mindfully and for our own, considered reasons, not just because someone else has trumpeted it. If it feels right, I tend to assume that it probably is right.