Tag Archives: seasons

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.

Advertisements

Druidry, language, the good and the bad

How we label things has a great deal of power. What do we name as desirable, attractive, appealing? What do we tell ourselves is rubbish, useless, second rate? That winter holiday in the sun is generally framed as ‘good’ along with long dry spells in summer. What would happen if we stopped calling long sunny spells ‘beautiful’ and started calling them ‘droughts’?

In the context of climate change, how we talk about the weather is ever more important. Firstly because we are causing weather extremes, and secondly because how we respond to those, can add to the problem. Jetting off in search of winter sun is a case in point here. I grant you, it’s no fun being cold, but if you can afford to fly, you can probably afford fluffy socks and sufficient heating.

Air conditioning with its hydrofluorocarbons and electricity use is a response to hot weather that adds to the climate change fuelling the hot weather. No one enjoys being hot but the question of when to start using energy to cool down, and how much energy to use is an important one.

Extreme heat and cold both kill people, and other living beings too. If we’re increasing the problem when we try to improve our own comfort, we really aren’t winning here.

To be a Druid means, in part to be in service to the land and the wild world. How exactly you phrase that and express it will vary, but this is nature based religion and we have a duty of care to the natural world. It’s also at this point a matter of enlightened self interest – if it was your personal home that could easily end up either on fire, or frozen, you would act to avoid that.

One of the ways in which Druidry, and Paganism as a whole is well placed to help people rethink climate change responses, is through the language of cycles. Accepting the wheel of the year, the seasons and the natural changes in weather makes us better able to live with them. If you are honouring the seasons, it gives you a better basis for working with how things are. Rather than seeing good and bad weather, we can just see weather and look for appropriate responses. We can reframe good weather as weather we can live with, and bad weather as extreme weather that can kill us. If we talk about the dramatic weather climate change is causing, that alone helps. So many people are still in denial about both our role in this and our power to change it.

It’s worth exploring how you talk about climate, and where you describe things as good or bad, problematic or desirable. It’s well worth looking at how our feelings about the weather then translate into our choices about technology we use, and carbon we release into the atmosphere.


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.


Signs of spring

Where I live, there have been many signs of spring during the last week. It would be normal to see celandines, catkins and snowdrops by this time in any year. Some of the fruit trees blossoming don’t seem too early either, but I’m seeing other signs of spring that I wouldn’t normally expect before March, and sometimes later.

There are leaves unfurling. I found a hawthorn tree with quite a lot of leaves on it. Willows are starting to come out and other plants as well. These are early.

The cleavers are up – again, late February doesn’t seem like quite the right time for this, but here they are. The garlic is also starting to show leaf tips emerging. That’s very early.

Yesterday I went walking and at several points was down to bare arms because I was too hot. On this occasion, my bare skin cannot be ascribed to a hot flush. It was warm enough that Tom took off his jumper. Tom is the sort of person to wear three layers of jumpers in the winter. He definitely isn’t having hot flushes.

This, I suppose, is one of the kinder faces climate change can wear. Being warm and enjoying the sunlight is so nice, that it is easy to overlook what’s causing it. A bit warmer in February is pleasant. A bit warmer in July – as with last July, can be overwhelming and lethal.

We had a frost overnight. That’s considerably more normal than warm sun and bare arms.

We all know there’s a climate crisis. And yet, all around me I see people carrying on absolutely as normal. The roads are chocked with cars at busy times. Perhaps everyone is waiting for someone else to sort it out.


Uneconomic Growth

We seem to have collectively bought into the idea that growth is inherently good. In nature, growth is finite and exists as part of cycles that also include dying back, and predation. In summer, bird numbers grow radically, but they don’t keep growing – the approach of winter and the activities of hunters rebalance that each year. Trees do not grow forever, they reach a natural limit, and they die. Things that grow unchecked tend to be plagues, or cancers.

There are costs we do not measure. We do not look at the cost to the environment and to our own health that human activity causes. We don’t look at extinction. We don’t look at exploitation and the destruction of human lives and minds in pursuit of profit. We don’t factor in what we might later need to pay to offset the hidden costs of what we’re doing now. Rising air pollution costs us in terms of health, life expectancy, and demands on our health service.

Of course if we did measure the cost of these things, they’d go into our GDP and we would see that we are making even more profit! It’s not much of a measure of anything.

If we are to survive as a species, and not kill off most of life on this planet, we need to tackle the issue of growth. We have to stop believing the ludicrous idea that we can have infinite ‘growth’ based on finite resources. We have to challenge the idea that constant growth is good.

As Pagans, we’re well placed to take this on. We’ve already embraced the cycle of the seasons, the tidal and changing nature of existence. The Holly King cannot keep ruling all year, building himself ever bigger forces. John Barleycorn dies each summer. In winter, the Cailleach rules and nothing grows. Persephone returns to the underworld. Demeter mourns. We watch the moon wax to absolute fullness and then shrink away again every month. A moon that never stopped growing would basically be moving towards the Earth on an impact trajectory. We have a lot of stories to work with.

If we are to survive, we need to embrace the idea of sufficiency. We need to live within our means and not compromise the future for the sake of present greed. We need to tell stories about the finite nature of healthy growth, and the needfulness of dying back and reducing. We have grown too far, and we need the winter cutback that naturally follows the excess of summer.


First frost

Over the weekend, some places in the UK had snow – including places near me. The tops of the Cotswolds often get rougher weather than the valleys. Much depends on the shape of your location in relation to the direction of the wind. Being tucked away in a sheltered spot, I didn’t get snow.

The wind was like a knife yesterday, and although it had dropped by the evening, I had a suspicion the night would be a cold one. I don’t always get this right. Sometimes we wake to the first frost shivering and surprised. I’ve tried to cultivate a ‘Druid weather sense’ but I’m still nothing like as accurate as I want to be.

Aside from signifying a drop in overnight temperature, the first frost has implications for walking. As I walk for transport, this is something to take seriously.  From here on, the surfaces outside will be unpredictable – especially first thing in the morning and at night. A heavy frost makes the paths slippery, especially if there were a lot of wet leaves to start with.

I have mixed feelings about frost – it is pretty. However, I don’t enjoy the cold, or the slippery conditions.

What I’ve described here is a good illustration, I think, of why we have to focus on our own experiences of the seasons. Whether you had a dash of snow at the weekend or not is very area specific. When your first frost was/is/will be is also very specific to the conditions where you live. How you respond to these things may depend a lot on how nature manifests in your body. If you are a warm, hardy and well resourced creature, winter can be fun. If you feel the cold, fall easily, hurt more in winter, then these conditions are hard. We can honour nature as it expresses itself across these relationships between place, time and self. There is no reason to assume anyone else will have the same experience.


Exposed to Autumn

As I usually point out when writing about the seasons, the journey through any given season is a process, not an event. Some things of course are events – the first frost is a good example. There is a process of the nights getting colder until heavy dews are replaced by frost, but there’s a definite difference between frost, and not-frost and you can mark it.

Changes in temperature aren’t a smooth process. We may have a few unusually cold or balmy days and then the season gets back to something more expected.

This week, I passed a significant marker for the season – the nights are now cold, and walking home after dark now requires more layers, hats, and so forth.

Walking for transport gives me an immediate relationship with what’s going on outside. I walk at different times in the day depending on what I’m doing, so there are some morning forays out, some daytime excursions and at least once a week I’ll come home after dark. For most of the year, I have to pay close attention to weather and temperature so as to be dressed for it – and not only dressed for when I leave, but for when I come back. A few hours can make a surprising difference.

In this way, I have a day to day body experience of the season. Our Pagan ancestors would have had this as well. You don’t have to go back very far for most people to be on foot or on horseback, or in a cart if they were going anywhere. Insulation from the elements was for the leisured few. Dealing with weather and temperature day to day was part of the normal life of most people in a way it isn’t now. If you can set the thermometer in your home to a fixed temperature, and if outside is only a few moments between temperature-regulated home, and temperature-regulated car, then your body isn’t involved with the seasons. I’ve never done it, so I have no idea what that experience does to a person.

 


Autumnal shifts

It’s been later getting cold this year than is usually the case. I still haven’t got any heating on at home, I sit here typing wearing a long sleeved shirt, and no jumper. No doubt this is climate change at work, but I admit to feeling gratitude alongside my unease. I struggle with being cold; my body hurts more and flexes less in cold weather.

I have poor circulation and can get chilblains, so autumn always means shifting away from being barefoot, and needing to wear gloves while outside. I have lightweight gloves for this time of year, and much heavier ones for if it gets really cold. My body informs my experience of the seasons in very direct ways. In the cold half of the year I have to resist what the season does to me.  Nature as manifest in my body and nature as manifest in the season are never going to be in harmony.

Of course this isn’t just an issue for me. Some birds migrate to deal with shifting seasons. Hedgehogs and bears hibernate rather than deal with the winter. Trees drop their leaves in self defence. Some parts of nature are falling into sleepy time, other parts are gearing up for a long fight to survive. There’s no one right way to experience this, and no single narrative about how it all works.

In this as in all things, I think you have to start with nature as it manifests in your own body. If you try to work with a wheel of the year narrative that doesn’t reflect how you feel and experience things, you’re always going to feel out of kilter with the seasons. You also run the risk of turning ‘nature’ into some abstract story, something to think about in rituals rather than something to live. How we live day to day defines how we experience everything. It is your body, in your landscape, at the moment you find yourself in that underpins everything else.


Seasonal walking

One of the reasons I’ve done very little seasonally-orientated walking this year is that the summer itself thwarted me. I don’t do well with high temperatures and this year, the British summer was unusually hot.  I need to work out more routes I can walk in the darkness so as to have options in future years, but even so, I don’t think night walking will make sense or be safe enough for longer routes.

I missed out on spring walking because I was ill for much of it.

As a consequence, here we are in the autumn, and I have missed a lot of what, for me, is my primary means of communication with the land and its wilder inhabitants.  I’ve been walking for transport all year, and that brings me into contact with all kinds of beings, but it’s not the same as a long day moving through the countryside.

However, being out all day in the hills can be physically demanding. One of the things I’ve found is that I need to stay really hydrated to avoid getting locked down by lactic acid in my muscles. I get very sore, really fast if there’s any anaerobic work to be done. Staying really hydrated translates into needing to pee a lot. During the summer this is less of a problem, but when there’s less undergrowth, there aren’t many options. I’m putting public toilets, pubs and cafes into walking routes. Yes, it would be nice to be away from human concerns all day, but it’s not feasible. I’m fortunate that I can now afford to put a pub stop into a walk.

Walking is an act of creating relationship between my body and the land. For that to work, I have to be realistic about what my body can take. If I try and walk too fast, or too far, or over too many hills it won’t go well. A walk dominated towards the end by pain and fatigue can be memorable, but it doesn’t create meaningful relationship, I’ve found. If I hurt too much, I’ll be too aware of my body to pay attention to anything much else.

Despite this year’s various health setbacks, I’m hoping to be well enough to take on my favourite autumn walk – which goes along the hill edge and through the Woodchester valley. I will however, be going on a day when the cafe and loos are open, because it greatly improves my chances of getting around.


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.