Tag Archives: wheel of the year

Signs of autumn

Back when I used to teach Druidry to people, I spent a lot of time thinking about the wheel of the year, and what seasonal events it connected with. I came to the conclusion that the trees being bare of leaves might be an important one for Samhain.

We’re a few days from Samhain now, and many of the trees around me are still green. Some have started to turn yellow and some leaves have started to fall. This could be one of those years where leaves are still present into Yule. It has happened before.

I spent some of last week further north (I live in the south west of the UK). There, autumn was further ahead, but in the place I was staying, there leaves had, I was told, just gone brown and started falling.

This morning, I woke to my first proper frost of the season. Normally this is a sad moment in the wheel of the year for me. I do not enjoy the cold, I am not good on slippery surfaces. But today, I am glad to see the first frost because it’s so late. It’s a relief to have it there.

In the last year or so, the number of rough sleepers around the town has increased considerably. First frosts are very bad news for them. Any scope for enjoying these conditions is rooted in privilege and it is so very important to keep sight of that. Don’t tell people off for being killjoys if they aren’t keen on autumn and winter. Poverty makes being cold a much bigger problem. Yes, autumn is lovely if you can put on your fluffiest socks and read a book by your log fire, looking up to enjoy the scenery outside the window. If you can’t afford the heat to keep the damp at bay, it is a miserable time of year.

For anyone who suffers SAD, this is a tough time of year. It can add to other forms of depression too – you can be practically affected by the cold and dark in ways that increase depression and anxiety. Having to travel to and from work in the dark is an obvious example. The cold can exacerbate pain. For older women with more fragile bones, a broken hip is a life limiting disaster, and the frost and ice pose a real threat. There are many other such examples. No one should add to the misery for people who cannot enjoy what autumn brings.

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.

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.

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.

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.

The validation of ritual

I’ve had periods of doing a lot of ritual, and periods of doing none, and at the moment am marking the seasons but not always in conventionally ritualistic ways. Looking back over the last fifteen years or so, I realise there’s a validation aspect to ritual that has had considerable value to me, but that I also feel ambivalent about.

Nothing makes me feel as much like a proper Pagan Druid as getting into circle with a bunch of people and doing a ritual eight times a year. I don’t even have much respect for the wheel of the year and the eight festivals as a concept, I never know what to do with equinoxes, but even so I find the act of doing ritual with fellow Pagans profoundly affirming.

Now, the question for me is, what am I affirming when I do ritual? I can find the ritual itself fairly superficial, and have no woo-woo type experiences at all and still feel significantly validated. Is it the effect of being with other Pagans openly? That seems fine to me as a thing to benefit from. Is it some kind of affirmation that I am all shiny and spiritual and special? I worry about this. I worry about how easy it is to have supposedly spiritual things turn out to be just epic ego massage. If I think something is good for me, is it really good for me? Is it ok to take the ego boost? I’m not swimming in self confidence…

I’ve spent a lot of time in recent years thinking about what it is that we get out of religions and spiritual practices (Spirituality Without Structure is one of the many consequences of this). How much of what we get out of ritual is on purely human terms and not really about the divine at all? How much is it about connecting with people? How much can we do to connect with the land and the seasons when investing a couple of hours eight times a year? Lots of questions, no real answers.

Ritual Druidry

When I first came to Druidry, doing the rituals associated with the wheel of the year seemed like the most important thing. The tone and style of Druid rituals, and all the things that made them different from other people’s rituals, seemed to define what Druidry is. I was able to learn the seasonal approaches by participating in a Grove, and going on to study with OBOD affirmed, and firmed up this learning (amongst other things).

For some years I ran an open gathering and a closed circle – again with seasonal ritual being the main features. As an organiser, it started to seem to me that the most important things about ritual were the bringing together and bonding of communities, and getting people who were not otherwise much engaged with the seasons or the natural world, to engage meaningfully. For busy urban Pagans, those eight festivals a year were key opportunities to get out to somewhere green and stop for a while.

As an organiser, ritual became something I did for other people, and my own practice shifted towards something more private, less structured.

In recent years I haven’t had a group of people who wanted regular ritual from me, so I haven’t organised any. It’s not something I want to do on my own account any more, aside from being occasionally drawn to the sharing-with-people aspect.

At the moment my involvement with the wheel of the year is much more a day to day process, with no big celebrations. I engage primarily by walking, and by seeking out the changes that go with each season. Finding out which flowers bloom where and when, and seeking them out, has been a major feature over the last few years.

Four years ago or so, I had no idea how to be a solitary Druid because the community work defined my path for me. For a while it felt like showing up to write this blog was the only discernibly Druid thing I had going on. Recognition of, and deepening of my own relationship with the land has changed how I feel about a lot of things. Ritual for personal practice makes a lot less sense to me – generally the more involved a ritual is, the less sense it makes! Minimal practices to hold meditative group work I am fine with, and that’s all I have going on at the moment on that side. Showing up for collective Druidry has become an aside, not the main thrust of what I do.

Learning to trust that the unshowy, private, confers neither power nor importance stuff, is also Druidry, and is Druidry even though there’s no one outside my immediate family to validate what I’m doing, has taken a while. I still think of proper Druidry as the kind of thing clever people do in circles while wearing robes, but I feel increasingly out of place there. Not clever enough, robed enough or drawn to circles enough. I think there is room alongside that for something more personal, less useful to anyone else, less easily spoken of.

Seasonal shopping, token gestures

There is a wheel of the year for consumers, moving us neatly from one shopping opportunity to another. Valentines, mother’s day, Easter, father’s day, summer beach things and barbeques, then Halloween and Christmas. On the given days you are to run out and buy the right things for the right people. In theory you are celebrating your family, and doing nice things for them. When you’re told to, and by buying stuff.

Little moments in the year when you can assuage your guilt over all the things you don’t do the rest of the time, perhaps. Fuelled by adverts that encourage you to feel a tad guilty and that reinforce the sense of what other people expect from you. An approach demanding token, commercial gestures, as though spending money on a few days of the year is what it takes to have a relationship. Of course if everyone is doing it – taking Mum out for Sunday lunch on a specific day, going out for a meal one night of the year… the pressure to be part of that is vast, and the sense of alienation and loss if you don’t, or can’t, or don’t have those people, or have such a poor relationship that it wouldn’t be viable… If we could measure the total of human shame, anxiety and distress caused by the commercial wheel of the year and weigh it against the happiness it causes, I do not think happiness would win.

If course if you’re dealing with someone who mostly doesn’t bother, then the making of effort a few times a year has a heightened value, and the failure to honour key dates seems like a bigger deal. The partner who doesn’t even remember your birthday and can’t manage a Valentines card and takes you for granted on all the other days as well, is really depressing to deal with.

And so we end up with these little, seasonal pockets of overload, when there can be too much. Patters of feast and famine in our exchanges, and the difficult sudden bursts of expense. The burden of Christmas can be terrible for people on low incomes.

I like gifting people with things when I can, and just because. I take more joy in small, ongoing exchanges of things – often far less commercial – loaning, sharing and passing on also being important parts of this process. Relationship is not something you buy for people on key dates. It is what we do for each other, together, from one day to the next. Every day.

The Easter Eggs have been in the shops for weeks already. Of course we all have to buy them, because it’s fun, paying through the nose for shaped chocolate to give to people who probably don’t need it. Especially children. We’re well under way with an obesity epidemic. What fun we can have stuffing their little faces with eggs! It’s all about the fun, and anyone (me, invariably) who questions the fun is of course a misery and a spoilsport. The problems could not possibly lie with the festivities of consuming, and anyone who dares to suggest it is just a bitter killjoy intent on making everyone else miserable. (I figured I’d get in early and pre-empt the usual comments, because there’s always one).

The courtship of birds

It’s not something I’ve ever really noticed before, but this year I am seeing the birds courting. They’ve done it all through January. They turn up and forage in pairs, and I’ve been treated to some amazing displays of close flying – small songbirds nipping through the undergrowth, turning and dodging together, a matter of inches apart. No doubt this happens every year at this time, the only change is in my noticing.

In the last few years I’ve become more conscious of other ways in which the essence of spring is distilled in the depths of winter. All the trees have leaf buds on them right now – locked tight against the frosts, but ready nonetheless. The catkins hang, tight and dark, equally ready. On the woodland floor, the bluebells and garlic is already putting up the tips of green shoots. It’s still icy out there, still bitterly cold and with heavy frosts, but the makings of spring are well under way.

This year I have been much more aware of the return of the light, seeing the day increase from one evening to the next. It’s not that I wasn’t paying attention in previous years, more that I couldn’t see what was happening. I’m not a winter person, but it isn’t always easy to leave. I’ve come into far too many spring seasons with such a deep chill in my bones, and so much darkness in my mind that I found it hard to make an emotional connection with the shift into spring. I found the journey into winter easier this year, and I am experiencing the journey back out without feeling lost or disconnected.

This isn’t especially about my Druidic work of engaging with the seasons, it’s about an entirely separate emotional journey that does not plug neatly into ideas of the wheel of the year. There’s often a profound disconnect between personal cycles and journeys, and the wheel of the year narrative and that can create a lot of tensions for the dedicated Druid. When life is peaceful and all is well then it can be quite easy to go with the flow of the seasons. However, the challenges of life and the baggage we carry can entirely preclude that. It can be hard to form a relationship with the seasons as you experience them when your own life rhythms are very different. Harder still to engage with the seasonal narrative, which isn’t always the same as what’s happening in your climate.

Depression and winter are a dreadful combination for me. I do not enjoy the darkness or the cold, or the extra challenges the season brings. I struggle with low energy and I entirely get how our ancestors could have wondered about whether the light would ever return. I wonder that – literally and metaphorically, when I am depressed. Being less depressed, I am less affected by all of these things, and curiously more able to recognise the changes for the better. I can feel the year turning. In winters of deep depression, I could not feel it, even when the spring came. Winters of the spirit can alienate us from the actual return of light.

This is not to say that working with the seasons will cure you from depression. It may do the opposite, making it more painfully clear that are not experiencing spring or any kind of return of light. However, overcoming depression undoubtedly makes it easier to work with the seasons.