Sunday, 13 September 2020

Sunshine Soup




Hmm, what to make with these things in the fridge that need eating up when I'm feeling uninspired? Yes, it was that kind of weekend. Faced with a butternut squash, a yellow pepper and some single cream that was going out of date, I fell back on that old reliable solution: soup. And let me tell you, despite its unpromising origins it was delicious. Smooth, spicy, warming and a beautiful golden colour. What else to call it but Sunshine Soup!

Here's how I made it (and rest assured, despite the photo it does not contain any palm tree). 

Sunshine Soup (or Stew)

Serves 4-6 people, depending how hungry you are.

Ingredients
Sesame oil
1 medium sized onion
1 2-inch piece of fresh ginger root
400g butternut squash (peeled and de-seeded)
1 yellow pepper
1 medium potato
Cayenne pepper to taste
1 tsp paprika
1 tsp cumin seeds
½ tsp black pepper
Vegetable stock
1 tin chopped tomatoes (or you could use fresh)
Single cream

Method
Peel and chop the onion and the ginger, and fry in a large saucepan over a gentle heat in a splash of sesame oil. Cut the squash into chunks and add to the pan. De-seed and chop up the yellow pepper and add it too. Cut the potato into small dice and add to the pan, stir the mixture well. 

Sprinkle over the cayenne pepper (I have left the amount to your discretion, you know how hot and spicy you like your food! If you're not sure, add a little to start with, you can always add more but it's impossible to reduce it once it's in there), paprika, cumin seeds and black pepper, stir well again  and pour over enough stock to completely cover the vegetables. 

Turn up the heat and bring to a gentle boil. Add the tin of tomatoes, and simmer until the vegetables are all nice and soft.*

Using a stick blender or a food processor, blend until the mixture is smooth. Pour in some cream and stir well. Check the seasoning and adjust if necessary. Serve with crusty bread.

* It has occurred to me that at this stage you could adapt the recipe into a hearty, spicy vegetarian stew by adding a tin of kidney beans or chick peas. I would serve it like this with rice.

***

This recipe may have originated as a serendipitous mixture of disparate ingredients, but it was so delicious I will definitely be making it again! Let me know if you make any!




 

Tuesday, 1 September 2020

Suddenly September




And so here we are in September. 


There is a chill in the morning air. Days are noticeably shorter. Apples hang plumply from the tree and rosehips glow in the hedge. The sycamore leaves are beginning to brown. Yet the sun is still warm and the swallows still dance in the sky. Summer is drawing to a close, but gently.


How did we get here so quickly? Time has been a strange companion these last months. Though life in lockdown was slow and peaceful, still the months seem to have slid past quickly and already we are three quarters of the way through 2020. It's been such a strange year, the fact that we're entering its last stages will no doubt please many. Yet I suspect the strangeness will not evaporate on 31st December. Strange is the new normal as our expectations and priorities and beliefs about our lives are upended and re-examined and we learn to navigate the new reality in which we find ourselves. It's disturbing and often hard and painful. Isn't that always true of change? And yet... at times I find myself relishing the challenge. I think we could build something new and wonderful from the wreckage. Throw out what no longer serves, question the status quo, refuse to go back to the system that has created so much injustice and inequality. 


On this first day of a new month, one which sees the beginning of the new academic year, let's pause to think about the opportunities to learn that are there for us all. What has been stripped away? What essentials remain? What do we need to let go of? What do we need to bring in? What do we want to create? Where do we want to be this time next year?


Let's seize the initiative. Let's create the lives we truly want, not the lives they've tried to tell us we want. I don't want to be part of a system that keeps most of the world in poverty while a handful of billionaires call the shots. I don't want things, I want connection and meaning. I don't want to keep running on the hamster wheel, I want to spend time with people I love doing things that make the world a better place. 


When they urge you to 'get back to normal' so that they can get the system up and running again, refuse. Withdraw your support for a system that is only there to benefit the few. Dream a better future - then create it. Let's work together, for the good of all.




Thursday, 27 August 2020

Altarations




I love a good altar, don't you? Over the years I have made and worked with many altars (some of which may be seen here), both in my home and garden and for rituals, gatherings, workshops and classes in a variety of places. I've made altars alone, and collaboratively with others, and I have appreciated the beauty and artistry of the altars built by others. Altars are a wonderful visual focal point for a specific purpose such as a ritual, or to honour a deity or your ancestors. I also like to have a permanent, 'general-purpose' altar on which I keep things like my magical tools and representations of deities and totems. Even if I don't work with an altar every day, I like the way its presence in my environment keeps a focus on my beliefs.


However, sad to say over the last couple of years altars haven't been much of a presence in my home. It's been primarily for practical reasons - we are now a five-cat household, and any Pagan who has ever had a cat will be able to tell you that cats (especially young, curious, playful cats) and altars are not a good mix. Of late, my altars have tended to be simple and temporary, mostly consisting of some seasonal flowers in a vase, a candle and maybe a small deity image.


In a fit of misguided optimism I recently decided to make an altar on the top shelf of a tall bookcase. I'm in the process of writing a book, and decided to make an altar to honour the creative process. I cleared the shelf and assembled images of creativity, growth and inspiration. The centrepiece of the altar was a Rose of Jericho in a dish of water. If you're not familiar with  this plant, it is a desert plant which dries, browns and shrivels up in times of drought but then miraculously unfolds and becomes green again when it is put in water. It felt like an appropriate symbol of growth for the project.




Book project altar showing the Rose of Jericho before adding water (top) and after (bottom)

The top shelf of the bookcase seemed like a suitably safe, inaccessible place. Or it did until last night, when our tortoiseshell cat Nutmeg decided to jump up onto the top of the bookcase, rocking the whole thing and sending the Rose of Jericho and its bowl crashing to the floor. Miraculously, the bowl was unbroken and the Rose of Jericho merely lost a few fronds - thank goodness, I would have worried about the symbolic implications for the project if they'd been destroyed! Even so, it seems I need to reconsider my options, altar-wise. 


Today I have been thinking about where and how I can make a cat-proof altar. The classic table-top altar is fine if you don't have pets or small children to worry about, but if even a high-up shelf isn't safe enough it's necessary to think outside the box. I'm wondering about the possibilities of a vertical altar on a wall surface? I could perhaps start by painting a background and then decorate it with collaged images. 3-D visual interest could be provided by adding a candle sconce or two, and perhaps a small corbel to accommodate a Goddess statue. There are plenty of Green Man and other Pagan-themed plaques available too, and wall-mounted vases which could hold seasonal flowers, greenery, or even found objects like feathers. Decorative pegs and clips could display tarot cards or artwork. And some artfully arranged fairy lights would be a great finishing touch. Am I on to something? Time will tell. I will definitely post pictures of whatever I come up with.


Thursday, 30 July 2020

Celebrating Lammas During the Pandemic




Although restrictions have eased since I wrote about celebrating Beltane and Summer Solstice in lockdown - and most places in the UK are not actually in lockdown any more - the ongoing pandemic means full scale gatherings for  Lammas rituals and celebrations aren't possible. Up to date guidelines for your area may be found on this Government website - please check and ensure you are adhering to the rules.

Nevertheless, as with the previous two festivals with a bit of imagination it's possible to celebrate Lammas in memorable style. As before I have suggestions for a variety of situations - even though many of us are now able to resume a kind of normality in our lives, there are still people who need to protect themselves by shielding, so there are suggestions for those who are able to get out and those who are not.

Ideas for celebrating Lammas in the countryside or at the beach/park
  • If the weather is fine, this would be a great opportunity to visit a local sacred site, stone circle, megalith or holy well. The big famous sites will probably be awash with visitors, but smaller more obscure sites need love too, and the lack of crowds often makes them far more atmospheric, and allows the space and time to really connect on a deeper level. Take a small posy of flowers from your garden as an offering (not cellophane wrapped ones from the local supermarket or garage!) for the genius loci.
  • If you are able to visit a beach, trace a spiral large enough to walk in and out of in the sand. Walk it slowly and mindfully. On the inward journey concentrate on all the plans and projects you have put energy into in the last year. What seeds have you sown and how have they grown? When you reach the centre pause and survey your harvest. What has come to fruition? What still needs more work? Give thanks for all that you have achieved. As you slowly walk back out of the spiral, concentrate on where you will concentrate your energy for the next year. What will you hope to be harvesting by this time next year? 
  • If you enjoy foraging for wild foods, take a walk and gather some ingredients for a Lammas feast. Wild plants to look for at this time of year include bilberries, the first blackberries, wild strawberries, chickweed, fat hen, mallow, rowan berries and sea beet.
  • If you are visiting a beach with your family, why not have a beach-art competition? You can sculpt sand, pile rocks, and beach-comb for shells, driftwood, seaweed and other shoreline treasures to use in your creation. Here's some inspiration for you...

Ideas for celebrating in your garden
  • If you've been growing your own fruit and veggies, Lammas is the perfect time to celebrate with a harvest feast, preferably al fresco.
  • Lammas is traditionally a time to get together with your community and share the harvest. That's not so easy at the moment - and really, I'm of the mind that it's better to be cautious and limit social contact in order to stay safe and beat back the virus. But with a bit of common sense and appropriate hygiene/social distancing measures it should still be possible to share any excess home-grown fruit, veggies and herbs with your neighbours. If you don't grow vegetables you could gift them with a bunch of flowers. Or how about baking a batch of cupcakes, brownies or muffins and leaving little anonymous gift-wrapped parcels of yumminess on your neighbours' doorsteps?
  • Traditionally corn dollies were made at this time of year. The spirit of the corn was thought to reside safely in them through the cold winter months. In spring, the corn dolly would be planted along with the new seeds and the cycle would begin anew. Make your own corn dolly using wheat straw (you can buy it online from craft suppliers) or even long stems of  dried grass. There are instructions for making simple corn dollies here, or look online for video tutorials if you would like to try something more elaborate! If you would like to keep the spirit of your garden safe indoors through the winter you could use flowers or herbs with long stems as a stand in for the wheat. Hang the finished garden spirit dolly up to dry somewhere cool and dry with good air circulation, and then keep it safe all winter on your altar before returning it to the soil in the spring. 
  • Make a mandala of food stuffs which you can leave out as an offering to the local wildlife. You could make the centre a bowl of water (but put a few rocks in it so that any insects or small creatures that fall in can climb out again).



Ideas for celebrating in your home
  • Get baking! Lammas literally means 'Loaf Mass', i.e. the celebration of the first loaf baked from the new grain harvest. There are hundreds of bread recipes to be found online, and you can also experiment with your bread by adding ingredients like chopped herbs, olives, cheese, spices, or chilli. If you don't have any yeast you can make soda bread, using bicarbonate of soda as the raising agent. Any flour-based baked goods are appropriate at this festival, so as well as making bread - make a cake, or biscuits, brownies, cookies, crumble or a pie.  If you have a gluten intolerance, there are gluten-free flours available and plenty of gluten free recipes online to inspire you.
  • Make a small harvest altar to give thanks for your personal harvest this year. This may be a literal harvest of home-grown fruit and vegetables or it may be the things you have achieved such as a new skill, a job, promotion, qualification, initiation etc. It could also be the new friendship(s) you have made, the poem you wrote, the happy times you have shared with your children. What have you achieved, made, learned or gained this year? What are you grateful for? What would you like to give thanks for? Find items which literally or symbolically show your harvest for this year. Say a few words of gratitude, to the Universe, to your Gods/Goddesses, to your magical allies - and to yourself, for all you have worked for and achieved this year. Blessed Be!
  • As always there are online Pagan celebrations that you can join. The Glastonbury Goddess Conference is online this year and runs over the Lammas period. There is an online Lammas Full Moon Shamanic Journey Circle here. If you're on Facebook, this is a useful group to keep tabs on Pagan events both online and off. 
  • Trance into the Empress card of a tarot deck. The Empress is the Mother Earth archetype, all about abundance. Create sacred space in your preferred way, ground and centre yourself. Sit looking at the card, allowing your gaze to become soft and unfocused. Imagine yourself walking into the card and approaching The Empress. What will you say to her? Do you have questions to ask her? Does she have a message or a gift for you? Who or what else do you find within the card? When you are ready, thank The Empress - and any other beings you may have interacted with - and exit the landscape of the card coming back to yourself where you sit. Take a few moments to write down your impressions of the card and any messages or gifts you may have received. Make sure you are fully back and grounded - eat something if necessary (food is very grounding). Open your sacred space.
May we all have a sweet and blessed Lammas, and may your harvest be bountiful. Blessed be. 


Wednesday, 8 July 2020

Midsummer Herbs: Meadowsweet and St John's Wort


At the height of summer, two wonderful healing herbs are blooming spectacularly in the hedgerows and meadows around Halfway Up A Hill. I plan to pick and dry plenty of both to take us through the coming months. 

The first is Meadowsweet, whose froth of sweetly fragranced flowers never fail to delight me when they begin to appear. Meadowsweet has such a soft, gracious gentleness, yet it is balanced by an enduring inner strength, a calm serenity. If Meadowsweet was in human form, she would be exactly the person you would want around in a crisis. She'd mop up the mess, fix, calm, soothe, hold your hand, make you a cup of tea and pop a casserole in the oven before quietly slipping out the back door without any fuss. 

Meadowsweet contains salicylic acid, one of the active ingredients in aspirin, and in fact the word 'aspirin' is derived from the old Latin name for Meadowsweet, Spirea ulmaria (the Latin name for the plant has subsequently been changed to Ulmaria filipendula). Unlike aspirin, which is notoriously harsh on the stomach, Meadowsweet has a gentler action and so can be taken for headaches accompanied by upset stomach - the perfect hangover cure! Just yesterday, IB was suffering from a bad headache and I made him some Meadowsweet tea from fresh leaves and flowers which really helped. The flowers have a sweet, slightly almond-y fragrance with the merest hint of a medicinal undertone, and the chopped leaves smell fresh, a bit like a new-mown grass or hay, so it's a pleasant tea to drink. Of course, if you are allergic to aspirin or it's contraindicated for you it's best to err on the side of caution and avoid Meadowsweet too. 

The flowers can also be used in the kitchen in many of the ways you'd use Elderflowers - to make cordial, champagne, flower fritters, to flavour beer and mead, or as an addition to fruit desserts and jams. Strangely they seem to come into flower just as the Elderflowers are fading, very helpfully extending the season.

In bygone days the dried herb was used as a strewing herb, scattered on the floors of houses along with other pleasant smelling herbs and rushes to make the home smell sweet and deter pests. It is said to have been one of the favourite strewing herbs of Queen Elizabeth I. I wonder if it might be nice to update this idea by using it in pot pourri? 

Meadowsweet was one of the three most sacred herbs of the druids, along with Water Mint and Vervain. Perhaps that's why Math and Gwydion chose Meadowsweet as one of the herbs used to create Blodeuwedd (whose name means 'flower face') as a wife for Lleu, in the Mabinogion.
  

The other herb is sunny St John's Wort, probably the most solar plant I can think of (with the possible exception of Calendula and Sunflowers). The flowers even look like little yellow sunbursts, and its name is due to the fact that it generally begins to flower around St John's Day (24th June), a few days after the Summer Solstice. The small oval-shaped leaves are packed with little oil glands which secrete powerful healing compounds. If you're not sure if you've got the right plant, hold a leaf up to the light - you should be able to see what appear to be little translucent perforations on the leaf. These are the oil-secreting glands, and they give the plant its Latin name, Hypericum perforatum. And speaking of names, there are a number of plants in the Hypericum family which get called St John's Wort, potentially making things confusing - this is why knowing Latin names of plants can be so important! For the purposes of this blog post, I'm talking about Common or Perforate St John's Wort. 

St John's Wort has become well-known in recent years as a herbal treatment for mild to moderate depression (studies show it's less effective for severe depression), and I find it interesting that this radiant little plant can literally chase away the dark clouds of depression and let the light back in for some people. I wonder if it's particularly useful for those suffering SAD (Seasonal Affective Disorder), which strikes in the dark days of winter?

Another strange sun-related connection: one of the possible side-effects of taking St John's Wort is photosensitivity, which means it can cause the skin and eyes to become more sensitive to sunlight thereby making some people susceptible to sunburn and eye damage. It can also have other side-effects such as gastrointestinal problems, dizziness and headache, and can disrupt the effects of some prescription drugs such as the contraceptive pill, anti-psychotics, and some cancer and heart medications. So check with  your GP or a qualified herbalist to make sure St John's Wort is suitable for you before taking it.

Although St John's Wort can make you more susceptible to sunburn, paradoxically an oil made from the plant is a great topical salve used for burns and wounds, to heal scars and to treat nerve pain such as sciatica. I made some last year by filling a sterilised glass jar with a tightly fitting lid, with the flowers and leaves and pouring over grapeseed oil. I left the jar on a sunny windowsill for a few weeks, and the oil gradually became a gorgeous deep red colour as the active ingredients infused into the carrier oil. If you would like to try this yourself, it's important to ensure the plant matter is fully covered by oil, as any that's left protruding above the surface will become mouldy and spoil the oil. When the oil has finished infusing, strain out the herb and store the tightly closed jar in a cool, dark place. As far as I know topical application of the oil doesn't increase photosensitivity, but to be on the safe side I don't use it on skin that will be exposed to sunlight.

In folklore, St John's Wort was seen as protective and hung above doorways and windows to protect the inhabitants of a house from evil spirits, or worn on the person as a charm. 


It's raining right now, so I'll wait until the sun comes out again before going out to collect my herbs. As the weather is due to take a turn for the better in the next couple of days I will have plenty of chance to gather and dry my midsummer herbs. In the dark depths of winter I'm sure I'll be glad that I did!

***

N.B. I am NOT a medically trained herbalist, so this post is not intended as medical advice. Please consult a properly trained herbalist if you need advice. 

Please also don't take any chances if you're not confident of your plant identification skills. Check with someone who really knows their stuff. And the golden rule is: if you can't be 100% certain you've got the right plant, walk away! 

Thursday, 2 July 2020

Rosepetals, Radishes, Rain and Repose


June in lockdown. Life here at Halfway Up A Hill is slow-paced, quietly satisfying as we work in the garden and enjoy the unaccustomed luxury of plenty of time together. Just us, the cats, the chickens, the earth and sky. As you can see from the picture above, Mandrake has been fully embracing the tranquility. 


The garden is gloriously full of flowers, the air deliciously sweetened by roses and elderflowers, honeysuckle and meadowsweet. Everything is growing abundantly, nurtured by sun and rain.


Ah yes, the rain... it has been very enthusiastic at times. But we have had plenty of warm sunshine too, so our crops in the vegetable patch are coming along beautifully. I'm pretty sure I can see them growing by the minute.




Last night we ate this delicious salad of lettuce and mixed salad leaves, spring onions, radishes, snap peas and mangetouts. All home grown.




Mandrake reckons we're pretty lucky. I'd have to agree.



Saturday, 20 June 2020

Solstice Magic: The Tale of the Dancing Weasel





One Summer Solstice morning, many years ago, T and I set off to watch the sun rise from a nearby hilltop. As we were still living in Essex at that time, there weren't an awful lot of hills to choose from, but we had carefully scouted out some east-facing fields in an elevated position that we hoped would give us a good vantage point.

It was still dark when we rose and threw on some clothes in preparation for our adventure; I grabbed a small pack containing a few ritual tools and some food and drink. We made our way out into the pre-dawn quiet and found our way into the field by torchlight, waiting expectantly in the damp chill. When the much anticipated sunrise came, it was an anticlimax. Instead of the bright golden rays I had expected, clouds blurred the horizon and the sky lightened slowly into a disappointingly grey and indistinct dawn.

Nevertheless, it was still the Summer Solstice: I drew the items I had brought with us from my pack, murmured a blessing and made a small offering to the sun, including some fruit and a small libation of mead which I left at the edge of the wheat growing in the field. We sat to eat some food ourselves and that was when the magic happened...

A movement at the edge of the wheat, close to where I had left our offering caught my eye. Only a few metres from where we sat, a small weasel appeared - apparently unafraid - and eyed us curiously. We both froze, not wanting to scare it away. The slender animal sniffed the air, completely unperturbed by our presence. Suddenly, it leaped into the air, twisting its long lithe body mid-air into a kind of somersault, landed with perfect agility and shot back into the wheat - before immediately running back out again, doubling back, leaping and twisting and capering in what appeared to be a joyous gymnastic dance. We held our breath as the weasel danced an exuberant celebration of life for precious moments, until suddenly it disappeared back into the standing wheat, and we were back in the everyday world of a grey June morning.

I have heard that weasels 'war dance' to confuse their prey before attacking, but there were no prey animals around. Perhaps it was a young animal practising and honing its hunting skills. But I like to think on that Solstice morning it was just dancing for the sheer delight of it, in celebration of life and summer and all that's good.

We may not have witnessed the awe-inspiring sunrise we had hoped for, but instead we experienced something more amazing and magical than we could have imagined. It felt like a special blessing, something I'll never forget. Moreover I learned something very important that day: The magic you go looking for may not be the magic you find - but that's all part of the magic.

May you find your own magic this Summer Solstice. Blessed Be!