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!

Wednesday, 17 June 2020

Thunderstorm





Half an hour ago I was watching bees happily bumbling in the comfrey patch. 

From out of nowhere it seems, there is suddenly torrential rain. The sky splits with lightning. 

One by one the cats careen in from wherever they have tried to shelter from the downpour, soaking wet and complaining loudly and plaintively about the rain as I towel their fur dry.

Hemlock - the biggest, baddest, blackest witch's cat you've ever seen - is spooked by the thunder and crawls into my lap for comfort, pushing his soft face against me as I hold and soothe him.

Outside the back door, the white roses - just minutes earlier a-buzz with bees - now hang like wet rags, yet the air is still fragranced by their perfume. Torn petals float limply in the growing puddle by the doorstep.

Rain hammers the windows, rattles on the roof and pours from flooded gutters. Again and again the flick of lightning is followed by thunder's bellowing roar. I count between each flash and rumble, tracking the progress of the storm as it moves closer, passes overhead and then starts to recede. 

The world is now quiet but for falling rain, as every living thing shelters, waiting for the drama to pass.

The rain lessens, the thunder is gone.  The sky lightens. Hemlock purrs. 

This storm is passing. A microcosm of the macrocosm. May the worldwide storm we're all sheltering from pass soon too. 

Friday, 12 June 2020

Celebrating the Summer Solstice in Lockdown




The Summer Solstice, or Litha, this year falls on Saturday 20th June, (astronomically it varies between 20th and 22nd June). Although some restrictions are being relaxed, by and large we will still not be able to gather to celebrate, a fact I am happy to accept in order to keep people safe. But it does mean we'll need to be creative and adaptable in how we mark the occasion, just as we were at Beltane. Many of the suggestions I made in that post can be adapted for the Summer Solstice, but here are a few additional ideas too. As before I've grouped them depending on a variety of lockdown/isolation situations.

If you are able to get out to the countryside/beach/park


  • One of the simplest and most memorable ways of celebrating the Summer Solstice is to go and watch the sunrise from an east-facing hill or a beach near your home. You can check sunrise times in the UK here, and there are other online resources that give the times for other parts of the world. There is something really magical about experiencing the world awake to a new day as the sky gradually lightens, the dawn chorus begins and the sun appears over the horizon. Take a small picnic breakfast to celebrate this special day, and don't forget to leave a small offering of food and pour out a little of your drink for the spirits of the place.
  • If you are confident of your plant-identification skills you could take a walk and forage some wild plants for a Summer Solstice feast. Plants to look out for at this time of year include wild strawberries, chickweed, elderflowers, sea kale, fat hen, linden blossoms and honeysuckle flowers.
  • If you can't travel to sacred sites such as Avebury or Stonehenge for the Solstice, do a little research to find sacred sites in your local area that you may be able to visit instead. Many of these smaller, less well-known sites have an amazing atmosphere and are all the more special for not being crowded with visitors.


If you have access to a garden or small green space


  • It's a great time of year for roses, and if you have some in your garden take this opportunity to really appreciate their beauty and fragrance with a small ritual. Gather some petals - the more perfumed the better - and make yourself some rose petal tea. Remove the thicker white base of the petals (where they attach to the rest of the flower) as this can be bitter. Steep the petals in boiling water for a few minutes, then sweeten with a little honey if liked. Sit in the sun to drink your brew, inhaling the fragrant steam and feeling the warm sun on your skin. Let the warmth and fragrance spread through your body. Take a moment to imagine your heart as a rose in your chest, gradually unfurling its petals and opening to the sun. Raise the cup in your hands as a toast to the sun, the source of all light and energy. Feel yourself blessed. 
  • If you have children, throw a special 'Sun Day' party for the family. Decorate the house and garden with sunny colours, get the children to make sun-themed art and get everyone to dress in sun-themed clothes (yellow, orange or gold coloured, sparkly, or their favourite summer clothes). Have a sunny foods feast - make yellow cupcakes, drink orange juice or home made lemonade, have a barbecue, eat ice cream, enjoy slices of watermelon... and later on as the sun sinks in the sky, share toasted marshmallows round a fire. 
  • Make a small sun altar, if possible in the South corner of your garden. Here you can put sun-themed garden decorations, solar-powered lanterns and grow plants ruled by the sun - like sunflowers, marigolds, St John's wort, chamomile and rosemary.   


If you are confined to your home/can't get outside


  • As has been widely reported, English Heritage have cancelled the sunrise celebrations at Stonehenge this year, but they will be livestreaming the sunrise at the stones on social media.
  • Make a sun-catcher to hang in your window to honour the sun and send rainbows dancing across your walls. There's the story of one I made here to get you started. All you really need is some sparkly things - crystals, beads, sequins - and some wire and/or thread to hang them from. Just be careful not to use any convex glass pieces/balls/marbles etc which could focus the rays of the sun and potentially start a fire.
  • Honey is already a very 'solar' substance, as it is concentrated nectar from flowers. Charge a jar with the power of the sun by placing it on a sunny windowsill for a day. Then use your sun-powered honey to give yourself a boost of sunshine by adding to recipes or in your tea on those days when you need a little extra lift.   




Happy Summer Solstice everyone! Stay safe and have a wonderful summer. 



Thursday, 4 June 2020

Further Adventures in Edibles


I have to admit it, I'm not the biggest fan of radishes. As a homegrown crop they do have their advantages though - mostly that they are about the quickest thing from which you can get a harvest (usually about 4 weeks from sowing to eating). For this reason they are great for introducing newcomers (and children) to the thrill of harvesting your own veggies, and I personally find them useful sown as a 'catch crop' between rows of slower growing plants to make the most use of the available space. 

Luckily for me, IB is a big radish fan who is happy to eat as many radishes as we can grow, so it all works out. He's so keen he even asked me whether we could add the leaves to a salad as well as the roots, but the coarseness and hairiness of the leaves is frankly pretty off-putting from a 'mouthfeel' perspective. As with nettles, cooking will take care of the prickly hairs, so you could eat them as a cooked vegetable or in soup. But the solution I found is so tasty that so far we haven't cooked a single radish leaf. Instead we have been eating Radish Leaf Pesto - absolutely delicious with a slice of IB's home made bread, still warm from the oven.

If you Google Radish Leaf Pesto, you will find many recipes. But here is my extremely adaptable 'whatever you have in the store cupboard' version.



Moonroot's Radish Leaf Pesto

Ingredients:
1-2 handfuls of radish leaves*
1 garlic clove
A handful of toasted nuts (almonds, cashews, pistachios etc) or seeds (pumpkin, sunflower etc) 
30g grated Parmesan or Grana Padano cheese**
Olive oil (or vegetable oil of your choice - it might be interesting to try a nutty-flavoured oil like sesame)
Generous squeeze of lemon juice
Pinch of salt

Method
Place radish leaves, garlic, nuts/seeds and cheese in bowl of food processor and whizz them together. Trickle in some olive oil and whizz the machine again. You'll probably need to keep stopping to scrape the mixture down towards the blades from the sides of the bowl. Add more oil if necessary to get the right consistency - but remember it's easy to add more if you need it but impossible to take it out if you add too much, so add a little at a time. When it's nearly there, squeeze in some lemon juice, and add salt to taste. Give it a final whizz and there you are. 

Enjoy with fresh bread, on toast or crackers, with vegetable crudites, on pasta...

According to all the Radish Leaf Pesto recipes online, it freezes really well. But I wouldn't know, it never lasts long enough round here to get frozen!



* If I don't have enough leaves from that day's radish harvest I keep them with their cut ends in a jar of water until I have harvested some more a couple of days later. And at times I have supplemented the radish leaves with any salad leaves that are starting to bolt - rocket, mizuna etc (in fact if you don't have any radish leaves you could use just salad leaves, as in Jack Monroe's excellent 'Salad Bag Pesto' recipe). Or you can adjust the quantities of the other ingredients too and just end up with a smaller amount of pesto!

** As IB is strictly vegetarian, Parmesan or Grana Padano are off the menu for us (both contain animal rennet). We use a vegetarian version of Parmesan when we have it (usually labelled something like 'vegetarian hard cheese' in supermarkets). During lockdown, as we didn't have any vegetarian Parmesan available I experimented by using a strong mature Cheddar instead. This is no doubt absolute heresy in foodie circles, but... it tasted fine. Different but fine.