Sunday, 3 March 2019

Snarling Lions and Stinging Nettles

"If March comes in like a lion, it will go out like a lamb" - traditional weather prediction

March this year has definitely come in like a lion. With Storm Freya snarling outside, we are content to cwtch up at home today. Snug in my cosy sheepskin boots and an oversized slouchy jumper, I've been pottering around the house catching up on chores and making soup. Yes, it's definitely a soup kind of day - but it's not just the weather that inspired me. As spring arrives, so do the first new nettles of the year and soup is a great way to make use of them.

Nettles have a long association with people. The plants tend to prefer nitrogen-rich soils, so often thrive where human activities have enriched the soil. They appear in such folk tales as The Twelve Wild Swans, where the heroine has to make shirts from nettle fibres to release her brothers from an enchantment. The story reflects the fact that nettle fibres were often used to make a linen-like fabric in the past. They have long been an important food source, and to this day are a great free food for foragers, being a plentiful weed in most locations. They're also full of vitamins and minerals (including beta carotene, vitamin C, vitamin E, vitamin K, calcium, iron, phosphorus and potassium) and were traditionally eaten as a spring tonic. 

If you haven't cooked with nettles before, rest assured that cooking them completely removes their sting. You will need gloves to pick and prepare them though - I usually wear rubber gloves and use a pair of scissors. Choose nettles from a spot away from traffic, and concentrate on picking tender young tops as the stalks can be stringy. Rinse them thoroughly in cold water before use. Like spinach, they will reduce right down in volume once they're cooked.

If you fancy giving it a try, here's my nettle soup recipe:

1 onion, finely chopped
2 potatoes cut into small dice
1 carrot, chopped
1 small leek, chopped (optional)
a colander-full of young nettle tops
vegetable stock
single cream 
1 tbspn olive oil
a knob of butter
fresh parsley, chopped
salt and black pepper to season

Gently fry the onion in the oil and butter until soft and translucent. Add the potatoes, carrot, nettles and leek if you're using it. Stir well and cover with the vegetable stock. Bring to the boil and then reduce to a simmer, stirring occasionally until the vegetables are tender. Add the parsley towards the end of cooking. Remove the soup from the heat and using a blender, reduce it to a smooth consistency. Check the seasoning and adjust if necessary, and swirl through the cream before serving.

Serve with crusty bread - enjoy! 

Sunday, 27 January 2019

Winter Light

Have you ever noticed the light has a different quality in winter? Today the low-slung sun illuminated the hills in a way that seemed to make them glow, almost as if they were lit from within. This is part of the magic of winter.

Every season has its own magic, its own flavour, its own beauty. Observing and marvelling at this ever-changing cycle delights my Pagan heart. In winter I swoon at the way the sun's slanting rays gild the delicate tracery of naked tree limbs against the slate coloured sky. I stand motionless in thrilled awe as a murmuration of starlings swirls before the oncoming dusk. I savour the call and response cries of tawny owls as evening sets in, and the unearthly scream of foxes in the deepest dark of an icy night. I revere the glacial clarity of the moon and stars in a cloudless sky. I relish the sparkle of a frosty morning, as my breath steams and my cheeks tingle with the cold.

Already the earliest signs of spring are appearing - snowdrops, pussy willows and hazel catkins, the wheeling courtship flights of ravens. The days lengthen, at first imperceptibly. Always, the wheel of the year is turning. And always there is something to marvel at, some ephemeral beauty to drink in. How can we not fall in love with the world on a daily basis? 

Monday, 30 July 2018

Lammas or Lughnasadh?

Lammas or Lughnasadh (pronounced LOO-nah-sah) is generally celebrated by Pagans on 1st August, a date pretty much midway between the Summer Solstice (aka Litha) and the Autumn Equinox (aka Mabon). Many of us use the terms 'Lammas' and 'Lughnasadh' interchangeably (I am guilty of this myself). So what exactly is the difference between the two?

In many ways they are the same festival. Lughnasadh is the Gaelic name for this date, and literally means 'Lugh's Gathering'. Some people have interpreted the nature of the Gathering as a wake for the God Lugh, in his role as a sun deity - the summer sun now beginning to wane as the days begin to shorten as we move further away from the Summer Solstice when the sun's influence was at its peak - and others as a celebration of His wedding. What is certain is that Lughnasadh was marked by great gatherings of people (often high on hills or mountains or at holy wells), celebrating the harvest of the 'first fruits', feasting, matchmaking and athletic competitions. 

Lammas is the Anglo-Saxon name for the festival and is a contraction of the words 'Loaf Mass' and also celebrates the harvest of 'first fruits', in this case specifically the beginning of the grain harvest. The first loaves baked from the new crop of wheat, barley or rye would be taken to church to be blessed.

Lughnasadh has more obviously ancient roots and may therefore appeal more to purists, Lammas has the advantage of being easier to spell and pronounce! Or there's the Welsh name for the festival, Gŵyl Awst, (pronounced Gool OWst) meaning 'August Festival'. Either way I think in this case unless you are following a specific Tradition whichever name you use is fine, rather like Samhain/Hallowe'en. Yes, they do have different overtones but as long as people get the general gist of what is being spoken about it probably doesn't matter too much to most of us.

What does matter is the meaning of the festival. It is a time for celebration - community gatherings, reaping the results of hard work, the beginning of (hopefully) a time of plenty for all. But interestingly it is tinged with sadness too. The sun is beginning to wane, the end of the summer (though still at a distance) is beginning to be glimpsed. The God of the Grain, in order to feed His people must be sacrificed. Just around the corner is winter - will it be harsh? Will there be enough of a harvest to ensure the community can get through the long, dark days? No wonder our Ancestors gathered together to celebrate while they could, to give thanks for the harvest gathered in. 

Nowadays most of us are lucky enough to have food security, yet it is still a good time to pause and count our blessings. One way our local Pagan community has often celebrated this is with a 'Basket of Abundance' at our Lammas ritual. Everyone brings a small, wrapped gift (or gifts) to put into the basket and during the ritual it is passed round for everyone to draw something out (it's a bit like a Pagan 'Secret Santa'!). If you don't have a group to celebrate with you could still have fun giving out little token gifts to your friends and family. If you're a gardener and have excess fruit and veggies, or flowers and herbs, you could take some round to your neighbours. Or a lovely idea would be to donate food to your local Food Bank, or a few hours of your time volunteering at a homeless shelter. Or you could give unwanted items to your favourite Charity Shop, or tins of dog/cat food and old blankets to an animal shelter. In these times of (relative) plenty and security, let's share our abundance with those who need it.

Blessings of the harvest to you!

Tuesday, 10 July 2018

Blessed by Bees

The walls of the house here at Halfway Up A Hill are about 18" thick, the construction of local stone and slate. The house was built in the 1930's but its traditional style makes it look older.

In one corner of the kitchen is a cupboard, recessed into the wall adjacent to the chimney breast. Here the walls are even thicker because of the chimney. I assume the cupboard was used as a primitive fridge, as there's a vent to the outside that allows the circulation of fresh air. In winter it's quite effective, and we have used it to store excess fruit and vegetables when our own fridge has been struggling to cope (although mostly it has cookware and crockery in it).

A couple of weeks ago I returned home from work to find the kitchen full of honeybees. They were entering through the vent in the cupboard - a swarm had found the vent and decided it looked like the perfect place to set up their new colony. By opening the windows and blocking the vent where it opened into the cupboard I managed to vacate the kitchen of bees. I imagined that with the vent blocked inside, there wouldn't be enough room for the new hive and the colony would vacate. But there must be more space in the walls than I imagined as they have stuck around, and can be seen industriously zooming in and out of the vent in the outer wall by the patio at the side of the house. It's just above head height, so the bees and I don't bother each other in our comings and goings. I decided I rather liked having them there, it feels like a blessing on the house. 

This morning I discovered something even more wondrous: when I open the cupboard I can faintly hear the humming of the hive, hundreds of bees gently buzzing as they go about their work building and tending their home. It sounds like some kind of distant choir. It's the kind of soothing sound that could lull you to sleep, like distant gulls and gentle waves on the shore or the soft patter of rain on leaves. 

I imagine the orderly world taking shape within the walls of the house, and the sweetness being created there. My house is truly blessed by bees.

Thursday, 24 May 2018

Soul Food

“In the Craft, we do not believe in the Goddess ~ we connect with her; through the moon, the stars, the ocean, the earth, through trees, animals, through other human beings, through ourselves. She is here. She is within us all” 
― Starhawk

I make a pilgrimage every year to the bluebell woods. Not far from Halfway Up A Hill is a patch of beautiful woodland. It's privately owned, but the owners are generous enough to share their little patch of heaven, and every year when the bluebells bloom they open up the woodland to the public. To me it is a magical, sacred place. I look forward to my visit every year, it has become part of the way I celebrate the Wheel of the Year.

Bluebells are quite possibly my favourite flower: I love their colour, their scent; I love the time of year they appear; I love their woodland habitat. My annual visit to see them feeds my soul. I visit them with friends, with family, alone. I have visited on cool, damp chilly days and on brilliantly bright warm sunny days. But it is unthinkable to not visit at all. No matter what else is happening in my life, I make time to visit the bluebells.

The woods are approached through a bright sunny meadow. The owners have cut a path through the meadow, fringed with all kinds of wildflowers. I follow its gentle slope down towards the woodland's dark edge, and as I get closer the scent of bluebells starts to waft around me. I slow my pace, aware that I am approaching a holy place. At a gap in the hedge at one corner of the meadow I step through into an enchanted world. A sea of blue flows all around me, and early summer light filters down through tender new leaves of oak and beech, hazel, birch and hawthorn. Paths meander through the trees, and I step carefully, trying not to crush any flowers underfoot. It seems sacrilegious to damage such beauty in any way. As I walk slowly, mindfully placing each step, I breathe deeply, trying to inhale the essence of the place. At points along the path I stop and sit for a little while, listening to the sound of the woodland all around me. Insects buzz, the breeze ripples through the treetops, birds sing - wren, robin, chaffinch, chiffchaff, blackbird - and the sound of cattle, sheep and human activity drifts over from the nearest farm. I notice how, when I sit still and silent, the birdsong intensifies nearby as though having decided I pose no threat, normal service has been resumed. At one particular sitting place I am thrilled to hear the whirring of small wings directly behind me. I hold myself as still as possible, desperate to turn and see which tiny bird has dared to land behind me but knowing that as soon as I move it will fly away. 

I try to still my mind too, letting thoughts drift away like the clouds above the treetops, trying to open and receive whatever the bluebell wood has to offer me. I feel it as a gentle healing energy, which soothes and nourishes my soul. I want to stay and bathe in it forever, and yet I know that I will have to return home before long - visiting time ends at dusk - and that the bluebells will not be here much longer. There is perhaps another week before they fade, begin to set seed and their blue-purple glory is over again for another year. So I drink it in while I can, feed my soul on this peace and beauty while I can. It is enough - until next year. 

Sunday, 15 April 2018

In The Woods

Don't try to make the magic happen.
Open to it, and then
Soften your gaze.
Let your shoulders drop.
Inhale, then exhale.
Feel the touch of grace in the breeze on your skin.
When it falls upon you gently, softly,
Let its beauty fill your heart.
Its power is immense, infinite,
It is always here for you to find.
Just open to it and wait.
It will come to you.

Sunday, 25 February 2018

ThriftWitch: Home From Home Charm

As a Cancerian, the concept of 'home' is very important to me. I am a home-loving person, and as I have mentioned before, my natural inclination is to put down roots. However, my idea of 'home' isn't confined to mere bricks and mortar, or that place I lay my head at night. Nor is it merely somewhere 'everybody knows your name' – although it can be all or none of these. I think for me, home is very definitely where the heart is.

I have been lucky enough to live in several different parts of the world, all of which remain dear to me in different ways. There are other places I love that have never physically been home to me. But I feel 'at home' whenever I am there.

This precious feeling of being in a place where you feel you truly belong is at the heart of feeling grounded and centred. The ability to ground and centre yourself is of course a very important basic magical skill, the starting point for everything else. To do effective magic, to enact ritual or ceremony, to move energy, you need to feel sure of yourself, certain of where you are and where you intend to go. This is why you need to know how to ground and centre yourself. The feeling of being grounded and centred is the same feeling you get when you are in your true home - as I said earlier, not necessarily that place of bricks and mortar, but that place where you feel relaxed, centred in yourself and where you can fully and truly be your authentic self. 

The Home From Home Charm is a way of condensing down the essence of the place(s) that you call home and being able to carry that essence with you wherever you go. Your charm can be used as a short-cut way of grounding and centring yourself, or it can be a magical item you carry with you when you are away from home yet want to keep its essence with you. You could also make Home From Home Charms as gifts for loved ones – while they are away in hospital, travelling, or studying. It would be a lovely gift to go in the backpack of a child as a comforter on their first day of school.

As with all ThriftWitch projects it requires little expenditure - just a bit of forethought and planning! You need a container for the charm - a little cork-stoppered glass jar or bottle is cute and looks good on a portable altar. If there's a chance it might get a bit of a batterin g while you're travelling it might be better to use a small plastic bottle or container (with lid), or a fabric, felt or leather/suede pouch. If you're really travelling light you could use a Ziploc bag.

What you put into your charm is entirely up to you, as what means 'home' will be different for everyone. But here are some suggestions to get you started:

  • A tiny pinch of soil from your garden or special place.
  • A tiny scrap of fabric snipped from the furnishings of a favourite room (curtains, duvet, quilt, cushion). You only need a tiny bit and should be able to find a suitable seam or hem to take a teeny bit from without ruining the item in question!
  • Some dried flowers or herbs from your garden (a pinch only)
  • Is there a particular smell that means home to you? You could add a spritz of your loved one's cologne or perfume on a scrap of fabric to your container; a chip of scented candle wax; a small piece of joss stick or incense; a chip of cinnamon or vanilla pod; a drip of essential oil or even a spritz of furniture polish on a piece of cotton wool...
  • A lock of hair or snippet of fur from your loved one(s) and/or pet(s)
  • A piece of twig or bark from a beloved tree
  • A small shell or pebble from 'your' beach
  • Small photos of a place or loved ones
  • Any symbols that mean 'home' to you - either small symbolic objects or sigils or runes inscribed on paper
  • A button from a loved one's shirt

These are just ideas to get you started. Only you can know what will be meaningful to you, and bring a smile to your face when you look at your charm. As this is intended to be a small, portable magical item suitable for travelling with, be careful not to get too carried away and add large items/too much. Travelling light is always the best idea! In all cases, if you're travelling internationally, tailor the contents of your charm carefully to avoid attracting the wrath of customs officials - many countries will not allow soil, vegetable or animal matter to be imported.

The only thing that I suggest you definitely include in your charm is a small snail shell, which is a perfect symbol for the ability to carry your home with you wherever you go! You can either put this in your container with all the other items, or glue it to the lid or perhaps thread it on a piece of yarn or ribbon and tie it round the neck of the container.

Once assembled, either start using your charm straight away or consecrate it first in your preferred manner.  

With a little tweaking and some appropriate magic, the Home From Home Charm could easily be adapted into a protective amulet for those beings and places you love.