Sunday, 25 November 2007

Thanksgiving Soup

Today I have been busy in the kitchen.

For lunch I made squash soup with Thai spices - smooth, creamy and warming, the perfect November comfort food. I used a mixture of homegrown onions and homemade chicken stock, along with garlic and a beautiful squash grown by my friend Gaia, who runs a small organic farm and box scheme on the Gower.
Later I started this year's batch of crabapple wine*, made with crabapples from my friend Pinky's garden, supplemented with windfall apples from ours.
All these collaborative ingredients started me thinking about how we share with each other, how we connect and nourish eachother, and how magical and precious those acts of unconditional mutual caring are.
These thoughts seem timely, in that Americans have just celebrated Thanksgiving weekend, a time when people come together to feast and reconnect. Perhaps there's something of that spirit in the air, even here in Wales!
Later this evening, I finished an article about the Summer Gathering for the British Reclaiming Newsletter. Somehow, that's also ended up being about the way we create something magical when we work together in a spirit of generosity and goodwill, and how that connects us to eachother (complete with cooking metaphors!).
So (spoiler warning to Newsletter subscribers!) I'm copying below what I've written for the Newsletter.

The Power of Community
or What I Did On My Summer Holiday

When it was announced that this summer’s Avalon Witchcamp had to be cancelled due to an unprecedented combination of a lack of on-site Organisers, a shortfall in bookings and difficulties within the Teaching team, I was very upset. A self-confessed Witchcamp addict, this would have been my tenth year at Avalon as either a camper, organiser or student teacher.

Whilst I tried to console myself that I now had the luxury of a free week to do as I pleased, truth be told the prospect of a summer without Witchcamp looked pretty drab.

During this time, a few Witchcampers upset at the prospect of losing the deposits they had paid for their places at camp began a rather heated discussion on BRDL [British Reclaiming Yahoo Discussion List]. Whilst I understood that no one likes to lose money and get nothing in return, I also knew from my time as a Camp Organiser that putting on Witchcamp requires a lot of advance expenditure – and I knew that the Organisers weren’t in a position to refund deposits. As the protests about lost deposits got louder I began to try to think about ways to help out, but all my fundraising ideas were either financially risky (involving more expenditure initially), or would only have generated small amounts of cash.

And then as part of the ongoing discussions on BRDL, someone made a suggestion that, as the venue (Earthspirit) had already been paid for, perhaps an alternative event could be held there instead. I thought this was a good idea and waited eagerly to see if anyone would pick up on it and volunteer to organise something. After a few days no one had said anything more, so I decided to contact Earthspirit myself and see whether they would be amenable to British Reclaiming putting on an event to replace Witchcamp.

Looking back, I think that was the point at which my ‘free week to do as I pleased’ evaporated along with most of the rest of my summer! Earthspirit had been unable to fill the slot with another booking and were therefore only too delighted to agree to host an alternative British Reclaiming event that week. I knew it was absolutely impossible to put on a Reclaiming Witchcamp at such short notice, but having organised a couple of weekend-long British Reclaiming Gatherings, it seemed quite feasible to me that we could stretch that format into a seven day event.

At this point I should probably explain the differences between a Reclaiming Witchcamp and a Gathering for those who may not have attended either.

A Reclaiming Witchcamp is a weeklong residential Intensive. A myth or story forms the structure for the week, and the teaching and arc of evening rituals is planned around this. Witchcamp teachers have also undergone several years of training and work experience before they can call themselves Witchcamp teachers. The planning process takes a year, starting almost immediately after the end of the previous camp.

In contrast, the British Reclaiming Gatherings that we have held over the last few years are a much looser style of event, which encourage participants to teach and priestess the event themselves by offering talks and workshops, and co-creating the rituals. The atmosphere is more casual, and people drop in and out of the event as they prefer. Until this summer, the longest Gathering we had held had been over a weekend.

So my plan was to use the basic ‘Gathering’ model for a week-long event that community members would co-operatively create. I flagged up the suggestion on BRDL where it was greeted with enthusiasm. Several people (Anna, David, Diego, Flame, Halo, Peter, Raven, Richard and Sylvia) volunteered to help with the organisation so we created a separate Yahoo group and started planning. From then on things moved at a rapid - and sometimes terrifying! - pace.

We had to get a list of people willing to offer activities, then organise a draft timetable of those workshops, rituals and other activities; work out how to charge affordable prices whilst covering our costs; look into the whys and wherefores of public transport to get people there; produce fliers and advertise, advertise, advertise; liaise with Earthspirit about special dietary requirements, dorm room:camper ratios, minimum/maximum numbers of guests and dozens of other issues; and field enquiries from people interested in attending. Every day brought a flurry of new queries, problems and solutions and at times I dreaded opening my email inbox because I knew how many messages would be piled up waiting for me.

But the response from everyone was so overwhelmingly positive that somehow, in about six weeks we managed to pull everything together. Anxiety that we may not get enough attendees to be viable was put to rest by a flurry of last-minute bookings - I even took a telephone booking for two people 5 minutes before I was due to leave the house to drive down to Earthspirit!

The rather experimental format sometimes threw up unexpected plus points as well as challenges. For example, unlike Witchcamp where people are together for the whole week, the format of the Gathering allowed people to come for as short a period as a day, or as long as a week. The advantage of this was that many people who are unable to come to a week-long event due to finances, work or family commitments were able to attend. On the downside of this, the Gathering seemed to lack the degree of intimacy that Witchcamps usually enjoy; people also had a tendency to congregate in already established social groups, rather than mix freely. It made me realise just how much mutual trust and understanding is fostered by the Witchcamp ‘intensive’ model, and also how useful Affinity Groups are in contributing to mixing people up and making them feel at ease with each other. Perhaps future Gatherings could bear these points in mind and work on strategies to overcome them. Or perhaps it’s OK for people at Gatherings to connect on a more casual level. Although we didn’t do so this year, at future Gatherings it might be helpful to give people feedback forms when they leave to see what their verdict is.

Earthspirit were unbelievably helpful and cheerful no matter what our weird requests were ("We forgot to tell you, but we need a bonfire in 20 minutes!" "Can we borrow a wooden spoon and a ladle?" "Do you have lots of old newspapers and a big roll of sellotape?").

And of course the members of the British Reclaiming Community were amazing: those from near and far who helped assemble all the ingredients, and those who came along and stirred and seasoned and baked the amazing concoction that the Gathering turned out to be.

Admittedly some things were a bit rough around the edges, and there are some things I would do differently if I was to organise another – although at this stage I’m more than happy to hand the reins over to someone else!

In the end the Gathering was a success. For me, it was a rollercoaster week of anxiety, exhilaration, joy, stress, hope, and a thousand other emotions. I shed tears of both exhaustion and joy, laughed until my face hurt, danced until I was breathless, and had my faith in the strength and power of community restored. I reconnected with loved ones, deepened existing friendships, gained new ones, and - I hope - made progress in repairing damaged relationships.

More importantly, we managed to cover our costs, making enough to repay Avalon Witchcamp the deposit they had paid on the venue - meaning all Witchcampers had their full deposits returned. When all the fundraising (raffle etc) was added in, we actually had a little left over, so there is seed-money for a similar event next summer.

And most important of all, I think this was a great piece of magic, which helped to strengthen and repair our community. There has often been discussion about whether we are a community or merely a network, given that we are so geographically scattered and can only meet up infrequently. I think the way everyone rallied round to support this event and so generously gave of their time, money and energy proves that we are, after all, a community.
* Yes, I know, a bit late. We harvested the crabapples a while back, but I was so busy with other stuff, I knew I wasn't going to get a chance to deal with them. So they've been in the freezer since then. I'm not sure how the wine will turn out as a result - I'll let you know!

Tuesday, 20 November 2007

Ten of my US Trip Highlights

  1. A fresh fall of snow when we awoke on Friday morning.
  2. The chance to hang out with old friends... and make new ones.
  3. My first S'more - they're one of those American popular culture things that I've read about for years without ever trying one, so I was overjoyed to actually taste one at last! (For any Brits or other non-Americans reading this who haven't heard of S'mores, they're a campfire delicacy - toasted marshmallow and chocolate sandwiched between Graham crackers [like digestive bisuits]. The name is a contraction of 'some more' as in "I want some more!")
  4. Seeing the brilliant colours of the New England autumn leaves on the bus journey back to Boston to catch the plane.
  5. Listening to Willow, Melissa and Raven drumming and singing the afternoon before the meeting started.
  6. An amazing backrub from William!
  7. The stories and offerings at the Bardic Circle, some moving, some hilarious...
  8. The food! Wonderful cooking from our hostess, Claudia.
  9. Watching people dance in the snow.
  10. The beautiful Maine Coon Cats belonging to our hosts.

There's No Place Like Home (or Ramblings From A Jetlagged Brain...)

I'm just back from a whirlwind trip to the US, to attend the annual face-to-face meeting of Witchcamp Council. WCC meets in person and on-line to discuss policy and cultural development of Reclaiming Witchcamps, share information between camps (how we do this, what worked on that), problem solve etc. I was representing Avalon Spring, my home camp.

I travelled to New Hampshire from Wales for the meeting, leaving home on the morning of Wednesday 14th November and arriving back yesterday morning (Monday 19th November). Can you say jetlag?

Having spent the time with a magical group of witches in a magical (snowy) landscape, and with jetlag added into the mix, my muddled brain feels rather like I've just returned from Oz.

I just keep tapping my ruby slippers together and murmuring, "There's No Place Like Home, There's No Place Like Home..."

...And when I opened my eyes this morning I was back in my own bed!

Friday, 9 November 2007

You've Read the Blog, Now Meet the Cast!

This is Tigger. She's 14 years old and we've had her since she was 6. Her previous owner fell ill and couldn't care for her, so she came to live with us.

Tigger is convinced she's a princess and T and I are a pair of trained monkeys whose sole purpose is to wait on her. She won't even go out the catflap on her own if we're around to open the door for her.

Tigger's favourite things are sleeping and eating. She adores T and loves snoozing in a flowerbed on sunny days. Her pet hates are going to the vet, and other cats.

Which is a bit of a shame as we have two others.

This is Marley, hunting expert and part time ballerina (she loves standing up on her hind legs to demand strokes). Marley is now 3 years old and we've had her since she was a kitten.

Marley is dainty, ladylike and very much her own cat. If she wants to do cat-stuff we don't get a look in - but if she wants a cuddle, she will headbutt and climb up your legs until you respond.

Marley's favourite things are mice, voles and shrews, especially when they're rustling temptingly in the long grass. In the absence of small twitchy rodents, she will play with plastic bottle tops or her sister, Bear. Or Tigger's tail, which needless to say doesn't go down well with Tigger. Marley's pet hates are dogs and children.

This is Marley's sister, Bear, so-named because as a kitten she looked just like a little black bearcub. She is also 3 years old.

Bear loves everyone and everything. She's very affectionate and follows me round all day 'helping' with whatever I'm doing. Of all the cats, she is the only one unphased by my friend's little Jack Russell terrier, Poppy, and the two of them play together - although Poppy still hasn't figured out that Bear can't throw a ball for her and often drops it hopefully at a bemused Bear's feet.

Bear's favourite things are food, playing fetch with sweet wrappers, food, accompanying me down to the chicken run and food. Her pet hates are... well I don't think Bear actually dislikes anything - although she is a bit scared of grumpy old Tigger.

This is Bella, our Cream Legbar hen, who lays the most beautiful pale blue eggs. Bella's the youngest of our small flock and also the flightiest.
Like all the chickens, her favourite thing is wheat, or even better, maize, and her least favourite thing is anything remotely scary.

Here we have our three Light Sussex ladies, (l-r) Blodwen, Blanche and Bronwen (yes, I can tell them apart).

Blanche is definitely the head chook and is both smart and bossy. Bronwen keeps her head down and quietly lays plenty of delicious eggs. Blodwen is our pretty airhead.

The flock is quite small at the moment as we have recently lost the matriarch, Daphne, to old age and a younger White Leghorn, Lulu, to a chronic infection, so I'm hoping to get some more point of lay pullets in the spring to swell the ranks again.

This is Buffy and Angel, our pair of Brecon Buff geese. They are totally devoted to each other and view all our actions with deep suspicion. So far they haven't managed to successfully hatch any eggs, but we are still hoping for the patter of tiny webbed feet some day.

Their favourite things are being hand-fed grass, and swimming in their pond together. Their pet hate is the wheelbarrow, the appearance of which always elicits a storm of outraged honking.

We also have a guinea pig, Ted, but he's a bit shy so I don't have a photo to share. And the bees declined to be interviewed for this article...

Thursday, 8 November 2007

There's Magic in These Here Hills...

While we were in Edinburgh, my Mum & Dad house-sat and looked after the animals for us. At some point during those five days, Dad lost the glass 'lens' from his watch. They hunted high and low, but it was nowhere to be found, and in the end they gave it up as a lost cause, deciding to get it fixed when they returned home.

Towards the end of their stay with us, I went down to give the chickens their afternoon treat of wheat (they love scratching around for it, and all cluster by the gate when they know it's imminent). Lo and behold, in perfect condition and lying in plain sight by the chicken house was the glass from my Dad's watch. We had looked there a number of times before without success, so we decided it must have been turned up by the chickens while they were scratching.

That same week, Mum, Dad & I drove out to the Pembrokeshire coast to visit Porthgain (a tiny fishing port) and St Non's Well near St David's (a holy well in a stunning clifftop position overlooking the sea). Later that evening, I realised I had lost my silver pendant.

I was really upset. For one thing it has great sentimental value, as T had bought it for me as a birthday present when we were on holiday in Australia. For another, it's my 'subtle pentacle' - living as I do in an area with fiercely evangelical Christian neighbours, I have to be a little bit careful and keep my Pagan identity a secret most of the time. This pendant is a five-pointed star within a circle (a pentacle, the sign that Witches wear as a Christian would wear a crucifix), but it's not an obvious pentacle, so I feel comfortable wearing it openly. I have never seen another exactly like it.

I pulled out all the stops trying to track it down. Mum, Dad and I combed the house, car and garden - down the back of the sofa, under the car seat, in the outhouses, on the drive, in the grass on the path down the hill. For a variety of reasons I couldn't go back to Porthgain and St Non's well and hunt for it myself, but I sent out a flurry of emails, to the restaurant where we'd eaten lunch, the retreat centre near the holy well, St David's tourist centre, Pembrokeshire local radio, and a Pembrokeshire 'local news' yahoo group. The response was wonderful, people searched for it, emailed back suggestions of other contacts to try, and offered handy hints like taking a metal detector down to the places we'd been to try and find it. Everyone really was lovely.

But the pendant remained lost. After a fortnight I was out of places to look and out of luck. I gave up any idea of getting it back, and wondered wistfully about asking my sister (a silversmith) to make me a new one.

Last night I took the chickens their afternoon scratch feed of wheat. And guess what was lying in plain sight in the chicken run?

Now, like Dad's watchglass it must have been there all along, hidden in the grass until it was scratched up by an insect-seeking chicken. Or must it? Perhaps we have criminal mastermind kleptomaniac chickens? Or kindhearted fairies living under the chicken house who run a Lost Property office? I'm keeping an open mind. And I've told my friend, who lost a pair of glasses at the supermarket, that I'll keep an eye open for them in the chicken run. Just in case.

Thursday, 1 November 2007

Hallowe'en Sweet Treat Award

Wow! I've been given a Hallowe'en Sweet Treat Award by The Cottage Smallholder for my Samhain post. Thank you!! I'm very excited as this is my first blogging award!
[clears throat and speaks tearfully into microphone] I'd like to thank everyone who supported me - my Agent, my Mum and Dad,, Gerald Gardner, Samantha from 'Bewitched', the Goddess, God....[fill in the tearstained waffle of your choice here] ;-)

Actually what I'd really like to do is pass on the award to some other bloggers who've written about Hallowe'en/Samhain.

I pass the award to: Hope Springs at Spring Dawn, Reya at The Gold Puppy, Miss R at Tales of Inglewood and Deborah Oak at Roots Down, Branches Up.

This award was created by Anni at