Sunday, 2 May 2021

Beltane - Or Not?

Cherry Blossom


Despite all my good intentions and determination to build a better 'normal', once again life got in the way of any Beltane celebrations this year. Although I am mostly only working a two-day week at the moment, this week was a busy one. We attended a funeral on Monday (one of my usual work days), and I worked Tuesday, Wednesday (in lieu of Monday and as holiday cover for a colleague), and Saturday. At the same time, IB had started a new job and had a training day on Tuesday and his first shifts Thursday and Saturday. As we're sharing a car between us, this caused some inconveniences such as arriving in Carmarthen two hours before I was due to start work one morning (pro-tip: take a good book). There was also a fair bit of sewing between work shifts to ensure IB's new uniforms fitted him! One afternoon I took groceries over to my elderly parents, and one evening family and friends got together via a Zoom call to celebrate my brother and sister-in-law's 21st Wedding Anniversary. 

With all this going on, it only occurred to me late one evening that the next day was Beltane, making me feel like a Very Bad Pagan Indeed. The next day we were going to have to be up super-early (IB's new job, car-sharing...) so I decided I might at least get the chance for a quick wander in the garden to wash my face in the Beltane dew before we left. Except, there was no dew. It was an unseasonably cold night and there was a sharp frost instead. I briefly wondered if the warmth of my hands would melt the frost into dew fit for face-washing, but my arthritic joints winced in horror at the very thought. So that was that.

Later on, back home after work I saw a friend had posted on Facebook that he really wasn't feeling that it was Beltane yet this year. Some people disagreed, but many were saying the same thing - and I realised I felt the same way too. It wasn't just the busy week leading up to Beltane that had sprung the festival on me - I'm not feeling it just yet. It could be to do with the unusually cold weather we're having at the moment. None of my seedlings in the vegetable patch have faired very well and I'm still too scared to plant out my tomato plants in the greenhouse because the nights are so cold. There's no hawthorn blossom in the hedges yet - and although it's often a bit late here at Halfway up a Hill, it's usually to be seen in abundance elsewhere by now. The cherry trees are blossoming abundantly (as always) but the apple blossom remains tightly budded for now. Worst of all, we don't yet have any swallows or martins. I saw my first swallows quite early this year, at my parents' house on 1st April (I usually expect them some time during the second week of April). Even though my parents only live less than 15 miles away, so far no swallows or martins have found their way to us. I have merely seen glimpses of a few at a time, passing through on their way to somewhere presumably a bit warmer. 

The date on the calendar may say it's Beltane then, but many of the seasonal signs are missing. So is it Beltane or not? I'm thinking yes - and no. There are a few different issues to be examined when it comes to determining the date of Beltane. The Solstices and Equinoxes are a much simpler matter, tied in as they are to the cycles of the sun. Although their exact dates vary slightly from year to year, they mark very precise moments in time that can be accurately predicted in advance. The sun is either at its maximum or minimum declination on the Solstices (marking the longest or shortest day), and the Equinoxes occur when the sun is positioned above the Equator and day and night are of equal length. The cross-quarterly festivals - Beltane, Lughnasadh, Samhain and Imbolc - are positioned roughly halfway between the Solstices and Equinoxes but are more concerned with the Earth's vegetation cycle. So it perhaps makes sense to judge their arrival from the cues given by the natural world. Snowdrops at Imbolc, hawthorn blossom at Beltane, the first grain harvest at Lughnasadh, the onset of winter at Samhain. It seems likely to me that in the days before clocks, calendars and electric light, people would have celebrated these festivals at the first full moon after they saw the cues given by nature. Everyone would have known which was the night of the full moon, and its light made gathering together easier. So in those days, I suspect Beltane would have been celebrated on the first full moon after the hawthorns began to blossom (or whatever the seasonal cue was for your part of the world). The advantage of this is keeping you sensitive to your environment and its changes. The obvious disadvantage is that seasonal signs can vary quite widely within a relatively small distance - the swallows having returned to my parents but not yet to me is a prime example. It also makes planning celebrations ahead of time much trickier than for the reliably predictable Solstices and Equinoxes.

This is where the invention of formalised calendars really simplifies things. We know from the archaeological records that our ancestors were carefully tracking the movements of the sun and moon, presumably in order to predict the cycles of the year. The creation of the Gregorian calendar that declares Beltane will occur on 30th April/1st May each year makes it far easier for covens, groves and other Pagan groups to plan their celebrations well ahead of time to ensure everyone who wants to attend can make suitable arrangements. Yet I can't help but feel sad about the way this severs us from the seasonal changes occurring around us.

Perhaps the best way - as is so often the case - is not  to commit ourselves to an either/or mindset, but to an 'and' way of thinking. It is Beltane both when the calendar says so - and also when the Earth declares it. The calendar Beltane allows us to plan community celebrations, wish each other a Happy Beltane on the same day and be in alignment with our fellow Pagans around the world (well, in the Northern hemisphere anyway - those in the Southern hemisphere will most likely be celebrating Samhain). And the Earth-based advent of Beltane allows us to be in communion with the Earth and to sense Her shifting energies in our very blood and bones.

I don't yet feel Beltane in my bones, in the pulse of the Earth - but I know it is on the way, just around the corner. The new leaves and the bluebells and wood anemones whisper of it. Soon the swallows and the hawthorn blossoms will confirm it and we will continue our headlong tumble into summer. Blessed Be.

 

       

      

Thursday, 15 April 2021

Well, I Grew A Lot Of Carrots: The Fever Dream Year


In Wales lockdown measures have recently been relaxed, so that we are now easing back into some kind of semi-normality. On Monday 12th April I returned to work for the first time since just before Christmas 2020 when it was announced that all non-essential retail in Wales would close. I vividly remember returning home from work on December 19th after a long hard day and hearing the news literally as I pulled into the driveway. At the time I imagined I'd be resuming work some time in mid-January, yet it has taken until now, mid-April for that to happen. 

Being back at work this week has been a strange mixture of the familiar and the strange. The environment and the work is well-known and yet there's an odd sense of unreality that I don't recall feeling on my return to work after the first lockdown last spring.

I suspect I'm not alone in feeling this sense of confusion and dislocation. The long months suspended from our normal routines have been followed by a supposed return to normality which is anything but normal. I may be back working one of the  several part time jobs I had before the first lockdown, but most of my other jobs have fallen casualty to the pandemic for one reason or another and ceased. I may be back in familiar surroundings fulfilling a familiar role, but I am doing it while wearing a mask and observing social distancing, and I still can't hug a workmate, invite friends into my home, or teach a workshop. Looking back, so much and so little has happened.   

Seeing (separately) two friends for the first time in months this week highlighted this strangeness for me. It was lovely to see them and reconnect after being separated from them for such a long time. And yet I found myself floundering when they both asked me the simple question, 'So how have you been?'

How have I been? What have I been doing during the long months of lockdown? What has life been like, what has changed, where will life go from here?

All the answers that I could give are too deep or too shallow. How can I convey the spikes of fear and the blur of boredom; the endless anxiety about my elderly parents and my friend with COPD; the unaccustomed luxury of time to sleep in late and garden and cook and write and immerse myself in a good book; the stupefying lack of focus; the slow accretion of outstanding tasks which keep me awake at night, while I instantly forget the goals reached and accomplishments achieved during the same time frame?

When one friend asked me 'What have you been up to?' I found myself giving the slightly surreal, completely inadequate and not even wholly accurate response, 'Well, I grew a lot of carrots,'. At the time it was all my mind could pluck from the nebulous swirl of 'my life during lockdown'.

Looking back over the last year, it all seems rather like a fever dream - simultaneously vivid and vague, surreal, epic, confusing and impossible to convey precisely. Which is all quite understandable. We have all - the entire world - undergone a dislocation from our normal lives, experienced a trauma. We all experience upheavals in life, times of pain and fear and loss, but we don't usually all experience them simultaneously so that the whole world is jolted from its tracks. And this trauma has not been a single short-lived shock, but a long, drawn-out upheaval which has left people exhausted.

And yet... I wonder what will come from this in the long run? I am hopeful that we as a species will move forward from this having learned some useful lessons, and thinking hard about what it is we want to 'go back to'. 

Some years ago at a Witchcamp, I took part in an elaborate life/death/rebirth ritual in which people were guided through a series of gateways, each representing an aspect of their lives such as their name(s), possessions, achievements, friends/family/loved ones etc. At each gateway they were instructed to leave every one of these things behind. It was a gradual stripping away of every part of identity and self. At the final gateway they were greeted by a priestess aspecting the Goddess, who blew out the tealight they carried (symbolising their life force). They were then given as much time as they needed to bathe in Her Cauldron of Rebirth (a hot tub!) while meditating on what they had left behind, what they wanted to retrieve - and what they wanted to leave behind. It was a gruelling process for most people, but deeply informative and transformative. So much of what we carry with us through life we carry through habit, or because we've been told by others we must carry it. Stripping everything away and consciously choosing to recover only those things of value is immensely freeing. When each person was ready, they left the hot tub and were given a new tealight symbolising their rebirth. They retraced their steps through each gate, picking back up the things they wished to carry into their new lives - but crucially, leaving behind those which they had decided they no longer wished to carry. So, for example I have been known by many names in my life - Susan, Moonroot, Moonie, Susie, Wallis, daughter, sister, wife, witch, aromatherapist etc. But I have also been called ginger, fat, stupid, ugly, bitch etc. Some of these names have come from other people - and some I have called myself. When I strip away these names and identities and leave them at the gate, on my return I can choose which names I wish to carry - and those I am happy to leave in the dust.

This pandemic has stripped our normal lives away from us. When we return through each gate, I hope that we will think very carefully about what it is that we wish to pick back up. My 'normal' life before all this began was actually pretty dysfunctional in many ways. Post-divorce, job insecurity and fear of poverty had led to me working 6-7 day weeks. I was permanently exhausted, short-tempered and ill, but I couldn't seem to get off that hamster wheel. Every time I was offered more work I said yes, because I was always short of money and afraid that the work I did have would dry up, leaving me penniless. Being forced to slow down and stop made me realise how joyless life had become. During months of lockdown I have started to read books again, cook from scratch again, grow vegetables again, observe the Wheel of the Year again. I have finally learned how to properly use the camera I bought several years ago and have taken reams of photographs. I have had time for the long, deep conversations that feed my soul. I have written more in the last year than I have managed in the previous three or four years. I have had time to sit and drink in the beauty surrounding me. And most importantly I have had time to reassess the way I've been leading my life and come to some important decisions about what I want to change about that. 

Much of my 'normal' life was in direct contradiction to my values and beliefs. I was buying pre-packaged convenience foods because I was too damned tired to cook. I was driving miles and miles between my scattered jobs, eating junk food on the hoof. I was too tired to have much of a social life and short-tempered with my loved ones. My house was a mess. Every so often I would manage a holiday or have an enforced break caused by illness and I would resolve to do better - but immediately fall back into my old ways. My mantra seemed to always be, 'next month, when things are less busy...', but next month never was less busy, and so it went on.

All of that has been taken away from me. I have lost three of my part time jobs and of the remaining three, restrictions mean I am only able to work at one of them at the moment. When I am able to resume all three, that will be enough. I am determined to find a way to manage financially without damaging my physical and mental health further and working myself into an early grave. My petrol consumption has plummeted. I have been gradually sorting out the house and making my environment a pleasant one. I have stopped shopping at big supermarkets and now buy most of my groceries from a small local zero-waste shop. Guess what? Their prices may be higher than the supermarket, but because I am only buying what I need and not getting sucked in by special offers and convenience foods I have actually cut our food bills and food waste. I have been growing our own vegetables and cooking proper meals - I make my own hummus and veggie burgers and bread from scratch. What I have realised is that staying on the hamster wheel required me to spend more money than it brought in. My life is now more manageable, less expensive, less wasteful, greener and infinitely more satisfying.

The other great lesson I hope we can learn from the pandemic is that we are all in this together, and working collaboratively for the good of the whole is the best and fairest way to run the world. Look at the awe-inspiring collective effort that has brought us effective vaccines in the space of a year! We humans are at our most marvellous when we co-operate rather than compete.

I believe the sense of unreality I am feeling is the world re-making itself in a new and hopefully better way. We have all had much of our lives stripped away over the last year, and spent time immersed in the Cauldron of Rebirth swirling in a fever dream of possibility. Now as we prepare to leave the Cauldron and re-enter the world, let's consider very carefully the kind of 'normality' we wish to return to. What will you pick back up? What will you choose to leave behind? The great blessing of every period of difficulty in our lives is the lessons we learn from it, and the chance we are given to grow. Let's seize this unprecedented opportunity we've been given with enthusiasm and build a better 'normal'. The old world wasn't working anyway, why go back to it?

           

     



Friday, 19 March 2021

Celebrating the Spring Equinox in Lockdown



The Spring Equinox is almost upon us. It falls on 20th March this year, within a hair's breadth of the anniversary of the first lockdown here in the UK on 23rd March. Most of us would probably not have guessed back then that we'd be celebrating the Spring Equinox of 2021in another lockdown.

As in my previous posts on celebrating the festivals of the Wheel of the Year in lockdown (Beltane, Summer Solstice, Lammas and Samhain/Hallowe'en), I've grouped my suggestions in varying degrees of lockdown restrictions, so hopefully you can find something that suits the rules in your area. 


If you're able to get out to the countryside/beach/park
  • This is a great time of year to forage some early wild delicacies for a celebratory spring feast. If you're confident of your plant identifications skills, look for nettles, wild garlic, hairy bittercress, dandelion greens, tender young sorrel leaves, or violet and primrose flowers. Try my recipes for Nettle Soup or Spring Herb Salad, or Google other recipes such as Hugh Fearnley-Whittingstall's Nettle Risotto with Sorrel.
  • Take a walk in the woods - or in an area with plenty of trees. Notice the new leaves, the buds that have just opened or are just about to. See if you can identify trees by their shape, bark colour and texture or leaf buds, blossom or catkins rather than by their leaves. Look down as well as up - which spring flowers can you find? If you come across trees or flowers you don't recognise, use your phone to take a photo so you can identify it later using a guidebook or an online plant identification site.  
  • Connect with a tree. In Spring trees begin to re-awaken from their Winter dormancy, making it a good time to try to connect with them on an energetic level. Choose a tree that you feel drawn to, and that seems open and receptive to you. If you aren't sure if the tree welcomes connection, ask its permission to interact. You should be able to sense its response. When you are ready, either sitting or standing, lean your back against the trunk. Relax, breathing deeply and slowly. Focus your awareness on your breath, conscious of the fact that you are breathing in the oxygen produced by plants and trees, and breathing out the carbon dioxide that they breathe in. As you exhale, do it consciously as a gift to the tree. As you inhale, consciously give thanks to the tree for the gift of oxygen. Now open your senses to the tree. What do you see/feel/hear/smell/taste? Take note as you continue to lean against the tree, exchanging breaths with it. Now open your inner senses. Do you feel a particular energy or emotion from the tree? Remain open and aware for any communication or message from the tree - this may come in words, feelings, images or even colours or scents. Send back gratitude and friendship. When you are ready, thank the tree and bring back your awareness into your own body. Move away from the trunk. Thank the tree again, and leave it a small gift such as a libation of water on the roots or a sprinkling of compost. Don't leave anything non-biodegradable or damaging to the environment. If you'd like to continue and develop your relationship with the tree, commit to returning on a regular basis - each time bringing a suitable offering. 

If you have access to a garden or small green space
  • Cut twigs with leaf or blossom buds which are just about to burst open. Taking them into the warmth of your home will encourage them to open fully and they make a lovely Spring decoration for your altar. Treat them like cut flowers and put them in a vase of water, and they should last well.
  • As the Spring Equinox marks that point in the year when day and night are of equal length, arrange to get up in time to watch the dawn and greet the Sun, congratulating it on its growing strength and welcoming in the light half of the year. Enjoy the dawn chorus of birdsong! At dusk, watch the setting sun and welcome the night and the darkness for the opportunity to rest. Thank the dark half of the year which is now passing away, for being a time of quietude and rest in which the land could slumber and heal itself. Listen as the birds sing the sun down into night.
  • Find space in your garden to make a garden altar to the Green Man. Nestle it in amongst growing plants, or cluster pots of flowers and herbs around it. Find a Green Man plaque as its centrepiece, or create your own image of him from air-drying clay or paint Him on a smooth pebble or rock. Honour Him by making your own compost, planting trees, or sowing seeds. Listen quietly for His inner guidance on how to nurture your garden and develop green fingers.

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


Salt Dough Goddess
  • Make Spring Equinox decorations for your altar and home. Salt dough is an excellent cheap way of doing this! To make salt dough mix 1 cup of flour with ½ cup of salt, then mix in ½ cup of water to create a mouldable dough. You can also add ½ tspn ground cloves or cinnamon, or a few drops of your favourite essential oil to scent your dough. This will make the house smell amazing while you're baking it in the oven, which you'll need to do to harden your creations. Sprinkle working surfaces with a little flour to stop the dough sticking and then get creating. If you're feeling ambitious you could make a Spring Goddess figurine or a simple Green Man, or you perhaps a moongazing hare or spring leaves and flowers. Simple shapes are best. Making egg shapes is the simplest of all, and once they have been baked they can be painted all kinds of pretty colours and displayed in a bowl. When you've finished moulding your creations, line a baking tray with baking parchment and pop into an oven set at the lowest temperature. The dough will take a few hours to bake, depending how thick it is. Check it often and remove from the oven once it's done. You can now paint your creation. If you're doing this activity with small children remember that salt dough is not edible and supervise accordingly!    
  • Eggs are a perfect symbol for this time of year, symbolising new life, growth, fertility and possibility. Prepare your favourite egg dish - be that an egg sandwich, a quiche or eggs benedict! Bless the meal first and then as you eat, mindfully take in the energy of new growth, hope and possibility. Those who can't or choose not to eat eggs could do the same with a dish containing another symbol of new life, growth, fertility and possibility - seeds! A slice of seeded loaf, a poppy seed muffin or a sprinkle of toasted pumpkin or sunflower seeds on your salad or soup are all delicious and appropriate foodstuffs.
  • One of the themes of the Equinoxes is balance. As day and night are in balance with each other at this time of year, it's a good time to check ourselves and our lives for balance. A good way to do this is to run a chakra check. If you're not already familiar with the chakras, they are a system of energy points in the body. Regularly checking in with, and if necessary adjusting the chakras is a good way of keeping your energies balanced. Imagine them like the pupil of an eye or the aperture of a camera that can be opened wider, or shut down to control what passes through. To run a chakra check, find somewhere you can sit or stand comfortably. Relax and let go of any tension in your body. Take some slow, deep breaths. (1) First focus your attention on your Base or Root Chakra which is located at the base of your spine. How does it feel? How is the energy flowing? This chakra controls your survival and keeps you grounded. If it was a thermostat, would it need turning up to improve your groundedness, or would it need turning down? Imagine adjusting it up or down as necessary until you have found the right setting for you right now. (2) Next turn your attention to your Sacral Chakra. This is located in your lower abdomen and is concerned with your sexuality and creativity. How does it feel? How is the energy flowing? As before, adjust it as you would a thermostat until you find the correct setting. (3) The next chakra is the Solar Plexus which is concerned with your self-confidence and will-force. How does it feel? How is the energy flowing? Adjust it as necessary. (4) The fourth chakra is the Heart Chakra, located in the centre of your chest. This chakra is the seat of love and compassion - love for yourself and others. How does it feel? How is the energy flowing? Take time to adjust it to the right level of openness. (5) Next move to the Throat Chakra, found at the base of the throat. This chakra is concerned with communication and self-expression. How does it feel? How is the energy flowing? If you feel stifled or blocked from speaking your truth it may need opening wider. If you speak too impulsively or lack a filter you may need to close it down a little. Find the right level for you. (6) The penultimate chakra is the Third Eye Chakra, located between your eyebrows. This is the centre of your intuition. How does it feel? How is the energy flowing? Do you need to increase your intuitive powers, or would it help you to quieten those senses? Adjust the level of openness accordingly. (7) Finally, the Crown Chakra is located on the crown of your head. It is the chakra which connects you to your spiritual consciousness. How does it feel? How is the energy flowing? Adjust it to a level which enables you to stay connected to your spiritual side whilst still able to negotiate the mundane world. Finally, quickly run through all seven chakras and ensure they are all well balanced, before returning to the ordinary world. This is a useful exercise to carry out periodically to keep you in balance.
   
May we all have a blessed and balanced Spring Equinox, and as we step forward together into the light half of the year may there be plenty of sunny days ahead. 

 


Friday, 12 March 2021

ThriftWitch: Home Protection Charm


I came up with this Home Protection Charm a few years ago, when we were feeling a bit vulnerable. I've maintained it since then, which includes refreshing the ingredients periodically. When I did this recently I thought it would be the perfect time to take some photos of the process and share it on the blog. 
  


To make your charm you will need the following:
  • A small lidded glass jar
  • Some thorns (if you can't get thorns you could use pins)
  • Some small pieces of mirror 
  • A small square of paper and a marker pen
  • A small length of fine wire or yarn, tangled
  • Some dried rosemary 



I snipped my thorns off some blackthorn twigs I'd pruned from the hedge. Late winter/early spring is a great time to find thorns, before the foliage has grown back and obscured them. I like using blackthorn thorns as the plant is used in protective spells, and in Ireland it was used to make shillelaghs - a fighting stick or club used for self-defence. Blackthorn is fierce and uncompromising (just the qualities you'd want to be defending you and your home) and its use in the countryside to create impenetrable stock-proof hedges makes it a great enforcer of boundaries. Take care when using blackthorn though as the thorns are extremely sharp and are notorious for causing wounds which become infected.



To assemble your charm, use your marker pen to inscribe the rune 'Algiz' on your square of paper. Algiz is a protective rune, and the square shape of the paper symbolises stability and strength. Put the rune-inscribed paper in the bottom of your jar to create a firm foundation for the energy of the charm. 


Scatter your pieces of mirror on top of the paper. These are intended to 'bounce back' any negative energy that is sent your way. I have a container in which I keep any bits and bobs I come across that I think may be useful for spellwork or art projects, so I had some small pieces of broken mirror and a small round shisha mirror that had come loose from an embroidered Indian cushion, but if you don't have any suitable bits of mirror you could use beads or any small thing with a reflective surface (even cut-up fragments of an old CD, or pieces of a shattered Christmas bauble would do).


Next add your thorns or pins. This adds a strong layer of defensive energy to the charm. Try to ensure the points are all facing in different directions to guard against threats from any source.


Sprinkle in a pinch or two of a dried protective herb. I used rosemary - I find kitchen herbs are just as effective as other magical herbs and they have the advantage of being easy to come by and not too expensive. But you could substitute other herbs if you prefer - consult a good witch's herbal or check an online list such as this one if you're not sure what to use. 


The last item to add is a piece of fine wire or yarn which has been tangled up. This echoes the old folk idea that evil spirits become tangled in such things, or are compelled to spend time unknotting or untangling them. Either way, while they are so occupied they are unable to cause any trouble!


The charm is complete!


Screw the lid tightly onto the jar, and place it by the entrance to your home, or on a windowsill. Mine sits on a small, round mirror (more reflective power!) on the kitchen windowsill overlooking the entrance to my home. I just have the one Home Protection Charm, but you could make more if you wanted to. 


Periodically - say once a year, or more frequently if you feel the need - tip out the contents of your jar and re-make it to keep the energy fresh and strong. When I do this, I put the herbs and thorns in the compost bin and add fresh ones, burn the paper with the rune on and re-inscribe it on a fresh square of paper, and re-tangle the wire/yarn before returning it to the jar.

  

 

Thursday, 11 March 2021

Are We There Yet?


This year - more than most - I find myself taking great interest in the start of Spring. For me, it's partly down to the 'Winter Blessings and Beauties' project, where over the course of three months I challenged myself to write a daily post on the positive aspects of Winter. The practice left me more acutely aware of the passing of the seasons and their specific characteristics (as well as feeling more kindly towards Winter!). But occurring as it did in the teeth of a global pandemic, last Winter was uniquely strange and challenging for everyone and I'm sure I'm far from alone in being particularly eager for Spring 2021 to arrive. 

The thing that is interesting me at the moment is - when does Spring actually arrive? By setting the duration of 'Winter Blessings and Beauties' from 1st November to 2nd February (the period between Samhain and Imbolc) I made a case for Spring beginning at Imbolc. In terms of imposing a structure for the seasons, I rather like the notion of Spring beginning at Imbolc, Summer at Beltane, Autumn at Lughnasadh and Winter at Samhain. But of course, none of the seasons begin or end neatly on a single date, however much we humans may like to declare that they do. As Wikipedia says, "There are various technical definitions of spring, but local usage of the term varies according to local climate, cultures and customs."

For example, 'meteorological spring' in the northern hemisphere runs from 1st March-30th May, but 'astronomical spring' runs from the spring equinox (around 20th March) to the summer solstice (around 21st June). In the southern hemisphere the dates would be 1st September-30th November (meteorological spring), or around 21st September-21st December (astronomical spring). The Gaelic Irish calendar counts the Spring season as February, March and April. In Sweden however, meteorologists don't define the onset of Spring as a fixed date, but instead count it as the first 7-day period during which average temperatures exceed 0°C. This of course means that Spring begins on different dates in different parts of the country - but I rather like this more nature-centred approach. 

For practical, planning-ahead purposes I suppose we need to have agreed upon dates on which we can reasonably expect conditions to reflect the change in seasons. But I like the idea of also having far more subjective dates alongside this where we can observe and listen to what the land and the weather is telling us.

This year I settled on Imbolc as the date on which the Wheel of the Year clicked over from Winter to Spring. And although on that date there were indeed signs of the coming Spring - snowdrops, catkins, birds beginning to prepare for the breeding season - it didn't much feel like Spring, especially when we had yet more snow. Even by 1st March - when daffodils, crocuses, primroses and celandines had joined the snowdrops and nest-building season was well under way - it didn't feel like Spring to me. It's hard to put into words, but each year at some point I sense a rising tide of energy coming from the land, literally pulsing through the earth - and then I experience a bone-deep certainty that Yes, spring is here!

That bone-deep certainty came yesterday. An unpromising day of gales and ceaseless rain blurring the hills - and yet I could feel that irrepressible pulse of life so clearly and strongly. Suddenly - overnight it seems - green leaf buds are breaking on the rosebush outside the door, and the honeysuckle in the hedge.

Here in West Wales at least it seems the seasons have finally turned and Spring has arrived. Hail and Welcome, Spring!


Fresh green chive shoots in the herb garden











 

Monday, 1 March 2021

Slowly Re-awakening



I intended to take a little break from posting once I finished my 'Winter Blessings and Beauties' experiment of posting every day throughout Winter, but I didn't mean to let quite so much time pass between posts! Nevertheless, even if I haven't been writing here about it, I have been diligently looking for signs of spring every day. Of course, the weather Gods decided to throw a sizeable spanner in the works by sending us snow, ice, gales and floods during the last month. But though spring may not manifest as quickly as I might hope, the Wheel of the Year is moving inexorably on, and Spring is undoubtedly underway. 



Here, snowdrops, primroses and daffodils are suddenly everywhere. On bright days, previously unnoticed celandines open their golden petals in wide, joyous reflection of the sun.    

Yesterday, sitting on my bench overlooking the valley and listening to the drumming of a woodpecker somewhere in the trees, I suddenly spotted the first new leaves of the season, glowing translucent gold in the sun. They were on an elder tree in a sheltered spot, and of course I had to immediately make my way down the hill to admire them up close.


 



From there I spotted gorse in full, brilliant bloom, which was attracting early insects to feast on its delicately fragranced flowers.



At the edge of the veggie patch there are crocuses glowing like jewels where I planted them many years ago. I'm so glad I did! Every glimpse of them gladdens my heart.


In a sheltered spot in the village there are pussy willow catkins in abundance. Here, further up the hill where we are more exposed to the elements there are only hazel catkins so far, dancing like lambs' tails in the breeze.


They are the male flowers of the hazel of course. Much harder to spot are the female hazel flowers which look like tiny crimson sea-anemones. In autumn, if they are fertilised by the pollen from the catkins each one will become a hazel nut. 


Yes, already I am looking forward to the year ahead, even though I have only just begun sowing seeds and my potatoes are still chitting on the windowsill. That is one of the wonderful things about following the changing seasons, the rhythms and cycles of the Earth. Always changing, always the same they give a pattern to our lives that is both dynamic and reassuring. That is a great gift in these strange times. 

Tuesday, 2 February 2021

Winter Blessings and Beauties, Day 94: Imbolc



After journeying through the Winter together, we find ourselves at Imbolc! Imbolc is seen as the first day of Spring. Although it's still cold and grey outside, by this time of year the days are noticeably longer than at Yule, the first bulbs are beginning to flower, the birds are beginning to choose their mates and their nesting sites. Here in Wales the first lambs appear in the fields, drifts of snowdrops appear along the hedgerows and the ravens wheel overhead in spectacular aerial courtship dances.

Imbolc is thought to derive from the Irish 'i mbolc' meaning 'in the belly' - referring to the soon-to-be-born lambs in the bellies of pregnant ewes. It is a time of promise, as the Wheel turns from Winter to Spring and the green world gradually reawakens.

Winter Blessings and Beauties: Day 94

Imbolc

As we find ourselves at Imbolc, let's look back and give thanks to the Winter for all its Blessings and Beauties, for all we have learned and experienced, created and enjoyed over the last three months. 

And let's look forward to the season of Spring which lies ahead of us, with all its Blessings and Beauties yet to unfold.

May we look back with gratitude to the Winter gone, and forward with hope and a sense of adventure to the Spring to come. 

Blessed Be.     



 

Monday, 1 February 2021

Winter Blessings and Beauties, Day 93: Imbolc Eve

 



On the Eve of Imbolc I offer you a beautiful piece of music honouring Brigid, the Goddess who is most associated with the festival. 

Winter Blessings and Beauties: Day 93

Imbolc Eve

Light a candle for Imbolc, for Brigid, for the advent of Spring, and listen to this song, 'Gabhaim Molta Bríde' ('We Praise Brigid') by Áine Minogue. Blessings of Imbolc upon you!

Sunday, 31 January 2021

Winter Blessings and Beauties, Day 92: From Falling Leaves to Buds and Shoots

 


The 'Winter Blessings and Beauties' project began at the beginning of November and will conclude on 2nd February, covering a period of 3 months/just over 13 weeks.

The changes in the Winter landscape aren't as eye-catching as those of Spring, Summer or even Autumn. The Winter palette is more muted, vegetation growth  slowed by low temperatures and short, dark days. And yet changes are happening all the same. When we look back to the beginning of this period when everything in the landscape seemed to be dying back or hibernating, it's a striking contrast to where we are now - though as I pointed out right back at the beginning of Winter, the buds of Spring were already formed. Gradually, as the weeks passed they've been slowly growing, fattening in preparation to burst into leaf when the conditions are right. The very first buds to open won't be leaf buds, though - they will be those containing the soft grey fur of pussy willow catkins. At the same time the tightly held hazel catkins will lengthen into golden tassels, shaking out their pollen in the wind. 

Meanwhile the first bulbs are rising out of the earth. Already there are snowdrops to be seen, and the sturdy green snouts of daffodils are pushing up through last year's leaf litter. I even spotted a solitary yellow daffodil flowering in a sheltered spot the other day. Only thirteen weeks since the world was dying back, it is again surging back into life and growth. The only constant in the Wheel of the Year is change - and I find that curiously comforting.

Winter Blessings and Beauties: Day 92

From Falling Leaves to Buds and Shoots

In only a few more weeks, the world will be greening again as Spring gets into her stride. Before then, bring in a few twigs from deciduous trees and shrubs in the garden and put them in a vase half-filled with water in a warm spot. Once they have been in the warmth of your home for a week or so their leaves will begin to open. Most deciduous species are suitable, but you are most likely to get good results from those which have well-developed, plump buds. I usually use a mixture of willows, hazels, forsythia and fruit tree twigs.

The vase of green leaves is a visual reminder of the change in seasons and can be seen as a kind of sympathetic magic to welcome back the Spirit of the Green.   

   

 



Saturday, 30 January 2021

Winter Blessings and Beauties, Day 91: St Brigid's Cross

 

We are approaching Imbolc, a festival associated with the Goddess Brigid. One of Her symbols is the Brigid's cross which is traditionally made at Imbolc from rushes. They are a great centrepiece for an Imbolc altar.

If you'd like to try making your own, follow the instructions given below. Making them seems a little fiddly when you first start but once you have established the first few straws it's easy. 

Winter Blessings and Beauties: Day 91

St Brigid's Cross

To make your own St Brigid's Cross, there is an easily followed tutorial here, or if you'd prefer video instructions, here. As mentioned, rushes are the traditional material, but you could also use straw or even pipe cleaners or strips of card. A similar, but even easier craft activity is making a God's eye or Ojo de Dios from yarn woven around crossed sticks. This is a great one to do with  children. Instructions for making a God's eye are here.

Other suitable decorations for your Imbolc altar include a pot or posy of early spring flowers (especially snowdrops), white candles, or symbols of Brigid such as a book of poetry, healing herbs, or craft tools (She is the Goddess of healing, craftwork - especially smithcraft or metalwork - and poetry).   

  


Friday, 29 January 2021

Winter Blessings and Beauties, Day 90: Winter Retrospective and Winter's End Ritual


As we near the end of Winter, it's a good time to pause and review the last few months - and this project, intended to encourage a positive experience of the season. 

Winter Blessings and Beauties: Day 90

Winter Retrospective

I suggest you take a few days to go through this process of looking back (and forward) to examine your experience of Winter in sufficient depth before you move onto the Winter's End Ritual.

Cast your mind back in time to the beginning of November. Samhain had just been and gone, and the whole Winter lay ahead of us. How were you feeling then? If you've been following this project, perhaps look back to the very first post to help stir your memories of how you were feeling then, mentally, physically, emotionally. What did the prospect of Winter seem like then? What were you anxious about? What were your hopes? What were you looking forward to?

Scrolling forward through the Winter Blessings and Beauties posts - and/or your journal - how did Winter unfold for you? Did it go as you expected? What surprised you? What disappointed you? What delighted you? What did you discover? 

Winter's End Ritual

After working through the Winter Retrospective exercise thoroughly, move onto the Winter's End Ritual.

Looking back, at the end of this Winter what will you be leaving behind? Write a list of those things you wish to leave behind in Winter 2020/21, and burn it or add it to your compost heap to be transformed. 

As the door between Winter and Spring swings open, what will you choose to carry forward? Make a list in your journal of all the Winter blessings and lessons for which you're grateful and carry them forward with you. 

What do you hope Spring be bringing in for you? On a fresh sheet of paper, make a list of your hopes, dreams and plans for Spring 2021. Put it somewhere you will be able to see it every day, and make sure to check in regularly to monitor your progress and keep yourself on track.

Blessed Be. 

Thursday, 28 January 2021

Winter Blessings and Beauties, Day 89: Root Vegetables


Root vegetables are perfect seasonal food during the Winter months. For one thing, they store well - depending on conditions some can be left in the ground and harvested when they are needed, and others can be kept for long periods in the right conditions (usually cool, dry and dark). Most are also a source of starchy carbohydrates which help our bodies to stay warm and fuelled throughout the cold months.

The reason root vegetables are in season at this time of year is because they are roots and tubers - the energy of the plant has withdrawn into the roots so that it can safely survive the harsh winter conditions. This is the same mechanism which allows many of the first flowers of spring (e.g. snowdrops, lesser celandines, daffodils, wood anemones) to bloom so early in the year. These flowers all grow from bulbs, rhizomes or tubers which provide a reservoir of stored energy when there's not much sun for them to use for photosynthesis. These types of plants have a valuable lesson for us about ensuring we have adequate reserves to get us through the difficult times! They are also very grounding.

Winter Blessings and Beauties: Day 89

Root Vegetables

Root vegetables are a tasty, warming, filling and versatile Winter staple. There are a wide variety to try - for example potatoes, carrots, parsnips, turnips, swede, beetroot, sweet potatoes, Jerusalem artichokes, celeriac and kohlrabi.

Try them in the following:

  • Root vegetable curry - their sweetness goes well with curry spices
  • Mashed swede with butter, salt & pepper and chopped coriander
  • Roasted root vegetables - season with garlic and chopped rosemary & thyme, or harissa paste, or smoked paprika, cumin & onion powder.
  • Add to soups and stews
  • Curried parsnip soup
  • Home-made vegetable crisps  

     

Wednesday, 27 January 2021

Winter Blessings and Beauties, Day 88: Time for a Tea Party!


Today is a special day for two ostensibly very different reasons. It is the birthday of Lewis Carroll, who wrote (amongst other things) the marvellously oddball 'Alice in Wonderland'. And it is also National Chocolate Cake Day (which is actually an American 'National' Day, but those of us in other parts of the world can ignore that minor detail because, y'know - chocolate cake!). Yes, a special day for two very different reasons, but - hear me out here - what if we were to celebrate the day by putting those two separate things together? What say we let our inner Mad Hatter out and celebrate by having a Tea Party with Chocolate Cake! On a rainy day in late Winter, what could be finer?

Winter Blessings and Beauties: Day 88

Time for a Tea Party!

Why not prepare an impromptu Tea Party for yourself or those in your bubble* - just because. Put on your fanciest hat and prepare yourself a feast. Cucumber sandwiches! Fairy cakes! Earl Grey - or Darjeeling? Scones! Crumpets! Jam tarts! And of course, Chocolate Cake! 

Happy Lewis Carroll's Chocolate Cake Birthday Day!

* Dormice optional.


Tuesday, 26 January 2021

Winter Blessings and Beauties, Day 87: The Dance of the Changing Seasons


Have you noticed the way Winter is starting to retreat a little - then it comes roaring back in full force, only to recede again later? We seem to be at that stage in the season where Spring is waiting in the wings and Winter is giving consideration to when it will be time to retire for a well-earned rest.

For the last few days here, Winter has been in full force with a heavy fall of snow and sub-zero temperatures. But today a thaw has set in, and we are due a few days of mild weather before wintry conditions return at the weekend. Meanwhile, the first snowdrops are appearing and daffodils and other bulbs are poking up their green snouts from the frozen ground. In the hedge, catkins are preparing to fully unfurl so they can dance in the wind.

Winter Blessings and Beauties: Day 87

The Dance of the Changing Seasons

Notice the graceful to-and-fro dance of the seasons at this time of year. Each year the exact steps are different, and yet the dance is the same: a solemn shifting back and forth between Winter and Spring. One day one is dominant, the next day the other. And yet gradually the balance is shifting towards Spring. Can you feel it?

Monday, 25 January 2021

Winter Blessings and Beauties, Day 86: Saint Dwynwen's Day


January 25th is St Dwynwen's Day (Diwrnod Santes Dwynwen) in Wales, 'the Welsh Valentine's Day'. 

St Dwynwen (pronounced doin-WEN) lived in the 5th century and was the daughter of a King and was reknowned for her piety and purity. She fell in love with a young man named Maelon, but her father refused to let them marry. In despair, Dwynwen prayed to be rid of her feelings for Maelon. God sent an angel to her in a dream, who brought her a potion to help her forget Maelon but which turns him into ice. God also grants her three wishes, and she uses these to request that Maelon be released from the ice, that God will act favourably towards all true lovers and finally that she herself will remain unmarried. As thanks for God's help, she became a nun, settling on the Isle of Anglesey, where she founded a church at Llanddwyn. 

A well near the church supposedly contained magical fish (some sources say eels). The movements of these fish could supposedly be read to to predict the future for young lovers.

St Dwynwen became the patron saint of young lovers (and also sick animals), and is celebrated in Wales much as St Valentine's Day is celebrated in other parts of the world, with cards and gifts of flowers and chocolates. In fact many people in Wales celebrate both dates, so we get two special dates devoted to lovers!

Winter Blessings and Beauties: Day 86

St Dwynwen's Day

On St Dwynwen's Day let's be thankful for love. Love for your partner, spouse or significant other, but also love of all kinds, not just romantic love. Love for your friends. Love for your family. Love for your co-workers. Love for your pets. Love for places. Love for the planet. Love for your heroes and heras. Love for your passions in life.

Who or what do you love? Today, give thanks for all those people, things and places you love. The more you love, the more love you have to give. 

Winter Blessings and Beauties, Day 85: Snow Days


It's probably my own fault for not paying closer attention to the weather forecast this week, but I was surprised when I woke this morning to a world white with snow. Heavy snow had fallen overnight, completely blanketing the hills and fields and leaving us snowed in. A snow day!

The winters here in West Wales are mostly not too harsh, but there have been years when we've had particularly bad weather which has led to us getting snowed in. One memorable time we were snowed in for about three weeks. Since then I've been a bit anxious whenever it snows, just in case - but usually it's only a day or two before it thaws. 

Nevertheless, it can be very inconvenient if the snow prevents us from getting out -  especially on a work day.

There were no such problems today, due to lockdown. We didn't have to go anywhere and could just enjoy the novelty of the snow (which is due to thaw in a day or two anyway if the weather forecast is to be believed). I had a fine time trying to capture the beauty of the snow with my camera, accompanied by cats Hemlock and Tansy who were quite fascinated by the deepest snow they have thus far encountered in their young lives.

Wintner Blessings and Beauties: Day 85

Snow Days

If you don't have to try to get anywhere or do anything, an enforced snow day can be an absolute pleasure - and a great lesson in just relaxing and going with the flow. Make the most of it by getting outside to enjoy the snow while it lasts. Take a walk, build a snowman, take some photos, make snow angels. Then get back inside and warm up with a hot drink and some comfort food (Homemade soup? Crumpets? Cake?). Cosy up under a blanket and watch the snow falling softly outside. 

And if there's no snow? Schedule a snowless snow day (aka a duvet day) for a little well-deserved R'n'R.