Friday, 17 September 2021

Embracing Autumn: Scarlet and Crimson Treasure

As we move further into Autumn there are more and more splashes of red to be seen in the trees and hedgerows. The rowan berries are the first, in August, but as September progresses they're joined by rosehips, haws, the berries of honeysuckle, and nightshade - and of course, unripe blackberries.

Bright scarlet rowan berries hang in distinctive clusters, in contrast to the crimson haws which are distributed much more evenly amongst the hawthorn foliage. 

In the hedgerows hereabouts there don't seem to be many rosehips - but there is a huge crop of haws. Some claim this signals a harsh winter ahead of us, but I tend to think it's more to do with favourable pollination conditions back in the spring when an exuberant froth of blossom covered the hawthorns.

I often think of the hawthorn as being the epitome of spring - its bright green leaves are among the first to break when the world begins to green anew, and the appearance of its flowers usually coincides pretty well with Beltane. Yet at this time of year when its leaves have darkened to glossy forest green and rich red haws jewel the hedgerow it is a striking feature in the landscape. In spring hawthorn seems full of lively joie de vivre, perfectly matched to the festivities of Beltane. As we approach the Autumn Equinox, its energy is of quiet, benevolent dignity - and generosity. There are enough haws for both us and the birds to enjoy - take advantage of this bounty and go foraging. 

Embracing Autumn: Hawthorn Brandy

Haws can be used to make many delicious edibles - jam, jelly, syrup, chutney, wine etc. Just Google 'hawthorn recipes' and you will find lots of inspiring ideas to make the most of your foraging. One of the simplest recipes of all is Hawthorn Brandy. If you've ever made Sloe Gin it's made very much along the same lines -  but everyone makes sloe gin, so why not try something a little different instead?

After picking your haws, pick them over and wash and dry them. Put them into a plastic bag and place them in the freezer overnight (this will soften them and begin to break down the skin so that their flavour will infuse the brandy effectively). Weigh the haws and put into a Kilner jar or similar tightly-lidded wide-mouthed container. Add sugar (half the weight of the haws), a pinch of cinnamon and some lemon zest. Pour over enough brandy to completely cover the ingredients, fasten the lid on tightly and shake well to dissolve the sugar. Store the jar somewhere dark, allowing the fruit to steep in the brandy for at least a couple of months (better yet until Yule). Shake the jar regularly. When enough time has passed, strain out the haws and lemon zest and bottle the flavoured brandy. Enjoy!  


Saturday, 4 September 2021

Embracing Autumn: Read A New Book Month

I just discovered something wonderful about September - apparently it's officially Read A New Book Month, which gladdens my little bookworm heart no end! Not that I need much encouragement to dive into a new book in September, or at any other time of year for that matter. 

A couple of my recent favourite reads are 'A Spell In The Wild' by Alice Tarbuck, and 'Where The Crawdads Sing' by Delia Owens - both of which I wholeheartedly recommend. I also really enjoyed 'The Lilypad List' by Marian Van Eyck McCain which I picked up on a whim when I discovered it in a local telephone box which has been converted into a book swap library. These ingenious little libraries are popping up all over the place - hopefully there is one near you. If not, perhaps you could be the catalyst that gets such a local scheme going? Thanks to the Global Educational Trust, there are also free book shops in locations across the UK which quite literally give away free books in an attempt to keep them out of landfill and improve access to reading. And let's not forget our wonderful public libraries which still exist in many places as a means of access to books despite horrific cutbacks and closures imposed by Tory austerity. 

When buying books, please consider buying from a small independent bookshop whenever possible. Jeff Bezos really doesn't need any more of your hard earned cash - he'll only fritter it away on spaceships. You can find your nearest here, or shop online here

Embracing Autumn: Read A New Book

As well as curling up at home with your latest book, you can also make reading a more social activity by 
  • Joining (or starting?) a book club
  • Reading with your children
  • Swapping books with friends
  • Asking friends for book recommendations/sharing your recommendations with others
And if you find a new book that you absolutely love - please leave a comment on this post letting me know about it! I love getting book recommendations and hopefully other readers of Moonroot will find it helpful too. 


Sunday, 29 August 2021

Embracing Autumn: A Turning Point

In the UK, the last Monday in August is a Bank Holiday - that is to say a public holiday. The August Bank Holiday weekend is one of the busiest of the year, the roads clogged by traffic as people try to make the most of the holiday by travelling to seaside resorts and other tourist destinations. Most schools start back in the first week of September, so there's very much a sense of grabbing the last chance for some carefree fun while the weather is still likely to be favourable and before we all return to the seriousness of work and school. In the national psyche it marks a turning point where Summer is definitely over and Autumn is poised to take over fully. 

It's a perfect example of the unrealistic idea of seasonal changes we have in our heads. None of the seasons start or finish abruptly on a given date of course, they ebb and flow, morphing slowly and subtly into each other. But it's interesting to notice how people's expectations colour their experience of the seasons - they seem almost affronted if warm and sunny weather doesn't appear on cue in June as they feel it should be, they're disappointed when it doesn't snow at Christmas, and they seem to expect leaves to start changing colour and falling as soon as September appears.

This weekend does mark a turning point, but it's an internal rather than an external one. Perhaps the negative feelings people have about Autumn are based more on the human-imposed realities of having to leave the beach and return to school or the office than any flaws inherent in the season itself.

Embracing Autumn: Seasonal Turning Points

In your journal, examine your feelings about Autumn and the other seasons. What are the stereotypes you see in your mind when you imagine Autumn, Winter, Spring and Summer? How do they compare to reality? It may be helpful to do this exercise in tandem with tracking seasonal changes with your camera over the coming weeks and months - the results could be surprising!  

Saturday, 28 August 2021

Embracing Autumn: A Harvest Dolly

Harvest Dolly made from my favourite herbs, August 2021

A traditional harvest custom I've always liked is that of weaving corn dollies from the last sheaf of grain to be cut. The idea came from the notion that the spirit of the crop needed a place to reside over the winter months, as it had effectively been made homeless when the fields of grain were cut and harvested. The last sheaf of wheat would be  gathered with great ceremony and plaited or woven into a shape known as a 'corn dolly', which was then kept through the winter in a safe place indoors and treated as an honoured guest. In spring when it was time to sow the next year's crop, the corn dolly was usually ploughed back into the soil, releasing the spirit of the crop back into the land.

Making such corn dollies is a skilled job. There are many, many different shapes and designs which have been created over the years, some of which are specific to particular areas of the UK (or further afield).

The idea of offering honour and shelter to the spirit of the green is appealing, yet not only do I lack the skill to weave any of these intricate designs, but as I am not a grain farmer I lack the wheat too! Of course, it's possible to buy wheat straw to make yourself a corn dolly - you can find just about anything online! - but somehow to me, that lacks the emotional/spiritual connection that you would have with a crop that you'd grown yourself. Then I had an idea - if the purpose of the corn dolly is to offer honour and protection to the spirits of a plant you are in relationship with, why not make a 'Harvest Dolly' instead, composed of the plants in your garden or neighbourhood that you feel have a connection to yourself. These plants could be the ornamental plants that you love (your favourite rosebush or clematis), vegetable plants that have fed you and your family through the summer, wild plants, trees and weeds that you adore, or plant allies that you work with spiritually.

This year, I decided to make a Harvest Dolly from my favourite herbs. If you'd like to make your own Harvest Dolly, there are detailed instructions below. 

Embracing Autumn: Create Your Own Harvest Dolly

  • Decide which plant(s) you'd like to use. Harvest them with respect and only after asking permission from the plant itself. Don't take more than you need, and cut the plant cleanly. This is all about honouring the spirit of the plant, and maintaining a good, mutually respectful relationship with it.        

Cutting spearmint from the herb garden with my boline.

Close-up of a peppermint flower

My bunch of herbs included spearmint, peppermint, eau-de-cologne mint, lemon verbena, camomile, oregano, sage, rosemary, St John's wort, thyme, fennel, mugwort and lemon balm

  • To make your Harvest Dolly, gather your plant material into a bunch. About halfway up the bunch, tightly tie some ribbon and finish it with a bow. This is your Harvest Dolly's 'waist'. I like to use red ribbon for this - partly because red thread is often used in protective folk magic charms, partly because red can symbolically stand for 'life', and partly because aesthetically the red makes a good contrast to all that green! Obviously, you can use which ever colour you like.
  • Turn the bunch upside down. The full, leafy, flowery half of your bunch forms the 'skirt' of your Harvest Dolly. The stem half will form her torso and head.
  • Find something straight and fairly rigid to make 'arms' (for this I cut a small bundle of dried grass stems from the hedgerow - I felt they would be a good representative of the wild plants of the locale). Push them through and at right angles to the stems of the plants you have gathered. The stems should be gathered tightly enough to hold the arms in place, but if you want to you can use some thread to tie them more securely.
  • Use some thread to tightly tie the bunch again, this time above the arms. This is your Harvest Dolly's 'neck'. You should have an inch or two of stems above this which form her head.
  • If you'd like to add a head/face you could use a seedpod, nutshell, round leaf etc, or make one out of paper/card or even air-drying clay. I used the seedpod from an honesty plant (Lunaria annua). There was enough of a stem on the seedpod to push down under the neck thread, which was sufficient to hold it in place. You could use thread, a cocktail stick or glue to hold your Dolly's face in place if necessary. If you like, you could draw features onto the face (I decided to leave mine plain).
  • Voila! You are finished, although if you like you could 'dress' your dolly by wrapping her in fabric or making her a tiny necklace or crown...
  • Put her somewhere dry and well-ventilated, where she will be able to gradually dry out. Her bright colours will fade as she dries, but she will still be beautiful.
  • Next spring, dig her into your garden soil, or leave her as an offering in your favourite green space. 
  • I've added a rough diagram below which I hope will make clear anything my words have failed to describe adequately.   
My finished Harvest Dolly

A rough diagram which may help clarify my written instructions!


Thursday, 26 August 2021

Embracing Autumn: Harvest

I began this series of posts by talking about the fact that the season we now know as 'Autumn' was originally called 'Harvest', and I've touched on the subject of harvest a couple of times since. Before we go any further, let's examine the theme a little more deeply.

When we speak of 'harvest' we mean both the gathering of a crop and the crop itself. Although we tend to think of this crop primarily in agricultural terms (a crop of wheat or apples for example) the term is also used to describe gathering other things (such as solar power), or even gaining intangible benefits as a result of your efforts (e.g 'harvesting goodwill'). The cycle of a year in agricultural terms, goes from Spring when seeds are sown and growth begins, through Summer when crops are encouraged by sun and rain to grow and ripen, to Autumn when everything comes to fruition and on to Winter, a period of rest and renewal before things begin anew again the next Spring. This same cycle repeats in our own lives as we begin sowing the seeds of new projects, nurturing them and watching them grow before they finally bear fruit (and then we usually take a bit of time out to rest on our laurels before beginning something else). Of course, in our modern lives the two cycles don't always mesh as our projects and goals aren't necessarily agricultural - a perfect example of this is the academic year which tends to begin in the Autumn. Yet even so, the themes of the cycle remain the same.

Embracing Autumn: Harvest

Today, I invite you to think about how you have experienced - and how you are currently experiencing - 'Harvest' in your life. Where are you in the cycle right now? Are you about to begin a new period of study? Are you already working towards an achievement such as a promotion at work? Have you just finished knitting your first ever pair of socks?  Are you entering your first, second or third trimester of pregnancy? Is work on your novel flowing towards completion, or is it frozen by writer's block?  Are you *this close* to achieving your target weight? Did you grow a magnificent crop of potatoes or strawberries this summer? Do you finally - after all those lessons - feel ready to take your driving test?

Our personal harvests take many forms, and just like the agricultural ones they can produce feelings of abundance - or disappointment, and every one of them contains the seeds (in the form of useful experience and lessons learned) of future harvests. Take a little time to journal on the subject. (The quote on the photo above is from a post I wrote a few years back, which you may find helpful to kick start some more thoughts on the subject. You can find it here.) 

Write about what the word 'harvest' means to you, and how the theme has manifested itself in your life, both in the past and the present. Write also about what you hope to harvest in the future - remember, every harvest begins with the planting of a seed... 

Wednesday, 25 August 2021

Embracing Autumn: Preparing for Autumn

The rain of recent weeks has finally - finally! - given way to sunshine and blue skies. And yet despite the presence of the sun, the days are noticeably shorter as we inch closer to the Autumn Equinox. Today for the first time this year I saw the swallows and martins lining up in chattering rows along the telephone wires as they do each year as they prepare for their marathon winter migration to South Africa.

Just as the swallows are preparing themselves for the changes Autumn brings, we humans are also preparing for Autumn - stocking up on supplies for the new academic year (or buying new school uniforms for the kids), preserving the Autumn harvest by making jams and chutneys, tidying spent bedding plants from the garden - whilst simultaneously enjoying the better weather while it lasts. Some customers in the shop where I work are even starting their Christmas shopping (I'm all for planning ahead, but that's a step too far for me!).

Embracing Autumn: Autumn Preparations

Without necessarily looking as far ahead as Christmas, what are you (or should you be) doing to prepare for Autumn? I suspect we each have different priorities when it comes to seasonal jobs, but you may like to think about:

  • Putting away Summer clothes and digging out your Autumn wardrobe - it won't be long before cosy jumpers, comfy boots and snuggly scarves are the go-to choices when you get dressed in the morning.
  • In the garden, tidying up straggly or gone-to-seed plants (but do leave some as food and shelter for wildlife).
  • Making sure you have some nice soft blankets to hand so that you can snuggle up on the sofa in comfort or add an extra layer of warmth when you're in bed.
  • Getting yourself some nice scented candles or a jar of luxury hot chocolate ready to increase the hygge factor in your home.
  • Making sure you have all the necessary textbooks/stationery/folders etc ready if you've signed up for an Autumn course or workshop. You could also prepare a space in your home as a study area.
  • Ensuring your garden has some suitable areas for wildlife to overwinter in safely.  

Tuesday, 24 August 2021

Embracing Autumn: Butterfly Days

Although 'Embracing Autumn' was intended to be a series of daily posts, once again things have slipped and I have missed a few days. This is because IB's elderly Mum - who is now living with us - had a nasty fall on Saturday afternoon which landed her in A&E. She's OK and on the mend but as you can probably imagine we've been a bit preoccupied over the last couple of days. I probably could have written something last night but to be honest I was too frazzled to sum up a coherent thought. I hope things will get back on track from now on, though.

Today I've been thinking about butterflies. In late August the buddleia bush on our patio is covered in butterflies. Many people dislike buddleia as it can be an invasive weed. The bush on our patio in fact sowed itself - I'm not sure quite where from as I'm not aware of any buddleia bushes in the immediate area, but somehow a seed must have blown in from somewhere. Now it's huge despite me cutting it back hard every winter, and at this of year time it makes the butterflies and bees so happy I can't possibly regret its arrival. I really rather love its unruly sprawl, the generosity of its abundant purple flowers drawing in clouds of butterflies and bees and the scent of honey as I brush past it. This morning as I left for work, the wall of the house by the buddleia was covered in butterflies warming their wings in the morning sun (I tucked this observation away as one of my beautiful things for today).

In this season of harvest and plenty, it seems appropriate to watch the butterflies feasting and apparently celebrating their bounty. 

Embracing Autumn: Butterfly Days

How many different kinds of butterfly can you spot? If you need help with identifying them, there are man handy online guides such as this and this. You can also help with butterfly conservation by simply reporting your butterfly sightings to projects like this one



Friday, 20 August 2021

Embracing Autumn: Spiderwebs

I love to see the marvellously constructed spiderwebs which appear in the garden at this time of year, jewelled with dewdrops. I suspect the spiderwebs are there all summer, but as the Summer dew is lighter and has mostly evaporated by the time we humans are up and about, we don't really catch sight of them. In Autumn though, the heavier dews and more frequent rain combined with shorter days make them far more visible, and what a delightful gift that is. With the morning sun setting the dewdrops sparkling like tiny crystal beads it's possible to fully appreciate the delicately spun intricate patterns and the amount of work that has gone into them. I know not everyone is fond of spiders, but surely even the most die-hard arachnophobe can find some appreciation of the shimmering beauty of Autumn webs?

Embracing Autumn: Web Meditation
Find an actual web or an image of one to focus your attention on. Find somewhere you can sit comfortably whilst gazing at your web. Take a few deep breaths in and out, and relax any tension you may be feeling in your body. Look carefully at your web. Notice how the 'spokes' of the web radiate outwards from the centre, anchoring the web in place. What are the anchor points in your life? What are the things, people or places which hold you securely, providing security and a firm foundation on which to build? Are the anchor points you have sufficient to support you, or do you need to strengthen them - or work on creating some more? 
Look at your web again. See how the connecting threads weave in a spiral out from the centre of the web, connecting each of the spokes. Think about how the path of your life spirals outwards as you grow in knowledge and understanding. Time and again as we travel through life we return to the same place, revisiting the same themes or issues or life lessons. Yet each time we return we bring a different perspective, a new understanding to add to the lessons we have already learned on our outward spiralling journey.
Look at the web and notice how every part of it is connected to and sensitive to every other part of it. Think of all the connections in your life and how they are all interconnected. Think of the great web of life connecting all living beings on the planet and understand that the health and wellbeing of each individual is inextricably linked to every other being. Imagine how your thoughts and actions have power to send tremors travelling through the web of life, and consider how to use this influence wisely to benefit the whole. Remember your power comes from your connection. 
Spiders maintain their webs diligently and meticulously, constantly reweaving and repairing any tears. Do you care for and maintain the connections that make up the fabric of your life? What would you need to do to improve the care you give yourself and your connections? Give yourself permission to properly care for yourself and your web. Remember that in doing so you strengthen the whole.

Come back to yourself and your body, sitting in its comfortable seat. Look once again at your web and take a few moments to think about the power and beauty of the web structure. Reflect in your journal about what you have seen and learned during this meditation.   


Thursday, 19 August 2021

Embracing Autumn: Blackberry Time


August is the time of the grain harvest, but of course it's also the month that the blackberry harvest begins. I've been eagerly anticipating the first juicy black berries of the season, but I was still happily surprised when I realised the first few had appeared.

Most of the earlier season berries we enjoy in this country are cultivated - strawberries, gooseberries, currants, raspberries, loganberries, tayberries and blueberries; while most of the other 'wild' berries - rowan berries, elderberries, haws, rosehips and sloes - are best processed in some way before eating. Blackberries, however are wild, free, bountiful and perfectly delicious plucked straight from the vine. No wonder they've been eaten by humans for at least 8,000 years (according to the archaeological evidence)! It's not just humans who benefit from this fantastic resource - the berries are also eagerly consumed by birds, foxes, badgers, mice and other small mammals. The flowers provide nectar for bees and other pollinating insects, and the leaves are grazed by deer and are an important food source for caterpillars. Thorny bramble thickets also provide shelter, nesting sites and a safe haven from predators for birds, small mammals and even grass snakes.

Have you ever noticed that not all blackberries taste the same? It's not your imagination. There are actually more than 330 subspecies of blackberries in the UK alone - so I suggest doing a 'taste test' of the blackberries in your area and taking careful note of where the best are to be found! 

Herbalists use blackberry (the roots, leaves and berries) to treat a variety of conditions including diarrhoea, burns, dysentery, inflammation and sore throats. I find it interesting that a plant capable of inflicting such nasty scratches is used as a soothing remedy.

Such a well-known plant inevitably has a lot of folklore attached to it. On the Isle of Man it was said to be unlucky to eat the first ripe blackberries as they belonged to the faeries, yet in other parts of the country the first fruits contained healing powers (as I don't live on the Isle of Man I decided it would be fine for me to eat the first blackberries I found - and they were delicious!). The plant was also used to magically heal those suffering from a variety of ailments (including ruptures, pimples and boils) by passing the afflicted person under the archway formed by a bramble branch. In Christian lore it's said the berries are black because brambles were used to make Christ's crown of thorns. It was also said that Lucifer landed painfully in a blackberry  bush when he was thrown out of Heaven and in anger he spits (or in some tellings, urinates!) on the berries each Michaelmas Day (29th September) after which the berries are unpalatable and should not be picked. It seems more likely to me that it's actually the colder weather and frosts at the end of September that are to blame for overly soft, tasteless blackberries! Despite all these negative associations, blackberry bushes were thought to protect against evil spirits and were often planted near homes for this reason (I'm sure the berries were an added bonus!).

There are some wonderful folk names for the plant including bramble, bumblekites, black leg, bounty thorn, skaldberry, blackbutters, blackbides, scaldhead and gatterberry. 

Embracing Autumn: Go Blackberrying!

Take the family, take a basket, and go blackberrying. The bushes are easily found in hedgerows and on wasteground. Do watch out for the sharp thorns which will catch and scratch you, and the berries will stain your fingers - but the reward of a basket full of juicy fruit will be well worth it. Eat them fresh, or bake them into cakes, pies, crumbles, muffins. Blackberry ice cream, blackberry sorbet, blackberry fool. Make blackberry jam or jelly, blackberry syrup, blackberry wine, or steep them in gin or vodka with a little added sugar to produce blackberry liqueur

Wednesday, 18 August 2021

Embracing Autumn: Tracking the Seasonal Changes

As of today I have been living at Halfway Up A Hill for 21 years, the longest unbroken period of time I have lived anywhere. I vividly remember the first morning I awoke in our new house and looked out of our bedroom window across the lush green valley spread out below us. It was a gorgeous, golden, sunny morning. The sky was brilliant blue and full of joyously swooping swallows, and the valley was filled with early morning mist. I wondered then if I'd ever tire of the view. I haven't. It still fills me with delight and wonder that I live somewhere so beautiful, and I endlessly photograph it through the changing seasons in a vain attempt to adequately capture its loveliness.

My photographs never quite do the view justice, but what they do capture is how much the view changes through the passing months of the year. I've noticed the same phenomenon when I take photos of the garden. In winter, the images I've recorded in summer amaze me with the abundance of foliage and flowers - and in summer the photos taken in winter seem impossibly stark and uncluttered, the bare bones of the land visible in a way that is completely hidden in summer when they're swathed in layers of vegetation. Taking regular photographs of the same view is a great way to keep a visual record of seasonal changes.

Embracing Autumn: Keeping a Pictorial Track of Seasonal Changes

Take a photo of a particular view from the same place and at at the same time every week throughout the autumn period. It is quite amazing how much change can be seen within the space of only a week. When you are finished, assemble the photos in chronological order so that you can track the subtle changes in the landscape that add up into dramatic differences over a longer period.

If you like, you could take a photo every day. You could also continue the project over a longer period, such as over the course of a year - or longer.   


Tuesday, 17 August 2021

Embracing Autumn: Autumn Music

Illustration by Terry Fan

I don't know about you, but while I'm working or cooking - or if I'm alone in the house - I like to have music playing in the background. I enjoy creating playlists - sometimes random assortments of my favourite songs and sometimes themed. During a stressful period earlier in the summer, I created a playlist of sweet and soothing summer music to play when I was working rather than my usual randomly selected playlists. Each song in the playlist had to be soothing and/or uplifting and to 'sound summery'. It really helped to keep me feeling relaxed and happy, but I also found myself really appreciating the seasonality of it. 

However, just this week I have begun to think that my lovely summer playlist is becoming less seasonally appropriate. I'll play it for maybe another week, but during that time I'll be selecting another group of songs, Autumn songs. This will be my soundtrack for the next couple of months, until my thoughts begin to turn towards a Winter playlist...

What is it that makes music seasonally appropriate? I think it's a very personal thing. Some of the Autumn tracks I've already selected are songs that are specifically about Autumn - Billie Holliday singing 'Autumn in New York' or 'The Reach' by Dan Fogelberg for example. Others are songs that I associate with the Autumn, probably because it was at that time of year that I originally heard them a lot on the radio:  Shawn Colvin's 'Sunny Came Home' always reminds me of driving my car on a mellow, golden day in early Autumn. And some songs just sound Autumnal - I really don't know why, but to me, Gordon Lightfoot's voice is the very essence of how Autumn should sound. What sounds like Autumn to you?

Embracing Autumn: Create Your Autumn Soundtrack

Create your own playlist of Autumn music to accompany your journey through the season. Is there a particular artist or genre you like to listen to at this time of year?  A particular voice or instrument that sounds like Autumn to your ears? 'Wake Me Up When September Ends' by Green Day - or 'Autumn' from Vivaldi's Four Seasons?

If you need more inspiration, lists of Autumnal music (with some overlap) may be found here, here, here, here and here

Sunday, 15 August 2021

Embracing Autumn: The Rowan

It's August, and Rowan berries are ripening to brilliant scarlet, gloriously bright against the blue-grey skies.

The Rowan is one of my favourite trees. I love the slender grace of her smooth grey trunk, her dainty sprays of leaves, the froth of her creamy blossom in spring and the sass of her bold, bright berries heralding the onset of Autumn. I love the way her beauty belies her tenacity and strength - Rowan is able to grow at high altitudes (hence one of her other names, 'Mountain Ash') and in poor soils and inaccessible places which are often inhospitable to other species.

The Rowan has long been considered a magical, protective tree and had the reputation of protecting travellers from getting lost and warding off evil. People planted Rowans by their houses, hung Rowan branches over their doors and tied crossed Rowan twigs together with red thread as charms. It's also considered a 'threshold tree' and as such was not only planted at boundaries, but also believed to watch over gateways between this world and the otherworld. Perhaps for this reason it was traditionally planted in Welsh graveyards.

Other names for Rowan include Quickbeam, Berry Ash, Traveller's Tree, Wicken Tree, Wiggy and Thor's Helper (because of a tale in the Prose Edda in which Thor saves himself from drowning in a raging river by grabbing hold of a Rowan). 

Rowans can grow up to 15m in height and live for up to 200 years. The leaves, bark,  flowers and fruit of the tree are useful for wildlife, providing food for moths, butterflies, bees, foxes, badgers, squirrels, dormice and birds. Humans can eat the berries too, they are best made into jellies, jams, wines, cordials or liqueurs. Heating or freezing them during processing helps break down the compounds within them which could otherwise potentially cause indigestion or kidney problems.

Embracing Autumn: Make a Rowan Charm for Yourself or Your Home

Try to find a Rowan tree in your area* and gather fallen twigs and/or berries to make a protective charm for your home, car or to carry with you. The simplest method is to use two crossed twigs and some yarn (red is the traditional colour to use, but you can choose colours that are meaningful to you) to make a 'God's Eye'/'Ojo de Dios'. You could thread rowan berries onto the yarn for added protection, or add a 'tail' of threaded berries to hang down from your charm. Instructions on how to make a God's Eye can be found here (or look on Youtube for a tutorial). 

Alternatively you could simply thread Rowan berries together onto a length of cotton (using a needle and thread) or a piece of wire. Hang them over your front door to invoke the protection of the 'threshold tree' for your home.

* Rowans are often planted in parks, so even if you live in a city you should be able to find one. If all else fails, rowan berries can easily be purchased from herbal suppliers online. To ensure you are buying the right kind, check the Latin name which should be Sorbus aucuparia.       




Embracing Autumn: Harvesting Beauty

One of the decisions that I made in lockdown was that I wanted to take control of my life. More specifically, I wanted to actively pursue and build a happy life for myself rather than waiting for happiness to randomly appear (or not). To achieve this goal I've made numerous changes and I'm working on adopting new happiness-growing habits. One of the simplest and yet most effective practices I've found is to actively notice the beauty around me. At different times during the day - but especially when I'm feeling sad, or angry or bored - I make myself take a slow, deep breath and look around for something beautiful. Sometimes I challenge myself to find 3, or 6 or 10 beautiful things. You know what? It's surprisingly easy once you start. The sky is almost always beautiful in some way - a striking colour or full of amazingly shaped clouds, or soft with rain. The sound of birdsong or children playing or friends laughing together is beautiful. I might spot a sleek cat making its graceful way along the top of a wall, or see a dog joyfully running on the beach. I notice flowers and the play of sunlight through leaves, the rainbows made by a sprinkler on a lawn, a bright pot of geraniums, the rising of the moon, the warmth of the sun on my skin. Once you get into the habit of noticing, beauty is everywhere.

Embracing Autumn: A Harvest of Beauty

In this season of harvest, make it your daily practice to harvest the beauty around you and store it in your heart to feed and nourish you through the hard times. Try it now - find three beautiful things in your surroundings. List them to yourself as a sacred prayer, hold them in your heart. Now find some more. Repeat. At the end of the day, just before you sleep, list all the beauties your day has held. Sweet dreams.


Friday, 13 August 2021

Embracing Autumn: Sensing the Shift

One thing that fascinates me at this time of year - the time of one season slowly transforming into another - is that very process of transformation. When is the first tiny intimation of Autumn felt? When does the upward zigzagging flight of butterflies metamorphose into the earthbound tumble of leaves? When does Summer cease and Autumn take over completely? How does the energy of Autumn compare to the energy of Summer? What are the subtle clues to this seasonal alchemy?

It's partly the changing palette of the landscape as the lively green of summer dulls and ripens to khaki, gold and brown punctuated by late summer flowers in purple, orange and gold and ripening seedpods and berries. The air is scented with fruit more than flowers, with dust and dew and leafmould. The nights have an edge of chill, the days grown noticeably shorter than at the peak of Summer in June. The soundscape of birdsong changes as the emphasis changes from attracting a mate to marking and defending a territory, or preparing for migration to warmer climes. Each little incremental change - changes so small and subtle that they often pass unnoticed by our conscious minds - tips the balance a little more until seemingly suddenly it's fully Autumn.

Embracing Autumn: Sensing the Shift
Take a few minutes each day to notice the subtle changes in the world around you as the energies of Autumn grow stronger. Sniff the air. Note the changes in the greenworld. Listen to the new songs of the birds. Feel the waning strength of the sun on your skin. Tune into the rhythms of the Earth beneath your feet. Feel how the pulse of Autumn differs from the pulse of Summer. Try to determine when the tipping point occurs, when the last of Summer finally evaporates and Autumn fully establishes itself. 


Thursday, 12 August 2021

Embracing Autumn: Wish on a Star

There's something quite magical about seeing a shooting star. Perhaps it's because they're so ephemeral - blink and you could quite literally miss it. Or perhaps you are the only one of the group of friends you are with who sees it. It feels like a little spark of magic from the Universe that's just for you. One year at WitchCamp, a shooting star shot across the sky just as the Goddess was invoked, and we all ooh-ed and aah-ed at the synchronicity.

The Perseids Meteor Shower happens every year between 17th July and 24th August, so you have a chance of spotting a shooting star streaking across the night sky at any time over that period. However, the shower peaks between 9th-13th August, so tonight and tomorrow night are an excellent opportunity to engage in a bit of stargazing. At its height, the Perseids Meteor Shower can reward watchers with as many as 100 meteors per hour, so you should be lucky if the weather is favourable.

Embracing Autumn: Meteor Watching

With so many meteors per hour, you could just pop outside for 5-10 minutes and strike lucky, but why not make an event of it?  Make yourself comfortable in the garden on your favourite sun-lounger with extra cushions and blankets to ensure a cosy experience. Or make a cosy nest on a dune at the beach, or in your favourite green space. Bring snacks and something delicious to drink. Enjoy the sounds of the night around you - the breeze in the trees, owls calling to each other or the flutter of moths. Or bring your i-Pod with some suitable music! And of course, remember to make a wish when you spy a shooting star... 

The best part? Even if the weather isn't co-operating over the next couple of nights, the Perseids will continue until 24th August, so remember to keep watching the sky!

Wednesday, 11 August 2021

Embracing Autumn: Autumn? Already?

Note: I originally intended to begin this series of posts about Embracing Autumn at Lughnasadh, but due to IB's elderly mother unexpectedly moving in with us at the end of July, I have not had time until now to begin. Please accept my apologies for a late start and a correspondingly slightly shorter series of posts than I'd expected to produce! 

Yes, I know. Embracing Autumn - in August? What am I thinking? And yet - bear with me. There's method in my madness. 

Remember how we explored the Blessings and Beauties of Winter from November through to early February? I timed that series of posts to begin then because our Celtic ancestors saw Samhain as the onset of winter, and Imbolc as the beginning of spring. They saw Beltane as the start of summer, and in their calendar Lughnasadh/Lammas marked the beginning of autumn. This makes perfect sense when you realise that Autumn used to be called 'Harvest' by our ancestors. According to Wikipedia: "Before the 16th century, harvest was the term usually used to refer to the season, as it is common in other West Germanic languages to this day (cf. Dutch herfst, German Herbst and Scots hairst). However, as more people gradually moved from working the land to living in towns, the word harvest lost its reference to the time of year and came to refer only to the actual activity of reaping, and autumn, as well as fall, began to replace it as a reference to the season." Lughnasadh or Lammas is of course the first of the three harvest festivals, marking the start of the grain harvest (the next harvest festival is the Autumn Equinox/Mabon, and Samhain is the third). 

For an agricultural society, it makes sense to divide the seasons according to what is observable in the natural world. Spring begins when the days are noticeably longer after the Winter Solstice, the first snowdrops appear and the first lambs are born. Summer comes when the days warm, the trees are all in leaf and summer migrants such as swallows reappear. Autumn - or Harvest - starts as the land, ripened by the summer Sun produces Her harvest. And winter returns as the trees become bare-limbed, the cold begins to bite and life retreats from the land.

So even if to our modern minds, August is summer holiday time, let's also be aware of the changes in the world around us that let us know Autumn is coming in. Along the lanes around me the long, uncut seed-heads of grasses are beginning to dry and brown, mirroring the ripening of their cultivated descendants wheat, oats and barley in the fields. The first blackberries, bilberries and green hazelnuts are appearing in the hedgerows, along with the scarlet splashes of rosehips and clustered rowan berries. In the garden, the early summer flowers have mostly gone to seed, while the late-blooming buddleia, Japanese anemones and crocosmia herald the changing season. Already the days are noticeably shorter than when the sun was at its height back in late June. Autumn is not yet fully arrived, but it is on its way. This year, won't you join me in fully immersing ourselves in the experience, experiencing and enjoying all the unique pleasures of the season? 

Embracing Autumn: Looking Forward

You can use your regular journal for this, or you may like to begin a special 'Embracing Autumn' journal in which to record your observations and explorations of the season. To start with, make a list of all the things you're looking forward to experiencing this Autumn. This will help you feel positively about the change from Summer to Autumn and provide a delicious sense of anticipation regarding the coming months. Here are some ideas to get you started

  • Which special occasions will be coming up for you between now and Samhain? Make a list of birthdays, anniversaries, holidays and festivals, trips etc
  • What seasonal foods are you looking forward to enjoying this Autumn? Crisp, tangy apples straight from the tree? Sweet and juicy blackberries? Pumpkin pie? Roast squashes and sweet potatoes? Foraged mushrooms? Crunchy hazelnuts?
  • What special things do you enjoy doing during the Autumn months? Admiring the changing foliage on a walk through the woods? Sharpening your pencils and lining up your textbooks in preparation for the academic year ahead? Kicking through - or jumping into! - piles of fallen leaves? Hunting for conkers or sweet chestnuts? Kite flying? Jam, jelly and chutney making? Digging out your favourite pair of boots and cosiest scarf ready for the cooler weather? Building a bonfire and roasting potatoes in the embers?
Write as long a list as you like of all the things you are anticipating with glee for the coming Autumn. It's amazing how much there is to look forward to!

Thursday, 10 June 2021



"I am a divine mosaic of everyone who has ever touched my heart." - Tumblr user drowhsy

When I was growing up, my Nanna and Granddad lived in the house next door to us. Nanna was a great cook, and every week she produced a selection of cakes for both households - including her famous fruitcake. To Nanna's eternal chagrin, it always sunk in the middle. She tried tweaking the recipe - adjusting the proportions of ingredients, experimenting with oven temperatures and trying 'hacks' such as tossing the dried fruit in flour before stirring it into the cake mix. Nothing worked - the fruitcakes continued to sink in the middle no matter what she did. But perversely, it was precisely this characteristic that made her fruitcake so beloved by everyone who tried it - the sunken middle made the cake scrumptiously moist and more-ish.  Isn't it strange that it's often the perceived imperfections which make a person or a thing so unique and beloved?      

Since I've been doing a lot more baking recently, I decided I'd like to make one of Nanna's fruitcakes myself and asked Mum for the recipe. She has lent me two books full of handwritten recipes, one which she began keeping when she married my Dad in 1960, and one that belonged to my Grandmother. I am so enjoying leafing through the pages re-discovering favourite recipes from my childhood. I particularly love the pages with lots of splashes and smudges - clearly the most popular, frequently made dishes. I pass my fingers over the familiar handwriting, imagining the family gatherings, dinner parties, birthdays and anniversaries - and the accumulated hours of peeling, chopping, stirring, mixing and baking that went into creating them. I think of the love for us all that was that was poured into each dish. What powerful magic!

Family recipes are just one of the many small but precious legacies that we receive from our loved ones - and that we ourselves can think about passing on to those who will follow on after us. Food, songs, stories, arts, crafts, lore, skills, culture, knowledge. What precious legacies have you inherited?  And what treasures do you have to pass on?

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 swallows and 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. Everyone experiences 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?