Returning

I hadn’t meant to walk to the sundial today.  Fog hangs heavy over the reserve so I know the dial will not be giving away any of its secrets.  I walk past the misted pond, past drowned alders laden with cones and catkins.  A trio of mallards lurk among the roots as a black Labrador cuts a scythe through the water.  Drenched paths are mudded with puddles.  Deep into April and most of the trees are still bare.  A smattering of cowslips try to bloom.  I’d wanted to wait until I could watch the sun cast shadows from the sundial, but I find myself wandering towards it anyway, a dark hyphen in the mist.  Meandering up a path lined by gorse and stunted alders.  A horse has passed this way, leaving shoeprints and garish manure.  Goldfinches and great tits dart across the path.  Woodpigeons are solemn sentinels in the trees.

I reach the top of the hill without effort.  The dial is laid on the ground in iron and stone.  The gnomon towers useless in the fog, twice my height.  A single bunch of daffodils bloom at the edge of the path.  All below me is obscured, trees peep out of the mist, the pylons are hidden as though modern time has faded into the grey.  I stand near the edge and close my eyes, picking out a trill of blackbird song, the vibrato of a robin and a chorus of twittering.  When I open my eyes and turn, a large bee bumbles past.  It takes me a second to realise what it is, it seems so incongrouous here in this place made lonely by the fog.

Every time I think spring is here, another season takes its place.  April has been rain and mist, with the briefest hours of sunshine to fool us that winter is really over.  Nevertheless, there are dandelions like pinpricks in the embankment, daffodils and blackthorn have begun to blossom, lesser celandine trying to open in the grass.  The loud songs of great tit and chiff chaff grace the air and the heron has returned to the pond.  A starling visits my yard collecting dried weeds from the cracks in the wall for her nest.

It’s tempting to say this has been an unusual spring.  It has been very slow to come.  I’ve been slow to return too.  But I’ve learned through observing myself in the seasons that spring can never be predicted.  It isn’t the pretty, predictable blooming of flowers, creativity and action I would expect.  There is always something wrenching, something off about it.  It is like the moment of panic when I write a story – a moment when I know how the story will end but don’t know how I’ll get there, or how the story begins but not how it ends.  A very real stab of panic that I won’t be able to find the words to tell the tale that wants to be told.  There is always a moment when the story settles and it is written.  There is too, a moment when spring settles – or when I settle into spring – but it hasn’t happened yet.

It hasn’t been a period without creativity.  My unpublished novel The Wintering Place was longlisted for the Lucy Cavendish Fiction Prize.  I have a story short-listed for another competition.  I have written new stories, tales of wind and blood.  But this period of withdrawal has also been a time of seeking comfort.  Of re-reading favourite books and walking well-worn paths.

On May Day morning the grass is silvered with frost.  I return to the sundial anyway, as the rising sun is strong behind me.  But it is cold.  I’m beginning to feel as though I haven’t been warm for months.  The alders have sprung into leaf since my last visit, and the cowslips are scattered banks of yellow.  Hawthorn blossom rarely blooms here in time for its festival, but the cherry blossom is out, if a little more muted this year.  The reserve is full of birdsong including the piping call of a particularly loud great tit.

At the top of the hill, the sundial does its work, shadowing the correct hour.  Last time I was here there was no world beyond the hill; today the landscape is set out before me in a haze of sunlight.  To the east, sea and horizon; to the south the river and the huge ship waiting to carry wind turbine foundations to sea; to the west, the shadow of the Pennine hills.  Stretched out below me are all the places I have travelled as spring struggled to be born, all those well-worn paths deepened by the pad of my feet.

It might have been the moment spring settled, that morning on top of the hill.  But as Beltane fades, winter doesn’t turn to spring, but to summer.  The air thickens and the sun bakes.  And it is the dandelions that put on a show, vivid raffia splodges in the grass.  I don’t know if I’ve ever seen such an abundance of them.  Soon daisies and cherry blossom petals sprinkle the spaces in between so that the grass is a quilt of yellow and white.  I see my first butterflies and myriad tiny creatures cloud the air.  A crow calls from a nest at the top of the still-leafless poplar.  I don’t know what this season is anymore, or what I should expect it to be.  Perhaps there won’t be any settling this year after all, only a messy, jubilant return to light and life.

 

The wanton spring

Spring is a collage of blossom.  My favourite is the wild cherry: luminous cups languidly dangling from purple stems; tiny anthers dusting the blooms with turmeric sprinkles.  The blossom is beyond white – as though composed not of matter, but purely of light.  There is nothing in nature as joyous as a wild cherry in full blossom.  I haven’t painted since early in the year, but the cherry blossom inspired me to try to capture it, with brushstrokes as nonchalant as the tree itself.  Hawthorn is the traditional Beltane blossom but, though clusters of flower buds are ready to burst, only a smattering of the blooms has appeared in time for May Eve.  If there is one word that can be used to describe Beltane, it is abundance.  It’s a festival of sensuality, when we celebrate all the fruitfulness of the earth.  Spring was sluggish last year, but this spring has been gloriously different.  And the rampant cherry blossom has symbolised the season for me this year.

This has been a season of wanton blooming, a fitting prelude to Beltane.  It caught me by surprise.  One moment I was plodding through the dull winter that was barely a season at all and the next, a profusion of daffodils and blossom confronted me.  I think it may have caught the insects by surprise too, because it was only as the daffodils started to wither that they appeared.  I saw my first bees in early April, my first butterfly just a week ago.  They are still just a few straggling pioneers, still hidden from view.  And though I haven’t yet seen my first spider, they have been quietly busy.  In the dew of early morning, their webs astound me, sparkling on the edge of ponds, strung across budding trees and nestled carefully in the undergrowth.

Everywhere, there is new green – a hundred shades of it.  And everywhere, points or masses of colour, as the flowers bloom.  Marsh marigolds and cowslips offer carpets of yellow.  Dog violets flash purple in the undergrowth.  Butterbur blooms like an alien forest.  I learned recently that catkins, too, are flowers, straggling from trees or like fluff on the edge of branches.  Whorls of budding leaves seem like blossom in themselves.  And as though woken by the blooming of the world around them, the birds and the mammals make themselves known.  Ponds awash with fowl: mallards, tufted duck, moorhens, coots and geese.  A grey heron, dominating the sky like the messenger from the gods he is believed to be.  And a brown hare, watching from the undergrowth around his burrow – you can see him in one of these photos if you look very closely!

The growing time is almost over.  It is time for ideas and projects to bloom.  I’ve been growing stories: six new short stories since the dark of the year and another almost ready to blossom.  And my novel is finally fully grown.  Some of them are already out in the world, awaiting their fate.  But I’ll be using the energy of the coming waxing moon and conjuring a little natural magic to help my novel on its way.  And perhaps, now that the light half of the year is beginning, I’ll feel the urge to fledge the paintings that still nest in my imagination.

As Beltane draws in, we’re doing the last of our spring cleaning, cleansing the house both physically and spiritually to make space for the summer energy to flow in.  There are many goddesses associated with Beltane, but this year, I’ll be seeking the qualities of the goddesses of the forests, the hills and the wild places for the vital, energetic power they bring.  Beltane is for celebrating, so, once the house is cleansed and all the preparations for my work are done, I’ll be pausing to celebrate what I’ve achieved so far this year.  But Beltane is also a time of promises, so before the summer begins in earnest, I’ll make a promise to myself, so that my creative goals are nurtured to their full bloom.

A creative year

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At Halloween, the wheel of the year turned.  The energies of the old year waned, to clear the way for a new year with a fresh tide of energy.  There’s no need to wait until 1st January to make new year resolutions.  Instead, you might want to begin now, using the rhythms of the ancient year to plan and complete your creative projects.  Whether we realise it consciously or not, we are attuned to these natural energies and the cycles of the sun.  So it makes sense to plan our year around the hooks of the seasons.  One reason so many new year’s resolutions fail could be that we dive straight into them at a time when we should still be shaping our plans ready for spring.  Using the wheel of the year gives us the necessary prompts to begin our projects with the proper preparation and to give them the right kind of focus at the times that feel appropriate.

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It may seem strange that a year based on cycles of energy should begin when everything is dying.  More appropriate perhaps, to begin in spring, when the earth is vital and fresh energy abounds.  But there can be no spring without a period of rest and preparation and this is what the start of the year is about.   Think of winter as a dreaming time.  The weeks between Halloween and the winter solstice should be still and introspective.  They’re a time to dream, but to dream with purpose.  Don’t fritter away the hushed, dark months.  Use them to visualise what your creative dreams will be this year.  What will you write?  What will you paint? What do you want to harvest when autumn comes again?  This is not a time for realism, but for dreaming your biggest dreams of what your year could be.

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At the winter solstice, the sun and mother nature are reborn and the spark of creativity grows a little brighter.  Daylight slowly begins to lengthen after the longest night.  It may still seem like the dreaming time, but there has been a barely perceptible shift.  Think of this as a honing time.  Begin to shape and sharpen your dreams.  Now is the time to hone those visions into goals and projects you’re confident you can put into practice.

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At Candlemas, the first small signs of spring begin to appear.  It’s a depressing time for many, with the distractions of yuletide over and the days still cold and dark.  Spring still feels far away.  I think of this as the incubating time.  You’ve honed your ideas and now it’s time to sow the seeds of the year’s projects and plan how you’ll nurture them.  As the seeds start to germinate in the slowly warming ground, begin to gather the materials and tools you will need and decide what action you will take to put your plans into practice.

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Spring equinox heralds the growing time.  Now is the time for action.  You should be able to see and feel the signs of spring.  Though the weather is unsettled and the winds blow, they bring with them a point of balance followed by fresh energy.  After the equinox, the days will be longer than the nights.  Your spirit should feel lighter and ready for action.  It’s time to focus and put all your energy into making the projects you’ve dreamed about happen.

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By Beltane, you should be seeing real signs of progress.  This is a festival of joy, sensuality, fertility and self-expression.  It’s a time to revel in the act of creation and the effect this has on your senses.  After the preparation of winter and spring, your mind should be fertile with ideas.  Beltane is the beginning of the blooming time, when your projects begin to flourish.  This is also a good time for collaboration with others and communal celebration.

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Summer solstice arrives and the sun is at its height.  This is the longest day and you should be making the most of the warmth and light of summer to help your projects thrive.  This is a time of empowerment, when the time is right to pursue outward success.  You could use this as a period to show or submit your work, or to ensure it’s ready for you to do so.   But don’t forget that after today, the days become shorter.  So the solstice is also a reminder to make the most of what is left of the light, to boost your health and gather energy to prepare you for the winter.

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Lammas is the first harvest and marks the fading of summer.  This is the tide of transformation.  As the sun fades, its spirit is woven into the corn to preserve it through the winter.  Wheat is cut down but is transformed into bread and baked goods to feed us.  You’ve worked hard on your creative projects since the beginning of the year and now is partly a time to recognise the work you’ve done and the sacrifices you’ve made.  But you can still affect what your final harvest will be, so it’s time to reflect on what still needs to be done to achieve your goals.

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Autumn equinox leads us into balance once more, but this time darkness will begin to take over.  This is a time of storms and tension, as we accept that the light is dying and darkness coming.  We now turn inwards.  This is the harvesting tide, when you have your reckoning.  Have you achieved all of the things you wanted to achieve this year?  What could you have done differently to gather the harvest you would have wished for?  Whatever the outcome, you should make time to celebrate your successes and begin to consider the seeds you will sow next year.

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Finally, we return to Halloween, when we honour our ancestors, including the artists and writers who have gone before and inspired us.  We also try to divine the future and create a little mischief before retreating back into the dreaming time.  So if you think using the wheel of the year could work for you, it’s time to begin.  Don’t be downhearted by the encroaching darkness.  Instead, use it as an opportunity to dream bigger than you’ve ever dreamed before.

Click on the links for more information about the themes of each festival and look out for upcoming posts that will explore these ideas in more detail. 

(If you live in the southern hemisphere, the year may make more sense to you if you begin at Beltane.)

Bringing in the May

Summer sweeps in accompanied by the night of mischief that is Beltane.  Beltane, or May Eve, is the second hinge of the year (after Halloween), representing an important turning point in the seasons.  Whereas Halloween marks the beginning of winter and the start of a new year, Beltane is the transition from spring to summer.  The veil between worlds is thin on both festivals, but whereas Halloween is a time to remember your ancestors, at Beltane the spirits around us are more mischievous and it was said to be a time when the door to the fairy realm stood open. Traditionally, Beltane is celebrated when the Hawthorn, or May tree, blossoms, but there are no May blossoms making an appearance yet.  Spring has barely sprung so it’s difficult to recognise that summer is about to begin.

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Beltane heralds an abundance of life and fertility.  The sun warms the earth and nature is in full force, flowers are blooming, trees full of blossom, lush greenery abounds.  At this time, we celebrate unfettered vitality, passion and self expression.  Finally, after the dark of winter and the fragile beginnings of spring, we can revel in the joy and power of life and love.  It’s a celebration of union, community and sensuality, but also commitment, as this is a time when handfastings would take place.

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At Beltane, the Goddess transforms from maiden to mother, often symbolised by the crowning of a May Queen.  She is at the beginning of the pregnancy that will result in her giving birth to herself at Yule.  Maypoles were, and in some places still are, used to celebrate the exuberant life and fertility of the season, with the weaving of red and white ribbons by dancers, beneath a sinking crown of flowers.

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Beltane is a fire festival, when beacons would be lit on hill tops to welcome the return of the sun.  People would jump over the fires to attract fertility and other wishes and cattle would be driven through the smoke before being taken to their summer pastures.  Old hearth fires were put out and re-lit from the Bel-fire.  Symbolically, you can absorb the light and life of summer by lighting a candle, just before sunset on May Eve and leaping the flame.

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In earlier times, people would go a-Maying in the woods, spending the night there taking advantage of the freedom and mischief of Beltane.  At dawn, they would bring back greenery they had collected to decorate doors and lintels for protection and good luck.   If you aren’t a witch, this is the only time of year when Hawthorn blossoms can be brought safely across the threshold.  I have already made my trip to the woods and brought back spring treasures to bring blessings to the house for the summer to come.

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Don’t be introspective on this festival – celebrate.  Enjoy the sensual pleasures of creating: get caught up in spreading paint on a canvas, try writing in longhand with an elegant pen and paper, do some sculpting or collage, make something physical with your photographs instead of just uploading them digitally, create a crown of flowers.  Work outdoors if you can, absorbing the energy of the returning sun.  Draw on the power of your own fertility of imagination as a creative spring.

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Or celebrate the abundance of your creativity.  It doesn’t matter if you haven’t had any objective success, celebrate the fact that you have inspiration, imagination and a creative talent.  If you can, get together with other people and use the dawn of summer to begin a project together, or to simply celebrate the power of collaboration.  Have your celebration outdoors, in a wood, an orchard, or a garden filled with flowers.

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Summer has had a slothful start this year, teasing us with the promise of warmth to come.  Beltane will be accompanied, not by the land in full provocative bloom, but by a more languid waking of the earth.  Still, the suggestion of summer is there in the lengthening days and a lightening of mood.  Our ancestors had faith that summer would return and lit fires on the highest hills to affirm this.  With all our science, we still doubt that the season will be all we want it to be.  But the magic of Beltane is to remind us that, whatever the weather now, summer always begins, life and creativity always persevere.  All that’s needed from us is to believe it.