Fences

Halloween is the day when there is neither past, nor future, only between.  Before the year turns, I have a notion to re-visit the green places of my past.  I step out into a breezy day, leaves rustling in spirals on the pavements, rays of sunlight bursting through grey cloud.

My past has been fenced off, built over, locked away.  We were urban children, grown on a Council estate, but there were always patches of green, hints of the wild.  The ‘res’, the ‘cut’, the ‘back field’, these were the edge-lands on our doorsteps.  Our lives as children were lived along these tracks and in these spaces.  The walk to school and back, the trails between each others’ houses.  The green spaces for playing, exploring and hanging around.

The first of two reservoirs, at the top of the street where I used to live, is a trapezium of grass tangled with purple clover and dock.  The gate is locked.  Perhaps it always was, but we got in anyway.  I always found the reservoirs puzzling and slightly mysterious.  How could a field contain a reservoir of water?  I never quite believed they were what they were supposed to be.  There is an old stone building, stamped 1901, which must have been some kind of access or pump house.  It is boarded up, painted with graffiti, art deco railings rusting around its roof, rubbish and weeds littering its steps.  There is talk about building houses on top of the reservoir, squeezing yet more dwellings into one of the last green spaces.

There was a park once, where the newest houses on the estate have now been built, an open space with swings and climbing frames.  The ‘back field’ is still there.  It was once just a ragged patch of land behind houses, with waist high meadow.  Now it is a water-logged square of shorn, vivid grass.  I disturb a posse of blackbirds in the shrubs at its edges.  I wonder how much it is used, and for what.  It seems unlikely that it is ever allowed to become as overgrown as it once was.

But my sycamore is still as I recall it.  The only tree I remember as an individual from my childhood, it stands on the corner, arcing over the road.  When I first read To Kill a Mockingbird it was this sycamore that I pictured when I read about the gifts left in the tree.

The ‘cuts’ were narrow paths between.  Each was the length of a street.  A narrow lane beyond the back garden fences.  A pathway between houses and the reservoir.  Small slices of nature, bordered by trees and plants.   But no one will be travelling those paths again.  They are blocked at each end, locked behind spiked metal fencing.  I stand looking between the bars, yearning to walk the old path again.  But within the fencing, nature has taken advantage.  Brambles, grasses and small saplings have reclaimed the path.  They have become liminal places but not human places.  On this still autumn day, they are peaceful pockets of green behind the bars.  Who knows what happens within the fences while the people aren’t watching?

The bordering reservoir has been fenced off too, metal spikes above the wall.  Fences and fences.  Adjacent, my old school has been demolished and re-built with yet more of the ubiquitous railings.  There was a time when a farmer’s field lay opposite the school.  I still remember the feel of the ploughed furrows under my feet.  The old hawthorn hedgerow is still there, now backing onto houses.  It is a reminder of a past when there were spaces to explore and everything wasn’t locked up tight.  It is half-term and the children are on holiday from school, yet I haven’t seen or heard a single child during my walk, only the ghostly footsteps of those who have left childhood far behind.

I cross the busy road to get to the cemetery and leave the fences behind.  Here there are meandering paths scattered with leaves.  Tilting headstones rooted with ivy.  A laburnum like an umbrella sheltering graves.  The foliage is still mostly green, but maples appear like pools of light in the distance.  A large leafless hawthorn has berries like fairy lights.  A giant beech is a beacon beckoning me along the path.

My ritual tonight is all about stripping back and letting go.  I am letting go of the year just gone, and all the years that have gone before.  The past is a familiar place, but not always a comforting one.  I have witnessed again the way the world never stands still.  The fences represent a changed world – one in which it seems necessary to fence children in and fence others out.  But fences are no barrier to memory.  Once, small feet traversed this landscape without impediment, and the imprint of their passage is part of the landscape still.

The jig of the leaves

The end of October is wind and half-light and a carnival of leaves.  The gale roars in and fallen leaves come to life once more.   They gambol over the grass, leaping and swirling like spring lambs.  When the wind gusts, they are swept into a rowdy gang, sprinting across the ground.  Lone leaves float against the sky, bobbing and flickering as they twirl.  Those caught up in the leaf-mass try to rise too but can’t.  Instead, scores of grounded leaves wave from their mulching places.  Meanwhile the trees that released them creak and rustle, undulating on the side-lines of the park, as though cheering on the final jig of their offspring.

There are fewer leaves on the ground this autumn.  October’s dry weather has left many crumbling to dust.  There have been few of the mists and storms I would associate with the season.  The colours have been muted and brittle.  If anything, it has been a grey month.  I have noticed the brutish beauty of sow thistle and the delicate star-burst seed-heads of groundsel.  Indigo mornings studded by Orion and Pegasus.  Garish orange dawns splodged with dark grey clouds.  A grey squirrel tries twice to scale the surrounding wall in the park and twice falls off, before shimmying up the poplar to the tallest branches to re-assert his street cred.  Starlings gather on the same TV aerial in town each morning and the wings of the seagulls are gilded by the sunrise.

This is the close down of the year.  The hatches are battened down, the unfinished chores are as complete as they will ever be.  The hearth is swept and a fire lit to welcome the ancestors.  Halloween itself is still.  The wind has vanished.  There is not a breath of it, not a sway of branch or a drop of leaf.  Fallen leaves are wet after a rare rainfall in the night, making them particularly vibrant.  Only the birds are restless, a flock of songbirds chittering at the tips of the poplars, crows swooping and barking.  I think about the ending cycle, the disrobing of the landscape, and all the industry that will carry on but won’t be seen, as leaves are broken down and nature renews herself.

Halloween night is fluid.  The year is neither old nor new, but in-between.  So the dead might visit and we can meet those who have not yet been born.  A feast is prepared with a place set for the ancestors.  The previous year is released in a flash of flame and a curl of candle smoke, the new year welcomed with the shuffle of Tarot cards.  I have entered the world of the dark, that delicious time of dreaming.  Easel and paints are calling me.  New stories call from the darkness.  My box of dreams is ready, waiting to receive the seeds of the things that are soon to be born.

 

Walking Through Autumn

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In the dark of the year, the landscape glows.  I struggle through mornings that seem deeper and darker than last year, into luminous dawns of pastel pink and baby blue.  The sun is low molten gold, infusing stones and leaves with honey.  The air is chill but the scenery warms my soul.  It is as though nature knows that we need the memory of autumn’s fiery patchwork to warm us through winter.

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The maples are autumn’s show-offs.  If my eye is caught by a particularly vibrant display I can be almost sure it is a maple, with its blazing sunset palette.  Horse chestnuts offer fat golden fingers edged with rust.  The lindens are wisps of tissue against dark branches, leaves becoming transparent as they turn.  And the beeches are a radiance of colours from delicate greens and yellows to glossy bronze.  Paths become tunnels of gold, carpeted in fallen leaves and overhung by burnished branches.  The ground disappears beneath a crust of copper.  To walk through autumn is to walk an uncertain path, hidden by drifts of kaleidoscopic leaves.

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In this season, the old cemetery is a gilded place.  Pools of gold against a canvas of fading green.  Shafts of sunlight striping the fallen leaves.  In the old part of the cemetery, eroded stones slant under saffron foliage.  Fallen markers lie broken among sprinkled leaves.  Some graves have become melded to ivy, its roots like foliate inscriptions accenting the words.  Those graves that lie within their own shallow enclosures brim with leafy coverlets, as though the occupant has drawn up a comforter.

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I’ve come to the cemetery on the Eve of the Dead.  Halloween is when our ancestors are honoured and invited to visit.  I have always loved cemeteries.  I find them neither sad nor scary.  They are places of peace, of undisturbed nature.  This is the place where my parents’ ashes were scattered and where I have said goodbye to others I have known.  I’m struck, suddenly, by just how many people lie here.  In a way, they are all my ancestors: not of blood but of place.  A community of people that shaped the town that shaped me and birthed the people I have known and will know.  The parts of them that remain are only imprints, but their breath is in the breath that stirs the trees, their essence is in the earth on which I walk.

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I wander the old paths to the gentle caw of crows.  A magpie scolds me from the branches of a sycamore and follows me to the next.  A robin flutters in and out of a hedge.  I have a pebble in my pocket that I took from the beach at spring equinox as a symbol of the light half of the year.  I had no plans what I would do with it, but I’m drawn to a small moss covered gravestone that tilts towards the ground, forgotten in a dark part of the cemetery.  I place the stone on top, leaving a little of its light behind.

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Halloween has always been my favourite festival.  Its symbolism has all the complexity of autumn.  The old year is gone, all its hopes and dreams stripped away.  But the new year hasn’t yet begun.  This night has a fluidity, a sense of what was and what might be.  It is the start of the dreaming darkness, full of possibilities that haven’t yet been imagined.  As I walk the old paths, I am walking through layers of history.  This is a place that has seen the turn of many years, the turn of countless leaves.   It is a place where the stories that have ended endow those that are to come.

 

The beckoning of the earth

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As the year turns, the earth calls me, summoning me towards the land.  I feel a need to seek out ancient stones and imprints in the landscape.  The ancestors cajole me.  Outwards, to the wild places.  To the land of bracken-choked moors and wind-scoured hills, to witness their leavings on the earth.  Halloween is their day, when we remember our forebears and welcome them to our hearths.  The pivot point, when the year shimmers between old and new.

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We journey to Lady’s Well, a sacred spring hidden at the edge of a small Northumbrian village.  From a distance, you see only a huddle of trees.  But then, at the end of the rutted path, a small wooden gate marks the threshold to another world.  A large, shallow stone basin, shaped like an arched window.  Clear water in a dark pool glazed with russet leaves.  It ripples from the spring that gushes at its end.  In the centre is a stone cross, its base lichened with splodges of autumn.

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The spring is watched over by a statue of St Paulinus, who was wrongly thought to have performed baptisms here and it is also associated with the 4th Century St Ninian.  But it is likely that the well was originally a pagan, rural shrine and a Roman road was later built alongside it.  Its visible guardians are the trees: huge beeches resplendent in their autumn colours and yews sprinkled with berries.  Lady’s Well is silence, simplicity, seclusion.  But it has a deep, fizzing energy that invites you to linger.

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From Lady’s Well, we climb higher into the enchanted Simonside Hills, until the land opens out before us.  We’ve come to Lordenshaws, a weather-beaten hill, layered with history.  Here, you can see the hollows in the land of an Iron Age hill fort, Bronze Age burial cairns and the remains of a Romano-British settlement.  But we have come to see something yet more mysterious: the designs carved into the rocks up to 5,000 years ago.

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We climb paths rimmed with bronzed bracken and Calluna heather.  To a large rock, etched with cups and spirals.  It’s not clear who made these marks, or exactly when, or why.  But the motifs of circular grooves and cup-like depressions, pecked and carved with stone tools, are similar across Europe.  The urge to create is strong.  Before written language, before recorded history, our ancestors were inspired to forge patterns in rock.  Stone on stone.  Marks that had meaning to them but are an enigma to us.

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Lordenshaws is the sound of roaring wind and the chuckle of red grouse in the bracken.  It is the thunder-like boom of artillery from the nearby Otterburn military training ranges.  Where Lady’s Well is introspection, Lordenshaws is bold, barren and expansive.  A lone black faced sheep has taken up residence at the peak of the fort, peering down at us over the brow of the hill.  Its companions, ivory-coated sentinels, watch us as we draw near.  Satisfied that we mean no harm, they leave us to wander the hollows of the fort and pay our respects at the burial cairns unaccompanied.

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Our final rituals take place within sight of our own hearth.  We burn the seeds we ‘planted’ in spring, to release the dreams of the old year.  We light a candle on the altar of our ancestors and lay a place for them at the table.  We choose Tarot cards to divine our possibilities for the year to come.  Then the feast, assembled from the harvests of the season: stuffed pumpkin and pomegranate fool.  And I end the year with good news, a message from Aesthetica magazine, to say that the story I entered in their competition will be published in the resulting anthology, with the overall winner to be announced in December.

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Like any pilgrimage, this one had its challenges.  Road closures, diversions, wrong turns and unmarked trails made us believe at times that we would never reach our destinations.  But at last we met the ancestors in their spirit places.  We witnessed the visions they manifested in the earth.  At last, just for a while, they called us home.

Gathering

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October is the pause between breaths.  That still space where awareness will enter if you let it.  The harvest is in, but a few weeks remain until the celebration of the year’s end at Halloween.  October brings a taste of the darkness to come.  Mornings are haloes of misty light and frosted breaths in navy darkness.  But the days dawn brightly, reminding us that we haven’t yet reached the point of no return, that journey into the underworld where we’ll stay until the winter solstice.

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October is a skein of geese rising and falling like musical notes on a page as they come in to land for the night.  It’s a sandstorm whipping across an empty beach.  A windfall of sweet chestnuts, bursting from spiny cocoons.  Opulent berries studding leafless branches.

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I find myself in an acquisitive state of mind.  Not for things but for ideas.  Gathering.  Reading half a dozen books at once, dipping in and out as the mood takes me.  My reading is eclectic: trees, prehistory, festivals, bees.   I make notes, I underline, I follow a line of enquiry into something else.  At some point all this information I’ve gathered will shape itself into my dreams and passions for the coming year.

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When we consider our ancient ancestors, there’s usually an emphasis on hunting as the means to survival.  In fact, gathering is likely to have been just as important, if not more so, in keeping them alive.  Foraging for fruit, seeds and other resources supplemented their diet and was the only means of sustenance when no meat was available.  As a writer, there’s a time to ‘hunt’ a particular quarry for a specific purpose.  But, for me, now is the time to ‘gather’.  It’s in this way that I make new discoveries and forge new connections.  The purpose is never clear when I begin, but will eventually become so.

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And then, sweet serendipity.  A particular idea or theme will keep occurring.  I’ll read a book on a subject and suddenly that subject is everywhere.  Ideas that have always resonated suddenly gain new meaning.  Already, I’m beginning to notice things that may become themes for the coming year.  The pause before the year ends and I embrace introspection is an appropriate time to soak up ideas from around me that will take shape in the darkness.   And in the depths of midwinter, the pattern for a new year will be born.

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.)

Memories, musing and mischief

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Time is fluid at Halloween.  It is the old Celtic new year, when past, present and future merge.  On this night, all borders dissolve and we can commune with our ancestors or see our future.  Summer has ended and the sun will slumber until spring.  It is the time of Hecate, the crone goddess who both guides us to the land of the dead and is ready to act as midwife to the rebirth of the sun at the winter solstice.   This is the gateway between the old and the new year, when the wheel turns and the cycle begins again.

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It is appropriate that the world is unsettled leading up to Halloween.  Rain, gales and thunder have assailed us in the past week.  A storm is making its way across the country and the sky is full of a luminous darkness.  Now and then, I hear the squawks of geese, as they pass over on their migration from the arctic.  The trees have begun to turn: the small sycamores and the horse chestnuts are the first to show their colours and the ground already crackles with leaves.  There is a hint of smoke in the air and the clatter of fireworks leading up to Bonfire Night.  Fittingly, it is the crows that now seem to colonise the green spaces, tricksters and harbingers of death and magic that they are.

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This is a time to celebrate the wisdom of age and experience.  On Halloween night, our ancestors may choose to visit us, so we might set a place at the dinner table for them or leave offerings of food outside or on their graves.  The pumpkin lanterns now traditional at Halloween have evolved from the candles that were left in the window all night to guide the dead home.  It is a tradition at Halloween to create an altar to your ancestors, containing photos and mementoes that honour them and trigger memories.  It is a good time to consider the gifts your ancestors have given you, both genetically and through the lives they lived.  But you might also recognise the strangers that have gone before – the writers and artists that have inspired you and stoked your creativity.

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Halloween signals the death of summer and the old year, for which we mourn, but we also look into the future.  This is the best time of year for divination, when we use the old arts, such as scrying and Tarot, to gain guidance about what is to come.  Winter is the still, dark time of the year, when the earth retreats and we have space to delve into the hidden places within us.  This is where the cycle of our creativity begins.  Time to ponder our dreams and hopes for the year to come.  The hushed repose of winter is when our vision for what this year could be is dreamed into being.  That spark of creativity is always there, though it may not seem so in the dark, cold months, until the winter solstice, when it will be symbolically reborn.

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Halloween is a time of deep thinking and remembrance, but it is, of course, also the season of mischief.  The chaos and unpredictability of winter will last for many months.  For our ancestors, it was a time of great tension as they worried if the harvest would help them survive the winter.  The mischief of Halloween is both a challenge to and a light-hearted acceptance of the uncertainty to come.  The costumes are disguises to protect us against malevolent influences.  The traditions, such as bobbing for apples, an affirmation of life.  Creativity is often kindled out of chaos. So before the introspection of winter, why not indulge in a little mischief and see where it leads you?