Mother of the woods

Spring has daubed the landscape with splashes of yellow.  Daffodils slowly blooming; a smattering of coltsfoot; the first marsh marigolds squatting in the mud and a handful of cowslips emerging from papery shells.  But the blackthorn has been my true herald of spring.  It blossoms early, before the other spring flowers have awakened, before its leaves have unfurled.  Look at the hedgerows and you’ll see it alongside its sister hawthorn, the rich green of the hawthorn leaves contrasting with the blackthorn’s leafless blooms.  But here, guarding the bridge over the burn, I’ve met my own blackthorn, my own witch’s tree.

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Blackthorn is known as the Mother of the Woods because its thickets can create the conditions for other trees to grow.  Often, it’s no more than a tangled hedgerow shrub, pretty but unexceptional.  As a mature tree though, its presence is unmistakable.  The charcoal gnarling of the trunk and limbs are a deep contrast to its flowers.  Spindly branches shiver with blossoms.  It’s a tree of protection, a tree to linger beneath.  It enfolds and shelters me like a snowy parasol.  I feel secluded, viewing the world through tumbling branches and a veil of milky blooms.

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The blackthorn is burdened with a sinister reputation.  Its thorns are sharp and plentiful and it was said that the devil used them to mark the fingers of his followers.  They were placed beneath the saddles of horses so that they would throw their riders and dipped in poison to pierce human flesh.  It’s said that the crown of thorns worn by Jesus was fashioned from hawthorn and blackthorn.  Fighting sticks and clubs were made from its wood.  It was supposedly used in black magic and witches were burned on its pyres as a final humiliation, the witches’ tree turned against them.  Blackthorn is the ‘keeper of dark secrets’.  But standing here beneath its branches, I know that this tree isn’t dark, it’s luminous.

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Not all blackthorn’s associations are sinister.  Garlands of hawthorn and blackthorn were placed at the top of the maypole at Beltane to stimulate fertility.  It was said to blossom miraculously at midnight on Christmas Eve, along with the Glastonbury Thorn.  At new year it was burned to bring fertility to the land and hung with mistletoe to bring good luck.  Blackthorn is also a strongly protective tree.  In some tales, it was the hedge that protected Sleeping Beauty as she slumbered.  Blackthorn is balance: hawthorn is often seen to symbolise the light half of the year, while blackthorn is the dark.  Yet blackthorn has both light and dark within itself.

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It’s no surprise that I’ve been drawn to the blackthorn this spring.   There is a darkness in it, symbolised by its wicked thorns and bitter fruits.  It’s the darkness of stagnancy and self-doubt that lies within us.  The twisted branches symbolise that the journey out of darkness isn’t quick or easy.  Blackthorn is a powerful tree and its guardianship isn’t to be taken lightly.  Its protection lies in fierce thickets of impenetrable briars.  But its blossoms are hope, bursting into bloom while the season is still frigid.  The luminosity of its flowers is an embodiment of the purification and creativity it brings.  Its thorns can wound, but they can also tear a path through the thicket.  If you accept the guidance of the blackthorn, you need to be prepared for challenge and uncomfortable change but you’ll be rewarded by abundance.

Last year my eyes were drawn downward, to the small wild things that spring from the earth.   This year, the trees are calling and the Mother of the Woods is my first teacher.

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.

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.