Battling

This is the moment when the year turns to gold.  It is the first harvest.  When the spirit of the corn retreats before the blades into the last sheaves of wheat.  The essence of the sun, the spirit of summer, the promise of spring.  All of these nestle within grain and husk, slumbering through the winter.   It seems an eternity since the last harvest, and yet here we are again.  I see the gold settling over the land and my soul longs for autumn.

It is one of the hottest days of the year and we drive past molten fields.  Past verges stippled purple and yellow with flowers.  Hay pressed into cylinders.  Fields brown with ploughing and still green with crops.  Sheep gather together in the meagre shadow of trees.  It is Winston’s first hydrotherapy session since lockdown.  We can’t enter the building so we wait in the car park for his hydrotherapist to collect him.  A family is saying a final goodbye to their dog and we cry with them as they let him go.  We wander the nearby lane while we wait for Winston.  Sheep trot away as we approach.  A hare bounds across a field of golden stubble.  Winston returns to us tired but with a good report.

In the dene, the landscape is straggly and overgrown.  Unmolested, wildflowers have grown into giants.  Rowans flame with berries.  The burn is virtually dry, flanked by monster willowherbs, dock and bulrushes.  Raspberries droop from the foliage.  There are rustlings in the undergrowth, among seed heads and thistledown.  Butterflies spiral and meander, mostly whites and speckled woods.  The occasional quick whirr of wings and soft tinkling calls are the only things that give the hidden songbirds away.

It has been a battle to get here, to walk along this familiar path.  This time last year I was travelling to a writing conference.  This time last year I had just given my first public reading as a writer.  But that was an eternity ago.  Now I battle ennui.  It is a struggle to get up each morning.  A struggle to stray beyond the end of the street.  Work feels hard.  Creation is even harder.  But I am fighting.  Battling my way out of limbo.

I sit by the pond.  A woodpigeon fusses in the willow above my head.  Two gulls glide in circles as though they own the water.  One of them chases away a youngster that gets too close.  Some years the harvest is meagre and hard won.  This year there will be a harvest but it won’t be a harvest anyone could have expected.   The seeds of early spring have led us into a new way of being in the world.  We are uncertain.  We know there may be more battles ahead  But the seasons still turn.  The land still turns to gold and the spirit of the sun is safe for another year to come.

 

Uncomfortable

Travelling south, there are fields already dotted with baled hay.  Time has moved quickly in recent weeks and I’d forgotten that it’s almost Lammas.  The landscape is still green, but accented by the coming season’s gold.  I hurtle through the country, train travel giving both distance and connection.  Things seen from above that would normally be seen from below; landmarks made miniature; glimpses of things that would never normally be noticed.  We sweep past the Angel of the North, the Penshaw Monument, the Kilburn white horse and the cathedral-scape of Durham city.  Cows, sheep and horses populate the fields, but there is also picturesque abandonment – crumbling buildings, dilapidated trailers and huts often now used to shelter the animals.  But mostly, there are fields and big sky, blue-grey clouds and the threat of rain.

Two weeks ago I gave my first performance as a writer.  North Tyneside Writer’s Circle hosted Keeping My Soul 2, a second annual event showcasing the work of its members.  It was held at the library where we meet, with an audience of around 40 people.  I was terrified to take part, worried about it irrationally in the weeks before.  Though I was confident in the words of my story, I wasn’t confident in my delivery.  I’d thought I would settle as I began, but I could hear the fear in my voice as I was reading.  Strange how much harder it is to present something personal than to present something work-related, because it is, of course, a little piece of your soul that is on show to everyone listening.  I didn’t enjoy it, but I’m glad I did it.  And I’ve realised the value of performance, as another way  to have stories heard that might otherwise never be shared.

Now I’m stepping out of my comfort zone again, coming alone to the Mslexicon writing conference in Leeds where there will be dozens of other women writers.  At the venue, big sky and open fields have given way to the shelter of the canopy.  It is a place of old stone and old trees, hued in green.  Eccentric buildings and hidden corners.  Flag stoned paths lined with lamps.  A bengal cat complaining loudly.  There is a tennis court with an air of abandonment and a dusting of seeds.  A lichen-ed bench and an old tree swing.  Stone cloisters in which to walk and ponder.  A narrow lane leads to a park bursting with giant trees, steep paths and graffiti on old stones.

But there isn’t much time to be inspired by landscape, the inspiration is coming from within.  I learn that what I write may not be magical realism after all, but may be speculative fiction – but I also learn not to worry too much about labelling it.  I learn about Ikigai, about synopses and ‘when to press send’, about concealing and revealing and about making characters interesting.  Regretfully, I miss a performance by Jackie Kay, but laugh out loud with Sophie Hannah.  Most of all, I talk to other women writers and am awestruck by the sheer number of different stories they have to tell.

And the owls have followed.  Since I met the owlet in the forest, there has been a sense of owls all around me.  I hear the call of a tawny outside my window.  What I think is a barn owl takes off into the dusk on the train home.  And Leeds, I hadn’t realised, is a place of owls – they are part of the crest and their images appear all over the city.  Owls can see what is hidden, hence their reputation for wisdom and perception.  I’d like to think that the owls are signs that I’m on the right track.  There may be more discomfort to come, but maybe that will lead me to where I’m meant to be.

Blogger book of the month: Roy McCarthy – Supply and Demand

Supply and Demand: The story of a young woman trafficked into the sex industryI’ve known Roy for a long time in blogging.  He has published a number of novels, each one unique.  His latest is a moving, heart-wrenching and ultimately uplifting novel set in the world of sex trafficking. Chameli is kidnapped from her Nepalese village and sold into the sex trade in India. Through her story we learn about the harrowing and brutal lives of the girls who become sex slaves. I immediately cared about Chameli and her fate; the author has done a great job of writing from her point of view, in a way that educates without preaching. Through Chameli’s story, and that of Chantilly, a privileged Australian determined to make a difference, I learned a lot about sex trafficking, the challenges involved in trying to stop it, and the difficult choices facing those lucky enough to escape.

Running parallel to Chameli’s story is that of her 11 year old brother, Dilawar, who travels to India to find her, but ends up struggling to survive on the streets. Ultimately this is a survival story of brother and sister struggling to exist in a world over which they have no control. There is a lot of darkness in the subject matter, yet this isn’t a dark novel. There are touching moments of friendship, great descriptions and sense of place, and an ending that offers hope. An important story that spotlights a horrific trade.  You can find Roy here and his book is available on Amazon.

The start of a journey

 

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It seems that I’m often on motorways at this time of year, in the weeks leading up to Lammas, when the fields are golden with wheat and yellow with rape, and cylinders of gathered hay scatter the land.  There is something rich and hopeful about this part of the season and something calming about viewing it at speed from a long straight road that cuts through the landscape.

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But there is nothing serene about this journey.  We are travelling to a specialist veterinary hospital, where our dog, Winston, will be checked over by a neurologist and receive an MRI scan, after developing a sudden weakness in his back legs.  I watch the fields unfold, attempting to dampen the anxiety of this unexpected journey.  Suddenly, I glimpse something strange at the side of the road, something I know shouldn’t be there.  For a moment, I don’t know what I’ve seen, but then I realise it is a deer, walking on the verge.  We hold our breath – she’s too close to the motorway –  but in a moment, she turns and melts safely into the trees.  I’ve often thought that the deer is the spirit of the woods, a gentle, airy spirit, barely glimpsed.  Seeing her now is a good omen, I think.

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At the hospital there is talk of slipped discs and surgery, meningitis or stroke.  There is definitely a neurological problem, but it seems to be at the low end of the scale.  We leave Winston for assessment and drive home silently.  As we do, the month’s heat gathers into ominous clouds, hinting at a storm that doesn’t come.  To a house that is silent and strange without him.

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The clouds finally break the next day.  A light drizzle sets in that won’t do much for the withered plants, but brings the temperature down to more comfortable levels.  We’re bringing Winston home today.  He has two calcified discs, that have caused inflammation of his spine, but they’re hopeful that it will settle with medication and physiotherapy.  He is confused and crying after the anaesthetic, panting beside me on the journey home with wide eyes.

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We settle into a week of worry and waiting.  Winston has been my walking companion for almost six years.  It is because of him that I re-discovered nature.  It is on our walks that I see what I see.  But he is forced to rest, only short visits to the park at the end of the road.  Yet there are still glimpses to be had on short walks, or on no walks at all: gilded clouds above our back yard, swifts screaming high in the sky near sunset, goldfinches chattering on the telegraph wires, my only ladybird of the summer on our gate post.

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A week later and we return to the hospital for a check up and to see the physio.  Dark clouds mass over the motorway once more.  Winston’s neurologist wants to watch him walk, so we take him outside to find that rain has finally come.  More than drizzle this time.  Strong, soaking rain.  We don’t care that it’s falling as we walk, we’re all refreshed by it.  And with the balm of the rain comes good news.  He is stronger, the inflammation must be settling.  We come away, for now, with instructions for massage and gentle exercises.  This is not something that will go away.  We will have to manage it, there may be things he can no longer do, it could become worse.  We don’t know how long the journey will be or where it will take us.  Back at home, I stand in the yard as the rain falls, tilting my face into it.  I’ve waited weeks for this, for the benediction of rain.  The scent of it in the air is like hope.

The colour of summer

Summer is a purple season: willowherbs, thistles and buddleia bloom in vibrant profusion, self-heal punctuates the grass, vetch curls its tendrils in the undergrowth, small clusters of viper’s bugloss and foxglove bloom in hidden spots.  The fresh whites and yellows of spring and early summer have given way to deeper colours in preparation for autumn.

Summer is a rainbow season.    A time for donning rainbow flags and fancy dress and taking part in colourful parades.  A season for  merry go rounds, bandstands in the park, celebration and frivolity.

Summer is a growing season.  Blackberries and rosehips are appearing in the hedgerows, green turning to orange, to red and deep purple.  Rowan berries are already ripe on the trees, while others are still green, waiting to burst.  But summer is also a dying season.  Many of the flowers that bloomed just a few weeks ago have already lost their blossoms.  Seed heads in browns, reds and ochres preview the autumn colours to come.

It has been a summer of searing temperatures, the sixth hottest July on record.  Humid, dry, too hot to do anything comfortably.  Coinciding with something of a fallow period for me.  An occasional sea mist in the evening the only respite.  The grain harvest has arrived early in the UK, with rape and barley harvests beginning weeks earlier than normal.  Wheat harvests are predicted to be bountiful.  Before autumn arrives we’ve been doing our last outside work, those final jobs in the yard to see us through the coming winter.  And despite that fallow spell, I have done some creative work: finished one painting and started another, drafted some short stories.

Lammas falls on the first day of August and begins the season of transformation, when, as the wheat is turned into bread and sweet treats, our projects begin to bear fruit.  This is the last tide to focus on what I want to achieve this year, before the reckoning of the final harvest on the equinox.  I spent Lammas thinking about what I have created so far this year and what I still want to do before the harvest.  I think about and give thanks for the work I’ve put in, but also consider what I might have to sacrifice over the coming weeks to achieve my goals.  The day after Lammas, a hint of autumn crept in: mist over the sea, rain, thunder and wind.  The first day in many that I’ve wanted to cosy up indoors.  But the seals are still on our island, a sign that the responses I’m waiting for on my novel might still come.

Summer is a season for recognition, for sharing your gifts with the wider world.  Inese, over at Inesemjphotography recently nominated me for the Very Inspiring Blogger award.  Inese shares some wonderful photos on her site and I particularly love her nature photography.  Pat over at Plain talk and ordinary wisdom has nominated me for the Butterfly Light award.  Pat shares inspiring stories that might be told around her kitchen table.  Pat and I took part in a blog hop recently, so you can learn more about her here.  Though I no longer take part in awards, I’d like to thank Pat and Inese for thinking of me and, instead of following the rules, I’m sharing links to three bloggers I’ve recently discovered, all of whom have a strong focus on nature and connecting with the earth.  At this time of the first harvest, I hope you’ll pay them a visit:

My wild life is about the adventures of a zoologist working in the Inner Hebrides.

Maia of the birds writes about shamanism, poetry and nature.

Partridge, Pine and Peavey is about the outdoors and the people who live in it.

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.)

Completion

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As we approach the autumn equinox, which is a point of perfect balance within the year, wind and rain have heralded a palpable change in the season.  Though the vegetation is still green and the trees are clinging to their foliage, the first few leaves litter the park.  I notice berries everywhere: fat clusters of rowan, glossy rosehips, fiery sea buckthorn and white snowberries.  Fungi still fruits and disappears overnight.  Seeds latch on to clothing and drift through windows.  The heating is on once more and I often wrap a blanket around me to keep me warm.  The nights have darkened rapidly and it won’t be long before we put the clocks back.

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Night and day are equal on the equinox, as they are in spring, but this time, the hours of darkness will take over, with the nights lengthening until the solstice in December.  This is the time for turning inwards, both physically, when we don’t feel so much like leaving the house, but also mentally.  It’s the season of the mind and of the soul, when we can rest, be still and concentrate on intellectual and spiritual concerns.  If we’re willing to embrace the darkness, this can be a time of deep creativity.

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But before the stillness arrives, the turbulent energies of this transition must come into equilibrium.  It’s a season of storms in the physical world and just as in the spring, it can be a challenging time mentally, as we let go of the light and expansion of summer and accept the coming darkness and repose.  For me, it brings a return to a challenging time of year in my day job after a couple of weeks of holiday, when I once again feel constrained by the routine stresses that suck energy from family life and creativity.  In her excellent post, Unpeeled, Helen White captures many of the things I am feeling at this time of year.

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At Lammas, we celebrated the grain harvest, but at the equinox, we celebrate the completion of the harvest, when the final fruits and vegetables are brought in.  It’s a time of reckoning, when our ancestors would discover whether or not the harvest was enough to see them though the winter.  In the UK, this is a crucial harvest for many farmers, after the wet summer last year and this year’s long winter and slow spring.  If you’re like me, you buy your groceries without giving too much thought to the effort involved in bringing them to harvest – I hardly noticed the bad harvest last year, because I could still buy the fruit and vegetables I wanted.  This year, I’ve been learning more about what it takes to produce the food I eat and it’s given me a great respect for all the attention paid to each crop.

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But this is a time of reckoning for all of us, when we identify and celebrate our more personal achievements.  The goals we set in spring with hopefulness have either come to fruition or not.  This is a good time to gather together symbols of what you have achieved this year – completed work, plaudits, awards, complimentary words, new ideas, new connections – and display them in your own ‘harvest festival’.

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But the cycle always continues, so just as the farmers will be planting new seeds into the stubble of the current harvest, it’s also time to begin thinking of the seeds you will nurture next spring.  Consider what went well this year and what you could do differently to have a more bountiful harvest next year.  And begin to think about the ideas you can contemplate and refine during the long winter slumber, ready to be sown in spring.

If you’re in the southern hemisphere, you will be experiencing the spring equinox, so you may find this post of interest.

The spirit of the corn

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Lammas arrives on 1st August and heralds the slow fading of summer.  This is the beginning of the end for the sun, when the first hints of autumn are in the air.  But on this Lammas Day, you would never imagine that autumn would ever come.  This has been the hottest July for seven years in the UK and, as August arrives, we are still in the sticky centre of a heat wave.  The summer flowers have been vibrant, the air busy with insects and for many, the heat is welcome after the cold, slow spring.  But for a nation that loves to talk about the weather, we’re ill-prepared to deal with its caprices.  The humidity has been relentless, stopping thinking, cultivating ill-temper and indolence.  The shops have run out of fans and huge sums of money are changing hands by those desperate to conquer the heat.  On the evening of Lammas Day, I’m travelling south.  Two hundred miles and still in the north, but when we get out of the car at the services the air is so humid and thick, it’s as though we’ve stepped off a plane into a hot country.

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Lammas is sometimes known as the harvest of the first fruits and is the time when the wheat is harvested.  If it has been a good year, it is a time of abundance, when summer is still in full bloom and the gathering of the first harvest is celebrated.  But it is also a time of sacrifice.  The corn must be cut down to feed us.  The spirit of the corn, which is really the essence of the summer sun, retreats to the last few stalks of corn and is cut down by the crone goddess with her sickle.  Traditionally, the last stalks of corn were woven into a corn dolly, to provide a refuge for the spirit of the corn during the darkness of winter, until it was released once more over the fields at spring time.   The dolly is decorated with red ribbon to represent the sacrificial blood of the corn spirit.  Travelling south on Lammas, I observed the harvest in various stages: the wheat still slightly green further north, combine harvesters in mid-harvest to the south, and cylinders of hay dotting the fields.  The corn dolly I have made is a simple one, representing the power of the sun and the lessons I learned about my creativity at the summer solstice.  It will hang above the hearth – the heart of the home – throughout the winter, as a reminder.

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But the harvest of the wheat brings transformation as well as sacrifice.  It is cut down and ground into flour, to be transformed into bread and other baked goods.  The sacrifice is worth it, for the alchemy it brings.  This is a hopeful time: a premonition of the bounty of the September harvest to come.  It’s a time to be thankful for what we have harvested thus far, to recognise and celebrate the hard work that has led to these first fruits of our labour.  If, like me, you used the time around Imbolc to plan your new creative goals and re-dedicate yourself to your creative path, what first fruits of that creativity have you been able to harvest?  Have you recognised the sacrifices of time and effort you have made to reach this first harvest, or have you not sacrificed enough for it to have borne fruit?  Lammas is another pause in the year when we can consider where we have come from and what we still need to do to achieve our goals.  What do you need to do to ensure your creative harvest for the year is an abundant one?

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My first intimation of autumn comes a week after Lammas.  Taking the dog for his early morning walk, I notice the dew thick on the grass.  From a distance, it looks like frost and I feel the relief of the autumn to come.  The air is becoming cooler and over the next few days, I have to wear an extra layer in the mornings for warmth.  I see the first blackberries and haws in the hedgerows, still small and green but already promising their autumn harvest.  The lavender still buzzes with bees, but the flowers are fading and its summer vibrancy has passed.

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I’m fortunate that I no longer need to rely on the harvest in the way that my ancestors did.  If the harvest fails, I will still have the sustenance I need to live through the winter.  So this is also a time to think of those who don’t have what they need to see them through and to consider what you can do to help.  This may be practical help, such as donating food to those who need it.  But in addition to this, perhaps we can use our creativity to help those who may have enough in the way of food and shelter, but need some kind of mental or spiritual sustenance to make it through the darkest months.

If you live in the Southern hemisphere, you may want to read Quickening, written at Imbolc, which will be more relevant to the energies in your area at this time of year.