Badgered

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The forest is an emerald, accented by blushes of pink. Trailing larches, tottering pines, glossy-leaved rhododendrons. Flowers of campion and herb Robert. Luscious rhododendron blooms now past their best. And spears of foxglove, like torches in the shade.

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It shouldn’t be the summer solstice.  In this strange year in which the seasons haven’t unfolded in the way they should, it doesn’t feel like midsummer. Already, after today, the sunlight will slowly begin to contract, but I’m not yet ready for the fade into autumn and winter – winter has only just left.

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It isn’t the first time I’ve spent midsummer’s eve in the woods, but this is a different forest. An opportunity to wander different paths and feel as though I’m losing myself on them. A chance for solace among the trees.

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I haven’t yet discovered the places of magic: the enchanted glades and secret groves in which the spirit of the woods dwells. Perhaps this will be one of them: this avenue of oaks, buffered by pinewoods, one end of the avenue leading into wide open fields, the other to a leafy tunnel and a shimmer of light. Perhaps it will be this old ash tree, with its eccentrically holey trunk. Perhaps one of these bowed wooden bridges, perhaps the patch of foxgloves that spears the gloom or the pine garlanded by honeysuckle. There are paths upon paths here, or so it seems. Paths spongy and red with fallen pine needles. Paths of mown grass lush with clover. Paths overgrown with hogweed parasols.

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The sound of the forest: the trill and whistle of bird song; the clatter of wood pigeon wings; the creak of trees; the susurration of wind through leaves. In the morning, the birds are busy and bloated with song. None of them wants to be silent – they all compete, singing over one another. In the afternoon, a veil of sleepiness descends. The blackbird still trills occasionally, the chiff chaff still calls, the tits still chitter, but in the afternoon the birds sound faint and far away. There is the laziness of sun slanting through trees, of small birds leisurely feeding. Even the wood pigeon’s coo is gone. In the afternoon, the birds allow one another to be heard.

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The air is filled with the whirr of small wings: blue tits, great tits, coal tits, chaffinch, robin. A tree creeper shimmies up a pine and a long-tailed tit balances in a nearby birch. Two woodpeckers scale the thinnest of trees, woodpigeons clatter up in the gods. A blue tit is mobbed by its young. They flit from branch to branch as it collects food, then chitter and spin their wings until their mouths are full. Squirrels and rabbits graze on the grass beside a tiny mouse. And in the evenings the big birds swoop in – jays, crows and wood pigeons.

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Perhaps the spirit of the woods is here, in the small glade just beyond my cabin. A gathering of pines and a young beech stand in a circle. What might be a faint path leads to the clearing, lined with bracken on one side, rhododendron on the other. The centre of the glade is carpeted in still-green pine needles and young brambles. This is the place where the sunlight streams in through the trees. Entering via a row of three birches, painting them lime, before drippling into the clearing. This is a place where you might dance sky clad on midsummer’s eve.

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But perhaps the magic here isn’t a place at all. Perhaps it is a time. At dusk, when the rabbits and birds have gone and old brock appears. Half an hour before sunset, I see him come, my first badger, nosing along the path from the enchanted glade as though it gave birth to him. He is unexpectedly soft in appearance – I know that he has sharp teeth and big claws, but he has the air of a soft toy. He ambles, there is no other word for it. Picks up a piece of food and stumbles into the bushes to eat it. Soon, I’ll see the bush move and that familiar monochrome triangle of a head will appear, checking the coast is clear, then he ambles out for another piece. The same thing is repeated a dozen times. Then he scrapes in the dirt for worms, leaving untidy clods of soil. He knows I am here. Has looked up at me and sniffed. But he wants a closer look. He walks to the deck and stands on hind paws, lifting his head to sniff again through the fence. Every night, a badger appears, sometimes two. On my last night there is a family with a cub.

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Away from the forest, the sunlight is harsh, without trees to shield me from the sun’s glare.  The heat is close and fierce.  It is easier here to recognise that it is summer after all, with weeks left of sunlight before the descent into winter.  I have never enjoyed the heat.  When it gets too much, I will find a shady spot and recall the enchanted shade of the woods and the creatures who visited me there.

Transition

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It is the dawn of the summer solstice, the longest day of the year.  This midsummer dawn is a time of transitions.  For a moment the sun stands still, before the year turns into another season.  Later today, the moon will become full, the first time in half a century that it has done so on a summer solstice.  It is the fourth full moon in a season, something that happens seven times within a 19 year cycle.  High tide coincides with dawn, reaching its own zenith before ebbing.  At spring equinox, I was at the other end of the causeway, marooned on the island with the seals.  Today the tide resists me, barring entry.

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In the west, last night’s moon is setting.  It hangs suspended, an amber globe, almost at its potential.   In the east, the horizon hints at sunrise.  A slash of yellow silhouettes gloomy clouds.  Pinprick lights glow from ships far out at sea.  Clouds dwarf the ships as though pressing them downwards.  They look small and lonely out there.

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As the light grows, sand martins flicker across the water and back to their burrows in the cliffs.  There are some ducks that might be eiders in the distance.  But there are no bird calls, only the relentless growl of the sea.  A flock of geese flies silently overhead, in the midst of changing positions in their V.  The sky is all luminous pastels and foreboding greys.  A yellow stripe daubs the horizon.   The clouds play at masquerade: brush-strokes, wire wool, snow-clad peaks and blotched fur adorning the sky.

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This is a time for empowerment and some would say the combination of a fourth full moon with the solstice emphasises that power.  It’s a time to renew energy, to inhale the lightness of the season, because after today we’re already heading towards darkness.   But there has been little in the way of sun recently and much of drizzly rain and grey skies.  This morning, I don’t feel empowered, I feel tired.  And yet, there is a simmering power in the silence, if not of the sun, then of sea and sky.

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Our world has both expanded and contracted this week.  We shared home, food, lives and experiences with a visitor from America, reminding us that we are different but much the same.  But our world has suddenly grown smaller.  We’ve chosen to withdraw from Europe and become an island again.   In this season of looking outwards, many of us have chosen to look the other way.   This is a country enclosed by sea and sky.  It would be easy to view it as a barrier and this island as a fortress.  But when I stand at the sea’s edge, I see only an expanse of possibility.  It’s what allows me to breathe.

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Summer is a time of plenty, when we enjoy the bounty of what is around us.  But not for everyone and there’s a fear that there isn’t enough to go around.  The divisions are showing, between young and old, between those with and without.  It seems that we are in chaos and uncertainty as we confront the descent into winter.   In town, I’m surprised that people are going about their business as though nothing has happened.  This is another transition – we stood still as the votes came in with another dawn.  Now the sun recedes, even as summer comes, and we as a people are withdrawing too.

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It’s time to collect what we can from the summer to empower and sustain us into the winter.  To gather our sustenance from the light, the heat, the bounty of the land and the swelling of our imaginations.  I can’t help but feel sad today at what we may have given up, but I take my sustenance from the quiet power of the solstice dawn.  From the wide open sky and the potential of the horizon.  Transition always comes and in itself, it’s neither good nor bad, only a change from one way of being to another.

Greeting the dawn

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We slip out in the half-light of solstice morning and head for the sea.  It’s the beginning of the longest day and our purpose is to greet the sun as it rises.  We head for our island, our soul-place, to watch the dawn.  Already we can see that the sun is in hiding behind thick cloud and the signs are that it won’t be visible all day.  The clouds are blue-grey and pink-blushed.  A small slash in the clouds seeps orange light.  It’s chillier than it has been all this hot, humid week.  As the dawn progresses, we still don’t see the sun, but narrow shafts of light fall from sky to sea creating a luminous path across the water.

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Sunrise and low tide are within fifteen minutes of one another today.  This seems appropriate, for the solstice is the tipping point when the sun stands still for a moment in time, before the year begins to ebb and low tide is a point when the tide stands still just before it turns.  We create an image of the sun, using shells and kelp so that we’ll leave nothing permanent behind us.  It’s a transitory image that will be washed away by the next high tide.  An honouring of the sun at the height of its power, but also an acknowledgement that this power is transient and will soon begin to fade into shorter, colder days.  Alone on the beach, two women and a dog, we welcome the sun, thanking it for its light, which gives us life.

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The luscious spring is giving way to summer.  Spring has seemed limitless.  So much abundance of life, prompted by the warm weather and rainy start to the year.  The landscape is changing every week.  Right now, it’s the season of meadows.  There’s something blithe and joyful about meadows: slender, delicate flowers and feathery grasses blurring into a mass of colour and texture.  I smile as I walk along paths bordered by meadows.

Summer is bright, expansive and open, but it is also the season of tiny things.  Things that flit across our path so quickly we don’t know what they are.  Things that hide in the undergrowth and buzz among the leaves.  Creatures that have their own miniature beauty if we take the time to study them.

And it is the season of babies, emerging into the wondrous and perilous world.  The gull nesting across from my office is now guarding two fluffy chicks.  Baby starlings click and hiss in parks and on pavements.  And at the ponds, the ducklings have appeared.

It’s the season of empowerment, when we use the height of the sun’s energy to replenish and charge our batteries for the autumn that will come soon enough.  And a time when we turn outwards, to seek worldly success.  For me, it’s a season of unwinding.  Many of the writing goals I set myself are well on their way to being achieved.  And once my book went out to query and stories out for submission, it was like a natural stop.  This time for me is less about the ‘work’ of writing and more about fun and exploration.  So I’ve been taking a rest from fiction to blog and paint, which feels like the right way to re-charge my creative energies for the harvest to come.

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And like a glorious omen, our solstice morning ends with delight.  My novel, The skin of a selkie, is set on this island with seals featuring strongly in the story.  But although I know that they occasionally visit, in all the years I’ve come to this place I’ve never once seen a seal on the island.  Until, that is, this morning.  There, out on the rocks, half a dozen grey seals, at rest.  We watch them from a distance so as not to disturb them    To be here, on solstice morning and to see those seals with my book out there awaiting its fate, well, it feels like a gift just for us.

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.)

The sun stands still

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The meadow is the essence of summer.  Sun-drenched, delicate grasses swaying gently in a light breeze; spindly bobbing buttercups; squat purple clover and pale pink ragged robin with their windmill-shaped petals.  Swallows are lightning acrobats, diving low over the meadow to eat their fill of insects.  Butterflies and bees meander from flower to flower.  A procession of three male pheasants clucks through the grass, their bright plumage just visible among the vegetation.  A brook, glutted after days of rain, gurgles in the background.  The surrounding forest wears its summer plumage with abandon, oak and ash and pine lush with leaf and entwined with the hedonism of rhododendrons in luminous pink flower.

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Solstice is one of my favourite words.  I find the sound of it soothing and mysterious.  It conjures magic and anticipation.  Literally, its meaning is simple: ‘the standing still of the sun’.  And this idea too, I find evocative – a tipping point, when all in the heavens is unmoving, before the next phase in the cycle begins.  Solstice marks both the longest day, at midsummer and the longest night, in the dark of December.  The midsummer solstice signifies both plenty – the longest day when the sun is at the height of its power – but also heralds the lean winter to come.

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If you pay quiet attention, you can already sense the loss in the air.  It isn’t quite tangible, but from this day, the daylight will become shorter as the summer inevitably ends.  And yet this is a paradox, since it is following the solstice that summer for us in the UK really begins.  The hottest months are still to come, the summer holidays, the season of being outdoors.  Summer solstice is a celebration of all those carefree events that happen when there is an abundance of light.  The transition to shortening days is a reminder that everything moves in a cycle, but for now, we should celebrate what we have and enjoy the things that are bearing fruit for us.

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Here, the slow spring has finally blossomed into summer.  The days have been humid, flowers are blooming and you can hear the song of the summer birds.  While I would always choose the delights of autumn and winter over those of summer, my soul responds to the season’s energies almost despite itself.  I feel lighter and more open.  I want to be outside in the long days and evenings.  My body craves the fresh fruits and vegetables of the season.  I like to feel the heat on my skin.  I want to go down to the sea and plunge in to the cool water.  Perhaps the reason summer is my least favourite season is because I’m much more comfortable turning inwards to the succour of darkness and solitude, but we all need a pause from introversion to replenish the lightness of our being.

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Summer solstice is a time for empowerment.  As the crops are ripening in the fields and the fruits on the trees, so the creative projects we germinated and nurtured in spring begin to bloom.  If we chose our projects wisely and invested the time, energy and resources they needed during the growing season, we should now be feeling pleased with what is emerging.  Midsummer is the time for success and material wellbeing and is a good time to put energy into making outward success happen.  But at the personal level, it is about renewing your energy and healing.  The long days and warmth should make us feel more vital.  They should also make us more outward looking.  Creatively, we could use this lighter aspect to be looser, more experimental, liberating ourselves from looking inward in the way we would in the darker seasons.  To be most effective creatively, we need to attend both to our physical health, by taking advantage of fresh produce and opportunities to be active, but also our mental health, by absorbing light, warmth and the rejuvenating effect of green spaces.

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How can you empower yourself around the solstice to renew your creativity?  How can you build up and store the season’s energy to get you through the winter to come?  It’s traditional on the summer solstice to stay awake all night, holding vigil until dawn comes and we can greet the sun, particularly at those ancient sites that are aligned to it at this time of year.  Why not devise a vigil that uses the images and energies of midsummer to help boost your creativity for the remaining year?  You don’t need to hold vigil on the solstice itself for this to have a benefit to you – any time around midsummer will do and it will be more practical to choose a time when you don’t have commitments the next day.

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You could spend the darkest hours of the night meditating on your creative work this past year and which aspects of your creative energies need to be replenished.  Lighting a fire or a candle can remind you that creativity, like the sun, is cyclical and will come and go.  Do you fly through your creative projects when your energy is high without really noticing it and become despondent when it seems to ebb, or do you recognise and accept that you have your own cycles of creative energy?  Greeting the dawn, in whichever way makes sense to you, represents the return of creativity, whenever it comes.  At noon, when the sun is at its strongest, you could consider how best to recognise, use and harvest your creativity when it is at its peak.  Then, at sunset, as the sun wanes, think about how you can accept the ebbs in creative energy and use what you have harvested to get you through the barren periods.

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This solstice, the forest is my creative vigil.  I have come here to replenish my energy, take in the sun through long walks and revel in the flower-studded meadows.  At dawn, I notice the moon still bright through the trees and the cacophony of birdsong in the silence.  Our longer walks take place in the morning, before the sun peaks, so noon is spent bathing in the dappled heat on the tree-shaded deck, losing myself in art magazines and an absorbing book.  Sunset is for bat-hunting, listening to the guttural sound of pipistrelles on the bat detector as they flit through the trees around the cabin.  Just like summer, this is a fleeting point in the year that I can hold onto to get me through the winter.  Knowing that when it’s over, it won’t be too long before I come again, to feel that same sigh of relief as my spirit relaxes.  Already, I want to paint again and invent new stories.

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But there is death too in the forest, reminding us that the sun has reached its zenith and can now only wane until the winter solstice.  A thrush, taking its dying breaths on our veranda, seemingly untouched, but fading each minute, until we lay it to rest with a prayer under a bower of rhododendron, returning it to the forest.  Three tiny moles, only feet apart on the woodland path, their soft pink noses upturned in death.  The bee that strayed too close to the hot tub and ended its life in a bubbling dance of legs and wings.  Death, reminding me that I need to seize the energy the forest has given me.  I must use this energy, not waste it, when I return home, because it, like the season, is all too fleeting.