Along the tracks

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There’s something exuberant about the blooms of August.  As though summer, knowing it is on its last legs, throws all its efforts into a medley of colour before its time is over.  It is the season of vivid purples and zesty yellows: great tangles of willowherbs, thistles and buddleia bordering knots of ragwort, great mullein and weld.  And the lush white bindweed trumpets creeping nefariously over them all.

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Nowhere is this more obvious than along the tracks.  This is railway country, the place where the ‘father of the railways’ was born.  George Stephenson built his first locomotive to transport coal down these tracks.  The county is scored with the remains of the old lines, waggon-ways that ferried coal from the Great Northern Coalfield to the river Tyne.  It was first carried on wooden tracks in horse-drawn carts, then on metal rails by stationary steam engines hauled by ropes and finally by steam locomotive.

SAMSUNG CSCThese days, no locomotives pass this way, except perhaps in dreams in the dead of night.  The rails are long gone, replaced by paths.  Lined with hawthorn hedges, abundant in wild flowers.  Birds, hares and other creatures inhabit these tracks now, burrowing into the banks and flitting through the hedges.  Whereas once they were noisy with heavy industry, now they are peaceful trails in the midst of towns.

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In this topsy turvy and unsettled year, my creativity hasn’t followed its usual path.  I struggled to feel the celebration of summer and bring my box of dreams to fruition.  Yet something strange has happened in the last few weeks.  When I venture out, all I see is potential.  Fat, glossy rosehips, scores of blackberries, elderberries and haws.  Most still green, some beginning to turn, but only the potential of what they will become.   And my creative energy has suddenly revived: I find myself fervently writing, reading and submitting before the final harvest comes.  Like summer, I am giving the season my best efforts before the autumn tide takes over.

Unsettled

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It has been a season of fits and starts.  I struggle to find the rhythm of creativity.  There are moments when I catch the thread of it, begin to weave it into the trace of a pattern.  But then the design is lost, strands abandoned on the loom or fading into incoherence.  This is not a fallow period, nor a fit of the doubt doldrums.  It is something altogether more insidious than that.  Anxiety haunts my mornings and the year is vexed by a mercurial bleakness.  And the poverty of creative inspiration disquiets me.

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The weather too can’t settle into a rhythm.  Languid days fretted with heat, the air thick, close and stale.  I struggle to breathe in the treacly heat.  Rain of every kind: heavy splodges, misty drizzle, pin-prick hail.  Moments of storm-quiet, those rich, still moments when you feel the coming of the storm in your blood.  And magnificent rumbles of thunder, moaning across the sky as though they never want to end.

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The summer meadows are blooming, but already the flowers look crisp and ragged around the edges.  The Dene beds are empty of water, the ponds stagnant.  Wild cherries jewel the trees and lie abandoned on the grass, unwanted by the birds.  But small creatures flutter everywhere, over clouds of ox-eye daisies that invade the land like delicate occupiers.  The birds are quieting, as they do after the hard work of spring.  This is weather to seek out a patch of grass under the shade of a tree and to feel its cooling balm.

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I struggle with this part of the season.  My body feels the turn of the solstice, the inconspicuous move towards shorter days.  I begin to long for autumn, for curling up and turning inwards.  I dislike the heat and the excesses of summer, my least favourite season.  But we are just moving into the most extrovert months of the year, long hot days filled with the voices of freed children, the acid tang of barbecue smoke and the waft of music.  It’s a paradox that my spirit battles against.  But this, like every other season, like every state of mind, is transient and perhaps this year, the pattern is an acceptance of that.

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.

Renewal

SAMSUNG CSCSummer is slowly fading in the forest.  Though the foliage appears as lush as it was at midsummer, everywhere there are small signs of transformation.  The meadow is no longer dense with summer flowers and the sumptuous blossoms of the rhododendrons are gone.  Instead, there are dried seed heads where blooms would have been.  The birds are muted and difficult to see.  The bats are invisible.  The opulent red berries of the rowan punctuate the greenery, while lilac heather blooms in clumps beneath the trees.  A squirrel that inhabits the trees above our cabin obsessively gathers beech nuts, showering the verandah with shells like hailstones.  Sun still washes the forest and during the day the sky is baby blue and cloudless.  But the clear, star-speckled nights are chilled and silent.

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Flowers have a flighty, exaggerated beauty: lavish, unruly and destined to be short-lived.  But there is a different kind of allure to the burnt browns and pearly silvers of the seed heads.  They are slender and skeletal, or brittle and gnarled, poised to crumble to dust in your fingers.  Behind the visible transformations, there is a sense that there are hidden labours taking place within the forest, secret preparations for the autumn and winter to come.

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To me, September has always been a time of transformation.  Perhaps there is something instinctual about this, a sense memory of the change of the season and the transition to winter.  But more prosaically, it’s a recollection of the return to school after the long summer holidays, when there was always an opportunity to return transformed, a different person to the one that left in July.  Classmates would grow and change during the summer and we would all go back with new clothes, new supplies, new hope for the school year to come.  And though I no longer get those luxuriously long holidays, September still seems like the time when change arrives.  It’s an end to the blowsy exhibitionism of summer and a turning inwards to the snug serenity of autumn.  I feel the shift within, a murmur of relief after the immodesty of summer.

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I’ve always been attracted to the concept of transformation.  Transformation is the thing I love about stories.  Whatever the genre, the one thing that makes a story satisfying for me is to watch the metamorphosis of the characters within it.  I’ll never enjoy a purely plot-driven narrative in the same way as a more intricate character-based tale.  This is the joy of reading.  To read about other people so that we can learn about other ways of being.  And it’s the joy of creation.  To witness the ways in which we transform our characters on the page.

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Nature offers us spectacular transformations.  The brutal annihilation of the caterpillar, turned to pulp in its chrysalis to emerge as a butterfly.  The glorious eruption of the autumn leaves, before they wither and crumble beneath our feet.  But for us, the transformation is often quieter.  We may not realise we’re going through the process of change until it’s over and then we’re amazed at how different our lives have become.  When we’re younger, we can’t wait for transformation: to become older, to grow more independent.  When we’re older, we often resist it.  We may say we want to change, but don’t want to experience the discomfort of discarding the parts of us we no longer need and forging new ones.

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But change is inevitable and reading or writing about it allows us to experience it with only temporary discomfort.  We can try out different lives, different adventures and immerse ourselves in all of the diverse things that are possible (or impossible, depending on the genre) within the safety of our imaginations.  So that when we do decide to transform ourselves, or when transformation comes unbidden, we know that there is a path to follow, or we have the confidence to create our own.

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.

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.

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.