Rushes for Brigid

Finished crosses on the display quilt (after several days of drying time.)

One of our current family traditions is making Brigid crosses out of rushes. It is a fun, simple activity my daughter and I do together, and talk about who Brigid is and the festival of Imbolc itself. The crosses are the end of the process however, the first part is to gather enough rushes to make a cross each.

This year the responsibility of rush gathering fell to me, since I was the only person free last Friday. Previously we have collected them together, so I have had someone to pull me out of the ditch and laugh at my wet foot…

The weather was cold, snow was forecast but missed us almost entirely, meaning it should be easy to gather a few stalks. But where? Rushes are one of those really common plants that you can never find when you need it. I had been keeping a lookout over the previous couple of weeks or so, but places I have seen rushes in the past were bare of them. Land dries out. Houses get built. Sheep and cows eat them. The drainage ditch, used previously, was not an option this year. Luckily a walk in January along a footpath new to me showed me a currently ungrazed field where there were some rushes growing, although having driven there to save short legs the boring bits and spend more time doing good or new bits, it was further from our house than I would have liked.

I decided I could manage the walk, a 5-6 mile circle, if I took a snack and had a rest somewhere and put my trust in Brigid. I treated it as a walking meditation on Brigid and Imbolc.

Single Rush plant, Juncus effusus, by stream

It seems very fitting that the plant I was looking for grows in damp ground, and the first single plant I found was by the start of a little stream. Brigid is of course known for her healing wells and springs – as well as fires, hearth and home, where the crosses are traditionally placed once made deepening the connection with her. (Ours are on our mantelpiece.)

However, I did not want to pick all from one plant, and this one was so perfect, being protected from horses by the tree, it didn’t seem right to take any. A second plant grew by the fence so I gathered a few stalks, but not enough for a cross.

Rushes eaten almost to ground level.

I continued up to the next field, where there were a lot of rush plants in the boggy ground from which the stream flows, but all had been cropped close to the ground.

Gentle but very curious cows on the footpath.

And then, a herd of cows across the footpath. Why should I expect otherwise on Brigid’s day? She kept me safe, and they gently moved out of the way before closing in again behind me. There were a few bullocks, curious and coming towards me for a closer look, but they seemed quite a calm lot, as (thankfully) were the longhorns I found later – complete with bull next to the footpath. I was very glad the mud by the squeeze stile was frozen solid, however.

Circle oak tree.

The furthest point from home was not the rush field, but a small patch of woodland where wild daffodils and bluebells grow. It is noisy, thanks to the nearby dual carriageway, but that means if I can tune it out, a meditation is rarely disturbed. I waited to see which tree called me for a sit down – and discovered this wonderful oak.

Close up of the circle oak.

The hole was too difficult for me to risk climbing through without help, (I wasn’t sure if I would fit all the way, especially with the branch across the middle!) but after my rest and grounding on the frozen earth, I put my head through and felt the tree’s energies circling me. I stayed there for some minutes, exchanging energies.

Soggy, frozen field where rushes grow.

Finally I left the woodland and descending, found my field, again luckily frozen (there is a good reason why I haven’t walked this path before!) with many small rush plants growing now the cows have been moved. I picked a few stalks from several until I had enough, they would make small crosses this year but size wasn’t important. In fact, I found later they behaved very well without splitting as thicker stalks can. Frozen myself, I put all in my rucksack, gloves back on my hands, crossed the stream and began the long walk back up the hill to home. I had a celebration to prepare for.

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Imbolc

I love this time of year with its increasing light, and snowdrops. I love Spring more, and early Summer is even better, but Imbolc holds promise. As a gardener, and being connected to the land, that is special.

Hazel Catkins lengthening

Maybe it is because I am an eternal optimist, always looking forwards, wanting to see what is coming and believing that it will be even better than the present. Ever hopeful. I like the planning for a holiday and the dreaming. I like the preparing for events. The pregnancy. I become part of it then, not just presented with someone else’s finished masterpiece.

Imbolc is even more special than a promise, though. It is the beginnings of light, and life, and putting plans into action that have been incubating all winter. They may have been planned since Samhain or slightly earlier, or they may be unconscious desires that have been there for a while. Whichever, at Imbolc they suddenly burst into the light and make us aware of them, and what needs doing.

My first Pagan initiation was at Imbolc, definitely a case of an unconscious longing and then bursting out into the light in a wave of illuminations where all made sense to me and fell into place. I have been a Pagan all my life, in my spiritual outlook, in the things I celebrate, and suddenly discovered there were others like me. On Imbolc I found out what I was, the reasons for everything – and within a few days made a promise to myself that changed my life.

A hardy cyclamen withstands a flurry of snow

As I celebrate this personal anniversary, I am struck by how many changes in my life have been initiated in February, and then been ‘harvested’ or have taken full effect in the autumn. Not all, but a disproportionately high number. Which makes me wonder as I approach this festival what change might be initiated this February? I’ll maybe let you know next autumn!

[This post was written two days ago, but an unexpected lack of internet connection delayed things…]

A New Year and Castlerigg Stone Circle

Castlerigg Stone Circle

As the title of this post may suggest, I have been on holiday in Cumbria, where we welcomed in the New Year by doing a lot of walking in wild spaces. Oddly this particular stone circle is not wild at all, being in a well maintained field, a few yards from a road with parking spaces just outside Keswick. However it is surrounded by mountains so must have the best views of any circle I know.

A circle represents completeness as well as the cyclical nature of life and each year within it. All people and all compass directions are represented equally, just as on this day there were many visitors speaking three or four different languages (that I heard), a great sharing global community. Many circles were built in alignment with sunrises and sunsets; this one is no exception, with several possible sight lines for sunrises at different times of the year, especially the solstices. While not there at sunset, I was able to see that all directions are visible, and that several rocks to appear to line up with specific fells and with compass directions.

Castlerigg showing part of the inner enclosure.

The circle is on an ancient trade route from Langdale, a centre for stone axes, three of which have been found on the site. It is probably no coincidence that it is also one of the oldest stone circles in the country dating from the late Neolithic period rather than Bronze Age, just after the transition from henges. I had a sense of a demarcated space – the inner, square enclosure felt different to the circle as a whole and seemed reserved for particular people or ceremonies. I also had a sense that it may have had different purposes over a long period of usage, but overall it had a spiritual rather than a trading feel; any trade that happened here was probably on the periphery by virtue of people being brought together, rather than the intention of the site.

I was there on the last day of the old calendar year, and took the opportunity to say thank you for the year I have had, as I continue growing in inner peace and harmony with the world around me, doing lots of what I love. I can now walk 6 miles on a good day provided I sit down when I stop, and have managed 4 new ‘Wainwright’ fells over the year bringing my total to 54, a quarter of the 214 he wrote about. I may not do them all, I may not even want to, but each one is a walk in a new place I haven’t been before. Best of all, they have been done with my family, my daughter now walking as far as I can.

Castlerigg looking West.

A year ago I set myself a challenge “to love more, to see the good in everyone and every situation, even when I am not feeling calm inside.” Somehow I had forgotten I wrote this, and yet it has happened anyway – once again proving to me how when I set my intentions strongly they manage to come through. I recently made a new intention, remarkably similar: to make sure all my relationships are positive. It started when I realised how much easier it was to start a conversation by commenting on something bad such as complaining about the weather than it is to say something good. I have already been working to change that, and to protect myself from negativity where necessary, but I would like to feel that even the shortest, briefest contact with a person can increase happiness in each of us. I have a little way to go yet…

I also realised that it isn’t just relationships with humans I should ensure are positive, but with everything in my life. Trees and most plants already are, but money, transport – I have long talked to my bicycle but am not so keen on the car, sewing machines, pens and pencils, books, musical instruments … anything I bring into my life and use, I develop a relationship with. A positive partnership is more pleasurable and life-affirming than regarding everything as tools to serve me, or even worse, getting frustrated with it.

This is certainly what I saw at Castlerigg circle; people being happy together and in the wonderful mountain space that surrounded us, Earth and Air in perfect balance and harmony.

Castlerigg Stone Circle

Happy Yule!

Barn Owl Linoprint


I am not normally an owl person, but I seem to have been aware of them quite a bit recently and they seemed to want me to create some artwork with them. They are after all a common witch’s familiar, along with cat, frog and hare which have been with me for approximately 40, 10 and 2 years respectively. (I’m being selective here, penguins, dragons, snakes and butterflies don’t fit the witch image so well!)

The background idea for this card came to me in the autumn, as the trees lost their leaves and trunks were the most noticeable part. Some of the cards I printed gave the trees a misty effect. Not intentional, it is due to my inefficient inking, but I rather liked it and it matched the weather we were having at the time.

The barn owl is a beauty and one I have occasionally heard calling across valleys, usually when camping, without always knowing what it was. Quite different from the twit twoo of tawny owls! They are not actually woodland creatures, yet the only places I have ever seen them in the wild have been along the edges of woodland, where it opens out to fields.

Owls hunt at night, when it is dark to most creatures, as they have excellent eyesight, much better than their prey. They bring the gifts of far-seeing, and seeing what was previously unseen, into our lives. They also have particularly long necks, so can turn their heads to see what is behind them, or sideways. Sometimes it is good to look at things from another angle. Or sometimes there are things we simply haven’t seen and owl will bring them into focus. Illusions and secrets will be seen through.

Another gift is silence. Thanks to the shape of their feathers with soft edges, owls can fly with far less noise than most birds. The barn owl is particularly well adapted for silence, as it has very large wings so can fly very slowly with no sound. Instead they will be listening; owl hearing is acute as their ears are not symmetrical, allowing them to pinpoint sounds accurately, while their heart-shaped face directs any sounds towards their ears. Listen beyond the background noise to what is really being said.

Unfortunately the payback for soft feathers in Barn owls is a lack of waterproofing. They cannot fly in wet weather, so will sometimes be seen during the day if there have been several wet nights. Take opportunities when they are available, even if it is not what is usually done.

There are many superstitions about owls, especially the barn owl, appearing silently as a ghostly-white apparition in the moonlight. The most common is that they foretell a death. Given the huge numbers of mice and other small animals they must catch each night to feed their family, that is certainly true! Spiritually however, death is often close to change as it usually means the end of something in our lives, ready for something new. Owl does often seem to bring this message, often also bringing an increase of intuition helping to smooth the change.

The Celts believed owls sometimes accompanied souls on their journey to the other side, and owls were often regarded as gatekeepers to other realms.
Conversely the Ancient Greeks liked their protection, particularly in battle, because they were patient and ever watchful. Like the Goddess Athena, they are seen as being full of wisdom and knOWLedge…

Thank You David Austin

Hips of Rosa Graham Thomas, photographed earlier today.

Thank you for the 240+ roses you created, that bloom from May until November. That cope with whatever the weather gives them. That smell beautiful. That combine with every possible style of planting. That grow so profusely in sun or in shade. That when they have finished still look wonderful through the winter with their hips. That attract all manner of insects. My garden and so many others would not be the same without them.

December buds of Rosa Graham Thomas, picked for the Winter Solstice.

Thank you for the rosebuds of Rosa ‘Graham Thomas’ I was unexpectedly able to pick today ready for our Winter Solstice table. An unexpected gift.

May you live on with joy in Spirit, as your roses live on in my garden, and all around the world.
b. 16 Feb 1926. d. 18 Dec 2018.

Communications and Trust

I seem to be having some new lessons in trust right now. One area of these lessons is in communications.

I don’t use a mobile phone. It is my choice, as to constantly carry something turned on or else need to be regularly checking it just doesn’t fit in with what I do right now. I have one, it is small and basic and was given to me when I was in hospital many times and there was no other easy method of getting in touch. I do generally take it with me in case I need to phone out, since a working payphone is no longer to be found in each village, so when the car had two punctures at the same time and my daughter was with me we were able to phone the breakdown service. If I ever needed to be in touch with school because something had happened to me then I could. But the other way round? Most messages reach me within an hour – and those that don’t, I believe I wasn’t meant to get.

While no missed messages have been a disaster, here are two memorable ones that brought unexpected joy.

The first, a little over three years ago, when I failed to get the message that the parent and child group we were attending was canceled. Having cycled with my daughter in a trailer for nearly five hilly and slow miles I was not in a position to turn around and go home without a stop and a drink for me, and a leg stretch for M. Realising our predicament, we were invited to join the kindergarten children in the garden and also shared a snack with them; when M turned three shortly after she went to the nursery, having had such a good time that morning.

The second last week, when the school was closed due to a boiler breakdown and supplementary heating proving inadequate. The friend I was supposed to be meeting for a walk also missed the message, so instead of us both being trapped in our houses looking after children who didn’t like the weather, a pavement discussion led to us all having a walk together and friendships grew, age differences forgotten. Future invitations have already been issued.

It reminds me that good things have more freedom to happen when we do not try to tightly control our lives. No panic or fear is needed, I can just trust I am where I need to be.

Fire and Rhubarb

I mentioned last week, in Happy Samhain, that I have been working quite a bit with the elements over the past year. Not for the first time, in fact the third, but I seem to go deeper and take longer each time. On this occasion I stayed with each element, exploring through meditation, ritual, appropriate outdoor activities and music, for around 6-8 weeks, and then mostly had a quick end when I realised I was going too far out of balance. Earth I gradually became ‘stuck in the mud’ and lethargic, not getting anything done. I also had molehills appear all over the place, in the middle of winter when I wasn’t otherwise digging the ground, forcing me to connect directly with the soil more than just walking. Water saw me crying a lot, and it raining a lot. The washing machine broke two pumps and flooded the kitchen on more than one occasion. My daughter suddenly decided she was ready to visit the swimming pool at last, enabling me to go too. Air saw strong winds and many ideas, if often impractical or challenging intellectually. The fence blew down. Fire saw drought and moorland fires, but I was being scared of it and in hindsight didn’t really open up to its teachings.

I ask myself, was I just more aware of each of these things because I am thinking about their element? No, I haven’t mentioned all of the occurrences, and there were way too many coincidences for it to simply be awareness, but that is part of being with the element too. I can say that within the year just gone they were the most extreme periods for each type of weather. But as I said, I didn’t really do Fire. I remember feeling relieved that I got through unscathed, no burning the house down or major temper outbursts, because I was deliberately keeping it in balance with the other elements.

However, I am now realising that fire is determined to teach me. The fire is relit within me and new projects are taking off – but I need to direct my energies better. In two weeks I have managed to burn an oven mitt, a pillowcase, a wooden spatula, and yesterday a pan that boiled dry. Finally I recognise what I am being shown. So having got the message at last, now I need to sort it out. Make my connection to Fire in a positive way, and use it to not only be creative but follow things through. To take action where action is needed.

Meanwhile, the totally blackened pan won’t scrub clean, so I look online for ideas. Vinegar and baking soda. Bio washing liquid. Well each did get it a bit better, but not so you’d notice if you hadn’t seen how it started out. Rhubarb, I thought. Was there any left? Despite the recent frosts there were four thin stems still with colour on them. I picked two, and boiled them in the pan. A bit of scrubbing, mainly with the burnt spatula, and I can see silver again. Fighting fire with fire.

Happy Samhain!

I spent the day yesterday pumpkin carving, preparing for the festival of Samhain and having a really joyful celebration of the year gone and the year coming.

This was the first truly joint pumpkin I have carved with my daughter, as her design input was equal to mine. After explaining that we weren’t going to carve a scary face, because Samhain isn’t intended to be a scary time of year (more connecting and thanking the dead, our ancestors, those who have gone before rather than being scared by ghosts) we thought about what things we were thankful for. Fairies. Flowers. Trees. Frogs. We can use cookie cutters, she said.

I have spent quite a bit of time over the past year going through the elements, so I decided to make my own thanks and celebration by organising them into four elemental groups, with three things for each one. We also had a five-pointed star for our lid, so that made a perfect 13 holes to be carved in the pumpkin.

My daughter’s washable pens were perfect for drawing the design on, especially as any traces can be easily removed afterwards, and where we had a suitable cutter she drew round them for me. Where we didn’t she found me a picture in one of her books to copy … luckily the pen can be rubbed out and corrections made!

I used a knife to cut the lid, then a melon baller has proved the most useful tool to cut through seed strings. This year I also used it to remove half the flesh from the inside so that the walls weren’t too thick to cut through, then cooked what I removed for pies later. Experience has taught me that a cookie cutter doesn’t cope with curved pumpkin skin very well, so after having drawn around them, I used a hacksaw blade taped to a piece of wood, which has been my trusty pumpkin carver for over a decade now. It turns corners better than a knife, although can leave edges ragged if not careful.

All four sides have holes in, making it hard to photograph, but right for us. Earth on the side that was on the ground, fire upwards to the sun, water and air in between. Some are animals, some, such as a musical note or the heart, are symbolic.

May you have bright blessings and a peaceful new year.

Elemental Pumpkin, showing Earth and Air, with Fire on the wall behind.

Autumn Flowers

Late October Cranesbill Geraniums

It is hard to believe that Samhain is next week when my garden is full of flowers that normally bloom in May or June.

Potentilla Miss Willmott still going

Several died back to ground level during the drought, put on growth in the rains of August, and the Campanulas started flowering again in September. They were joined by a Leucanthemum, giant scabious, candytuft, sweet cicely, sweet rocket, and now even the geraniums which I thought I had lost are having a good go. Along with the usual autumn flowers of course!

Sweet Cicely enjoying a second flush of flowers

Eucryphia x nymansensis ‘Nymansay’ still flowering in late October

Hazelnuts were so early that I missed most of them. Yet the Eucryphia tree in our garden which usually flowers in August did so at the normal time, and has carried on, and on…

Unfortunately the recent warm spell also brought a new generation of pests, including many flies which get in my face while cycling and whiteflies which have invaded my kale. I am sending the lacewings out from sheltering in my bedroom windows (not a very sensible place for the winter, I open them too often) on the next warm day to have a feast.

And one that flowered at the normal time, a Paeonia mlokoseiwitschii I grew from seed and now producing the first of the next generation. The flies seem to like this too.

Celebrating the Harvest

It was the Autumn Equinox last Sunday, a time of harvest celebrations. But what a strange year this has been! A late winter with snow in April, then drought in May, June and July, before a wet and chilly August.

The apples loved it. The extra cold helped them create more flower buds, they survived the drought, losing excess fruit without me having to thin them out, and then the rain came just in time to help the fruit swell. The first fruits were ready at the start of August, two weeks early even for our early trees, and carried on into September with larger fruit. I spent the days before we went on holiday (late August) madly making apple sauce to freeze, as this early fruit doesn’t keep and we were overflowing with apples on every counter.

Plums came at their normal time, but suffered from being eaten more than normal. The apples also had lots of wasps early on which I’ve never seen before, I assume there just wasn’t much else for them in the drought.

Blackberries came a month early – but with the cold weather finished early as well. Yet my strawberries have had a second crop and been a really delicious treat – they are still going. The raspberries cropped well in the drought but didn’t make new canes, so the autumn crop and also next summer’s are greatly reduced, even though there is plenty of rain now.

In the vegetable garden, the sweetcorn drank all the water offered so underplantings (mainly nasturtiums) all died. I had a crazy plant with a cob growing around a male flower, but it proved edible and we managed a small crop of good cobs as well. The climbing French beans were so prolific that eventually the wind blew them over. The edging and supports will all need replacing over the winter. Similarly the tomatoes grew so well in the heat I actually had to stop them at the top of their six foot stakes!

Finally, one crop I harvested but didn’t grow was barley. I promised myself last year that I would as so many Lughnasadh rituals are based around wheat – which I am allergic to, but barley is fine for me. Unfortunately I never found any small quantities of seed for sale. However, I did keep an eye on the fields around here, and spotted barley growing along a lane I sometimes cycle, with a footpath going conveniently along the edge of the field. With the drought it was harvested in mid-July, earlier than I have seen previously. So I parked up my bike, climbed the style which luckily wasn’t completely overgrown with nettles and brambles thanks to the drought, and walked along the field edge to see what had been left behind. Enough barley, and also some wheat for the rest of the family, to make a display and grind some into bread. A token amount – it takes a lot of grain for a loaf and barley I discovered is much harder to separate from the chaff than wheat, but somehow the inclusion of even a few grains of my own picked and winnowed barley seems worth it and makes the bread special. I have managed to be part of the wheel of the year and the turning of the seasons, not just an observer.