Orchids

Common Spot Orchid in Woodland

Last year I wrote about receiving a sign in the form of an orchid if it was right that the woodland would become ours. (See An Orchid Sign, October 2019.) I didn’t have a camera that day, but promised to go back this summer to see if I could see them again.

Orchids and Buttercups under Ash trees, with oak seedling in foreground.

This is in a different area of the woodland to the orchid last year, and right alongside the footpath meaning that many people have had the joy of seeing them! It is a small patch of grass under some ash trees, so fairly light, although there is a sycamore seedling of one inch diameter growing in the middle that is now on my priority list to remove! I counted 16 flower stalks when I visited, though without wanting to trample too much. I believe they are all Common Spot Orchids, Dactylorhiza fuchsii, but find it interesting how much the colour varies even within this small group.

Pale orchid

Dark orchid growing in same place


I have not yet found the previous orchid I saw, due to the brambles being too high to easily move about in that part of the woodland, but I remember it being taller and on its own in grass where a tiny patch of sunlight had made it through. Also it was in July, when these might have finished.

Looking the other way from the orchids, dog rose arching over.

At least I feel justified now in removing brambles! They are all flowering now, the birds are still nesting, and other vegetation around them is also quite high, so my plan is to do a bit each week from September or October onwards, whenever the weather becomes suitable and M is back at school, starting with the areas I haven’t yet done alongside the footpath. Hopefully I might also manage some of the less dense areas further in to keep our walkways clear.

Hogweed growing in one of the areas where the sycamores have been removed.


I have been amused at the state of one of my new paths that didn’t get used much! Since the drainage ditches are currently empty, they are easier to walk along.

What looks like a clear path is in fact ‘channel 3’ of the five main drainage ditches, the path I created runs along the top of the bank to the right at this point, but may be abandoned in favour of the ditch!

Spring Equinox Energies

The Equinoxes mark the point of balance of the year: dark and light, cold and warm, hibernating and being active, seeds and growing. Never before has a Spring Equinox seemed so opposite what was happening around me.

I spent the day in mourning, for everything that had gone. The week saw the gradual disintegration of routine as activity after activity was cancelled, shops went crazy, and on Friday itself schools were shut. Within a few days all non-essential services had followed.

In that serendipitous way that our inner and outer worlds meet, I was watching Harry Potter and the Half Blood Prince for the first time in bits over that week. (We now have all of them, but while we have watched the first three rated PG together, I have only slowly been watching the rest rated 12 when M isn’t around… I have to make sure they work okay!) In the words of Harry to Hermione and Ron at the very end of the film, he looks out from Hogwarts over the view of lake and mountains, knowing he is never coming back, and says a line that is not in the book: “I never realised how beautiful this place was.”

I felt like that about my world too. Yes I have always appreciated its visual beauty, but there is so much else that is beautiful in its own way that I had taken for granted. Mourning felt right to me, to acknowledge all that had been good and was now gone. Yet to be doing so at the Spring Equinox, when I was expecting a time of newness, seemed particularly opposite. I have done my winter, I wanted to be out, active, doing things.

I wasn’t able to write anything then. Yet a week later I am not only seeing a new energy, but can trace it back, how it was incubating through the winter period, unrecognised, ready to burst forth.

This is the energy of friendship. Community. Working together and supporting each other. New creative ideas bursting forth. Thinking about what is important, what is really needed. All things our world desperately needs.

Even in my own life, I have an autistic daughter who was asking for home schooling for months and now has her wish – and not only is she thriving, but I am constantly learning new things about her so that when she does return to school I can support her better. My own projects are so far mostly not put on hold as I feared, but finding new expressions of creation. I am learning to hula hoop, studying homoeopathy in greater depth, and finally daring to not wash my hair to see if I can restore balance while there are so few people to see it. Yes there have been some frustrations as we adjust and try to help each other, but there is always a solution when looked at from a new angle.

And meanwhile, if the only exercise we can get is in our gardens or locally, I see so many small spaces being cared for and appreciated that haven’t had that kind of attention for several years. A new balance for the world? It could take some time, but I feel there is more hope than for several years that the major changes needed for humans to live in harmony with each other and the Earth might be able to grow out of this.

The Joy of Handtools

Resting place for a small axe

There are really just two seasons of work in a broadleaved woodland – the dark half of year, when most of the tree work takes place, and the light half, when it stops. Ironically the woodland floor experiences these in reverse given that leaves will soon filter the sunlight; hawthorn is already bursting open, catkins are falling to the ground, and it will soon be time for us to stop any tree felling and switch to other work.

As I reflect back on our first Winter, I see the difference we have made to one small area. It already feels more natural and lighter in energy, though there is some way to go yet before it becomes ‘woodland’ rather than ‘plantation’.

We recently made a decision not to use chainsaws, even in the future, as we are loving to use hand saws and axes. To begin with that is all we had, but we have come to really appreciate what you can do by hand.

The benefits as I see them:

  • Quiet. We can hear the birds singing as we work.
  • Time. To think about what we are doing, connect with each tree, ensure that we are in harmony with the nature of the woodland and cutting appropriately.
  • Simplicity. My usual safety protection is a hat, which provides adequate protection for me against the odd twig. I do not need special trousers, goggles, ear defenders etc.
  • Human powered, getting me fit rather than using polluting fuel. And if I am tired, I go slower rather than rush and risk a mistake.
  • Reliable. A handsaw always starts first time. An axe won’t get stuck, and a tree felled by axe falls remarkably slowly and gently.
  • Protection for the woodland against damage, as no heavy equipment is churning up the mud. I’m not sure it would even be an option to drive around the woodland in its current soggy state.
  • Light weight to carry, given there is no parking at the woodland yet. (I don’t take all the possible tools each time I go – just the two or three I plan to use that day to suit the job.)
  • I feel connected to my ancestors. Relatively recent ones lived in log cabins cut by axe and shaped by saw very similar to what we are using. Neolithic ancestors in this country used stone axes to cut down trees of a similar size to ours, up to about eight inches across.

Strangely I don’t think it takes a lot longer to fell and limb a small tree by hand compared to using a chainsaw, although chainsaw carving is very much quicker than using a chisel and mallet. There is one particular stump that I really want to do something interesting with… but then just using hand tools will force me to consider any design very carefully before I begin!

Random Woodland Planning

I created a new section of path in the woodland last week, and was struck by how randomly key sites have been created.

When we took on the woodland, a little over three months ago, we were faced with trees planted at foot feet apart, and then abandoned to grow tall and skinny. They had a remarkably good survival rate, and there has been a certain amount of seeding going on as well; it felt weird and unnatural, just going on and on with no features or landmarks except for the variation in sogginess of the ground. The first thinning was about ten years overdue, and as mentioned here before, I made the early decision to remove sycamores and leave the native species. Luckily they were just within size limits for easy felling without complications of licenses or power tools.

M was very keen to have a den, so we started cutting a few small sycamores down in an area not too far from the path. Suitable branches or trunks were saved for the den and we made a pile of the brush. But there was nowhere to put our largest trunk as a roof-beam where we had started, and the ground quickly became churned up with mud.

Returning another day, it being autumn half term, M and I each got hold of one end of the trunk to be our beam and set off through the woods. It was reasonably long, so we had to go in a straight line between the trees. We had no plan or map, our aim was just to be further from the path, and find two oaks to put it across without any sycamore in the way. We went in circles a bit, mostly downhill since that was easier, and eventually, randomly, picked a spot. We then had to find our way back to the original pile of sticks, and transfer them all into the den so that we could start building.

Once the trees lost their leaves, and a few more of the sycamores had been removed, we realised it wasn’t that far from the path after all – although nowhere is very far in our wood. It got muddy there too, but I realised chopping up sticks into short lengths and leaving them on the ground stopped feet from sliding and sinking in.

Gradually a camp formed next to the den. First a pile of long logs, then a fireplace, then a second pile of long logs, a properly planned pile of shorter logs with supports that doubles as a saw bench, a handy stump for splitting wood on, a pile of split logs drying for firewood, a pile of deadwood for starting fires, a pile of forked sticks… In other words, a proper working area where we can leave our things, sit down to eat lunch, and always find easily.

As we continued to work, plans evolved. I had a rather naive idea we could take random routes to base camp and avoid creating a path. Gradually the whole area became muddy, so I quickly called a stop to this practice and created a curved path using sticks underfoot as had worked before – placing them before the ground got churned up meant they didn’t immediately press in to the ground, but they are developing nicely as a path now. Where there are spaces I have now planted some hazel coppice, which will hopefully grow up and block the view to the main footpath as well as filling in the canopy.

Then finally I realised we need paths beyond base camp, before that area, too, becomes unsafe to carry a log over and all the mosses and ferns on the ground get trampled, and so that we don’t keep blocking our safe routes with cut off branches. Again, I pick a routes that seem nice, not too straight, but not too curved to carry a trunk for logging, and going in a somewhat useful direction towards the outer corners of the woodland.

I look at it and laugh with gratitude for being guided so well. This first camp has proved an excellent place to start out: close to the main footpath when we arrive, close to the area we have worked this year and the one we plan to work next winter, slightly sloped so less waterlogged than much of the woodland, and full of birdsong. The paths go where we need them and are pretty. I am starting to think about what native wildflowers I can try and introduce in the areas we don’t plan to walk too often.

A comment from Marko Pogacnik has stuck with me, where he met a Nature Spirit or Deva looking very like the Goddess Diana.

“The fairy made it explicitly clear to me that it was her task to guide animal species within a certain landscape by giving energy impulses towards a harmonious pattern of movement within the chosen area.”
Marko Pogacnik, Nature Spirits & Elemental Beings

It makes me consider just how much is guided by nature spirits in the wood, plants as well as animals. I have commented already about how brambles never land next to their own roots, always leaving growing space, yet I have seen no similar avoidance of trees where the rooting tip will get as close as possible to the base of a small trunk. When planting some small yew trees, I found I could carry each around, and there were places where its energy felt harmonious to what was already growing, and places where it didn’t. I planted them where it was.

Brambling

Brambling seems to me a bit like rambling, a roundabout way of walking that may or may not arrive anywhere in particular. The word commonly refers to picking the fruits, blackberries, so to be accurate maybe I should call what I have been doing de-brambling – but somehow that conjures up a picture of being organised about its removal, starting on one side and moving across an area, cutting it out as I go, which is a very long way from the reality.

Imagine if you will an area covered by a thin layer of brambles, mostly at ground level but occasionally sending a shoot around or over low branches of trees. Tug on it gently, autumn leaves fall off the stem and an end becomes apparent. No good just pulling, the roots need removing or cutting else it will re-sprout in Spring. Holding it with a gloved hand, I pull it gently and stab down with a deep-rooter. It comes free. Then I walk to the other end, which could easily be 12-16 feet away. This end is older, and has a semi-rotten stalk from the previous year, plus maybe a second shoot from this year. Gather them up in a hand, stab down again. Now follow the end of the other shoot… I work my way around the edge of a patch of brambles, weaving in and out of trees, often some distance away from the pile I am creating, and then back again. Occasionally I manage to do several roots close together, but the way they grow means there is always another end over the top that needs sorting before it gets pulled and snapped off. The good part is that by constantly walking in circles I don’t get a stiff back!

There are around 3-400 microspecies of bramble in the UK; many subtly different brambles are all closely related, even the thornless garden ones, so it is generally written as Rubus fruticosa L. agg. (for aggregate.) Even their fruits, which can set without being pollinated by another plant (though thankfully they then produce sterile seeds or the numbers would totally overwhelm me!) are botanically known as an aggregate of drupelets.

I have noticed differences between various patches of brambles in our woodland. Most brambles will send out new shoots each year, the number depending on age and size of rootstock, and where they touch the soil they will send roots into the ground in a forwards direction, continuing its direction of growth and possibly pulling it down. However, a few will fork to have two or three tips from each shoot root, with the roots being generally fewer for each. However, I have found a totally different type that go vertically downwards and then corkscrew to pull themselves inwards, thickening at the base – these are very fragile just above the base and liable to snap even when pulled very gently, so are much the trickiest to get out. However, they have gentler, or should I say larger, individually visible, thorns compared to most. Multiple small thorns seems to be the norm here, a few are almost furry along the stems with just the occasional sharp point, while one or two have such battle armour it is like being covered in shards of glass. The slightest touch gives multiple scratches.

This is actually the origin of the name Bramble – from the German bræmaz meaning prickly. One flew up and swiped my cheek and nose the other day. I rubbed my nose about half an hour later and discovered it still had a thorn in it. Gloves usually have broken off bits of thorn, which work their way in. Splinters frequently hurt only a little at the time, but get worse over the next day or so when they cry out to be removed. I have learned to wear stout gloves on both hands, however hard that makes it to hold a tool, so it is just my wrists and face in danger.

I see how growing conditions change the character as well as the genetics. In one area next to some blackthorn all the stems grow vertically, most of them only about two feet high. I thought they would be easy to remove, but each had a rootstock akin to a rose, thick, tough and deep. I just removed the stems that were in the way of tree-felling and left them to grow back. I want to leave the blackthorn for wildlife anyway, and certainly don’t want to take all the brambles out! A soggy place had a thin covering of live stems, very little in the way of old stems remaining, but I traced 6 or 7 green stems all growing in different directions to one rootstock near the foot of an oak tree. A giant, tentacled, prickly monster. Only in dry areas are there many older stems still remaining, mostly they rot down within a year. In my view, brambles that have made thickets that flower and fruit and provide nesting or hiding spaces are worth leaving for wildlife, whereas thin coverings without any large animals to browse on them are just trip hazards.

Another interesting thing I have noticed is that shoots never root within six inches of another; if two shoots look that close, they are almost certainly joined together just out of sight. I did just once see a new shoot that had landed closer than this, I don’t know what would have happened had I left it, but there seems to be an optimum minimum distance for rootstocks of around 8-9 inches.

I have the impression that the brambles have been growing as protection for the trees. It is a sad fact that of the National Plant Monitoring Scheme’s first collected results, brambles are the most common plant seen in woodland generally, indicating either under-management or over-nitrogenation or both, and shading out many other wildflowers such as dog violets and marsh marigolds which are in serious decline. I admire them greatly, hence this post honouring them, but now it is time for other things. The land has been unloved for so long that people were not welcome and the brambles (and nettles… I’ll find out how many of them there are in a few more weeks!) have been very effective at keeping the people out. It took me a while to gain the trees’ trust; it took us over a year to actually buy the woodland during which time I was asking the trees if they were happy for me to be their guardian, and surrounding them with love. I realise now how I couldn’t be doing the work I am if I hadn’t already got to know the woodland a little bit through a whole cycle. So I thank each bramble for growing and giving its protection to the land, and just give love to the trees around which it is growing so that they may not need such strong protection in future. Go in peace.

Happy Yule!

See the blazing Yule before us…

May your fires burn warm and bright!

Most pagan festivals seem to involve fires in some way, to leap over, pass between, purify with, or just generally light up a circle. Yule is probably the most simple, celebrating warmth and light in the dark depths of winter.

As I wrote earlier this month (see When Things Don’t Go To Plan), this was not my first design for this year’s card – which was a snowman – but was conceived out of a series of things not working out as intended. I hoped to use the card to turn situations around and create magic.

One of the troubles involved difficulties with lighting a fire in our woodland when we only had very damp, very green wood to work with. After I drew the design for this card (straight onto the lino to save time) we had the perfect weather and, having carefully saved any dead branches from trees cut down to use as kindling, were able to build a great fire. So great that it took some time to put it out and make it safe when leaving; green wood had effectively become charcoal and was glowing beautifully. Success, and a lot of learning.

There is a little mouse in the corner of the card. The card seemed to call out for an animal of some kind, and I had been feeling that new planting in the woodland should encourage mice, especially dormice which are an endangered species in Britain. So it felt right to include one here. Not all of my inking and pressing was to a standard I was happy with, yet the mouse came out pretty perfect on every print. Even better, I actually saw a mouse a few days later when collecting rubbish along the lane that leads to the woodland, which I think was a harvest mouse.

In the background, I originally intended snowflakes, thinking about a fire warming the wintery nights. However in some of my prints they look more like stars. This makes perfect sense to me when I realise that the woodland seems to have a star connection in both its location and in the name it has inspired in us.

Woodland Beginnings

Yes, definitely mother to a few hundred trees… (see An Orchid Sign, last month.) They have been invading my thoughts, my dreams, all wanting attention. As the year turns it definitely seems like perfect timing, and I am ready for this now – after spending a couple of years being really confused about what I was ‘supposed’ to be doing. Amazing, to just have that sense that I am doing exactly what I am meant to be doing. I now realise this is what my life has been leading up to. I would be there all the time if I could, just loving whatever I am doing there, but the stormy weather has ensured I spend time getting things done at home on wet days and keeping myself in balance rather than wearing myself out.

This is part of a small woodland that was planted on a coal mine as restoration in the late 1990s. According to old maps there was some woodland here before the mining of the 1960s-80s, but not the same shape as what was replanted. The soil may have been imported, the trees were planted as young whips, (we have lived here long enough to have seen them when tiny) and the site was then pretty much left. How the tree planters chose what they did is unclear, although the majority of trees are native. We have (in approximate decreasing order) oak, ash, lime, alder, birch, sycamore, hawthorn, field maple, dogwood, blackthorn, rowan, cherry, hazel and willow. Some areas have a few of the same type grouped together, others are all mixed up. All of it is overgrown and hard to access.

I have had the advantage of a year of visits to give me a starting point, so I made a plan that I would remove brambles in the areas where they weren’t that dense yet, and try to map what was there to enable me to create a master plan to work towards, much as I have done in our small garden. However, a day or two before the woodland became ours, I had a strong feeling that we should remove the sycamores. I just realised they felt cold to me, quite different from the feeling I got of warmth and light from all the other trees in the wood. Odd that, because I actually quite like sycamores in many places and their timber can be made into many things, being fast growing, light and straight grained. The problem with sycamores is that they have huge leaves which block the light at all levels, and where sycamores grow native species tend to give up. There are enough sycamore woodlands in this area already, here there is an opportunity to do something different if we act fast while most trees only have a diameter of 4 inches or less. And since we need to thin the trees out somehow it makes the choices much simpler.

Therefore my first job has been marking sycamores before they loose their leaves and are harder to identify at a distance – at this age their trunks are often remarkably similar to ash or alder, both of which grow here, although a quick touch gives me the different energy immediately and with practice they become obvious by sight as well as feel. I am glad to say this is creating some small clearings which already feel good, while M is happy that she can do some den building with the branches. The piled up logs now make an excellent place to sit for lunch! Next year I might plant some hazels where there are spaces, given the lack of understory planting at present.

I have managed a bit of bramble bashing, but they seem to grow out of puddles in this weather! Also all the wet weather has shown an urgent need to clear the drainage channels that were created on planting so that they work again – easy and fun where I have cleared the brambles, but trying to do the odd bit of drainage work around even thin strands or bramble or dogrose left me with more cuts and splinters. I’ll learn. Currently my future plans look likely to involve a lot more willow to make use of the excess water, or else a pond!

An Orchid Sign

A little over a year ago, just after the Autumn Equinox, I had a crazy idea. Instead of leaving some savings in a bank account to earn almost no interest, why not buy a field and plant a woodland?

My economics turned out to be way out from reality, since there is a premium on good grazing land around here – it turns out much cheaper to buy almost any woodland than an empty field. And the sort of woodland we can see from our windows that was planted on ex-coal mines twenty odd years ago and then pretty much left to do its own thing, was not much more than the money we had available. If energy follows thought, this idea was put into action in two days!

Energy, however, follows more people’s thoughts than just mine, and even keeping mine pure was a challenge at times. Or it might just be that Spirit has its own perfect timing that makes sure we are prepared. It took months to negotiate a price, and many more months for questioning the contract, long before any solicitors were involved. I visited every month or two, leaving the footpath that runs along one side to find a tree to sit with. I felt more and more comfortable there as time went on, at home, welcomed, loved. I played my recorder at Beltane, I sang.

Eventually a commitment was needed; solicitors needed appointing who would need paying even if the deal fell through. I had made a promise to serve trees, but did they want me to look after them? Was I capable? Was this the right thing to be doing? Would the purchase even go through? I didn’t know. Like so much, as the initial enthusiasm wears off, the enormity of the task starts to make itself apparent. This could be crazy.

I asked Spirit that if we should go ahead and that it would all work out okay to please give me a sign. I considered what sign I would take as a positive confirmation; several thoughts passed through my mind such as a particular type of feather, a toadstool, something colourful, and settled on an orchid as being a very definite sign. This is in a woodland with very few understory plants except for brambles, nettles, and willowherb which frequently block the way through, nothing of any particularly beauty I had ever seen. (Although small, it is not an easy woodland to explore!)

I followed whichever route through the trees I felt like back to the footpath, turning each time my way was blocked. First I found a large goat willow, only the second large tree I have found there, the first also being a goat willow alongside the private track on the opposite side. That was a delight in itself. Many more dead ends followed. Intuition ruled, just going with what felt right. I came a direction I was sure I hadn’t been before, and there in a patch of grass in dappled sunlight was a very bright, knee-high, common spotted orchid. Really stunning, and totally improbable. I wished I had a camera with me.

For the past three months or more (it was mid-July when I saw the orchid), every time I have doubts, or there are delays, I have held the picture of that orchid in my mind. Finally it has paid off. The woodland became ours last Friday. We held a ceremony there on Saturday and walked the bounds for the first time. I hope walking the bounds will be easier in future years after some bramble removal!

I had an amused moment when cooking dinner on Friday night, realising that in all the things I have studied and the jobs I have had, the one I have never felt was ‘me’ was being a mother – and yet here I was cooking, sewing, being a home-maker and doing the job full-time. Maybe I needed the woodland to run away to and escape when it all got too much. Then I realised actually I was suddenly now ‘mother’ to several hundred trees I had promised to look after! I feel overwhelmed, but in a happy, excited way.

As for the orchid, I trust it will grow again and, should I be able to find it next July, I shall take a photograph. My symbol of hope and belief.

Visiting The Moon

“The forecast looks really wet, again, so would you like to visit the moon?” What a question! My friend of course assumed I knew that the moon was in Derby Cathedral for a brief period, but I had somehow missed knowing about this event.

The Moon fills Derby Cathdral

It filled the space in the centre of the cathedral, just fitting between the columns, looking magnificent and big as you walk in. Derby cathedral is rather unusual anyway being Georgian, neoclassical and only actually a cathedral since 1927. The lighting, soft blues and purples as part of the exhibition, reflected off the white walls and brighter surfaces and added to the atmosphere of reflected moonlight rather than the golden sunshine that often fills the space. Working out which view we usually see from Earth was an interesting challenge, especially when the angle isn’t quite the same, and I remembered how the Chinese talk about the Hare in the moon instead of our Man given they see it from a different angle. But the best thing was simply being able to walk all the way around this wonderful celestial body, seeing its different sides for the first time ever, seeing how some areas are covered by craters and others are completely smooth depending on how exposed its surface is. It was truly awe-inspiring.

One aspect that I found fascinating, however, had nothing to do with the actual moon and lots to do with they way our individual brains work. My friend was puzzled by why some craters looked like they went inwards, while others looked like they actually went the other way, standing proud of the surface. I hadn’t seen this at all, but it intrigued me that she did. I realised that because the sculpture was made up of multiple photographs stitched together and printed onto the fabric, some had had the light in different places. In some areas, two craters next to each other even had the light from opposite sides. Because my friend sees the whole first and then looks at the details, she couldn’t make sense of this. Because I see the details individually I hadn’t even realised they were different until I looked carefully. Then I started to temporarily have her problem!

I should add that this is actually an autistic thing – I am not formally diagnosed as autistic, but my daughter is. In this case, I was seeing the outline but understanding the whole through the details. I do this regularly, and can put details together in different ways in my mind to experiment with design, whereas most people prefer to see the whole first and then sort the details later. It means I will sometimes spot a potential problem at a very early stage, but will not be able to explain it adequately to those who are not yet at that stage – and they can’t always explain to me why it doesn’t matter. So it was nice for me to finally understand this.

As far as the moon went however, we were both able to enjoy it in our own unique way.

As we were about to leave, some choral music played and the lights changed colour. I am left with a wonderful feeling of calm and peaceful love. I returned with M a few days later, when I was able to take a few photographs – the gates were closed on this second visit as there was about to be a concert under the moon as part of Derby’s Folk Festival.

The Moon in Derby Cathedral, seen from the choir.

Why I Make Music

Here is a question M asked me recently that has given me much pause for thought: why do I like playing music? The simple answer is that I like being part of it, bringing it to life, playing it differently every time as the mood takes me. Having new pieces to play is as exciting as a new book to read. Music has always brought more than just enjoyment to me; it goes through me, is part of me, is as essential to me for my mental health on a daily basis as going for a walk is for my physical health. Yet at the same time I notice how the more complete answer I would give to M’s question has changed considerably over my lifetime.

I joined a string orchestra when I was a teenager, so that I could go on their trip to Holland. The trip was great, and well worth joining for. The second year I went because I had friends there; only in the third year did I go for the music.

Circumstances made it possible for me to start learning the French Horn in my teens, which brought a whole new level of excitement. Most of what you play on a brass instrument is heard, and is played solo, unlike being one of many in the violin section. To sit in the middle of a symphony orchestra, being part of the music and surrounded by it, is such a complete immersion experience – especially for something like Brahms, Tchaikovsky or Mahler symphonies, or Richard Strauss tone poems, which all have great horn parts!

I challenged myself constantly to be the best I could be, and wanted the music as a whole to sound as good as it could. Looking back, this was not a good path to stay on, but probably one that had to be traveled. I went to music college, it was unavoidable, but I was never a performer. I just knew I had to study music, to be part of music, and I wanted to be better than I was. I became a teacher, trying to inspire others with their music and give them some of the opportunities of playing in a group that I had had.

My first real change came when I listened to a flute solo being played absolutely beautifully by a friend a few seats along from me, and thought, ‘I wish I could play like that!’ A moment later I realised, ‘I don’t have to play like that, she is playing like that!’ I sat back and enjoyed it, front row seat. From there, I quickly learned how to really enjoy playing whatever I was doing because it was part of the whole, even when it was something hard work and previously unsatisfying like oom-pahs. Then I had the unexpected experience of actually being able to play low notes properly when I was pregnant, in a way I had never managed for the twenty years previous. Finally I could succeed at my own part without being constantly frustrated at my own shortcomings.

With M around, my horn now spends most of its time in its case. Possibly the lessons it had to teach me having been learned at last, I don’t need it. Instead, I now play two instruments regularly that I didn’t ‘learn’, being mostly self-taught on both: the piano I play occasionally for M but mostly for myself, for my own well-being and enjoyment and emotional balance; and the recorder for Morris dancing or occasionally solo in woodland. I ask myself, is this a way of me avoiding judgement about my abilities? If so, it fails. I still get very nervous when playing for dancing especially if I am on my own, and have to use the dots as a fix to make sure I keep a steady tempo.

I see that sometimes pianos in National Trust houses now have a notice inviting people to play them. I want to know what they sound like, so I really want to have a go. I try, but I find nerves mean I can’t play well. I also find I don’t know when to stop, the first time I play too much, the second too little. I wonder why playing something I love should be so difficult?

Eventually I think I have the answer. As a child I played because I was bullied at school. Music was my space, something I could do, something even the bullies respected. As I got older, I still wanted to be good at it – but I wasn’t that great; no one has ever told me they have enjoyed my playing and I stopped trying to play for other people a long time ago. Even worse, I was occasionally presumptuous enough as a teenager to think I was entertaining others in a positive way, only to have my audience drift away as politely and quickly as they could. Therefore I have no confidence when it comes to playing for others and I feel I am probably disturbing their peace, so I would rather retreat back into the shadows of my own world where, unjudged by others, I am happy with what I do.

I finally had a clue to the way forward for me, on realising I had played ‘too little’. I take pleasure in listening to others play, so why not the other way around? Maybe I can actually give others pleasure in my music? Something that never occurred to me before! This is now altering the way I approach the piano at home, as I anticipate that the type and quality of music that will please others may be different to what pleases me. I even had my first opportunity to try this out a few days later, when some songs were called for as part of a children’s activity – and for the first time ever I managed to sing solo without being nervous because they were enjoying it.

I asked the trees this week if they liked me to sing my own improvisations, or to sing or play pieces I know. Their answer was that for creating harmony (see previous post here), improvisation was best, but for celebrations such as sabbats, then known songs were good as I connected with the energies of previous performances. And now I shall consider that if there are other people present in the woods, I should allow them to enjoy my playing or singing as well.

Searching for Harmony

Like so many people who find the Pagan path into nature, I have for a long time been aware of my separation from the natural world. My inability to see, hear, or be at one with the world around me is frustrating but pretty much inevitable as a human being. It makes us different from other animals, although not superior to them as has been the historical viewpoint!

I work to overcome this, spending time in woodlands or other green spaces. I talk to trees often; I find this easier with old trees, young plants are harder for me to communicate with but there are few old trees near me. I have also found that the better I know the plants, the more I feel as if I am among friends. As my knowledge grows, so does my connection – and knowing different ‘kingdoms’ such as grasses, wildflowers, as well as the trees increases my sense of belonging and keeps me more in harmony. Yet sometimes this still isn’t enough.

One day last year I asked myself what I would do to feel more part of things? I realised I wanted to be about four foot tall, playing pipes and dancing through the forest. A faun, possibly. So I did this in meditation, and have done it a few times since, and now feel much better as a result. I have also taken my recorder into the woods on a few occasions this year and played seasonal folk tunes, and Morris dancing tunes.

Then last month I felt invited in to a small birch grove on Stanton Moor, near the Nine Ladies Stone Circle. I sat down, found my inner stillness and just listened. The air was buzzing with insects. Nowhere else had I been so aware of them, nor did I hear them elsewhere afterwards, but this grove was filled with all kinds of humming and buzzing. Then the trees told me how sound was so often missing, woodlands were becoming quiet. They asked me to please sing in woods, whenever I was alone and quiet. Sing to heal, to grow strong, sing them into harmony.

This seemed an immense task, far beyond my simple capabilities. I didn’t know or understand what they meant by it. I couldn’t even agree to it straight away, just saying I would think about it – though on reflection I realised I had nothing to loose and possibly much to gain so a little later that day I found and talked to another silver birch to make my agreement.

A few days later, I had my first opportunity to try singing. I listened for a tune, and sang what I heard, what I felt. The tree shapes, the weather, they way they moved in the breeze, my love for them and being with them. A tawny owl flew across my path and perched on a branch over the track for a few minutes. I felt encouraged, so carried on. I don’t know if I was doing the trees any good, but if nothing else it was a (very quick!) way of bringing myself into harmony with them.

A couple weeks on, I entered a fairly young woodland and felt awkward with such immature trees. I just walked and listened. An insect flew almost into my face and buzzed loudly at me. Okay, sorry, I have the message now! I found a tune. A tawny owl flew across my path and perched on a branch over the track for a few minutes. My heart filled with love for these amazing creatures, and for showing me the way twice. Then I suddenly worried whether I had disturbed the owls – they shouldn’t be flying in the day time surely? My heart, and my much later meditation told me the answer, they would fly away if they didn’t like it, not perch in front of me. Keep going, and I will learn more about how and when to sing, and if nothing else bring this one human into harmony with the world around me. So far I have noticed that when a loud noise rips through the air, such as a train or a helicopter, singing can help to smooth it over.

It is easy to become depressed by what humans have done and are still doing to the Earth. However, I have been left with the feeling that while I may not be able to solve humanity’s problems myself, what matters is what I do, as an individual. Live my life fully, joyfully, lovingly, using the talents that I have. In the words of the Fred Small song, “And the only measure of your words and your deeds will be the love you leave behind when you’re done.” The love will always stay.

Pleasures of Summer!

I hope you all enjoyed the solstice yesterday. Here are some of my favourite things of early summer, when the sun is warm and the evenings are long.

    Picking strawberries and raspberries for breakfast while listening to the evening birdsong.

    Making ice cream out of berries from the garden.

    Walking barefoot on the grass.

    Watching the sun set clear of any houses.

    Seeing all the different types of grasses in flower, waving gently in the breeze.

    Looking through an open doorway at torrential rain.

    The colours of the roses, campanulas, geraniums and foxgloves that fill my garden right now.

    Trees in full leaf with dappled shade below them.

    Morris dancing in the late evening sun, not to any audience but just because we want to.

A poor life this, if full of care, we have no time to stand and stare. (WH Davies)

My garden in June

A Return To Wildflower Surveying

A first view of Thorpe Cloud, as approached from Thorpe village.

Years ago I used to do the ‘Common Plants Survey’ for Plantlife; the final year of the scheme (in 2014) I wrote about here. I enjoyed it and learned quite a bit, but several things changed including the survey and it felt like time for a break. Then a few weeks ago I decided I would like to take part again, so I looked to see what squares a surveyor was still needed for – and there was nothing anywhere near me at all. The new National Plant Monitoring Survey which replaced the original scheme has tried to distribute squares evenly across the country rather than just near where people live, so there are currently many squares needing surveyors in Scotland with a scattering of empty spaces across the rest of the country, the majority of which are in the less populated areas… Then I thought why not choose a square I would like to visit?

Thorpe Cloud rising above the River Dove by the stepping stones.

Thorpe Cloud rising above the River Dove by the stepping stones.[/caption]My new square, which has the wonderfully palindromic number of 1551, is quite a long way from here, up to an hour’s drive depending on traffic, but what an amazing place I am getting to know! Derbyshire’s favourite rocky ‘mountain’, Thorpe Cloud, once a coral reef all of 287m high, rises above the river Dove where you can cross the stepping stones to Staffordshire if you wish. Ancient ash woodland lines the banks further along, and there is a stream that comes out of a cave at the foot of the Cloud.

Heath Bedstraw and wild Thyme

I don’t consider myself any kind of plant expert, I am simply a gardener who likes getting to know flowers, weeds… and now grasses. What I love the most is seeing how the same family adapts to surroundings. Galium for example, varies from the rather annoying Stickyweed / Cleavers / Goosegrass that invades my garden although makes a nice tea, to lady’s bedstraw that smelled sweet enough to be dried and used in the home, to the short, spreading Woodruff that carpets woodland floor, to truly tiny plants on top of mountains. Quite a lot of it grows on top of Thorpe Cloud along with wild thyme, saxifrages, sedums, tiny geraniums…

What I hadn’t anticipated was that surveying wildflowers would be any kind of spiritual experience or practice, yet it has proved to be so. I had planned to do the first visits with a friend who is an experienced and trained ecologist – who knows different plants from me and is more practiced in looking up oddities in a book. However, every time she was free, it rained. Plans were made, and cancelled repeatedly. I finally realised I should go for a reconnaissance visit by myself on a nearly-dry day, which proved very worthwhile in all sorts of ways.

Lin Spring emerging out of a cave at the foot of Thorpe Cloud

Lin Spring emerging out of a cave at the foot of Thorpe Cloud[/caption]Being by myself, I was able to do a blessing by the Spring and ask the mountain’s permission and support to survey this area of beautiful countryside. I then had a mini-pilgrimage to the top of the hill, where I had never been before, and had the summit to myself. It is a very beautiful ridge, and felt welcoming to me. Just as well after my sleepless night before – I seemed to know in advance this was going to be big for me.

I returned home, with a better idea of what plant groups to study in advance (my soil is acid clay so the flora is rather different) and see how unprepared I was the first time. I also had the oddest feeling that I was studying plants each night while I slept.

New plans were made with my friend, but no, I really was meant to do this by myself – the only day forecast to be dry was the only one she wasn’t free. However there were difficulties. I had to be back earlier than on the day we hoped to go, and there were roadworks and road closures, making for a longer route and busy roads getting there. I just had to trust I would be capable of doing the job, and that I had long enough there.

Thorpe Cloud summit looking North up Dovedale

I woke up early, not nervous this second time but excited and confident. On arrival I again asked the mountain’s permission and support. Remarkably I had whatever space I needed to carry out the survey, without winding a rope around anyone’s legs or lunch despite it being a much busier day, and somehow I got finished with just enough time to climb to the top again. Five areas surveyed, each exactly 25 square metres although some were square and some long, covering five different habitat types. I have a selection of photos to go through to complete more thorough plant identifications, not having time to look anything up and wanting eventually to know every plant that appears on my plots, but goodness I have a lot of work to do on grasses if I am ever to really understand and be able to identify them! As yet, knowing to the family name when they are in flower feels like an achievement, but it is apparently possible to know many of them even after the tops have been nibbled off by rabbits.

I look forward to many return visits.

Uplifting Energies

I have always used my hands to feel different energies, ever since I started playing with magnets and realised I could feel their pull on my hands. I have since learned to feel stone circle energies, or different tree energies. It has all been learning by doing; it is not something I have come across in my readings so my learning is quite slow, developing at the speed at which my sensitivity increases. (I share it now in case it inspires someone else to get there quicker!)

As I mentioned in my recent Dragon post, I was in Wales on holiday in April. There I had two different energy experiences that were totally unexpected and both quite magical.

The first was that of mountains, on one of Cadair Idris’s nine tops. A fairly pointy one. I struggled that day – it was hot, and my lungs were in a bad mood. I felt as proud of myself for having got to the top as a child might, so went right up to the highest point, to stand on top of an uneven bit of rock. And suddenly there was a rush of positive energy coming through me, making me feel euphoric. I could tell it was also affecting everyone around me to a greater or lesser degree. Then on to the highest top, pushing me to my limit, and possibly a bit past it. M, the youngest person on the mountain, had a long wait for me at the top! Yet when I got there, there was that uplifting energy again, magnified.

I wondered if it was just my feelings, or whether positive energy really does shoot off into the sky from the top of a pointed mountain. This is not something I have felt from a rounded hill, and it was not an energy I felt anywhere else on the mountain, just at the top of the ‘pointy-uppy’ bits. Spirit reaching upwards, while the lakes below drew downwards in stillness. The recent fire in Notre Dame Cathedral brought great discussions of how unique was its construction with very early flying buttresses to enable the building to reach as high into the sky as possible; many religions have temples that reach for the skies. It occurred to me that hill forts and castles being placed at the top of small hills may not be just strategic, but also command respect for the ‘high’ chief who rules there, and additionally give a positive boost of energies to all who live in that location.

A few days later, I had a chance to test this theory, on the top of Bird Rock near Llanfihangel. That time I managed the climb easily – it was neither as steep nor as long – so could discount any of my own euphoric feelings. There it was again, just in a very small area at the very top. Step away and I could no longer feel it, step back and there it was again, lifting upwards.

Some mountains are themselves regarded as sacred, with climbing even forbidden on occasion. I now regard any mountain as the same, Mother Earth and Father Sky joining together at the point.

Dolgoch stream, just above where I was feeling it.


My other energy experience was around water, and a mountain stream not far from Cadair Idris. I put my hands in several during the course of the week, as the days just got hotter. They varied in size and steepness, and temperature, but I didn’t think too much about it – until suddenly on the last day I realised I had put my hand in something really special. Fully of light, purity, happiness. Not a virgin stream, one that had been underground flowing through rocks and also above the ground dancing through waterfalls, yet kept pure and unpolluted. I did not know I was capable of learning all that just through my hands, despite using my hands to purify water at times.

Then I listened.

Last year I started singing or toning with different natural beings such as rocks, earth, water, trees etc. Here I did not even have to sing to hear its tune, it was complex and beautiful, harmonic, bell-like. I could hear how the great composers like Bach and Mozart were inspired; this had the same source.

I thought this would be the end of it, but I have now found myself singing through rituals, rather than reciting the words, and it is giving me a really deep connection to the elements when calling the quarters. I cannot possibly sing the same tune for fire as for air, or water as for fire, or earth as for water!

Edges

Edging is usually a low priority for me in the garden – but higher for my kind husband who does the grass cutting! The last time any borders got edged was probably when I put the pond in and turned most of the lawn into flowerbeds a few years ago. At the same time, some new paths were added which never had edges at all while they established themselves. Now it is time for me to decide which bits of grass count as path, and which have to be reclassified as weeds.

It is not a job I am particularly comfortable with. Easy enough physically: stand vertically, push the half moon into the soil with a foot, use foot to protect new edge and lever soil away, let soil fall higher into the flower bed, and repeat many times over. Then go back and weed all the bits of unwanted grass, dandelions, daisies, primulas, phlomis and everything else I have chopped out so that they may be composted and returned to the garden in due course. However, I find it strange looking out to see crisp, sharp edges. The boundaries between wild and mown strictly delineated. The flowers will spill over wherever they please later in the season, but for now they are contained within their spaces.

I consider how I am not a person who likes to compartmentalise my life. When I did, I was two people, neither of which were the complete ‘me’. I cannot divide myself like that. Nor do I always stay behind recognised boundaries. To be a witch is always crossing borders, physical or on other planes. Being not on the outside looking in, but frequently on the edges, almost part of things but with a foot in both worlds. I cannot shut nature out, it is part of me and I like to keep the boundaries blurred.

Animals, too, like transition zones. Wavy, soft edges give them a much greater choice of habitat as they combine the search for food with the need for some warming sun or protection from predators. These tend to be from mown to unmown areas, not from grass to flowers, but I worry that I have created an obstacle that they didn’t have before.

The alternative would of course be a wildflower meadow; grass covering the whole and growing between plants that are happy in that environment. Yet this still needs management to be successful and avoid a monoculture. Unless it is grazed, or cut yearly as hay meadows were, trees will eventually take over. And the wildlife supported would be far lower than the range currently found in my ‘cottage’ style garden.

I am reminded that the job of the gardener is to make these decisions. To decide for each plant where its boundaries should be and set limits. To create a design and hold it in my mind as a picture I want to make. So I carry on, following the natural shapes as far as I can.

Then I look down on my work from the upstairs window. While all the paths I simply re-edged are fine, I really don’t like the newly shaped path at all! What was I thinking? Finding my plans, I realise how far out some of my other edges are from what is drawn on paper. I wait for a day or two, hoping it will somehow look better; it doesn’t.

Two days later I have had time to work out what needs to be done. I find our long building rope, and lay it over the edges, moving it to where I think the path should go. I check again from upstairs, then find my edging moon again. Suddenly I am enjoying myself, being creative, making a shape that is graceful to look at and easy to walk (and to mow). Harmony restored. Even better, it has created extra space for flowers – which will flop over the grass in due course, returning the edges to their blurred state.

Getting the line of the path, and being covered with blossom at the same time.

Unexpected Consequences of Magic

When I work a spell, often in the form of a wish, I always start with the words “An it harm none and be in the best interests of all…” This is my way of bringing a measure of protection into my spellworking. Otherwise it is all too easy to want something, but then cause a bigger or more upsetting problem as a way of getting what you want – such as wishing for money and then being left a large legacy when a close relative dies. Sometimes what I think I want may not even be the best thing for me in the long run. I cannot know. But I trust Spirit to know, and choose the best of all possible outcomes.

Last week I had an example of this. I had to go and collect some recycled plastic boards, from a place a few miles away, to replace the rotten timbers of the vegetable beds. (I don’t feel plastic is an ideal solution, but modern tanalised timber didn’t seem any better – dowsing said this was the best option, and at least we won’t have to replace it all again in another 10 years. Raised beds are necessary here as the topsoil is too thin to grow anything otherwise; there is only the depth of the sides that has soil and not clay or rock.)

I was a bit nervous of doing this by myself because I would have to load the roof rack, strap them on securely, drive with them, and then unload them all by myself before going out with my daughter to visit a friend in the afternoon. I asked what the weight of the boards was to be sure I could lift them onto the roof rack okay – it turned out they weigh slightly over 10kg each. Within my capabilities, but there would be twenty of them. And some smaller bits as well. I did a quick calculation and realised the total weight was over a quarter of a ton. Could the roof rack support that weight? And if it could, could I safely drive with it?

Simple answer: No. This would be over three times the manufacturer’s recommended capacity of the rack. I was prepared to make two trips if necessary, but not three.

Next question – I used to put my boat (whitewater kayak) inside the car (different car though similar) as I was unable to lift it onto the roof by myself, could I do the same with these?

Long answer – after much of an evening tweaking the seats to go as flat as possible, probably two thirds would fit inside. That would leave the remaining third to go on the roof, which would be within safe limits. And I would only have to unload what was on the roof before going out again later.

I was still nervous, so I asked Spirit (in the form of a spell) for protection to keep me safe and to help the collection all go smoothly.

The next day, I woke up feeling relaxed and peaceful, full of trust and confidence that I was going to be okay.

I was indeed fine. The car, however, refused to start. The battery was flat, probably as a result of the lights having been on half the evening, or just because it is easy for elementals to play with electricity. We have a get-you-home rescue service, but I have to be a mile from home first. Most unusually, there was not a single neighbour or friend who was available to help with a jump start. I was clearly not meant to go anywhere. Not only that, but unexpected circumstances had for once made it really easy for the collection to be made the next day without involving me at all. My other visit was less easy to sort out, but I hadn’t asked about that in my original wishing, and when I did ask for help it was also sorted the next day in a different way than originally planned.

Why did it happen like this? Why was the way Spirit answered my request so different to the way I expected, such as providing me with help to load the car for example? I believe it was because the evening before I gave myself a severe headache and sinus ache while taking apart lots of Lego and ended up feeling so ill I went to bed early. I am actually allergic to plastic – I get sores and swellings on my lips from plastic cups or drinking bottles, even a single sip, and cannulas are a disaster on me. So possibly being in a car filled with brand new (recycled!) plastic, just after having had a bad reaction to plastic, was going to do me no favours. I was truly protected and am grateful.

A Comfort Quilt

Cosy Comfort Quilt

Here is magic woven into a quilt. Love sewn into every seam, every colour chosen with love and joy in mind.

The fabric is all brushed cotton, which reduces choice considerably, so some have rather larger designs than I would ideally have chosen for this pattern. However final choice of fabric, pattern, and layout was out of my hands on this one!

It is of course Hunter’s Star – you really do have to hunt for some of the stars! (It also suits a Sagittarian being The Archer, another form of hunter…) I have done my best to emphasize them by quilting around each one, and with a relatively high loft filling this keeps the softness. It also conveniently disguises the overlapping corners, which make more of a bump with brushed cotton than a thinner fabric would.

In between the stars, I have sewn butterflies – which are mainly visible from the back. Creatures of beauty and transformation, they bring light to so many situations. They also fit well with the fabrics used, most of which contain flowers or butterflies or both. All were done by making templates from photographs of British native butterflies and chalking around the templates before sewing.

Quilt back with butterflies and stars.

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

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.

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.

A Walking Meditation

I was lucky enough to have most of a day to myself in the middle of the school holidays, which I chose to spend doing a very mini-vision quest in the form of a walking meditation. We were staying in my childhood home for a few days, so the country park that I went to was one that I knew well as a child, but had scarcely visited since. After a drop-off at the top of the hill (saving me about a mile of road walking), I started out on the most familiar track, one I cycled along almost every day for seven years of secondary school. Familiar puddles, roots, obstacles. It was raining hard, the sandy ground was as slippery as ever.

As the hedges opened out onto the ‘plain’, an area of open grassland where the trees were kept back to stop highwaymen from attacking travelers on the old coaching road, I left my old cycling route and revisited the woodland areas I had explored and played in when very young. Almost unrecognisable after a gap of 30 years, yet the feelings of the place were the same. Happy, and full of potential. I then walked parallel to the plain staying within the woodland. Pleasant, even while being dripped on, though unexpectedly mostly young-ish growth with one veteran tree decaying sadly behind a fence.

I came to a large oak tree I didn’t recognise, at a junction in the paths. It’s roots called me to sit down, so I spent some time there, working out exactly what my questions were. After some thought, I realised I needed to understand where I was right now and which path to take forwards.

I had thought everything would change a year ago when my daughter started school, so I made all sorts of plans – and then had them systematically unraveled by being unable to do much of anything thanks to my hip injury. Eventually I got the message to stop worrying about the things I couldn’t do, and found peace within. A peace that has stayed with me, and allows me to be at one with the world. But maybe I am impatient or awkward, as it rarely feels like I am doing enough – even if that is what all the messages I receive tell me! It felt like time to ask again, as the new school year approached, and see what, if anything, had changed.

Coming out of the woodland as I reached the far side of the plain, I found a familiar view from a bench where there had always been one.

This was a step back into a different past – a memory of a disastrous day at school and daring to come here in my lunch break, to escape. I had failed an exam I really expected to pass, and was suddenly faced with reality being different to how I had imagined things were going. I had followed teacher’s advice, taken what I thought was the ‘easy’ route, and a subject I had always been good at, instead of following my heart. Looking back, so much might have been different that year had I stuck to my original plan. I have failed worse things since then, but I don’t think ever made quite such a wrong choice again.

Two friendly oak trees.

Having put my past in its proper place, it was time to follow a new path into my future. One that I had never walked before; small, quiet, pretty. I walked through many new areas, and eventually circled round to return via some more oaks and Scots pines. I sat in an oak, and asked what message it had for my future. The answer was not something new however, but ‘Thoroughly’. In other words, follow the advice from the ‘Certainty’ tree I had met recently, and do whatever I do thoroughly. Reach for the sky. Find the joy in it. Don’t be just liking what I do, but love it. Value it. Spend more time doing the things I love rather than simply like – and find ways to love more. Remember what I always said as a child: that it doesn’t matter why we’re here, it matters that we enjoy it. Be happy, and spread happiness. That’s all. I looked up and in front of me saw two lovely oaks, happy together.

The rain had gradually eased, so I looked for a place to eat my lunch. I walked past larches and through a grove of silver birch trees. Then two oak trees lying down by a stream, covered in soft moss, inviting me to sit down. Squirrels played, some holly protected me and a hazel stood nearby.

A perfect place for a picnic


A perfect end to a perfect morning. I had another hour or so there, then walked home, picking blackberries in the sunshine.

Inspiration from Darkness

We have a rather slow building project going on here, turning our L-shaped house into a square. This summer’s project has been to make a window in the outside wall of the bathroom… For the past 3-4 years the room has been a ‘black hole’, having no natural light or ventilation.

At first I was horrified by the idea that the old window would have to be bricked up before the new one could be fitted, and we tried to work it so that it shouldn’t take too long, but events and a lack of builder who wanted the job conspired against us. (We have done most of the work on the house ourselves, so no change there then!)

However, what I never anticipated was what a great meditation and journeying space a totally black room could create. In a reversal of what some people do, lighting candles around the bath, I found I could reach the pull cord to turn the light off and have total darkness – while being immersed in my favourite element, water. Combine this with a quiet house and it is almost like being in a sensory deprivation tank or a warm cave. No aches, no tiredness, no distractions. My body relaxes leaving my mind free to go wherever it wants. Different to drumming, but no less effective! The first time I tried it I was helped by a steady drip which was almost like a slightly slow drum beat, which made the transition into another way of working easier, but mostly all is quiet.

Once building work resumed, sadly the magic was gradually eroded away as more and more light seeped in from around the edges. Then last week we had the excitement of the window being finally fitted, opening up the space to daylight and views across fields, which for most times of the day is a huge improvement! Yet while I love the effect on our hallway (which has no windows of its own), and getting a blast of curtain-free daylight in the mornings, already I have needed to create a quick, temporary, darkening solution using a remnant of blackout fabric, three eyelets and three screws, to last until the plastering is done and I can make or fit a proper blind. In full light, the unfinished bathroom becomes just a mundane space, too bright and distracting to travel in. With the cloth in place, while not the total blackout I had previously, I can switch off to the world around me. I never imagined darkness would be something I would grow to love so much that I don’t want to lose it!