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.
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.
Most of the time I write about successful craft projects on this blog. Today I’m not doing that. Today, I’m going to talk about a recent near-total failure.
I had an idea for a lino print Yule card, which I hoped would be quick and simple given my lack of available time this autumn. Since I have decided not to show it, given how things last forever on the internet and can become separated from the explanatory text, I’ll simply say that it was a very cute snowman with stick arms, coal for eyes, mouth and buttons, a stripy scarf, a carrot for a nose, and a robin sitting on the top of his old-fashioned hat. Unfortunately it didn’t work. I attempted to wash and recut the lino four times to improve it, but after the fourth attempt still wasn’t satisfactory, I finally gave up and had to accept that my efforts were simply not good enough.
Most sewing projects can be rescued. I usually persevere until I have got items at least wearable, preferably loved and well fitting. Yes I have resewn pieces, and occasionally even recut small parts if I have sufficient fabric and know it will then fit right. But when something has to be cut, like lino, or wood, or glass, or even some sewing aspects, I can’t undo and try again.
So I had a choice – to start completely afresh, or give up and buy cards this year. Time was already tight, sooo tempting! Not only that, but as I felt the design was fundamentally flawed, I needed a completely new approach which is sometimes hard to do under pressure.
However, I have learned more from this one disaster than all the previous prints I have made, about the fundamental character of lino and what is or is not possible. For example, leaving only small areas of ink means it slips on the paper – fine on a rubber stamp, or even a woodblock in a fixed press, but not for basic hand printing. Second, lino curls, and so unless it is mounted on a block and the roller held absolutely level, the ink is always going to touch the edges as you roll around the curves. And cutting the blank edges off is no good for then picking the piece up cleanly to place on the paper!
After quite a bit of thought, I somehow came up with another design. It has proved hard to light a fire in our new woodland, because the damp has been relentless and it is too young for much dead wood yet; green sycamore doesn’t make great kindling! My mind brought together these two failures to create some Yule magic. One working a spell for the other, as it were. I ask myself, can two failures make a success? I’ll post the final result at Yule…
As I celebrated the autumn equinox this week, I was reflecting on what a strange growing year it has been. Alternating wet and dry, most fruit has done very well and so have lettuces. The peas were okay, the climbing beans are finally getting going after a very slow start, but courgettes, sweetcorn, tomatoes sulked in the cold, and brassicas seemed to get eaten by everything. So I let the nasturtiums run wild and fill all the spaces – they look pretty and have the bonus of being edible by me as well as a favourite of caterpillars, blackfly, etc.
In a spirit of celebrating all life, no matter what form it comes in, here is my harvest of oddities I have spotted this month.Twins – most common on my raspberries, one stem threw out several early on, but something I’ve not seen before is a double plum or a double hazelnut, from a wild tree nearby. The plum had two misshapened stones, like a raspberry with two stalks, the hazelnut hasn’t been opened yet. Sweetcorn has male flowers at the top, and females lower down where the cobs form. This happened last year on a larger stalk but I didn’t get a picture, and now I’m seeing it again on this stunted specimen. Fasciation (a flattened stem) is something I have seen occasionally in foxgloves or purple loosestrife, but this year I found it in my lettuces. They look normal before being picked, but the stem is oval instead of circular and while leaves at the edges (the curved sections) are normal, the many central leaves (on the flattened sections) are narrow with no side branches. And finally, a lupin stem that has forgotten to flower and instead created a pyramid of leaves.
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)
I had the idea about a week after finishing the edging, so there wasn’t that much grass left from my weeding and tidying efforts, and the violets have now finished flowering, but the forgetmenots are doing brilliantly and it has been a very cheerful indoor arrangement for about three weeks. I notice some aquilegia seedlings have appeared as well. The grass has had to be cut every few days…
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.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.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. 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. 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. 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. 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.
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.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.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…]
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.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.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.
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…
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.
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.
“First, be in your mind the purity of the stars at night – that clear, open, and shining brightness. Second, be flowing like water in a stream – moving freely, turning and yielding, receptive and giving as if innocence has been turned into a dream. Finally, feel that love is everywhere – it is in the air, the water, the sea, the sky, light itself is love’s expression, and breathing air is love’s embrace.”
William R. Mistele
This is advice on how to meet Undines, from the book of the same name. However, over the last couple of weeks I have been inspired by these thoughts as a way to live life itself. Not just for an hour, or a day, but as a way of being.
To sit in a wood and become part of the trees, the rocks, the blackbird singing just above me. To walk in a field where rabbits run and be a part of it. To watch a squirrel run along the top of a fence before I am still and he pauses to look back at me. To be part of the wind as it ripples across a field of barley. To be in a river, feeling the various currents underwater as flows and temperature changes. And just breathe. These are some of the things I have been doing recently.
It seems so simple, yet I am aware of my heart expanding and a rightness in it as I become part of nature, being and not thinking, where the modern world around me becomes a strange illusion that is temporary. Cars come and go, even roads will revert to nature given a few years. A mature tree planted in a garden feels as old as time.
I often have trouble reconciling the ‘nature’ side of me with the modern, busy, polluting world around me. I am frequently over-thinking things, complicating, judging. I simply need to be fully alive to whatever happens, at any time, and then I am not depressed by it. It simply recedes out of my consciousness. And yet by being fully alive, I can also embrace the modern world and live in it. Keep my higher vibration without becoming ‘soul sick’.
As I celebrate the Sun today, surrounding myself in beauty and light, may its shining rays stay within me. And may they inspire and uplift you too.
It has the largest number of fabrics of all the quilts, 24 I think, helped by some of the leftovers from recent dressmaking and bunting projects, as well as the donation of some scraps left over from a quilt my grandmother made me when I was little. So this quilt has real family history in it! The design is inspired by the flowers and colours of May, and by the whirling patterns of Maypole dancing. It started off very regular and formal in its arrangement but I was a row short; it ended up much more freeform in its twirling, swirling around, but I’m quite pleased with the way it has come out. The only thing I might have changed is that on three of the corners a diagonal seam runs into the corner, which was hard to trim or turn properly. This would not have been a problem on a normal quilt with a wadding layer and bound edges, but these are unfilled, just turned like a bag with one colour being chosen in each quilt for outlining to join the two layers. Unlike the other quilts I had no choice of which colour to outline on this one, green being the only plain colour used across the quilt!
It has been an interesting project to make all eight – and challenging at times when I was struggling to sew! I deliberately made each one unique, not comparing them as I went, so here is the first time I have put them all together. To me they make an interesting impression of how colours change over the year. I might have exaggerated this more if I had made them all at the same time, and had the fabrics I now have, but that is the beauty of making one at a time. The design changes had a logic, which isn’t so apparent here, but this may be the only time they are all seen together.
Over the next year I hope to make items to go in the displays, since some sabbats definitely do better than others at the moment! Each sabbat has seen something being made and something stored from previous years, but like our special tree decorations that come out December after December and are passed on through the family, and inspired by the nature displays in the Steiner School we used to visit, I would like to create more ‘special’ things for the rest of the year as well.
As this festival is about balance, I wanted to do a very square design. Most of the colours I had that were suitable were not patterned either, restricting my options. However I found that this added to the calm, balanced feel, even if the weather is being wild. Like at Imbolc and Yule, there is a more definite pattern to this quilt than some of the earlier ones, which I find I prefer.
The colours were based around what I normally see at this time of year, so lots of new fresh greens, daffodils, pink blossom, blue skies. At the moment, the purple crocuses are doing well, usually much earlier, and the only pink I have seen is my winter flowering Viburnum bodnantense ‘Dawn’. Just before the equinox we had a very deliberate removal of anything ‘Wintery’ and changing to Spring, hoping to help draw it forth. So the display includes a woolly lamb we made in the Lake District (I’ll have to do some more for Imbolc next year so it doesn’t get lonely!) hares, flowers, fairies, and lots of eggs.
Candles have apparently formed a part of ceremony and ritual for around 5000 years. A ritual without a candle (or a fire) burning, no matter what other offerings or symbols are on an altar or equivalent, to me is just a meditation. It might be very meaningful in itself, but there is no uplift. No Fire in its pure elemental form to create a transformation in my subconscious.
Now that M is at school, I find I have time and space to do more full rituals again – and having not managed much for a few years it is a good opportunity for me to re-examine what I do and why. (Oh the joy, and effort, of being a solitary!) However, I have been encountering two problems. Paraffin wax, which the majority of candles are made from, smells awful to me and gives me breathing difficulties even without any scents being added. Alternatively beeswax candles, a beautiful smelling natural product, are expensive especially as easily available nightlights don’t burn properly in the time a solo ritual generally takes. Unless a candle burns to its edges before being blown out, it will form a hole in the centre, making it difficult to relight. So for my typical 30 minute or so burn time, 2cm is probably the largest candle size to use. (Several years ago I bought some beeswax “birthday candles” for which I was kindly made a wooden pentacle holder, but these only burn 10-15 minutes each. Great for a spell or focused meditation, but simply too short for a ritual.)
Pagans luckily have an answer to this problem, I have recently discovered, in the form of Spell Candles. Usually around 1-1.5cm across and 10cm tall, many are made of beeswax and come in a variety of colours. Burn time varies from an hour to 90 minutes, depending on size and if they are rolled or solid. Prices vary with some people charging a premium, while others charge in proportion to the amount of wax required to make each candle. (Yes there are now many electronic effect nightlight candles around, and yes it does take fire elementals to create electricity so they would be present, but this isn’t my first choice if there is a natural and sustainable alternative available.)
So having finally established that there are suitable candles for me to buy, I then start considering candle holders. Not many are this small, and they will need to be sized fairly specifically to which candles I choose to buy. Sticking one in melted wax on a plate is basic but tempting! But there is also the question of how many candles to have, given candle holders often come in pairs.
One candle seems to me to be adequate for a ceremony, to be lit at the start, before any circle is cast, and extinguished at the end. It can represent anything and everything, and ultimately symbolises that all is one. Connected through the centre which is everywhere. However, many witches have candles for the God and Goddess, possibly in addition to a central or carried candle (which may also be used represent Fire on the altar), making two or three candles per ceremony. Some witches also like to light candles in each quarter, coloured for each element, giving a possibility of seven candles. (I am assuming any candles lit as part of a spell or a working are extras.)
At this point I spent some time in meditation. I asked, what does my ideal altar look like for use indoors?
The picture that came into my mind was this one:
Two candles at the back. That was a surprise because it isn’t what I usually do. They are equal, yet apart. Goddess and God, Mother Earth and Father Sky, female and male, dark and light, above and below, within and without, manifested and unmanifested. I realised we live in a world of duality and what I seek is balance. Then on the right side of my altar, an apple Wand (I wonder why apple? I’ll come back to this when I know… ), ready to pick up and use, while on the left, a silver (pewter) cup bearing water. In the centre at the front, my working area where I can place anything specific to that ritual, ideally on a pentagram disk of some kind, completing the five-pointed arrangement. Underneath is my portable table covered by a bright green cotton cloth. Behind on the wall is a beautiful fabric picture of a tree.
I share this because it is considerably more basic and simple than most witches use – and in fact than I normally use! Yet although I was then shown how it could be added to, the athame next to the wand, a bowl for salt next to the cup, Goddess and God statues behind the two candles, other items specific to the ritual such as gemstones, flowers, amulets, pictures, carvings etc, I realised it is perfection in its simplicity, with each item being hand made and beautiful in itself. Both male and female are present, as are all four elements, as is an ancestor connection. If my altar represents me in the higher planes, then I seem to be calm, peaceful, simple and uncluttered inside.
A permanent altar with lots of things on it is not something that feels right to me because I live with non-Pagans who would have no use for such a thing and not treat my tools as sacred; when I am not using them, they (bell, athame, swan feather, cups, offering plates, etc) are safe inside my desk, along with all the other sacred objects, talismans, divination aids, space clearing tools etc that I possess. Our ‘seasonal displays’ on the mantleshelf act as a permanent focus with the various quilt tops I have made changing for each sabbat – they are based around the pagan year, which is of course the solar year so easily understood by all including visitors to the house. Our two dining candles live there when not in use, creating a parallel with my altar. I also have various locations in the house where there are power items that are left out all the time, and a place where I leave offerings in the garden. So after a bit of thought and experimentation, I find a really simple altar inside gives me the freedom to set it up quickly and easily when I want it (and dismantle it again before collecting M from school), and I have the flexibility to add any statues or symbols or flowers etc that are befitting to the ritual.
The loss of some tools does, however, feel like I am breaking a lot of rules! I clear space before casting a circle, so these tools are kept nearby, but I won’t now be putting them on my alter after use. My wooden athame I made has not seen much use, and it was interesting while exploring altars and candles to read other people’s comments that they don’t use an athame outside for fear of upsetting elementals – any blade is objectionable, not just an iron one. (I wondered if some witches used knives originally so that they had one to hand in case protection is needed. Also I suspect only rich witches in times past would have had a spare knife for magical purposes! Another area to come back to…) Incense I don’t use because I can’t cope with smoke – but I do sometimes use natural sprays while cleansing the space so I’ll have to find a way to work these in. Also my apple wand will need consecrating when I have made it, so I’ll have to find a way of doing this that doesn’t involve smoke!
I am amused that I started out just trying to work out what candles to buy, and have ended up redesigning my altar, and probably the whole way I celebrate. Sometimes all it takes is a small thing for us to make the big changes that we simply couldn’t see before.
I have been enjoying the flowers of early Spring, which being generally very small, decided it was a good opportunity to experiment taking some ‘close-up’ pictures. I love seeing macro shots, probably because I have poor eyesight and pictures can often show more detail than I can see with my eyes. Taking them is a different matter however – my poor eyesight makes it difficult for me to focus accurately, and it has been very windy all week, adding an additional element of luck to whether the flower stays where I have focused. A tripod wouldn’t necessarily help!
Snowdrops seem to have become very closely associated with Imbolc, and Brigid in particular. They are green and white – the freshness of Spring combined with the purity of the Goddess, and of course the colour of milk which this festival celebrates. (After the lambs or calves are born, there is milk to drink again.)
While watching for snowdrops, I found many Viburnum flowers as well as Hazel catkins swinging in the wind. More surprising however were a few purple Anemone blanda just opening up, as well as Rosemary in flower.
I also found a lone cyclamen flower, which was fun to take from almost underneath, and an Iris reticulata being battered by the wind.
Finally, I noticed some teasels which are long past their flowers but were backlit by the sun and I couldn’t resist.
The pictures were all taken with the same Pentax DSLR camera body but two different lenses – a Sigma 70-300mm telephoto on macro setting, giving me a working distance of 1-2m, and a 50-year-old Pentax 50mm lens with a reversing ring and converter ring giving me a working distance of 10cm and almost no depth of field. I’m still exploring its potential now that digital gives me instant results.
I’m still managing to use up scraps, although a certain amount of trust is now being called for that I won’t run out before I finish the series. Having enough backing fabric is also starting to get tricky – for this one I used white as without wadding any other colour showed through the white squares on the front, but I had to make it in three pieces.
The colours of Imbolc always make me think of snowdrops, which are often associated with Brigid and the festival itself – despite having only been introduced to Britain in the 1500s. It is true that they often flower at the right time of year, although this year one clump of mine were showing white just a day or two after the winter solstice.
This quilt has again raised the question of when to create a display for each Sabbat. Mostly I change things a few days or a week before, except the Yule display was started at the beginning of December. However, there seems to be a strong tradition around here of removing all Christmas things on or by the 5th January, which leaves a surprisingly long time for an empty display! So I waited a few days and then put out the new Imbolc quilt, but found I was then ready to clean the house and bring the freshness in! Did Spring arrive early this year? I now understand why Steiner schools sometimes have the addition of ‘Mrs Thaw’ to fill this gap, although she could come any time up until May depending on the weather!
I have seen various images of winter trees in lino printing, all snowy white silhouetted against a dark sky. However I needed the sun in my sky, not the moon and stars, so after a lot of thought and several sketches, I came up with this design.
This is a tree I see to the East every morning, growing in a garden a short distance away and now tall enough to show over the rooftops. It always intrigues me to look at things in mirror image when creating lino prints, so I took that idea further by drawing the tree the right way and its mirror – knowing that once printed I would still have the right way and the mirror. For once I drew straight onto the lino, knowing that any copying and image reversing was superfluous.
Last summer I was able to acquire a small roller press, and this was its first use which was a joy. I can still improve my inking, but the ‘misty effect’ improved some of the images for me on this occasion. All a learning process which takes a long time when I seem to do only one a year!
Evergreen plants have long been a symbol of life and fertility for the middle of winter. Many ancient cultures used to bring sprigs of greenery into homes or temples for decoration at this time of year, and that has never stopped. A wreath, to me, symbolises the cyclical wheel of the year, always turning through each season, while trees are life themselves as well as representative of the World Tree from which all life grows. This particular tree is probably an overgrown Christmas tree planted out several years ago…
The stars made me think of spiky holly with its bright berries, as well as poinsettia plants sold everywhere but needing more warmth than our house generally offers on a winter’s night. There is also the coming of the light, directly from the sun as we celebrate its return – and for two months of the year I have an unobstructed view of the sunrise through trees from my bedroom window. Most years (but no longer guaranteed) there is also light reflected by snow, bringing a wonderfully uplifting feel at what is generally a dark time.
Making a series of quilts that are supposed to be an exact size has also been a learning experience. My sewing accuracy wasn’t bad before, but sew each 1/4inch seam just 1/2mm out, and over 25 seams you have gained or lost a whole inch, 25mm. That is assuming my cutting was accurate to within the same tolerances! So it took me to quilt 4 to get almost the right finished size, and this one is just slightly long. Given they are all made slightly wide, long looks good. The other good thing I have finally learned is how to work methodically when picking up each pair of pieces to sew, in order to keep them in the same position and rotation. It has taken me a long time to master this basic skill!
Normally I change the display about a week before a sabbat, but it felt appropriate to get this out last weekend. Not because lights and decorations are up everywhere else and M enjoys them being up in our house as well, but because winter arrived with the last leaves falling off the trees, two dustings of snow and ice on the pond. Autumn has passed, it is dark outside, and I feel ready to close the curtains and be looking within. Enjoying candlelight, being cosy in the long dark evenings, and preparing for what is to come. In my case, a completely crazy, exciting, holiday season with so much packed into about 3 weeks that I have had to write down what I need to do when.
As the pagan New Year approaches, I have been making preparations by completing the next quilt (or altar cloth or display cloth depending on who I am talking to) for my display, and also buying a pumpkin and deciding what to carve into it.
The quilt design is still based on 2” squares, but this time there are many triangles incorporated – which sometimes combine to make diamonds. I wanted a lot more movement in this quilt than the one for the equinox, reflecting the flames of this fire festival. Change can happen. New seeds can be sown in the Earth to put down roots through the winter. Ancestors can peek through the cracks and offer their advice and support. My colours are perhaps a little clichéd, but they are what felt right from my scraps pile – which may even fit in its cupboard again by the time I finish all 8 quilts… Now I just have the enjoyable task of creating my display on top, which like all of our displays will find ways of connecting to the seasons as well as the Sabbat, in this case Samhain and our ancestors being remembered.
The vibrant orange in the quilt is almost identical in colour to the pumpkin I have found for this year. Pumpkins are a vegetable I have been carving for over 40 years now; I can remember primary school days when other children brought in carved turnips and swedes, and thinking what hard work it looked and why didn’t they just use a pumpkin? The bits we cut out of pumpkins tasted good in pies as well, mixed with enough sugar, eggs, cream and spices, whereas I don’t think we even ate turnips in our house. However as a child I just carved a face each year, whereas as an adult I like to carve more meaningful designs. One side to represent what has been important to me in the past year, the other to sow my seeds, hopes and dreams for the next year. I usually start thinking about what I will carve a week or so before the day, when I see what size pumpkin I have.
While planning a design always involves a period of reflection for me, as all spiritual art must come from within, this autumn it has been particularly intense.
I mentioned when writing about my Mabon quilt that I had hurt my hip and leg. I have no idea what I did, or exactly what is wrong, but walking and sewing are still very tricky for me, and as for any of the plans I had for when M was in school full time, my leg is clearly telling me they were the wrong plans. Luckily I have found cycling is even better than the physio exercises and really enjoyable in this mild autumn weather. Meanwhile I have had a lot of meditation time to think about what direction I should be going in.
The strange thing is that at the end of all this, I realised there is nothing I need to be doing right now except what I have been able to do – which is to look after my family and myself. Except now I have a very small difference in my approach. I value each person equally, including myself as an equal. I am ignoring messages from the media of what I should be doing to value or look after or pamper myself, because I don’t need it. I have no lack, and I have nothing to prove. As a result I am happier than I have ever been before as an adult. I know that even though I cannot do much right now, I should just enjoy the resting period. The future might suddenly be a lot busier.
So after all this thought, I plan to make this year’s pumpkin a joint family carve, using cookie cutters to make pictures since the first two requests of fairy and frog should be easier cut that way than freehand. I did a frog last year as well; it must have worked since our tadpoles have been hopping around the garden for the last two months. This year it might go on the thank you side.
Since both equinoxes are all about balance, I have also been testing an urban myth that has been puzzling me since I discovered it last Spring. There is a much repeated story on the internet that it is possible to balance an egg on its end at the equinox. I tried this, and failed. Then I read it was at the moment of equinox. I have no idea if the Earth is acutely aware of the moment of equinox or not, as with the moment of solstices. There is however a moment when the tides turn, which are of course affected by sun and moon so I didn’t just dismiss it out of hand. So since I missed the right time last time, and it was quite a convenient time this time, I thought I would have a go in the spirit of scientific enquiry. This time I also invited company.
What we proved is: some people can balance eggs. Duck eggs, chicken eggs, they will apparently all stand on their ends for as long as is required of them. The equinox makes no difference to those capable of balancing an egg, as the trick was quite happily repeated the next day. I, however, am still incapable of balancing an egg on a smooth, hard surface, no matter what time of day. Although I can have fairly good results if I use a non-flat surface…
Lughnasadh was on Tuesday this week, a festival I realise I tend to be slightly ambivalent about compared to the other fire festivals of the year. A fairly important family anniversary the day after Lughnasadh may have something to do with that, as well as the fact it normally features the grain harvest as its central message (thanks to its connection and confusion with Lammas, the Christian Loaf Mass) and I am allergic to wheat! However, this year Lughnasadh marked some major unexpected events for me that make me really look forward to the next year (more of which to follow) – so I was feeling puzzled as to why seeds are being madly sown in my life while the rest of the world is apparently at harvest, and wanted to explore some of the meanings of the festival a little deeper.
Lughnasadh, also spelt Lughnasa, Lughnasad, Lunasa etc, is an old Irish festival, named for the Celtic sun-God Lugh, and Nasadh meaning an assembly. It didn’t actually celebrate the harvest, which is frequently a little later in August; however, Lughnasadh was started as a result of the start of growing and harvesting crops. Besides, if the assembly was held at harvest time most able-bodied people would have been too busy to compete in any games!
When the Tuatha de Danaan invaded Ireland, the High King of the Fir Bolg, Eochaidh mac Eirc was killed in battle. His wife, Tailtiu, was then given a high-born son of the Danaan to raise as her own, as a mark of trust. Fostering children was a common way of creating peace between kingdoms, in the same way as marriage was used. The son she was entrusted with was Lugh.
Clearly as a way of inspiring loyalty, this was an inspired choice. Lugh flourished and developed incredible skills and talents, winning the titles Lamfhada, ‘of the long arm’ for his prowess with spear casting, and Samildanach, ‘master of all arts’. He went on to become High King, and was a Druid and a Warrior.
He remained very close to his foster mother, despite leaving to seek his fortune, and was devastated when Tailtiu died of exhaustion on 1st August after clearing a great forest on the plains of Brega in readiness for farming. (The Bronze Age had arrived in Ireland.) When the men gathered at her death-bed, she told them to hold funeral games and celebrations in her honour. As long as they were held, she prophesied Ireland would not be without song. This is of course what Lugh did.
The first games were held at the town now known as Teltown in County Meath, where they continued to be held until the Norman invasion – and informally in rural areas until the eighteenth century. They were known to include sporting contests in hurling, spear throwing, sword fighting, handball, running, wrestling, boxing, horse and chariot racing, staged battles and displays of Irish martial arts, as well as music, poetry, story-telling, singing and dancing, and competitions amongst craftsmen, such as goldsmiths, jewellers, spinners, weavers, and the forging of weaponry and armour. It was also the time that laws were made and announced to the people by bards, and contracts, politics and alliances were agreed between families. Even weddings or handfastings took place by linking hands through a hole in a stone, which could be dissolved the next year by walking away from each other if it didn’t work out. August remains one of the most popular times of year for weddings. Violence was not tolerated for the period of the festival, all those who came had to agree to a truce.
So it was Tailtiu who made the sacrifice so that man could plant corn, offering herself as the divine feminine. She was not afraid to work hard, and was an excellent mother in all senses of the word. Her festival reminds us to look at all our talents, use them, and as well as reaping our harvest, see what we can give back to others, and to the Earth. In that sense I now understand where my new seeds have come from, and what responsibility I have to nurture them and help them grow.
Continuing my series of quilted display cloths I have been making, here is my finished quilt for the beginning of August and the colours of the grain harvest.
The design is still based on squares, as I did for Litha, but this time I did not have so many suitable fabrics available to me so decided to make some of the shapes bigger. This made it quite entertaining to sew together, since I could never follow any regular pattern!
I have deliberately used some of the same fabrics as for Litha, and would like to make that a passing theme through the year: that each quilt has a relationship to the ones either side through sharing some colours, as well as having some that are unique to only that quilt. In this case I am unlikely to use the brightest yellows for anything other than Lughnasadh, but I used the gold prints for the Litha quilt, and will use the darkest red / orange fabric for Mabon and also for Samhain if I get stuck with a lack of other suitable fabrics.
It is now forming part of my display as we prepare for the coming festival, and has been adorned with candles, flowers, and some corn dollies we made last year. For the first time we have some wheat in the garden, sown by M at school as part of her ‘Spring Garden’ and transplanted here in April. We will be able to ceremonially cut it on the day and place it centre stage.