Rushes for Brigid

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

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

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

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

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

Single Rush plant, Juncus effusus, by stream

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

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

Rushes eaten almost to ground level.

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

Gentle but very curious cows on the footpath.

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

Circle oak tree.

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

Close up of the circle oak.

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

Soggy, frozen field where rushes grow.

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

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Imbolc

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

Hazel Catkins lengthening

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

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

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

A hardy cyclamen withstands a flurry of snow

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

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

Stanton Moor Circles

Nine Ladies stone circle, Stanton Moor

There is a very well known stone circle on Stanton Moor, known as ‘Nine Ladies’. It was one of the first circles to be protected in law as an ancient monument by the Victorians, and is visited by huge numbers of people each year. History has not always been kind to it; it has suffered much abuse over the years, yet it manages to be welcoming to many. However, within a few hundred yards of it are other circles, now stone-less, that have managed to retain their bank. On one free, cloudy day, I went in search of these.

Ring Cairn on Stanton Moor

My walk took me past the cork stone, and then left (North) up the ‘central’ path of the moor. The first ‘circle’ I found was just beyond the crossing of the paths, on the right hand side. It is marked on Ordnance Survey maps as ‘Cairn’, as it is believed to have been a ring cairn. There is quite a strong, friendly energy field around the side that remains – it had been recently used for some purpose and the remains of a fire could be seen on a rock near the centre. I found the gift of a sheep’s jawbone complete with teeth on the heather in the exact centre.

South Circle just about visible, Stanton Moor

Continuing along this path, on the same side is believed to be the remains of a stone circle. It consists of a raised bank forming a complete circle, slightly larger than the ring cairn, marked on the map as ‘enclosure’. There are no rocks present, the energy field is very low, and there was little to recommend it on this day.

King’s Stone with the Nine Ladies circle beyond; Stanton Moor

I knew there was another circle on the other side of the path before I reached the Nine Ladies, but I failed to see it. The Nine Ladies were dancing alone, so I spent some time there, clearing it of rubbish and reacquainting myself with its space and the trees around. Just outside the circle is the King’s Stone, according to legend the fiddler to the ladies’ dance on that Sabbath when they were all turned to stone. There is a very strong energy connection between this stone and the circle, easily felt by most people I have ever taken there. It may have always been strong, or it may be that the many visitors have in fact forged this connection. (Many times I have felt well-walked footpaths with my hands as a flow of energy. I really must work on distinguishing different causes and increasing what I can learn beyond which way it flows!)

Trying to make some notes, I realised I had dropped by pen somewhere. I had a bit of a look around, but couldn’t find it. Disappointed I sat on a rock and wondered what to do next. Then, realising I was actually quite upset about it, I asked that I may please find my pen, and the other circle.

Central Circle, Stanton Moor taken from outside the circle

Retracing my steps while counting them, I found my pen easily the second time. By careful counting I also found the middle circle, which had no path leading to it or round it. It was the largest of the circles and had a complete bank around it, with lovely strong, protective energy within. Trees grew just outside the banks adding to the sense of being in another world and time. It felt really quite special, hidden as it was, with a focus on peace and completeness.

Central Circle, Stanton Moor, taken while sitting inside the circle. There is a strong sense of enclosure from this level, with birch trees all around the outside of the circle but not encroaching upon it.

Finally I made several attempts to find the ‘Northern’ circle, although I knew it to be badly damaged and overgrown. The bracken was up to my chest, the ground covered with brambles, rocks and ruts from vehicle tracks long overgrown. I tripped and found myself sitting in a jungle. While I am fairly sure I was in the right place, and could get a sense of it energy-wise, trees grew on and in the circle and it was not possible to see or photograph anything meaningful. Instead I turned around and walking back to the path a different way, found the wonderful Oak tree I wrote about last week. I had already learned what I needed to from the land, and was being shown something else.

I attempted to journey later, to try and understand the relationship between the circles better. While on this occasion nothing was clear or coherent to me, I had the following impressions:
The circles were used at different times, with some of the stones being moved from the previous circle to the new one.
The energy flowing through the Earth at this point is not stable but twists and turns like a serpent; the prime spot moved over time or possibly over the year with the seasons and with the rainfall.
There is a strong connection to the Andle stone. (A large lump of rock with some carving half a mile to the West; just outside the Open Access Area and not yet visited. Originally Anvil Stone.)
There was tribal conflict in this area, and different chiefs gave their influence through the circles and cairns where their remains were interred.

Whether there is any truth in these impressions I have no way of proving. What is known is that the King’s Stone is exactly on a line between the Nine Ladies circle, the Andle Stone, and Doll Tor the other side of the Andle Stone, which probably marks Imbolc / Samhain sunset if there were fewer trees. This may help explain why this energy link is so strong.

The other three circles line up along a SSW / NNE line, Nine Ladies being just off this line. They are of slightly different character and may have been done at a different time, by a tribe with a slightly different set of practices.

There are around 70 burial mounds on Stanton Moor, which covers an area only about a mile long and half this wide. Most have been found to contain cremations from the mid-Bronze Age, some several, and a bronze knife was found in one.

The Cork Stone is also recorded as having had four sanding stones around it pre-quarrying, and a symmetrical pothole usually containing water in the top. (I haven’t yet climbed up it…) There were also three large stones along the gritstone edge, natural outcrops that would have been seen from some distance.

As a witch I cast circles regularly, indoors or out, wherever I chose to connect with Spirit and create ceremony. As a mother however, I sometimes struggle to explain how what I do is equal to those going to a splendid building like a church when I have no equivalent to show or books to read. Yet in the circles can be found an outdoor temple where people of many faiths and none still come to marvel, and frequently, to pray. On a personal level, I would love to know what directions they called in these circles, given that the cardinal points do not appear to be significant in their construction, why the entrances are where they are for each circle and how they used them, and the significance of the egg shape so many have in this area.

Imbolc Flowers

Snowdrop flowering at Imbolc

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!

Snowdrop, Galanthus nivalis

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.)

Rosemary flower

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.

Anemone blanda flower just opening for Imbolc

I also found a lone cyclamen flower, which was fun to take from almost underneath, and an Iris reticulata being battered by the wind.

Iris reticulata flower


Cyclamen flower

Finally, I noticed some teasels which are long past their flowers but were backlit by the sun and I couldn’t resist.

Iris reticulata being blown by the wind.

Teasel, Dispsacus fullonum seedhead.

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.

Imbolc Quilt

Quilt for Imbolc

Here is my quilt for Imbolc, season of Winter thawing to Spring. It is always a special festival to me, celebrating Brigid, the one Goddess I have had a really long term relationship with, and I wanted to reflect the square shape of her cross in the quilt. So this has a more organised colour pattern than the previous seasonal quilts I have made.

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!

Happy Imbolc

The 1st/2nd February may be the start of Spring, but Imbolc was not a sunny day here this year!

Maybe I should be glad – it is said in Scottish folklore, that if the Cailleach wishes to make Winter last longer, she will ensure Imbolc is bright and sunny so she may gather lots of firewood. If the weather is foul that day, the Cailleach is fast asleep and Winter is nearly over. It was so windy that I had trouble taking any photographs at all, although at least our everlasting fog has been blown away. The poor snowdrops in my garden, pictured in snow at the start of February two years ago, have not had enough warmth or sun to open properly yet this year and are now looking ragged.

Rosemary flowering for Imbolc

Rosemary flowering for Imbolc

But an unexpected find: Rosemary just coming into flower. It is a wonderful Winter herb, full of flavour through the darkest months when nearly all the softer herbs have lost their leaves or disappeared below ground, as well as giving shape to the garden. Then just when I start thinking the ‘evergreen’ plants are looking stiff and tired they spring into new growth, or bring out these wonderful blue flowers. It makes a great herbal tea, full of robust energies – as well as being anti-bacterial anti-septic, and an antioxidant. I also like it mixed with my other winter herb, Thyme, which is great for coughs.

A Soggy Imbolc

I am feeling a bit of a theme to Sabbats at the moment – all of the recent ones seem determined to get me wet! However it was not from above that I got a soaking, but from below.

I like to make Brigid Crosses to honour the goddess at this time of year, and although I have used crocosmia stems from my garden successfully in the past, this year they were well past it and shredded for compost. So instead I went on a search for the traditional plant used, the common or field rush, Juncus effusus, being a good Brigid green all year.

Rushes are not a plant that grow in abundance where I live – which is on the top of a hill – even in this damp year we have been having. However a drainage ditch put in a few years ago alongside a minor road a short distance from me has been colonised by some very interesting flora, including rushes. So on Sunday afternoon, once the rain had stopped, we had a family walk returning by way of the ditch so that I could cut a few stems.

This year the timing of the verge cutting left no rushes growing out of the top of the ditch. The only plants with leaves long enough to cut where those growing low down near the water level, out of the sides of the gabions from which the ditch is constructed. It wasn’t deep, I had wellies on, so I jumped in next to the first likely looking plant – and yes was able to cut several stems that were suitable. But not enough for a cross, unless I left the poor plant with nothing left to grow from. (There is not an abundance of rushes here!) So I asked for a hand out of the ditch, and then stepped down again at the next place where there were three rush plants growing close together. All good, until I tried to climb out again.

Having moved downstream, the layer of mud in the bottom of the concrete-lined ditch was about twice as deep as my first place. Wellie was not released by said mud, and instead bent over at the top and filled with water. Result: one very wet foot. The rushes were exacting their payment. Brigid was anointing me with her water. And I was laughing too hard to do anything.

The strange thing is since that event, I have felt her presence very strongly back in my life, guiding me forward. I have been exploring other directions a little over the winter, and become very aware of Elen of the Ways, the only horned goddess, amongst others. I realise that each year I seem to experience a different goddess in Winter when Brigid is less present, Danu and Hecate both having been strong forces in recent years. Yet now Spring has returned it is Brigid again, with her crafting skills in particular. It is a familiar, comforting and relaxing feeling to return to what I know. However, she has been showing me how I can use my own crafting skills to bring more love into the world thus taking what I know to a new level, as well as how I can work with water, Earth’s “living love”, to honour the Earth and help bring healing. I will of course be writing as much as I am able here, fulfilling the third of Brigid’s three aspects…

An Eclipsed Equinox

This weekend marks Ostara, the time of the Spring Equinox when all comes into balance for a very brief period before tipping over into Summer. Night and Day, cold and warm, closed and open, hibernating and active. And of course the Ostara hare lays its cosmic eggs and fertility is everywhere. I often feel it as a pivotal moment between Winter and Spring – even though Spring might have started at Imbolc, with occasional glimpses earlier, now is the time when I can think about sewing seeds in the garden.

However this year was totally different, with a solar eclipse on the same day. It was as if the Earth anticipated the event, with the birds falling silent before the Moon even moved in front of the Sun. First a small bite, as the Moon moved between us and the Sun, forcing the Sun to follow the Moon’s usual path. I watched as the Sun waned from its full state not to Gibbous but more like a cookie with a bite out of it. Then the more familiar crescent shape, which diminished to a very thin line. Then as the Moon continued to pass above the Sun the crescent became a hammock, then a smile. Beautiful. Finally as the Moon moved off, the Sun waxed to its normal full state again. An entire cycle of death and regrowth in under two hours. I watched first through a welding mask while the skies were clear, then as the clouds thickened, there was sufficient filtering to watch it through plain glass – which felt more special as I was no longer cut off from it. The clouds gradually became so dense as to be almost opaque so I was unable to see the final moments, but by then the power had been released. Normal life resumed, except that the day felt charged, brighter, less ordinary than before. And definitely less balanced!

So instead of a gentle balancing and breathing out as energies begin their rising back out of the earth, I felt a tremendous burst of potential released as the Sun and Moon came into line and their individual powers combined to produce something greater than the sum of the parts. It was exciting, and I was full of plans for the day, the month, the year, the future.

Ostara was celebrated on Saturday, when ‘normal service resumed’ and the birds were back at the feeder again. But for me, there was another difference – that may have been crystallised by the eclipse – which relates to a post I wrote four weeks ago on Finding the Excitement. Because the next day I was completely unable to lie in bed listening to the radio or reading a book while waiting for M to wake up and want her morning feed, before we both joined the day in our usual slow way.

I have been a slow riser all my life … and existing on six hours sleep because M is hungry and wakes up every two or three hours means I generally take as long in the mornings as I can get away with. But since my previous post I have continued to approach each day with excitement and wonder about what it may hold. When I think how up until four years ago I was in and out of hospital, with no energy, drugs in my arms, unenthusiastic to get out of bed ever, I’m just amazed at how my life has turned around. And if I can do it, anyone can. One small step at a time.

Water Witching

The word ‘Dowsing’ covers several methods of tapping into knowledge that is usually beyond our conscious selves, using forked hazel sticks, metal rods, or pendulums made out of a variety of different materials. Dowsing can also cover a huge variety of outcomes, from finding things to divining, decision making or helping with health issues. However, one type of dowsing, that relating to water, has its own special name: water witching.

There is magic and mystique in finding that essential substance for life, water, where none is apparent on the surface of the earth. It would have been a vital skill for pioneers trying to settle in new countries, but not all could dowse for themselves. The fact the results are so visual and seem to come from nowhere only increases the intrigue to the uninitiated. I mostly use a pendulum, and rather than finding water (the convenience of being on the mains with relatively good water quality and taste negating the need for a well) I have dowsed to find stoppages or leaks.

We apparently have a leak at the moment. There is water in the road, starting about 20m down from our house, and they could hear water drawing from our mains. However, that bit of verge has been dug up before and proved to contain an old gas main that fills with water when the ground is saturated. It hasn’t stopped the water board digging up outside our wall, and providing us with much amusement as one man delivered the plastic signs and barriers, two others dug the hole, two more filled in the hole and we are still awaiting collection of the barriers… But the wetter soil on our side of the wall can almost certainly be explained by the change of geology at that point – it is well known locally that digging on our side gets clay, and the other side gets coal. We have known people move house just to cross the road. As for the leak, well it needs a bit more investigation, but given the water wasn’t turned off during their testing we have our suspicions. Time will tell if my dowsing proves correct.

However I am also put in mind how I discovered paganism and witchcraft as a living religion. I wanted to become a better dowser, and after various searches on the ‘net tried “water witch”. The website I found (on witches rather than dowsers) no longer exists, but I found my home that day, Imbolc as it turned out, and I have appreciative memories every time I dowse for water.

I am also celebrating this blog being one year old. To those who have followed me from the beginning, I hope your journey over the past year has been as enlightening, liberating, enjoyable, creative and fruitful as mine has been. Happiness is something that grows with each passing day, as I learn to dream and then honour those dreams. May you all be filled with light.

Blessed Be.
Sorrel.

Imbolc

Snowdrops in the garden on Imbolc

Snowdrops in the garden on Imbolc


Last Sunday was Imbolc, the first festival of Spring marking the transition into the active time of the year. The word means Ewe’s milk, because in days of old the first lambs were born and there would be milk to drink again. New life emerges, even as winter temperatures continue.

Celebrating the Sabbats has become a large part of the modern pagan tradition. I have written before here how, besides giving me something to celebrate every few weeks, I enjoy their connecting me to the cycles and rhythms of the natural world and to the gods and goddesses of the land. However I sometimes wonder whether they are relevant to me as a witch (rather than just as a pagan) since if I want to make changes in my life the moon is the celestial body I am more likely to work with. So this Imbolc I was pleased to have reason for a special ceremony in the garden.

Imbolc celebrates the reigniting of the divine spark, bringing our intuitive, unconscious energies into a manifest conscious reality that may grow as the sun’s power grows. This is all on a much bigger scale than the 29-day moon cycles. Candles are lit to symbolise the divine spark of the returning light – and act as a focus for our inspiration, creativity and intuition. Some years I have needed to symbolically relight my own internal fire from this candle, if I have been struggling through a long, dark winter, although I’m glad to say I didn’t feel such a need on this occasion. I made a cross for Brigid, the keeper of the light, because Imbolc is really her festival. We lit three beeswax candles to stand by her cross in the evening, representing her three aspects of inspiration, healing and smithcraft. Then the next day I took the cross into the garden and had a small ceremony to announce my intentions for each of the three main areas of the garden and ask for the help of the nature spirits to work in partnership with me. It was then placed under the Rowan tree, an area I have promised to leave as undisturbed as possible.

This marks the start of my co-operative gardening experiment and while I don’t anticipate a Findhorn or Perelandra here (my communication skills have a long way to go) I hope to grow a richer and more healthful, harmonious, balanced garden that will develop over the next few years. Time, and M’s growing capabilities and interests being the main factors in the speed and direction of development. Successes and / or lessons learned will no doubt be reported here…