Hedgecutting

I am trying an experiment this year – to cut our mixed hawthorn hedge twice, instead of once. This weekend we have managed to complete the first cut, having started it two weeks ago. I’m glad to say that this year the birds finished nesting by then; some years we would not have been able to start in June! (Garden warblers usually seem to be the latest here, but I haven’t been hearing them this year.)

It has been interesting to see the different behaviours of the plants by changing the timing. While starting only about six weeks earlier than normal (yes it often takes us two weekends to do the whole thing, since we have to cut both our side and the ‘track’ side where the footpath runs) it was noticeable how much softer the hawthorn was and therefore how much easier it was to shred. However, the holly was so soft though that it kept clogging up, and the hazel, separated out to be composted, was definitely easier when woodier. But the first cut with most of the hazel has virtually made compost already, in just two weeks.

There is another aspect however which makes me glad to change our practice. I have been gradually trying to grow the hedge out wider on the track side, in order to protect the bank against inappropriate use of strimmers and weedkillers applied by other track user(s). By keeping the edge neat and cutting a little off more frequently, the hedge is starting to thicken up on that side. It was really encouraging to see the return of cow parsley this year for the first time in about a decade. There are also a few other wildflowers, besides the predictable nettles, brambles and stickyweed trying to keep humans at bay, and a large quantity of ivy helping to stabilise the soil. I am hoping these will all flourish in a more protected space.

Yuletide Greetings

Solstice Greetings, Wren with Ivy

Solstice Greetings, Wren with Ivy

A very happy winter solstice to all my readers!

Here is my favourite wren story, Celtic in origin:
There was once a contest to see who should be the king of the birds. The wren suggested that whoever could fly the highest should be made king. The eagle thought this was great and immediately went to show how high he could fly. Up and up he flew, far above all the other birds that he could see circling below him as he soared through the sky. He went up as far as he could, hovered for a few minutes, and then started to descend. Just then a wren who had been hidden in his feathers popped out and flew up two more feet, before saying “Behold your king!”

Wrens are a delightful little bird that hop around the hedges and shrubs in my garden, mostly seen in winter. They build several nests each year, and will choose the best, or even huddle together in cold weather in a nest box. They also have a surprisingly loud voice.

Solstice Preparations

Celebrating the sabbats gives a focus to the seasons for me, and I like to mark them all in some way because they add meaning to my life. They are always high points, coming at random mid-week and interrupting routines. Yule is the biggest and the only one with significant preparations well in advance of the day. However, this year even more than previously I have been asking myself what preparations do I want to do as a pagan? What will add meaning for me, rather than just going along with what everyone else does?

The Winter Solstice does of course celebrate the return of the light. This can be interpreted in many ways, including the birth of the sun god. Mithras, Sol Invictus, or Jesus, whichever sun god you prefer to celebrate. So I have been making a gold star for the top of our tree (not finished yet!), and hung many gold decorations. Dried orange slices, or clove oranges are also great decorations that I would love to do in a future year. The tree being evergreen represents everlasting life, and brings warmth and protection to the household through the darkest days. I will keep the decorated tree until the mornings finally start getting lighter around 5th January, long after the shortest afternoon.

December Candle

December Candle

We have had a “December candle” for the first time this year, burning for 45 minutes each dinner. This provoked an interesting discussion with a friend who is an Anthroposophist, who after some thought said she felt everything should be building up to the birth of Christ, not decreasing. She liked the Advent wreaths in which an increasing number of candles are lit each week. However I feel that our candle represents the diminishing sunlight, which then returns when we reach the big event on the Solstice. (Our celebrations involve getting up to see the sunrise, and then sharing gifts after that. Yes we open ours a few days before everyone else…) The candle is surrounded by an ivy ring, which fits with Yule meaning wheel. The year is at its turning point, and is a time of rebirth and transformation. The light returns, and all is renewed to grow again.

Feasting is a major part of Yule, because when it is dark and cold outside we need suitably warming and sustaining food, for our spirits as well as our physical bodies. We have lost the natural rhythms to our lives over the past century or so; before the electronic age most people would have spent Winter evenings around a fireside, entertaining each other by whatever means they felt suited to and generally resting instead of working outdoors until late at night. Storytelling and singing was popular, as well as other forms of communal entertainment. Today illness frequently forces us to rest. But the return of the sun gives an extra reason to celebrate and have a bigger or fancier meal than every day, with decorations and joyous feasts to welcome it back. The winter may be far from over, but the light is increasing again each day.

However there is one aspect which has puzzled me for a while now. There are various chambered cairns in the rocky parts of our islands, thought by some to have been used for shamanic practices such as initiations or retreats or communications with ancestors, since most contain very few actual remains. Some are carefully aligned to the Winter Solstice, so that the sun enters only on a few days each year in midwinter – bringing light to what is otherwise a perpetually dark space. A famous example is Newgrange in Ireland. But Maeshowe in Orkney, or Clava Cairns near Nairn are both aligned to the setting sun, rather than to the rebirth in the morning. So what exactly were our ancestors celebrating, and what form did these celebrations take?

Ivy

Ivy flowers and berries

Ivy flowers and berries

I have been thinking a lot about ivy recently, for two reasons: first because of its Winter character, being evergreen and flowering when all else has finished, and second because as the trees loose their leaves I have been particularly aware this year of how the ivy has spread up their trunks and is surrounding them.

To look at the second point first, the RHS advice on ivy is that it will not harm a healthy hedge or tree. Their website states “where it grows into the crown this is usually only because the trees are already in decline or are diseased and slowly dying.” This does not bode well for some of the trees around me! I have pulled it from our hawthorn hedge a few times over the years, where it tries to swamp some of the older trees, or invade the flower areas, because left unchecked, the balance seems to be entirely in favour of the ivy. If ivy gets into stone walls, they generally need rebuilding. However for all the problems it causes, I have to admire its spirit.

Ivy invading the crown of an oak tree

Ivy invading the crown of an oak tree

Ivy is unusual in flowering in late autumn, making it ecologically important. There is an ivy bee which lives just for these flowers, basing its entire life cycle around the ivy, although sadly not this far north. Hoverflies also feed off their nectar. Then the berries last through the winter, feeding many birds when other fruits have gone. The leaves are evergreen so provide shelter for many insects, and also temperature regulation and protection for us humans when grown on buildings. Ivy is like the holly in having two leaf forms – a pointed, palmate leaf, and a smooth edged, simpler leaf on flowering shoots. However while the holly grows its points for protection against the low shoots being eaten with smooth leaves higher up, the ivy does it to increase its surface area where light levels are low.

Ivy leaves are good for removing pollution from the air, and also toxins from our bodies. They are mildly anti-viral and anti-inflammatory. Their best use is in lung conditions, easing the ability to breathe by helping to relax muscle spasms as well as loosening mucus. It combines well with Thyme for this purpose. Unfortunately ivy is also poisonous, generally causing stomach upsets, so any recommendations for home preparations are limited to external uses such as skin complaints or insect stings, for which it is apparently effective. Luckily I haven’t had a reason to try this out!

Traditionally ivy is seen as female, possibly due to its spiral growth connecting it to the Goddess. It is included in bridal bouquets – and it is supposed to bring luck, fidelity and fertility. The holly is seen as its male counterpart in winter, hence there are many references to the two together, often in conflict for superiority with each other but sometimes in partnership.

Personally I have trouble with ascribing genders to trees or other plants, so to use gender as a starting point for understanding a plant or for its use is therefore problematic. (Individual tree spirits or faeries are a different matter!) So what does the character of ivy offer? I see it as tenacious, can grow anywhere from the darkest shade to bright sunshine, and will use whatever it finds to climb up and over any obstacles. It is highly adaptable and not fussy. It can wander freely, and can be binding yet is not bound itself. It can offer protection, nourishment, but also death to the unwary. Know yourself, know what you seek before asking ivy to help, but then trust in its ability to network and scramble to reach the light where it will flower regardless of the weather – even on a dull late November day as shown here!

Ivy 'hedge' in flower

Ivy ‘hedge’ in flower