Happy Samhain!

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

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

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

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

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

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

May you have bright blessings and a peaceful new year.

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

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Inspiration from Darkness

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

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

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

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

The Hidden Gifts of Drought

England is usually a damp country. I can expect it to rain at least once a week, very rarely do I even need to consider watering the plants outside. However, after a wet spring and snow in April, we had a dryish May and a totally dry June. July has so far managed one short shower, which showed little evidence in the empty water butts.

I usually feel very connected to our weather, and help to balance it in my area. However, this summer has been something I haven’t experienced before. A completely stuck weather system, that has no interest in moving anywhere. The only messages I have received are that it would rather we took note of what we are doing to the Earth and how we use the resources available to us, and doesn’t want to change until we notice.

This has raised many issues for me, both in terms of my connection to the weather and rainfall, and in how I use water myself.

First the weather, I always remind myself that I only ask, and while most of the time my requests are answered, sometimes they are not for various reasons. The main reason I have noticed my requests having no effect is when the weather pattern is much greater than my little area. A lack of wind can be tricky as well, although this can be built into any request. But I also noticed early on how hard it is to be single minded in wanting to change the weather when everyone around me is just enjoying the long sunny summer days and clear blue skies, and when there are all sorts of practical reasons such as house building work that the sun is aiding. It is also hard to want wind when it would only fan the flames of the various moorland fires that are raging further north in Derbyshire and nearby. Meanwhile on the other side of the world there are floods, as you might expect to bring balance to the Earth. As time goes on however, I just pray for rain with no reservations – and try to enjoy whatever weather arrives here.

The second aspect is my garden. I am aware that over the past few years, with having a pre-school child with me most of the time, I have had to simply let a lot go. This year I wanted to be much more proactive, sowing and re-sowing vegetable seeds, and watering the growing plants during dry periods.

First I appreciated ‘indicator’ plants like those pansies mentioned earlier being fast to wilt and letting me know that water was required. I duly watered the vegetables and the strawberries, plus the few flowers in pots – one with pansies and one with pelargoniums. After a while I grew bored of watering every day and considered getting a sprinkler that would cover just the area of my vegetables, four small raised beds. Then there was talk of water shortages. Instead I stopped watering the fruit, leaving it to finish, and just water the vegetables three times a week. They are not exactly thriving, but they are still growing and producing courgettes and lettuces and peas with tomatoes, beans, brassicas and sweetcorn well on their way. But as each area comes to a finish, I shall cease watering and not plant anything else until the weather changes.

What amazes me however, is how much I have learned about my garden by doing this, and some of the other small changes I have made recently. To thoroughly inspect crops every day or every other day has been a valuable experience to see how they are growing, what is ready for picking, and what pests arrive and need dealing with. As is doing my hip physio while I stand with the hosepipe! Fruit has been very early and small, yet the strawberries scarcely got eaten and the raspberries had a massive crop given there was no rain damage to the smaller fruit. Alpine strawberries are very small, yet are still going much longer than usual – so many tiny fruits I made a pot of jam from them. Flowers have few leaves and haven’t filled their usual spaces, but many are managing a great display, and there are a lot more seeds than usual. Even if they don’t all survive, I’m hoping I will be able to replace them from fresh stock – after all, plants die in hard winters, this is just a hard summer. There are far fewer weeds, although there is no way I can do weeding in our solid clay soil. The pond still has water in it and is going down slower than I might have anticipated – it may need some kind of a top-up soon although I am resisting for as long as possible and just watching to see how it does. All the sunshine is of course helping the waterlilies to their best display ever. Meanwhile our grass is about the greenest of any around which has really puzzled me. I can only put this down to more shade than in other gardens nearby, and a more suitable variety of grass since I deliberately went for ‘hardwearing’ rather than the more beautiful lawn options. And the clover is still green!

Finally, an interesting ‘message’ I got this Spring about my front garden was that the gravel we had inherited in the area wasn’t doing it any good – too sterile, and too reflective of light and heat combined with the bare brick house. It faces due south, and gets very warm – or else I wouldn’t be able to grow sweetcorn there! So after much thought, I decided to leave any low growing ‘weeds’ in the gravel, and see how it developed from there. The main one is self-heal, with yarrow, pink geraniums, lavender, centranthus, sisyrinchiums and lots of early chionodoxa all having seeded themselves. Just the grass, dandelions, American willowherb and spurge I still try and weed out, when it isn’t baked too solid. Not only am I happier with it now, but so are the other plants.

Water Unfrozen

Through the centre of Ambleside, like many Lake District towns and villages, runs a stream. When wet, it can be quite a torrent as it runs over a series of ledges; Stock Ghyll once powered so many mills in the town that it had the nickname of Rattle Ghyll. However, it took me several years to realise that just a short walk upstream is something far more dramatic.

Stock Ghyll tributary running under the footpath.
(Click to enlarge)

Just outside the town there is a rather lovely circular path through woodland alongside the stream that was engineered by the Victorians. The first photo shows where a small tributary stream is crossed early on in the walk. The bridge is almost invisible from the main path, most people seeing it only on the return journey if the arrows are followed. (I prefer going sunwise as I am perverse, and also it is prettier if I am not planning to return directly to Ambleside.) Below the bridge are some stepping stones, from where you get a wonderful view of this beautifully built gateway into another realm – as well as the easiest place to dip a hand in the water.

Continuing upwards, whichever side of the river you walk there are several different viewpoints from where you can see the main waterfall, the 70 foot high Stock Ghyll Force. Some of these still have the Victorian ironwork in place; others are very muddy and are less protected.

Stock Ghyll Force
(Click to enlarge)


I have seen the falls at lower water levels, when most of the water falls river left (ie the right hand side as in the photo), but what I liked on this occasion was the near perfect balance of the two falls, which then come together to make one. It always feels a good place for me to connect with falling water, especially going sunwise so crossing above the falls (the wooden bridge is just visible) before following with the water in the direction it is flowing in order to see them in their entirety.

These pictures were actually taken in February, when the previous snowmelt was underway. I had every intention of posting them on our return – and then the snow arrived. I just couldn’t connect with running water! Now the snow has melted again here, I finally felt ready to edit the photos (as the colours didn’t come out the way I saw them) and to write about the waterfall, however briefly. So I learned something about myself at the same time, and how I live in ‘now’, at least as far as weather is concerned!

Candles for Rituals

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.

Reflections

Janus looks both ways, forwards and backwards, reminding me that both matter. So as the new year begins, I am reflecting back on how much is different to what I had imagined. I have written already about my tendon injury. While it continues to heal, I have changed. I am no longer dreaming of all the physical things I hope to achieve; instead I am grateful for each thing or outdoor experience that does happen. Possibly this is self-defence, in that I don’t want to get my hopes up again. Yet I have found an inner peace and happiness in just being. I no longer feel there is always more I could or should be doing.

My rhythms are constantly changing, dictated to me by outside forces. A year ago I promised to meditate more; had I not managed this I would be lost. Yet within that there are times when I have plenty of meditation space, and other days or weeks that feel crowded by activity. Somehow everything gets done, even if never in the way I plan it.

Writing is something I have long dreamed of spending more time doing, and yet when I had three weeks of enforced hip rest and no interruptions I quickly ran out of things to say. Staring at a blank page of fiction suddenly felt self-indulgent and I realised my family needed me. I no longer need to prove to myself that I am ‘somebody’ because I write; I have a job as a homemaker, decorator, gardener, seamstress, cook, mother, lover … and am loved and valued for it. Even my blog has taken second place at times – if I didn’t have something to say that fits the very broad definition of either pagan or crafting, then I decided to ease up on myself. Once or twice a month is sometimes what I can manage, if I am concentrating on other things.

Looking back, there are two things that have changed me. One was realising my happiness depended on what stories I told myself. I had the power to be happy or not in any situation, depending on how I interpreted it for my conscious self. (See my comments about happiness under Samhain Quilt in October 2017.) The second was some recent journeying experiences of being some kind of woodland elf. Most people have had past lives, to which windows are sometimes opened, usually revealing a previous human existence or series of existences. Mine, so far, are not. They are of living as an advanced elemental in freshwater, or in woodland, the two environments I am most at home in, that give healing to me just by being there. (Unlike the ‘seaside / blue skies’ pictures or holiday places generally recommended to get healing and calm.) I do not fully understand these memories / experiences yet so haven’t written much about them (the first was 2-3 years ago, most were 2-3 months ago), but I am wondering if this life I am now in is about learning to be a human being. I often feel myself in this life as a hazel tree going off in all directions with no strong central trunk, but all weaving together to build a strong support. I would often prefer to be single minded, an expert at something, yet this is never the way things work out and it doesn’t seem to matter. Believing what I now do it makes some kind of sense and also deepens my love and respect for the Great Spirit that is in everything and knows all.

So looking forwards, I have no plans, and no strong desires. I will simply trust that everything comes in its own time, and that there is more to come.
If there is one challenge to set myself this year, it is to love more, to see the good in everyone and every situation, even when I am not feeling calm inside. In other words, be a good human being.

Tadpole update

Mass of emerged tadpoles

I thought anyone who follows my blog might like to know that the tadpoles are all wriggling about the pond…

The first ones ‘hatched’ after 2 weeks, with more emerging each day over the next week and creating a very dark mass of wrigglers in the centre of the two clumps of frogspawn. Finally they seem to have eaten the remains of their ‘egg sacks’ and the first ones broke free to pastures new, being seen around the plants and nibbling algae of rocks – particularly later in the day as the sun warms them. I may have a cleaner, clearer pond very soon!

Tadpole off exploring

Frog Spawn

Frog spawn apparently ‘appears’ between January and February or March, in any pond where there are frogs. I have had various people asking if we had any over the past few weeks, but had to keep saying no, the pond was less than a year old and I didn’t know if we would this first year.

Frogspawn

First Frogspawn, a few hours old. (Click to enlarge.)

And then to our great excitement a large clump of spawn appeared last Sunday.

Given it was full moon that day, I spent some time in the garden in the evening and for the first time in my life had the joy of listening to the gentle sound of frogs croaking. After about 20 minutes there was a splash, then silence. A second clump of frogspawn had appeared – so close to the first I almost missed it in the dark.

Two clumps of frogspawn. (Click to enlarge.)

So now I am keeping an eye for changes, and making sure nothing damages the spawn. However, I was fascinated one morning to discover just how well it looks after itself. Some beech leaves had blown in from the nearby hedge, which I remove most days at this time of year, and one had landed on the spawn. I was surprised to find it was slightly stuck to the spawn and then worried about damaging them as I pulled it off – until I realised that it had a series of circular holes and arcs cut into it. (Afterwards I wished I had kept hold of the leaf, as I couldn’t find it again later to take a photograph.) I can only assume that the coating on the spawn had dissolved the leaf wherever it touched, so that it was no longer blocking the light. This seems to me some feat to achieve in less than a day on a crispy tough beech leaf!

Frogspawn photographed from underwater

Meanwhile my photography took a new turn as I began writing this post, as I managed to find the waterproof case we used to use with our old camera when canoeing. I have a lot to learn still about lighting and focal distances underwater – I obviously cannot see what is in the viewfinder, nor can I check the resulting images very well while they are in the waterproof case, and it needs to dry before I can open it giving little chance for a repeat attempt.

7 day old frogspawn, photographed from underwater.


Surprisingly for a camera that is rubbish at macro, it was the closest pictures that came out most in focus, just showing the start of tails developing. Hopefully with this knowledge and a bit more time to experiment, I will improve before the tadpoles emerge!

A Woodland Spring

There is a very lovely woodland spring near to me, which I had the opportunity to revisit this week. It is shown on maps as “Ben’s Well”, near to “Ben’s Farm”, and lies within “Booth’s Wood”. I have not as yet been able to find out anything about who Ben was – do comment below if you can enlighten me!

Ben's Well as it emerges from the ground.

Ben’s Well as it emerges from the ground with the root bridge in the foreground.
(Click to enlarge.)

The spring is one of several nearby, but the only one that never seems to be muddy. It comes straight out of the muddy bank and flows beautifully pure and clear, making nice drinking. I was reminded on tasting it of some of Victor Schauberger’s work on streams following their natural course through woodland, running all year and never flooding or jamming up if they are not interfered with by man. The temperature stays far more constant with the tree’s shading, and it is very pleasant there even on a hot day.

Root bridge at Ben's Well.

Root bridge at Ben’s Well. (Click to enlarge)

There is, however, an extra feature that attracts me to this stream. Within a few feet of the spring is a path, which at one time had a stone wall built along each side of it. This can be seen higher up in the wood, with the occasional stone gatepost still standing. However where it crosses the stream, the main evidence of the wall is where a tree root has used it to advantage to make a natural bridge. This root has become the crossing point itself. A special place.

Root Bridge and Wood Sorrel

Root Bridge at Ben’s Well, Derbyshire. Wood Sorrel grows on the upstream side.

Wild Swimming in Yorkshire

One of my long-term dreams, mentioned previously on this blog, is to swim in the river Duddon at Birks Bridge, preferably on a nice sunny day when it looks like it does in the pictures… I always said when I gave up canoeing, it was because I wanted to spend more time walking and swimming. Well finally I have swum in a river, even if not one I had ever heard of before.

Thomason's Foss, Goathland, North Yorkshire

Thomason’s Foss, Goathland, North Yorkshire

This is Thomason’s Foss on the Eller Beck, which runs North and West through Goathland before flowing into the Murk Esk. The steam railway roughly follows the river, and can occasionally be seen high above the waterfall through the trees.

When I visited there was a fallen tree across the outflow from the pool that had clearly been there for some time and which, with the large rocks there, could form some interesting strainers in higher water conditions. However at this level it felt like a magical entrance archway that had to be passed under to reveal the full glory of the pool beyond.

It was cold. The pool was very deep, and shaded by trees. It was also very dark from the peat in the water so my feet disappeared when at only knee depth and rocks had to be found by touch. I stood for a long time, and then explored around the edges – most of my swimming in recent years was either in a dry suit or in a wetsuit in warmer waters! Today I had neither.

Eventually I asked the water for help. Remarkably it worked. I swam, and didn’t freeze. It felt beautiful.

Climbing out safely onto the awkward rocks, I paused for a moment, before having another go and swimming as close to the waterfall as I was comfortable before returning to a flattish rock. I thanked the water for helping me. I then had a third go, and seemed to find the full effects of the cold. Definitely bracing!