Blackthorn Weatherforecasting

Blackthorn Blossom

For the past two weeks, almost since the March equinox, the Blackthorn has been increasingly floriforous around here. It is a ghostly presence in the hedges, with its white flowers growing along the smaller branches and tops of Prunus spinosa trees, leaving their black trunks bare underneath – almost like the child dressing up at Samhain with black leggings and a white sheet over their heads. Yet the hawthorn which makes up the bulk of the hedges around here is now glowing green with fresh young leaves, creating a patchwork effect.

The old saying for this time of year was “Beware the Blackthorn Winter.” With high pressure dominating and the weather having turned beautifully sunny and warm for much of the country, I have felt that Spring has finally sprung – yes there is the occasional nightly frost, but nothing particularly long lasting since most days it has gone within an hour of sunrise. So I have been puzzled as to why Blackthorn blossom should suggest a return to winter, and decided to investigate further.

Patchwork of white Blackthorn and green Hawthorn

It turns out that normally the blackthorn flowers at the middle to end of April – when there is very often an unexpected cold period. This year winter has been mild, and the weather seems to be continuing that way, so I am thinking this has caused the blackthorn to be particularly early. It is not alone; bluebells have been flowering since the beginning of April around here, 3-4 weeks earlier than normal. But the result of this is that the Blackthorn is not coinciding with a cold spell as it usually does; MET office forecasts are currently predicting ‘rain or showers, turning wintery’ ie snow for next weekend…

I now await confirmation from another tree for my planting out, using that other favourite saying “Ne’er cast a clout ’till May be out.” It refers to the hawthorn blossom, which is usually in flower in mid-May around here – and has generally proved a reliable guide to the last frosts (provided I wait for my own hedge to flower rather than those in more sheltered locations). It already has flower buds, but as I have seen before, the tree is happy to keep its flowers in bud if necessary until the cold weather is over. Wise old trees!

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.

In Praise of Lamb’s Lettuce

Lamb's Lettuce after a shower of rain

Lamb’s Lettuce after a shower of rain

This modest little annual never ceases to amaze me, as it continues to grow all through the winter producing little bites of freshness whenever I want some salad leaves. Unlike many winter leafy plants (eg land cress, mizuna or pak choi) it does not become tough or peppery in flavour, but remains slightly sweet and crunchy all year. It seeds itself everywhere, covering the ground with a green carpet, so where I do not want it, such as on the gravel pathways, I eat it. (Preferably before it runs to seed!) Lettuce does not overwinter, but Lamb’s Lettuce does – and makes a great addition to soup or steamed as a vegetable if not wanted fresh.

Botanically known as Valerianella locusta, it is also commonly known as Corn Salad thanks to its propensity to grow as an edible weed in wheat (corn) fields, and as Mache or Rapunzel in Europe, although this last name is also applied to Campanula rapunculus.

I like the idea of Lamb’s Lettuce being the plant referred to in the Rapunzel story, and it makes perfect sense to me that a pregnant woman would be desperate to eat some in the middle of winter. I can imagine her sitting at her window, in a barren, cold and frosty land, desperate for something nice and fresh to eat that won’t make her stomach turn. There is nothing to eat in her garden and just stodgy old root vegetables left in store, but next door, where the witch lives, there is a carpet of edible green that no one is touching. Oh how that would make her pine for it each day! And yes, the first time she persuades her husband to go, it is even better than she had hoped, for she sends him again…

So there you have it – Rapunzel’s mother was pregnant in winter, and desperate for something crisp and fresh, and packed with nutrients (Vitamins A, B6 and C, plus iron and potassium) that would help her through. Pretty and edible as the Campanula is, I can’t see it inducing any kind of desperation in late spring when so many other plants are also abundant.

Bark Patterns

Sycamore Bark

Sycamore Bark

New Year, new trees… and I have a new camera to play with. Here is one of my early pictures of some tree bark which caught my eye, just enjoying the patterns that were formed as the tree grew. I believe it is the mature bark of a sycamore, Acer pseudoplatanus, not a tree generally considered to be beautiful, but it comes into its own in Winter and also early Spring when it is one of the first to sprout new leaves.

Solstice Greetings!

Linoprint Phoenix

Linoprint Phoenix

Here is my Winter Solstice picture for this year, the Phoenix or Firebird. It is a linoprint again, like the previous two years, but with a watercolour background.

I realise that the Phoenix is not a conventional choice for the Winter Solstice, but when the idea came to me a couple of months ago, it seemed to fit the idea of the sun being reborn and the light returning. However, before I went ahead with planning my design I thought it might be a good idea to try and make contact with one in meditation and make sure it was happy to be featured, and see if it had any additional messages for me. The experience I had and answers I got were somewhat unexpected in light of what I thought I ‘knew’ about Phoenixes from popular culture. Here are the notes I made at the time:

Met with Dragon [who else for a mythical animal?] to ask if I could talk to a Phoenix. Wanted to check it was okay to send an image on Yule card, and if it had any messages for me. Very reluctant at first – said I wasn’t a fire person and should not be trying to work with it. Did agree to talk to me, although I found it very proud and touchy!

“It is a comet, or a shooting star, or a fireball like when a planet burns up.”
“Like a salamander?”
“No, they are mere striplings on Earth. Phoenix sphere is the cosmos, they are much greater. They cause huge destruction in their fires, which are absolutely necessary for rebirth.”

It was happy to be better known, however, and better understood, as its role is a vitally important one. Exactly right for Yule and rebirth. Also acts as a warning of change coming, and that is a good thing this year, even if only a few people heed the warning. Advised not to call upon the Phoenix, however, unless want a completely fresh start and are prepared to have everything go up in flames.

“Fire colours for picture please – not rainbow as a few people have done. Preferably hissing and spitting sparks as well.”

More recently I have tried to research the Phoenix mythology that exists from around the world. Here is a brief summary:

In Greece the Phoenix is said to come from Arabia, larger than an eagle with brilliant scarlet and gold feathers and a beautiful voice. It was said that only one phoenix existed at any one time, with a life span of 500 years or more. As the end of its life approached, the phoenix would build a nest of aromatic branches and spices such as cinnamon and myrrh, set it on fire, and be consumed in the flames. After three days, a new Phoenix arises from the pile of ashes, young and powerful – or alternatively like a worm at first. It then embalms the ashes of its predecessor in an egg of myrrh, and flies with it to the city of the Sun, Heliopolis, where it deposits the egg on the altar of the Sun God.

In Persia the Huma bird looks similar to a golden griffin and it spends its entire life flying invisibly high above the earth. In some versions it is said to have no legs, for it never lands. It embodies both male and female natures, each having one wing and one leg where it has legs. It is also said to consume itself in fire every few hundred years. It cannot be caught alive, and a person killing a Huma will die in forty days – but to see its shadow or even a glimpse of one is sure to bring happiness for a lifetime.

In China the phoenix or Feng Huang was thought to be a gentle creature, alighting so gently that it crushed nothing, and it ate only dewdrops. It was originally a pair of birds, male and female, but later was considered female, while the dragon was its male partner. It is said to be made of celestial bodies: sky, sun, moon, earth, wind, planets, and to have the beak of a cock, the face of a swallow, the neck of a snake, the breast of a goose, the back of a tortoise, hindquarters of a stag and the tail of a fish – although these animals changed over time – while its feathers were the five fundamental colours of black, white, red, green and yellow. It has been pictured attacking snakes with its talons and its wings spread, or with scrolls in its beak. It represented power sent from the heavens to the Empress, and symbolised loyalty and honesty; it would not stay where there was darkness or corruption.

In Japan phoenixes or Ho-Oo fly in pairs, the Ho being male and the Oo being female. They nest in paulownia trees but were thought to only appear at the birth of a virtuous ruler or to mark a new era – after which they would return to their celestial abode.

In ancient Egypt the Bennu was a sun bird, a living Osiris, like a heron with two long flame-coloured feathers or a sun disk on its crown. It was born from flames at the top of a Persea tree that stood on the top of an obelisk and renewed itself in the sun’s rays every day. Some say it helped the sun to rise and set, and the Nile to flood each year bringing fertility to the land, and its cry helped the world to form and bring order out of chaos.

In Russia and Eastern Europe the Zhar-ptitsa was a large firebird whose gold and silver feathers emit red, orange and yellow light the colour of flames, and do not cease glowing even if removed; one feather is enough to light a large room. Some say it flies at night, and eats golden apples, while valuable pearls may fall from its beak when it sings. It was able to heal the sick and cure the blind by its chanting.

The more I discovered these parallel myths, the more I felt that the information I received fitted in. Just like Noah and his boat surviving the floods appears in multiple sources around the world, with evidence now becoming more available to us to prove there were huge floods that drowned civilisations 12,000 years ago, or the way angels appear in almost every culture and religion, so I believe it is with the Phoenix. We catch glimpses, we have stories passed down to us, one day we may see the whole.

I will finish with a quote from the Egyptian ‘Book of the Dead’:

“I flew straight out of heaven, a mad bird full of secrets. I came into being as I came into being. I grew as I grew. I changed as I change. My mind is fire, my soul fire. The cobra wakes and spits fire in my eyes. I rise through ochre smoke into black air enclosed in a shower of stars. I am what I have made. I am the seed of every god, beautiful as evening, hard as light. I am the last four days of yesterday, four screams from the edges of earth – beauty, terror, truth, madness – the Phoenix on his pyre.
“In a willow I make my nest of flowers and snakes, sandalwood and myrrh. I am waiting for eternity. I’m waiting for four hundred years to pass before I dance on flame, turn this desert to ash, before I rise, waking from gold and purple dreams into the season of god. I will live forever in the fire spun from my own wings. I’ll suffer burns that burn to heal. I destroy and create myself like the sun that rises burning from the east and dies burning in the west. To know the fire, I become the fire. I am power. I am light. I am forever. On earth and in heaven I am. This is my body, my work. This is my deliverance.
“The heat of transformation is unbearable, yet change is necessary. It burns up the useless, the diseased. Time is a cool liquid; it flows away like a river. We shall see no end of it. Generation after generation, I create myself. It is never easy. Long nights I waited, lost in myself, considering the stars. I wage a battle against darkness, against my own ignorance, my resistance to change, my sentimental love for my own folly. Perfection is a difficult task. I lose and find my way over again. One task done gives rise to others. There is no end to the work left to do. That is harsh eternity. There is no end to becoming. I live forever striving for perfection. I praise the moment I die in fire for the veils of illusion burn with me. I see how hard we strive for Truth, and once attained how easily we forget it. I hold that fire as long as I can. My nose fills with the smell of seared flesh, the acrid smoke of death, so that years from now I might look on that scar and remember how it was to hold the light, how it was to die and come again radiant as light walking on sand.
“I change and change again, generation after generation. I find anguish then peace. I am satisfied with my birth and the faith to which it led me. I do not regret the discomforts and terrors of my mortality any more than I regret the company of angels. I have entered fire. I become invisible; yet I breathe in the flow of sun, in the eyes of children, in the light that animates the white cliffs at dawn. I am the God in the world in everything, even in darkness. If you have not seen me there, you have not looked. I am the fire that burns you, that burns in you. To live is to die a thousand deaths, but there is only one fire, one eternity.”

– The Egyptian Book of the Dead: The Book of Going Forth by Day

Saying Goodbye

This week I have been feeling sad as I say goodbye to a parent and toddler group I have been a member of almost since M was born. Now she is moving on to the next stage as she becomes more independent, and I find myself no longer belonging. It is not as if I will never see any of these people again, but we will meet at the gate as we collect our children, not spend a morning sitting, discussing, drinking herbal teas, and relaxing with no pressure from anyone to have to ‘be’ or ‘do’.

It is the first time in my life I have ever belonged to such a group of mutually supportive women. (Well, the occasional Dad has joined us…) It has been a very useful experience for me, as a socially awkward person, in learning how to talk to people beyond the initial meeting and discovering children are the only thing you have in common. I have watched others arrive stressed and leave happy; I have seen those who shy away from others and are easiest to engage in conversation in the garden; and watched those who ‘work’ the whole group every time they come and always make time for a chat with everyone present. Some even manage to do this smoothly and gracefully, excusing themselves politely to talk to another instead of breaking off mid-flow leaving me baffled by what I might have said to upset them. One or two simply bring an aura of calm with them, apparently needing no one but being generally friendly should anyone approach. The group often feels better just for their presence. And of course if any advice is needed, out of the 5-10 Mums present on any one day there will be someone who has experienced something similar.

However, I have become aware of how change seems to be allowed or even expected in children as they grow and develop, yet not in adults. Opinions are formed early on, and it can be hard to change these even if people have changed – as I would like to think I have. Yes, many people arrive stressed and a few months later turn into happy, relaxed, confident parents. But sometimes there is more than that. This has been a very formative time for me, continuing on from the previous few years of expanding my consciousness, and yet if I suggest I am not the same person I was 10 or 20 years ago, I am met with scepticism and non-belief. Luckily I have a few people I have known for many years who forgive my past mistakes and remain loyal, but I realise that in general it is easier to continue to change our friends to fit with who we are at each point in our development than it is to change our relationship with old friends. Moving on is required from time to time. To resist it would be the same as trying to resist any other change in our lives.

So I know it is the right thing to let go, and I feel confident that somehow, somewhere, I will meet a new group of people who fit with who I am going forwards from this point in time. (As well as those friends I will carry with me, or meet again at the school gate!) But I’m also realising I am glad that thanks to the approaching Winter Solstice I have a bit of time and space in the dark of the year before doing so, that I may properly acknowledge and mourn what has gone. Thanks to all you wonderful people who have given me an unconditional welcome, support and friendship over these early motherhood years. I’ll miss you!

Happy (Belated) Samhain

To many, and usually me, this is the Pagan New Year. The start of the dark time, just as all the old festivals start with the night and follow with the day. This year, however, I was feeling increasingly confused as Samhain approached, given that the new Sun cycle started in September, and the calendar year doesn’t start until January. How was I to celebrate the middle of three ‘New’ year moments? Was I going to be able to make it special?

I did the usual preparations, carving a pumpkin with pictures or symbols that were significant to me, some for the past year and some for the coming year. This year M and I chose four animals, one for each element, two seen in the garden and two that exist in other realms. These were frog (water), snake (fire) as we had a brief visit from a grass snake a few days before, dragon (air, in this case) and lynx (earth). All the useful pumpkin flesh that could be removed was cooked and turned into pies and soup, before cutting the designs with my trusty converted hacksaw blade. Then I lit a candle inside, gave my thanks, and waited to see what would come.

Well I have never before experienced such a dramatic shift into the dark of the year. The clocks changed making the evenings dark. The season changed, becoming cold and frosty with the remaining leaves making a rapid descent from the trees. The second term of the school year started, bringing new activities at seed stage to hopefully flourish in performance next Spring. But also, something shifted within me changing my path going forwards. The direction I thought I was going in suddenly no longer feels right, yet at the same time other avenues have opened up and feel really positive. I will use the dark to explore this further, make new plans, and gently ease myself out of a lot of attachments I have made over the past few years. Some will be reformed into new relationships, others may not survive. I shall be busy this dark time!

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…

A Soggy Solstice

Rain seems to be a theme of this winter – one I should be used to by now! I spent last week in the Lake District with family, where given the forecast we did well to manage a number of sunny walks and had high enough cloud cover to get a view from both of the hills we managed to walk up. Mainly we explored the valleys though, to see waterfalls. However, after a beautiful sunrise on 21st December, it was still disappointing to have a very soggy dark morning on the 22nd.

For the solstice itself, I like to have a special dinner the preceding evening, Celtic festivals usually being celebrated from sundown to sundown, then wake up for the sunrise (easier than the exact solstice moment which this year was around ten to five am UK time), followed by breakfast and sharing presents. This year with us being in the North, and waking up early, we had breakfast first and then a walk up the hill behind the house we were staying in to try and see the sunrise. It was raining, the ground was waterlogged, the sky was grey. A slight lightening in the South East was all the evidence we could see of day breaking. The next day there was of course a beautiful sunrise again…

However I learned some things on our extended walk in the rain that morning that have stayed with me. There was yet another storm, Eva, forecast for the Christmas weekend. As a follow on from my weather post of two weeks ago, I can report that I have managed to increase my consciousness from a five to a ten mile radius circle of where I am, although I am finding it incredibly difficult to go beyond that – or to know how large changes to weather systems can be made such as seems to be needed at present. But I did manage to journey one morning and had a brief conversation with the approaching storm.

I asked if it could tell me what its purpose and intention was, and if there was some way the effects could be mitigated. The answer I received was to promote cooperation! I couldn’t see how that fitted in with anything a storm might do, until I looked around me. I was staying in a village that had been badly flooded by Storm Desmond, several businesses suffering millions of pounds worth of damage, one road bridge remaining out of action with a two mile diversion in place, two other road bridges and a footbridge now reopened but with damage clearly visible. But as more rain threatened, everyone was actively clearing drains, putting up boards and sandbags, and yes, working together. I asked this latest storm if it could avoid causing more damage to those who had already suffered. On my return, this appears to be largely the case, only there is massive flooding and damage in Lancashire and Yorkshire instead – yes promoting cooperative working and huge levels of assistance, but also creating much personal tragedy at the same time. As I have said before, it needs more people than me to work with the weather, probably many more people, and some rituals and offerings to change the cycle of weather that has been created. It may take time and effort, but what is cooperation if not working together and working with our planet Earth and her weather systems, with love?

So that was the message of my solstice – we can expect more rain, and need to work together at all levels if we want to see more balanced weather returning.

A Light Dusting of Snow

Snow on the Grass

Snow on the Grass

Winter has arrived this weekend. I was woken in the night by the change of weather, feeling unsettled, with the wind howling around the house and through the trees. Then in the morning, bright sunshine, and a dusting of snow on the ground.

This year nature seems to have worked as if there is a plan. The autumn has been wet at times, but around here there have been no floods, or even significant mud. Just a good balance between wet days and dry days. There have also been no frosts signalling a premature end to the crops in the garden. Then just as all the trees have finished removing their waste substances into the leaves and discarding them, the winds pick up. A week earlier, and there would have been trees down, but now with their bare branches free to flex, they are okay.

Finally, as if everything is ready and the timing is perfect, we have snow and frost. Winter is here, it is time to gather stores, hibernate, and curl up by the fireside. Make plans for Yule. With luck, there will be enough cold days this winter to ensure next year’s fruit crops.

But for me, there was an extra dimension to the snow. I have commented before how I like the extra light it brings in the middle of the dark time; well this snow fall coincided not with dark climate but dark energies, brought by some visitors that were stuck in a downward spiral. I was struggling to protect myself from it and was feeling brought down, until I tuned into the energy of the snow. Dazzling white in the sunshine. It was amazing how effective it was at transmuting and transforming energies and bringing light back into me, and into my home.

So this is just my simple thank you to the weather!