Monday, 30 January 2017

Imbolc and Getting Lost and What I Found

We've been making and creating and tidying and dreaming in green and the mostly yellow and white petals of what looks like it could be the soft whiskered nose of an early spring. We have been raising our faces to the sun and the sun has been smiling down on us, making floods and puddles magically disappear and birds sing at the top of their warbling lungs.

The Snowdrops have turned up right on time, and so have the first of the lambs and the calves.
This chap is looking pretty pleased with himself, and rightly so. There's a fine crop of his descendants skipping around the fields in the morning mist.

Have I already told you that I love sheep? I don't really know why, it's not a rational thing, but when is love ever a rational thing? Perhaps it's exposure at an early age to the joys of bottle feeding lambs. Or perhaps it's just that their furry faces always look so very friendly, I can't imagine a sheep ever looking judgemental, I'm sure no sheep ever voted for anything other than the common good.

I'm constantly in awe of their capacity to withstand the weather, whatever the dance between Earth and Sky, bucketing rain, blowing a hoolie or simply frozen solid; sheep simply stand there, munching away, until the moment (as any sheep farmer will tell you) that they suddenly decide to keel over and die, for no particular reason. It is said that sheep die for fun, just because they can. But mostly they don't.

I followed a sheep track out onto the moor last week, wending my way along the ribbon of tiny hoof prints. I deliberately allowed myself to be lost for a while, it was a strange but beautiful feeling walking a familiar landscape from an unfamiliar direction, taking feral and seemingly random turnings at this hillock or that patch or gorse as the track led me, losing that sense of time which is somehow marked by the known and the predictable.

I was in a part of the moor that I know pretty well, so I mean lost in the most minor sense of the word, but bimbling about with no guide but the sheep track for a while, brought me a whole new perspective. It reminded me about trust, and the importance of knowing where you're going, or not, which seems particularly relevant at this time of the year when most of us are thinking about new beginnings, new projects, new directions, planning what we'll plant for the growing season..

There are large and obvious land marks, not least of which is the ancient stone circle of Scorhill

This stone circle - when you are reflecting on pathways as you follow sheep tracks across the moor - is the Ancestors, It represents all we think we know, the certainties we take for granted, our moral, ethical, social compass.

We are living in incredibly uncertain times, the ground is shifting under our feet in strange and possibly frightening ways all over the world. So perhaps we're all a bit lost, there doesn't seem to be a map for where to go and what to do when everything is trundling ever more quickly down the hill to hell.

 The moon rose as the sun set and I wondered if this circle has a particular alignment to either of these great heavenly bodies, I don't know. Perhaps you do? There will doubtless have been a reason that these great stones were hauled to this sport and placed in exactly the places that they stand. We no longer necessarily know what that reason was, but we trust that it was good enough for the people of the time.

It seems to be a commonly held belief that the great structures of the past, those that still mark the land, were placed there for sacred or ceremonial purpose. We believe, I believe, that these structures come from a time when people listened to spirits much more than we tend to. Not only the disembodied spirits of the otherworld, but those of river and raven, sea and shore, tree and timeless tumbling brook. There is a beautiful polarity in living this way, there is always a signpost, a path, always a guide to the next step and yet there is also the freedom of not necessarily having the big picture, the whole of the map, When your intention is to live in harmony with nature, you don't need to know much about the distant future, you just need to listen to what is needed here now.

 I'm not at all suggesting that we should all stick our heads in the sand, or under our wings, or anywhere else that hides our view of the mess were in, but I am suggesting that looking at the signposts and considering the next step and only the next step is sometimes more empowering, emboldening perhaps, than trying to take the long view. Perhaps we need to get a little lost, so that we can find our way to somewhere unexpected, somewhere we haven't been before.

Monday, 16 January 2017

Here We Go A Wassailing.....

Here we go a wassailing among the leaves so green, 
He go a wandering so glorious to be seen, 
Love and joy come to you and to you a wassail too, 
And god bless you and send you a happy new year, 
and god send you a happy new year. 

Wassailing is an old country tradition, one among many that marked the minutiae of the passing of the year - in this case one that acknowledged winter is still here but spring is coming, so we go to the orchards to wake up the trees. It seems that everywhere that there is a strong tradition of cider making you will still find wassailers, the length and breadth of the country.  Here in Devon there's plenty of it about, those of us who love cider are to be found on old twelfth night (17th January), or thereabouts, making sure that the apple trees are honoured and acknowledged so that they bear plenty of fruit in the coming year.

We went a wassailing a little early this year, I didn't realise until I started researching it for this post that there is a date, an actual date rather than guidelines, that is commonly associated with Wassailing. I think for many of us it just takes place at some point in the first couple of weeks in January, whereas for others it's the 17th of January or be damned!

We brought sops and cider, song, fire and friendship to our trees. Also our eternal gratitude for the mammoth harvest they so often give us.

We put the sops in the branches of the oldest tree and poured a libation of last years cider onto the roots.

It's delicious stuff!

We sat around outside in the twilight, ciders in hand, wondering about the many tales of the apple: Perhaps she is the personification of the Goddess, perhaps she contains sacred teachings (have you ever cut an apple in half sideways?). Perhaps the humble apple is the fruit of immortality, of the Gods, of the fall of Eve. Certainly the practice of wassailing was considered a pagan threat to the christian church and there was an edict banning it in 1577.  Our conversation moved to crumble and custard and ways to make the cider press work better - Fergus and I can always be relied upon to bring the conversation back to our bellies in the end and the fire was easily good enough to roast a potato on. The bonfire, or a flaming torch, is part of the traditions of wassailing as it represents the returning sun. Bless him and his warming, lighting, ripening, apple growing ways.

And when we came in we realised we'd forgotten the bit about banging saucepans to drive away the evil spirits and went back out to do it.  If your wassailing in a community orchard you are likely to find lots of noise in the shape of morris men and plenty of merriment; here's a little film of wassailing a community orchard in Colwall in Herefordshire last year.

Most importantly, wherever or whenever you are a-wassailing there must be sops in cider. This is usually a piece of toast these days - which I think may be a hilarious misunderstanding of the expression 'toasting the trees' - but it might not be. It seems that bread was placed in the cider glasses in many places, as much to prevent all the murk from the bottom of the glass from ending up in your mouth as anything else.  The cider soaked bread (toasted or not) is then placed in one of more of the trees, for the good spirits and for the Robin who is guardian of the orchard.  A libation - last years cider poured upon the ground and the roots of the trees in  honour of the Spirits - is offered and threaded throughout all of this is the constant shout of "wassail" and the singing of the local wassailing song.  The word wassail is derived from Old Norse 'vest heil' and means "be healthy", "be you hale". The traditional response is "Drink hael!". 

I came across this wonderful old film from the 70s about British mid-winter traditions, from Ash Faggot burning to Wassailing. If you let the YouTube get on with it the whole film will play in 5 separate pieces.

According to the community featured here wassailing was regarded as simple good husbandry. The oldest tree in the orchard would be blessed, gun shots would be fired to scare away the bad spirits and sops soaked in hot cider and ginger placed in it's branches to entice good spirits to come - thus ensuring a good crop of apples in the coming season. Hurrah!

May all trees be fruitful this year; yours, mine and those that belong only to themselves.