The Wheel of the Year – a Homesteading Shaman’s Perspective

Published by Llewellyn.Available August 2013.

Published by Llewellyn.
Available August 2013.

“[Living] close to the land has taught us to think of the year in terms of seasons, not months or dates on a calendar. We tend to think of the year as “gardening season” or “the season for Lughnasadh celebrating”.  The High Days of the sacred year feel more to us like potent little focused seasons . . .”

Seasons of the Sacred Earth, ©2012

Introduction

We humans have an interesting perception of time.  We see it as linear, beginning in the distant past and progressing into the distant future.  Somewhere along that line are our lives, having a start, a present and an ending.  And yet this is not really how time operates.  According to physics, time is without direction and thus our perception of past, present and future are subjective phenomena.  Along that line, neuroscientists do not even know why it is we perceive time as unidirectional, or, for that matter, why it is we cannot remember the future.  Thus, when we read that the distant ancestors perceived time as a spiral, we should not think it strange.  In fact, it turns out they were more intuitively in tune with the truth of things than we, for they saw time in a mythic sense, moving on and returning, ever revisiting in the form of seasons and the unfolding dramas of myths remade.

In the many years Daphne and I have resided in natural places, one profound thing that has changed for us is our perception of time.  Oh, we have a couple old antique pendulum clocks adorning the library and living room, and alarm clocks to ensure we wake before the sun, but living enmeshed in the flow of the year, our lives have of necessity become deeply linked to the spiral of the seasons.  How we live, indeed how we think, is highly dependent upon what the natural world around us is doing.  It is deep winter just now.  Life is centered around caring for the animals.  Every morning its up before dawn to give them hay and grain since the pastures are locked in snow.  Our diets change as the chickens, geese and ducks are barely laying and the gardens are not producing.  It is a time of hard work as I split and haul firewood from the pile, but also a sedentary time as much of the outdoor tasks must wait until warmer days.  And it is a time for exploration as the snow makes an excellent medium for tracking, and the winter woods a challenging place to practice one’s woodscraft skills.

When high summer rolls around, our lives will be much different.  There will be very little time for reading, and we will be going almost nonstop, the days filled with tending gardens, training horses, repairing fences, harvesting wild foods, and so much more.  And so our lives, like time itself, flow and change with the must-needs of the seasons.

But back to the perception of time, I have come to believe that there is a “civilized” and a natural perception of time.  In the civilized world, we see projects–points where things begin, progress, and reach completion.  Such projects might be work tasks, or they might be simply getting up on Monday and trudging through to Friday.

But natural time–that is another thing indeed.  Natural time has no real beginning or end, and we know it merely as a place on a spinning wheel making a spiral as it drifts through the years.  A spiral possesses traits of a circle, and like all circles this is no real beginning or end.  Where one chooses to say a year starts or ends is entirely arbitrary.  Thus, to one who is in tune with natural time, there is no distinct point of beginning and end–all are parts of a continuum that is linked to the actions of past and future.

Still, humans need a reference to carry through with the tasks of life.  That reference begins with the recognition of the year, and modern Westerners celebrate the New Year in January.  I think to the modern urbanite, the concept of the new year beginning around January makes sense because they are largely detached from the cycles of the living Earth.  For them, winter is a static time, often perceived as expensive (due to heating bills) and unpleasant.  Getting halfway through it is a hallmark of progress toward a new time of ease, so it is natural for them to think of the New Year as occurring around midwinter.  But it is believed the ancient Celts felt the year was renewed at the time of Samhain, for them the 13th full moon which fell closest to the end of October.  This was a three day mini-season that was not quite in the flow of time.  It was a between time, and when it occurred the veil between the Otherworld and the here and now grew thin, enchantment flowed and mythic beings intermingled.  For the ancestral Celts that autumn moon fell between the end of the growing season and the start of the long sleep of the land.  They lived by the land, were closely tied to the land, and for them this was the natural turning point.  Living on the homestead, deep in the wild wood and by the bounty of the land, this makes intuitive sense to us, too.

In the old Celtic way of thinking, which feels most intuitive to me, there are several High Days that accompany the turning of the year: Samhain, Imbolg, Bealtaine and Lughnasadh.  I am favoring the Gaelic spellings, but in common English they are generally known as Halloween, Imbolc, Beltane and Lughnasa.  Some pagan folk ascribe several lesser high days between these periods, making for events to mark the year, but that is not a tradition I adhere to and beyond the scope of this article.

A lot of academically-oriented, well researched material derived from anthropological, archaeological and mythological resources is already out there in books and on the internet on what the High Days are all about.  What I want to do is describe an experiential turning of the year from the perspective of lives lived close to the Land.

The wildwood is a source of hidden bounty, if you learn to see it.

The wildwood is a source of hidden bounty, if you learn to see it.

Autumn

If you move away from the calendar and just feel the pulse of Earth and Sky, as did the ancestors, it becomes hard to define when autumn really begins.  Perhaps upon the first chill night.  Or perhaps it is better to say it begins the first crisp day.  Or given the season’s alternative name, “fall”, it should begin when the first leaf turns and tumbles from a tree.  I have always felt autumn begins at all these times, and there are other markers, if one is attentive to the comings and goings of Nature.  The behavior of many animals changes at this time.  Squirrels will gather mushrooms and place them in the boughs of trees to dry.  Hibernating animals will begin gorging to put on stores of fat to carry them through their long slumbers.  Many plants will go to seed and late season mushrooms such as chanterelles and boletes will become thick in the forests and glades.  For autumn is not merely a time in which the land settles back for the coming long winter slumber, it is more like a last exultant burst of life, a riot of color, a dramatic change in preparation of a new spring.

It is now that many timeless rituals come to pass, as well.  Hunters take to the forest in search of deer and game birds, harking back to days of old when our ancestors did the same in order to lay away stores of meat to see the people through the months of the land’s dormancy.  On farms, the last late season harvests are brought in, completing the growing season’s bounty (though some very cold tolerant produce, such as broccoli and winter barley, will be left in the soil deep into winter).  On our own homestead, Daphne is storing wheels of cheese, canning pole beans, drying mushrooms and pickling cucumbers day and night while I stow hay bales in the barn loft, gather chanterelles and boletes, press cider from wild apples and make and smoke sausages from the winter venison.

Autumn is not a sleepy time, but an invigorated time.  With all the work and preparation and bounty and action, it is filled with pleasant activity and excitement.  And yet, there is always a frisson of magic in the brisk air.  It is haunted with tricksy spirits and the girls sometimes speak of seeing fey lights in the forest, even a mysterious old homestead that can only be seen far off in the trees and vanishes after one regards it a moment.  I have not seen the ghostly homestead but I have seen on more than one occasion the fey lights, sometimes as a haze of amorphous fox fire, and sometimes like little lanterns or playful candleflickers.  For myself, I find that my shamanic meditations just go better in autumn, and my writing happens easier, too, as if the air itself is conducive to contemplation and inspiration.

And it is no wonder enchantment flows so strongly at this time.  It is a true time between times, for every season touches autumn.  It is a time of vigorous growth among many late plants and fungi.  It is a time many animals breed.  It is the time many creatures gather food and prepare to rest through the winter.  Sometimes the days are sweet and summery, and sometimes they can barely keep the winter snow away.  Autumn is the magic of all the spiral at once!

The time of the Otherworld calls out to all beings who pursue the eldritch.

The time of the Otherworld calls out to all beings who pursue the eldritch.

Samhain: The Turning of the Year

Samhain marks the end and start of a year. It is not a day but a mini-season, held upon the autumn full moon falling closest to the end of October.  It encompasses three days, the time of the full moon cycle.  It was the most magically potent time, the between point of the dead and renewed year, and the Celts held between-times and places sacred.  In this between time the fabric of reality barely held and the enchantment and creatures of the Otherworld might easily drift into the here and now, or vice versa.  The power and awe that come at this time of year are reflected in the widespread practice of Samhain traditions, for this time is remembered and celebrated throughout much of the Old and New World.

Living close to Nature, we experience Samhain as the most “visible” High Day.  The leaves are turning, the days becoming brisk without being really yet cold.  The last of the crops have just been brought in and it is the time of the Hunt.  I am often consumed about that time with the pursuit of deer.  Most days are spent deep in the forest, high up in trees or lying on the cold ground, in cover or under the sun, blending into the landscape.  I have at times become so much a part of the land that partridges have perched on my feet and songbirds near my shoulder, while only feet away secretive least weasels have wandered the forest floor in search of rodents, and more than once I have been so close to deer I could have leapt forward and patted them.

The nights are better still.  Round the fire, the woodlands offer leaping, dancing shadows.  Spirits seems to whisper among the rustling boughs of trees.  Once I even saw creatures like the Green Man deep in the place I call the Old Wood.  This is truly the time of spirits, so rich with their presence that one could almost stumble upon them.  It is the shaman’s time to journey; the druid’s time to call forth to the powers of the Otherworld and commune with the numinous.

It is also the time to honor the dead and so we leave little things at the old small graveyard.  Some wild berries.  A few wild apples.  Perhaps a bit of milk.  The locals would not care for our old religion, so we honor their ancestors in little, unobtrusive ways.  It just seems the right thing to do, and in return the spirits are there for us, letting us know of their presence with playful tricks (once they braided the horses’ manes), and by looking after things around the farm (no large predator has ever set food on our cultivated land).  Samhain is my favorite time, by far.

Winter is ostensibly a harsh time, but it offers warmth and beauty all the same.

Winter is ostensibly a harsh time, but it offers warmth and beauty all the same.

Winter

Afterward comes the long, cold time.  In the Maritimes, this is most notably a grey time.  Oh, we have our blue and sunny wintry days, but by the time we pass December there is more cloud and snow than sunshine.  The wind grows icy and tumbles down the braes and the innumerable little brooks blacken with thick ice.  We leave apples on the trees, ostensibly for a fey spirit known as the Apple Man, and on the wilder days I am glad for the animals’ sake we did.  The weather gets so cold and harsh those apples might make the difference between starvation and getting by for squirrels and other small woodland creatures.

And yet, despite the cold, life carries on.  Raptors hunt the heights in search of mice and rabbits.  The owls grow silent but never cease their search for voles and other small creatures.  The woodland rodents burrow tunnels beneath the snow and find sustenance in the leftovers of the last growing season.  A walk through the woods will reveal mushrooms in nooks of branches, set out to dry by industrious squirrels, and the white spruce are alive with black cap finches who find tid bits in catkins and other unlikely places.

But winter, even when the skies are grey and drear, is never bereft of a keen magical beauty.  The forest is white and sharp.  I might build a lean-to of branches and perhaps a small tarp and pitch a long-fire before it and there spend the day in meditation.  What I find are wild spirits, far from human.  They offer no secrets, and if they keep wisdom it is this: “winter is.”  It just is.  It is the Ice Time, and it is wild and untameable, and in that sense it is very truly fey.  The season, from the frozen wildscape of the vast winter wood to the feral, unpredictable spirits that haunt the howling blizzards, teaches preparation and adaptation and quick wit.  It is raw and savage and beautiful all at once, and if one is open, that imparts an appreciation of a whole ulterior texture of beauty and truth.

The birth of sheep and goats is the ancestral mark of the time of Imbolg.

The birth of sheep and goats is the ancestral mark of the time of Imbolg.

Imbolg: The Promise of Summer

So much has been written about Imbolg (Imbolc).  It means spring is coming.  It is when animals make milk again.  It is when it will start getting warm again.  But above all, to us, Imbolg is a promise.

We keep dairy goats.  Our little flock usually has between five or six members, a buck and the rest does.  They are pleasant creatures of habit who love to spend their days in their little meadow, grazing upon clover, sunning in the cool of the day and dozing in the shelter or the run-in when it’s hot or rainy.  But in winter they must be ensconced in their stalls in the barn.  There is no graze in the frozen meadows and they might catch pneumonia if they were to get wet in the snow and then be exposed to the wind.  By the beginning of February, when Imbolg comes, the goats and the rest of the farm animals are about stir crazy with cabin fever.  They want to see the meadows again.  They want to get out and romp and run, and who can blame them?

In the old times, the folk before calendars marked the passing of the year with events that were, to them, ordinary but meaningful parts of life.  The cycles of the moon.  The turning of the leaves.  The first snow.  And even the birthing cycle of the goats and sheep that were so much an essential part of their lives.  And goats make a kind of organic calendar.  They are seasonal breeders and will, if left to their own devices, breed each year between September and October, marking the ending of the growing time.  They will have their young the following year beginning in February, marking the barest beginning of spring.  Thus, it is only natural that the ancestors would recognize the birthing of the goats (and sheep, which follow the same pattern) as an organic calendrical harbinger of spring.  It was a promise: *It might not yet feel like spring, but it is coming.*  And after kidding, the goats would produce milk again, a key food source, giving the people hope of more abundant days not far off.

And so it is for us.  Imbolg may happen at the beginning of February according to the calendar, but for us it happens when the first kid is born.  Despite the snow and icy rain and wild weather of this time of year, this first new life at the homestead–it is a true and vivid promise of sweeter times ahead.

Unlike other High Days, Imbolg to me is not a time to pursue encounters with spirits or even any kind of ritual.  This is more a time to immerse in the living Earth, become part of her new awakening.  But that is the path of natural spirituality and magic.  Immersing in the wakening Earth is to become enmeshed in the life of the Great Mother, and that possesses its own enchantment and spiritual resonance.  Doing so makes you glad to be alive.

Arielle spreads compost over the New Garden before I till it in with the tractor.

Arielle spreads compost over the New Garden before I till it in with the tractor.

Spring

For us, the first note of spring is not the departing of the snow or the re-greening of the land.  It is the day we can let the animals out of the barn.  Sometime in late winter, usually about February, we have to shut them into their stalls due to a mix of freezing rains and snows that turn the meadows and pastures into vast slick frozen surfaces.  During that time we could best go from cottage to barn on ice skates.  The goats cannot tolerate the intensely cold ground and the horses, if let out, could slip and damage their legs or crack a rib.  So with regret we must close them up in the barn until the thaw comes.

But when it happens, it usually happens quickly.  It is often brought on by a torrent of rain.  The rain, as often as not, is warm, the result of a low pressure front that originated in the tropics and rose to our latitude.  The rain can dissolve away snow and ice in a couple days, and it passes leaving the ground muddy with only the pale straw of last year’s grass like old beard stubble.  But it is no matter.  We can at last release the animals.  And so, on the first day of clear blue post-storm sky we go eagerly out to the barn and open the doors.  The horses burst from the barn and lope and leap in circles about the corral, throwing their legs out behind them as they burn off pent up winter energy.  When they have settled, we let the goats into their little meadow for the first time in months.  There is no graze, but like the horses they run about and play and shed all that pent up energy, and their new kids bleat in high pitched voices and scamper about the does, or tumble and climb in childlike wonder at the green world they are being introduced to for the first time.  And that fills us with bubbling mirth.  Indeed, perhaps it can best be said that spring is the time we laugh anew.

Of course, spring is so much more complex.  Snow will yet fall and temperatures will yet drop below freezing.  Steady warm weather will come and go, settling in only very slowly.  On days a degree or two above freezing, when the sun shines bright, we will tap the maples and maybe the birches for sap to make drink and syrup.  And Daphne will walk the fences doing the odd repair where the pressure of ice has downed lines while I use the tractor to gather great heaps of composted manure from the barn and dump them in the gardens.  When the snow is fully gone from our sunny southern slope we will hold outdoor fires and celebratory meals.  We will toss the Frisbee in the training corral.  I will hitch the tiller to the tractor and turn the gardens’ soil–the first of three turnings it will receive before planting time.  We will launch into the village to purchase seed, or dig into our own stores.  And I will meander the maple forests and apple groves for morels, black horns and devil’s urns while Daphne and the girls harvest cattail shoots that taste like peppery hybrids of cucumbers and celery, and we make salads with them and the new leaves of trees and shoots of shamrock.

Spring is the time for the celebration of life, renewal and joy.  It is the time for renewed work, as well, but the work, like the play, is a joyous thing when done close to the majesty of the land.  It is an immersion in the most real and meaningful way into all that is good and worthy in life.

The wildwood in spring is full of living and fey magic.

The wildwood in spring is full of living and fey magic.

Bealtaine: The Renewal of the Land & Spirit

Traditionally the High Day of spring and falling on May 1, the warm time of the year is well into settling in.  Nowadays, Bealtaine is most known among the general public for events such as May Day fairs and Maypole dancing.

Our homestead lies exactly between the equator and the geographic North Pole, and the climate here varies wildly.  At sea level it is much moderated by the effects of the ocean and is temperate.  Go a mere thousand feet up into the highlands and the climate becomes far more wintry and there are vast regions that are simply boreal.  And often the climate of the north clashes with the warmth of the south, creating spectacular storms.

At this time the weather is more unpredictable than usual, and the last winter snow might yet haunt northern hillsides and the deep shadows of the forest.  But even though our homestead is high up, its fortuitous southern exposure has long since driven off the ice and greened our meadows.  We mark the beginning of May with the first plowing of the land, and with the lengthening days our laying hens begin to give us eggs in earnest.  The grass of the meadows is a delicate green, tender and sweet, and the goats also give us the very best milk of the year.  All the land is delicately green and life has a sense of freshness at this time.  It is the dawn of Earth.  A hard frost could still roll over the land at any time but this is a time of profound reinvigoration.  Thus, we celebrate Bealtaine with bonfires, small offerings of food to the Good Folk, words of welcome to the green spirits and happy, heady hearts.

Our familiarity with living close to the land has shown us in experiential terms that in elder days Bealtaine would have meant much the same to our ancestors.  For them this time was far more dear than the symbolism of the Maypole and any dance, no matter how lovely.  It was a time of profound, joyous relief.  The winter stores had seen the people through the stark time of cold and abundance and good fresh food were once again at hand.  They had no great buildings.  No central heat.  Now at last child and elder could get outside, the children to run and leap and scream.  The elders walk in the sun, converse with friends, and toast family and clan beneath the stars.  Now, young lovers could meet for trysts in gentle moonlight and new families share meals without concern for rationing.

For the ancestors who lived enmeshed in the flow of the seasons, the celebrations of Bealtaine were neither metaphorical nor remembrances of occult (hidden) mysteries.  For them, the celebration of Bealtaine was an act of manifesting joy–revelling in the gifts of renewal and abundance.  Living close to Nature merged the magic of this powerful time into their very beings.

Celebrating our oldest daughter's birthday with a picnic and swim in the Rusalka Wood.

Celebrating our oldest daughter’s birthday with a picnic and swim in the Rusalka Wood.

Summer

Read the works of many writers, even pagan authors, observing country life and they will often remark that this is the slow, easy time of year for sleepy bucolic farms.  They could not be more in error.  Summer is the season of work, and when you think you are done for the day, you discover there is something else to do.  For there are no tidy seasons of growth and harvest with lulls between on a farm.  There are tasks, and tasks to prepare for the tasks, and tasks to look after other things, and maintenance of tools and equipment, and more besides.

Summer is, above all, the season of potential in the act of fulfilling.  The gardens become vigorous in our high northern climate as soon as the soil thaws.  No sooner does the snow depart than the haskaps are yielding pounds of sweet-tart berries and shortly after, the strawberry patch will give us flat upon flat that must be harvested as soon as they are ready, enough to fill half a deep freezer.  Then will come the asparagus and the first of the herbs, and during that time we will start seeing the first vegetable produce—radishes, lettuce and chard.

In the meadows clover is growing tall and the goats are giving milk in abundance, and Daphne is daily enmeshed in making from it cheese and ice cream.  And the horses want to play.  As often as possible, they will be saddled and exercised and my favorite, Aval, will join me now and then for long ambles that might take us away for days deep into the Tanglewood that extends for hundreds of square miles.

But the days are warm and beautiful.  Innumerable wild blossoms of faerie beauty will appear in glades, in woods and at forest’s edge.  Some nights we will barbecue venison or poultry and laugh round the chimenea fire with friends.  Other days we will wander as a family into the wildwood and picnic.

And now and then I might slip out find a quiet place, build a fire and just spend time with the land’s spirits who, more and more, I consider companions and friends.

Work. Play. Abundance.  Spirit-talk.  This is what summer means to us.  It is the time in which good things are focused and life is intensely busy but rich.  It is heady, festive, eventful and endearing.  And it is a time to be thankful, for the numinous is kindly and Nature is a friend to those who love her.

A late summer harvest of mixed garden produce.

A late summer harvest of mixed garden produce.

Lughnasadh: The Time of the Cornucopia

Lughnasadh, the celebration of high summer and the harvest, was a dear time to the ancient Gaels of Ireland and Scotland, and it remains so for us in this realm of sea and highlands, aptly named New Scotland.  A fine summer meant the land was not only pleasant but bounteous, and the people would do well through the cold time of the year.

For us it means much the same as we aim to produce most of our own food.  We take this very seriously as eating locally is much more in harmony with Earth.  Eating locally means fossil fuels weren’t expended carrying foodstuffs thousands of miles to us.  It means we are eating in harmony with our climate and place.  It means we are tuned in to the health of the land.  It is even, in a very real sense, a communion with Nature’s spirits.  If our gardens do well, we will live well and in our souls we are better for it.

And our gardens invariably do well for us.  I am a skilled gardener, but it takes more than skill to make a garden grow.  Our soil is rich with composted manure and other refuse from the livestock and cottage.  Our springs ensure there is always sufficient water, and the sheltering woods and ridges prevent the wind from causing them damage.  A fortuitous southern exposure gets everything plenty of warm sun while our altitude keeps it from getting too hot.  And the spirits just seem to look after the gardens so that year-to-year they yield from a relatively small space far more than a family of four can use.  Our little Potato Patch alone yields more than a thousand pounds of potatoes for the root cellar, and more early potatoes are produced in the New Garden for crispy summer chips and creamy summer mashed spuds.  The Old Garden yields vast quantities of snow peas, tomatoes, chard and leeks.  The Raised Gardens yield bags and bags of herbs, rhubarb and asparagus.  The wild apple trees are so abundant a single one can take care of our needs for months.   And the strawberry patch, the raspberry hedges, the new haskap gardens–they all add to the variety and the fullness of the land’s bounty.  And all of it just seems to work by dint of a measure of skill and a healthy dose of the spirits’ own favor.

So we celebrate Lughnasadh with a special vigor, for it is an especially good day.  Drawing upon the bounty of the land, we invite guests and laden our tables with roasted chicken, turkey, beef and venison.  There are platters of mashed new potatoes steeped in garlic, both home-grown.  There are steaming bowls full of vegetables cooked in broth and spices.  And there are wines and ciders, as well as wild berries and mushrooms, all from the bounty of the land and surrounding woods.

On this day, we will raise a toast to Tailtiu, the goddess, and Lugh, the god, to whom this abundance is attributed.  We will make twig dolls and other harvest art.  We will leave little plates of food offerings at the gardens’ and woods’ edge for the wee spirits of the braes.  We will gallop on horses, or ride carriages through the hidden ways, and the children will play Frisbee and ball in the meadows.  But above all day we will live this day as a prayer . . . a prayer made of joy, for the land has been abundant, the gods have been good, and we will honor them with our happiness.

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