Saturday, 29 October 2016

Samhain, Death and The Cailleach.

I have been keeping company with the Cailleach these last few weeks; she's the Hag, the bringer of winter, the old woman, the crone, and contrary to expectation (perhaps) she is one of the most welcome visitors I can think of. I love this time of year, when the glorious, uproarious, pageant of summer makes way for the soft, quiet falling of leaves. When the composting of all the brightness and loudness of growth starts to invite us downwards, earthwards, inwards, towards death.


It's the time for taking stock, not in a counting your chickens sort of a way, but in that looking under your skirts to see who's really there way. For being soft with yourself - sitting on the sofa with a book when it's raining, singing soft songs to the mist in the morning, or going and gathering great armfuls of kindling in the bright soft afternoons, full of the rustles of dry leaves falling through nearly bare branches.


Death is inevitable, as immutable as change, in fact in many ways it is simply change. We see it as final and frightening and to be mourned and feared, but what's happening really? We are changing our state, crossing a threshold from embodied to not. It will come for all of us, but that does not mean it has to be unwelcome. Every part of life has it's deaths; from the big seasonal ones, to full moon and dark, the ending of the day or the turning of the tide.


Life, while we have it, is full of all those smallish but possibly painful deaths; relationships over, friendships petered out, jobs done-with, projects finished. There are all the things we have used up and thrown out, all the things we've eaten and even all the things we've wasted. Glasshouses full of the things we have forgotten to water.


But best are the deaths of those aspects of ourselves that we no longer need or better still the ones we no longer want, that we can relinquish freely and with an open and loving heart say "Goodbye, I hope you never come back." We can bow our heads quietly at dusk and say thank you for the lesson, thank you for the gift of my life, thank you for all that I am and all that I have.


Samhain is the time when we remember the dead, and in the remembering of the dead as a society we conjur shadows and shades, the ghosts of the past. Whilst these ghosts and shadows have been part of what has created our present, and whilst I encourage you all to remember your dead, with love if you can, I feel that it is the shadows of the present that we should be really looking at. It seems like the work of the moment is to let them out of the cellar, the cupboard, out from under the bed, and have a really good look at them.


We all know the truth of the pop-psychology that says that what you hide in your basement will go crazy and then run amok in your life - we see this writ large in our lives at the moment: There are a myriad of ways our cultural shadow is being shown to us every day, just flip to facebook, twitter, turn on the TV, be appalled at our behaviour.  And when you have finished weeping (and I urge you to make it a very short but effective weep, the kind that makes your face clean and your clothes wet, that wrings out the stored up griefs, too small to mourn on their own, the little ones that accumulate. The kind of weeping that torrents wildly though you and brings in it's aftermath peace.) weeping over fracking, nuclear power, refugees, the patriarchy, violence against women, the Dakota PipeLine and all that is happening at Standing Rock, the list goes one and on, so many reasons to weep. Then let's peck the flesh from these old bones and make them bare, let's look at what's hidden inside, let's really, really stand and face ourselves in the mirror


And then let us remember:
Everything is made up of the same stuff.
Everything is connected.



And so if each one of us takes a good look at what we'd like to let go of, especially core beliefs. Extra especially if those core beliefs reflect the culturally held core belief that our Earth is simply a resource to be used.


If we all ferret about under our metaphorical beds and find the things that need to come out and be looked at, and that then need to die. (Not everything under there needs to die, but I humbly suggest that it all needs to be looked at and given a good clean and a home on a shelf somewhere you can keep your eye on it.)


Perhaps we can grow something beautiful and useful out of the compost we will make.


To the ancient Celts, our ancestors in these lands, Samhain marked the end of the old year and the beginning of the new. They viewed days this same way, the day began as darkness fell, it gestated in the blackness, just as we do, and gave birth to itself with the returning of the light. So I leave you with this, for the New Year, as it sleeps quietly in the earth, I wish it for myself, and I wish it for you.


May a good vision catch me
May a benevolent vision take hold of me, and move me

May a deep and full vision come over me, and burst open around me

May a luminous vision inform me, enfold me.
May I awaken into the story that surrounds,
May I awaken into the beautiful story.
May the wondrous story find me;
May the wildness that makes beauty arise between two lovers
arise beautifully between my body and the body of this land,
between my flesh and the flesh of this earth,
here and now,
on this day,
May I taste something sacred.
—David Abram






Thursday, 13 October 2016

'October's the month for storage' - an autumn ramble.

You do not have to be good.
You do not have to walk on your knees
for a hundred miles through the desert, repenting.
You only have to let the soft animal of your body 
love what it loves

Mary Oliver from 'Wild Geese'



I have always loved these words by Mary Oliver, and they have kept coming up for me over the last few days; my middle son wondering if I'd heard them, knowing I would love them, a friend posting them on facebook, the book, when I eventually found it, falling open on exactly that page.  So I have been thinking about what the soft animal of my body loves, and I've found something blindingly obvious that I'd never really noticed before. My animal body loves nothing more than to touch, sniff, listen to and taste today, to lean into the day exactly as it is, to do today what is appropriate for today: 

All summer long there was nothing I wanted more than to laze around in the sun. I didn't get much opportunity to do it but when I did it felt like exactly the right thing to be doing and I dropped deeply into a sunshine induced torpor of utter relaxation. 


I had committed support in this endeavour from all sorts of quarters. Druid likes nothing better than a good laze, 


And Daisy likes to make sure that he's doing it properly. 


But now that the autumn equinox is past, the leaves are falling and the evenings are drawing in, 
my hands want to pick things and store them and harvest things and cook them and tidy flowerbeds and clean tools and generally scurry about filling the larder and the woodshed and making preparation for not doing too much of anything in the hard, cold part of winter.  In short, I want to do this! 



Hours and hours of picking, my fingers listening for the tell tale snap of the stem as a ripe apple falls into my palm. That heavenly scent of many ripe apples, calling forth sun and rain and dew into scrumptious tongue tangy crispness, the juices running down my chin. 




Luckily I only need to eat one apple to be full of apple, the same can definitely not be said of blackberries (or cake) so many apples were put in baskets and only one in me. First we picked the apples from the bit of garden that we grandly call 'The Orchard'


You can see that Mr Practical and Mrs Romantic were both picking, and that Mr Practical picked more. This was a story that wove it's way through the last days of September and into October, as we went out daily with our baskets (me) and plastic bags or buckets (him) and gathered the season's bounty.  




On one beautiful afternoon we went down to a little scrap of ancient woodland nearby to 'scrump' for crab apples. Scrumping is an old Devon word which means to steal apples from someone else's tree. Traditional cider (made by the bucket-full in the West Country) is still called 'scrumpy' in remembrance of this, but it's not scrumping when you've asked the land owner and the apple tree. However, I love the word scrump, and 'picking with permission' really doesn't have the same ring to it. 


Once we had gathered as many apples as we could carry, we picked the pears. Both of them. What they lacked in numbers they more than made up for in size, being perfectly pear-shaped and deliciousness. Sadly our pear tree hasn't been very happy this year, although it does look better now than it did at the beginning of the summer, when it seemed as if it might die. Lots of buckets of water throughout August and September and a strong new stake have made it feel much better. 


Next came the hedgerows; nature's pharmacy set out in neat little rows for our delectation and delight. I feel deeply in relationship with the hedgerows here, we have shared the wind and the rain, the sunshine and the starlight. This harvest grows along the lane to our house, berry after berry packed with so much of what we need, if only we listen to our bodies and to what the hedgerows themselves and those who live just on the other side have to teach us. 



Haws (Hawthorn berries), sloes (Blackthorn berries), blackberries, elderberries, rowan berries and rose hips have been gathered by the basket-full, bursting full of healthful goodness and ready to be made into magical potions, medicines to keep winter's colds away. Have you heard (I have no idea if it's true or not) that the word medicine finds it's root in the word metheglin which is mead with herbs in it? Medicine indeed! 


The sloes will spend some time in the freezer before we use them so that their skins are soft enough to let their goodness out. They are traditionally picked after the first frosts but they have been disappearing fast (perhaps into the beaks of hungry birds, or perhaps the baskets of other pickers) and I heard a whisper through the hedgerow that if we wanted some we would have to pick some early, so we did. Making sure never to take more than one third of what is there, so that the hungry birds don't become starving birds. There is enough for everyone if we pick for need not greed.


Each day I have walked out from our house with a basket, each day thinking that this will surely be the last time there are mushrooms to collect.  


But the ongoing saga of the HUGE quantities of mushrooms that there are continues, I have been drying racks of them for storage and making gallons of gorgeous mushroom soup. I cannot use that word - storage - at this time of year without thinking of Sylvia Plath's poem 'Who'.   

                    "The month of flowering's finished. The fruits in.                
Eaten or rotten. I am all mouth.
October's the month for storage."



If there are still mushrooms where you are then I have found that there are two really effective ways to store them. The first is to slice them fairly thinly and lay them out on racks like this. Then put the rack in a roasting tin and put the roasting tin in a very low oven or on top of a range for a few hours. I have taken to putting newspaper under the rack to catch the little bits that fall through racks as they shrink a lot as they dry, they turn crispy and can be kept in a jar for literally years. They can crumble to dust if you press them down in the jar hard but this dust tastes so deliciously strongly of mushrooms that it makes a fantastic flavour deepener in winter stews.  The second way to store mushrooms is simply to fry them in butter and then freeze them. You get more body this way, if you want them for adding to stews, but if you add a tin of coconut milk to your defrosted mushrooms in butter you have incredible mushroom soup! 


Chuntering away in the background of my mind as I wrote this was Plath's poem 'Mushrooms'. Depending on my mood I find this poem either sweetly funny or darkly threatening! 

Mushrooms
Overnight, very
Whitely, discreetly,
Very quietly

Our toes, our noses
Take hold on the loam,
Acquire the air.

Nobody sees us,
Stops us, betrays us;
The small grains make room.

Soft fists insist on
Heaving the needles,
The leafy bedding,

Even the paving.
Our hammers, our rams,
Earless and eyeless,

Perfectly voiceless,
Widen the crannies,
Shoulder through holes. We

Diet on water,
On crumbs of shadow,
Bland-mannered, asking

Little or nothing.
So many of us!
So many of us!

We are shelves, we are
Tables, we are meek,
We are edible,

Nudgers and shovers
In spite of ourselves.
Our kind multiplies:

We shall by morning
Inherit the earth.
Our foot's in the door. 


As today it is sweetly funny, I thought I would show you this.   


We had picked and prepared all day and so there were fruit flies everywhere. When a fruit fly drowns itself in your wine the wine quickly goes sour so these horse mushrooms made brilliant impromptu lids for our wine-glasses. The wine within is 'Darkberry wine', on of Fergus' most delicious concoctions, consisting of elder, blueberry and redcurrant. Yummmm. 

May the season be fruit-full for you, filled with the magic of hedgerow harvests, conker battles, tea by the fire and home made feasts with good friends.