May Day and Beltane

Happy May Day! This holiday, we honor both International Workers’ Day, and the ancient pagan feast of Beltane, whose celebratory traditions include dancing around a decorated May Pole, gathering flowers, and lighting bonfires in hopes of fertility and a bountiful harvest.

Spring has finally come to New England, as flowers, all manner of creatures from insects to birds to bats, and even the cemetery next door quickens with vibrant green grass. Trees and shrubs leaf out slowly, and dogwoods bloom. Instead of writing much here, I’ll share in photos my thoughts, as they turn more and more to being outside in the warming, lengthening days. A magnificent procession of blossoms opens, seeking their pollinators one by one.

Impossibly fragrant blue hyacinth
Marsh marigolds, foregrounded by mature skunk cabbage
Maple, one of early spring’s first sources of pollen
Trout lilies
Daffodils in so many color combinations!
Lilies of the valley unfurling in their mossy bed
Spectacular crabapple, with dogwood to the left
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From Winter’s Cold Embrace to Spring Equinox

Happy Vernal Equinox! Today, the sun crosses the Earth’s equator, and both Northern and Southern hemispheres tilt equally toward the sun, and will experience equal daylight and night (from the Latin aequus for equal, and nox for night). This ancient holiday, celebrated around the globe, commemorates the end of winter and the first day of spring; the start of the new growing season, and coming of warmth and light. Different cultures begin their celebrations around this time of Ostara, from which Easter was derived; Passover; Nowruz; Mother’s Day; Higan, and others. Special feasts feature food and drink offered in hopes of high fertility and a bountiful harvest.

In the previous year we were clad in snow and ice for months, but the climate change we humans have brought upon ourselves assures each season is more unpredictable than the last. After an unusually snowless winter, March came in like a lion with a dumping of snow that allowed us to play like kids in the snowdrifts.

The snow quickly melted, giving way to spring’s first snowdrops.

One of the earliest plants to flower, peeking from the river’s icy surface was skunk cabbage, which as if by magic creates own warmth via thermogenesis. Symplocarpus foetidus is aptly named, exuding a cabbagey stink that attracts bees and other pollinators like flies to its warm center, where the season’s first pollen awaits.

Photo courtesy of Bill Peterson

The year’s earliest bugs are already emerging from the previously frozen ground, attracting an advancing army of hungry, expectant robins – a sure sign of spring. The quickening of the earth and its creatures is more than enough inspiration for us to start indoors with our first vegetable seeds – many saved from last year’s harvest. I can’t wait till the peppery arugula, mild cucumbers, spicy peppers, sweetest tomatoes and others sprout from the fragrant soil!

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Imbolg: In Sight of Winter’s End

Happy Imbolg and Groundhog Day! This holiday awaits the approaching light and marks the beginning of spring, when plants begin to quicken in the ground. In a precursor to modern Groundhog Day, Gaelic tradition holds that this is when the ancient crone Cailleach gathers firewood for the rest of the season. If she wants winter to linger, she makes Imbolg bright and sunny so she can gather her fill. Manx tradition envisions her as a giant bird, sticks held in her beak. If Imbolg falls on a foul weather day, the Cailleach sleeps and winter nears its end.

Despite an impending cold snap, previous icy deposits and plummeting temperatures, ours has so far been a mild winter this year in Connecticut. Barely a dusting or two on the ground, and unusually warm days have brought more rain than snow. Much of the ground remains frozen, but in places the mud gives way to grass still green and growing. The Mt. Hope River, near our home, was raging after recent deluges, flowing almost as high as our walking trail.

According to Connecticut’s Institute of American Indian Studies, “January cold season’s full moon is called the Moon of the Crackling Trees by some tribes in this area because it is so cold that the trees make cracking, creaking noises.” Closer to the New Year, our footfalls on the forest’s frozen leaves crunched as we walked, and icicles dangled in the water like delicate bells.

I recently learned of Katherine May’s book, “Wintering,” a profound examination of winter and its effects on human beings. It’s a challenging season for many, filled with tribulations; yet it also brings the possibility of restoration and regeneration, both necessary for more active months. She calls winter a liminal time between darkness and light, when magic is in the air: mornings when you feel the snow even before opening the curtains. It’s a reminder to make sure to feed ourselves and rest well in preparation for spring’s coming light and warmth. To ask: what change is coming next?

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Winter Solstice: To Know the Dark

Happy Yule/Solstice/Christmas! This holiday based on ancient agricultural calendars is traditionally celebrated around the world – from Ireland and Great Britain, to Germany, Scandinavia, Eastern Europe, Russia, and beyond – and occurs at Earth’s perihelion, or closest point in a solar year, when the sun reaches its lowest point in the sky. The year’s longest night is a time for deep introspection, to reflect upon the past and shift priorities for the future. Bonfires are lit for days to welcome the coming light of the new year, and the cold reminds us to light candles and sit by our fireplace, cozy and wrapped in woolly blankets. Decorating a fir tree and placing evergreen boughs and mistletoe around the home, drinking hot cider or mulled wine spiced with clove and cinnamon, I inhale fresh forest scents of cedar, sandalwood, and sage, moss and myrrh. Eating baked apples and cranberry sauce brightened with citrus transports me, for a moment, to the slowly approaching growing season.

These short days tumble so quickly into darkness, as the years fall into the past. Following the early December Mars occultation by the moon, when it was briefly hidden from view, on full moon nights we watch Orion hunt above bare trees, while nearby Taurus hovers, Jupiter rising to its stars. As our ancestors turned their eyes upward, we gaze upon the same sky as people across the globe who named the star Aldebaran (Arabic for “the Follower,” as it seems to follow the Seven Sisters in the constellation Pleiades). The solstice moon is a waning crescent…

This dark season of quiet, of looking inward, I remember fondly the annual solstice candlelight reading at Point Reyes Books in northern California. Everyone was welcome, and anyone could read a poem – either someone else’s or their own. I’m reminded of Robert Frost’s “Stopping by Woods on a Snowy Evening”: “The woods are lovely, dark, and deep/but I have promises to keep/and miles to go before I sleep….” Another of his poems, “Acquainted with the Night,” his sonnet of sorrow, leads me to thoughts of my father, whom I lost suddenly when I was a teenager. His death on the solstice precipitated cascades of loss for my mother, who spiraled into a severe mental breakdown from which she never fully recovered.

As the solstice is also a time to prepare for spring, to purge oneself and one’s home of negativity, I find comfort and peace that can only come from the quiet and the dark. They bear the fruit of creative inspiration, of regeneration; and for me, boundless gratitude for the earth and friends and family. On Christmases past, my parents – who divorced when I was very young – spent the day together with me, decorating the tree and feasting on holiday treats. I learned to play the piano and we’d sing carols, a tradition my mother and I reclaimed as we deepened our loving relationship later in her life. She passed away ten years ago. Her favorite (and mine) is “Silent Night,” which extols listeners to “…sleep in heavenly peace”; while others observe “…above thy deep and dreamless sleep, the silent stars go by…”

Now, we prepare with our loved ones for the harshness of winter, to be followed by spring’s thaw. Walking through the woods behind our yard, I see hemlocks and Eastern white pines, almost the only trees with greenery. The fish from the river caught by black bear, fisher, fox, and bobcat nourishes the forest with nutrients like magnesium, phosphorus, and potassium. As the fungi, plants, and animals are all connected, all interdependent; so are we – even with our most beloved ones who are long gone – always together…. And so, while the forest sleeps, and also the creatures underwater, the shining river rolls on.

The Honorable Harvest

Know the ways of the ones who take care of you, so that you may take care of them.

Introduce yourself.

Be accountable as the one who comes asking for life.

Ask permission before taking.

Abide by the answer.

Never take the first.

Never take the last.

Take only what you need.

Take only that which is given.

Never take more than half.

Leave some for others.

Harvest in a way that minimizes harm.

Use it respectfully.

Never waste what you have taken.


Give thanks for what you have been given.

Give a gift in reciprocity for what you have taken.

Sustain the ones who sustain you and the earth will last forever.

from Braiding Sweetgrass by Robin Wall Kimmerer

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Halloween, Samhain, Dia de los Muertos, and the Feast of all the Dead

Happy Halloween, Samhain and Dia de los Muertos! In many cultures this is known as the end of the growing season, winter’s dark approach, and the time when the veil thins between the worlds of the living and the dead. Whether trick-or-treating or dressing up for Halloween (adults or kids), casting a circle to close out the old year and make offerings for growth and prosperity in the new, or going to the cemetery with offerings of food and drink to share; these holidays and their traditions weave loved ones from our present and future together with ancestors long gone.

It’s been ten years since the death of my mother, when we moved from our San Francisco apartment to our new home in Sonoma County, California. Now we’ve moved clear across the United States, to live closer to B’s side of the family in rural northeastern Connecticut. Conveniently, just next door is an ancient cemetery dating back to the 18th century (rare on the West Coast). Wanting to spend some time memorializing my mother – although my thoughts are constantly with her – I only had to pop over to the graveyard. Death is never far away.

In just a couple short months, we’ve left behind summer’s stifling heat, when we discovered (by smell) a deer carcass decomposing in the woods behind our yard; and the corpses of fish and crayfish bleached white and cooked in a stream made shallow by drought. Now in autumn, we walk in a forest incandescent with golden light, the earth redolent of red, orange, and brown leaves painting a quilt on the ground. These rotting leaves will be broken down by organisms and transformed into fertile soil over the coming year.

Walking in “our” cemetery, I see through rising mist and dark rainclouds more brilliant leaves of red, orange, and yellow: maple, oak, beech, and hickory ring the small graveyard beyond its aged stone wall. Both in the woods and here growing on the tombstones are myriad lichen, moss, and mushrooms.

Fungi (mushrooms) form vast underground networks called mycorrhizae, joined by ultrafine filaments called mycelia. These link the fungi with trees and other vascular plants, and actually allow them all to talk to each other – mutualistic relationships coined the “Wood Wide Web” by forest ecologist Dr. Suzanne Simard. In exchange for providing carbon and sugars, the plants receive water and nutrients like nitrogen and phosphorus. By facilitating communication between trees and other plants, fungi can also help them defend against disease and other attacks such as herbivores eating the plants or humans tilling the soil, removing trees, or using pesticides.

Mushrooms (and the forests and other ecosystems where they live) are symbols of the cycle of life, death and regeneration: some can be eaten like the delicious maitake/hen of the woods below – or made into fabric dyes and ink like the red mushrooms (cortinarius?) just below that; they help break down organic material and toxins; and they help plants grow and thrive – especially crucial in our era of disastrous climate change.

Simard conducted three decades of exhaustive research in the Pacific Northwest, finding that forests are social and cooperative, much like us. Her personal and professional journey – including her struggles with sexism in the scientific community – as well as her close relationships with her mother and the rest of her family are beautifully detailed in her book, titled after the highly connected hub trees that nurture countless new growth, Finding the Mother Tree.

Posted in Climate Change, Family, Friends, Garden, Nature, Poetry, Seasons, Travel, Uncategorized | Tagged , , , , , , , , | 2 Comments