At the height of summer, in June last year, I lay beneath an old sycamore tree in rural Banffshire feeling my way into the mycelial networks just beneath the soil as part of a road opening journey, breathing out roads in all directions…
Everything was wreathed in rainbows – the mycelial realm is always tinged with psychedelia when I encounter it, even though I have never (yet) ingested anything more adventurous than a portobello mushroom. Above me, I could feel the watchful presence of the tree as it sheltered me, a curious lean towards the inward paths I was following beneath it. Very few humans visit this tree in person, let alone in spirit. I had greeted it in person on arrival, and so I greeted it in spirit now: do you have a message for me?
And the message it gave me seemed simple at first but has unfolded in my life like hyperdimensional origami: you who try so hard to make things happen, relax, trust that they will happen in their own way and in their own time.
I thought of calling this ‘a moon without trees’ but in truth it has been full of them – the froth of blackthorn blossom washing over a local patch of wasteland; the falling petals of the cherry plum mingling with April snow; the first unfurling of the sap-sticky sycamore leaves – and of course, alder, strewing catkins on the woodland paths we walked. I have sat with all of them, this moon, without delving deeply into any. I needed a fallow moon to let this project breathe.
Willow-magic centres on the seeds being ripe and the leaves being green. Here in the valley, the sap has barely risen yet, tips of the buds only just showing silver at the end of this cycle of the moon. I must have mis-remembered spring last year when planning out this calendar project.
Aside from all the exhaustion of moving, the seasonal lack of green willow boughs and catkin wool has limited what I could do with willow from a practical perspective. The Moon-ruled willow, perhaps more than many other trees, lies dormant in the dark days of the year, but is all the more vibrant as it slowly waxes green. Anyone who has spent an afternoon by the dreaming beneath willows at the water’s edge – or watched a performance in the green sanctuary of the living willow theatre – knows the enchantment of these trees in the fullness of their leaves.
I am lucky enough to live in an area where willow weaving and charcoal-making is practised and taught. One of my post-lockdown dreams for the year is to attend some weaving workshops and learn to make my own foraging basket. And local willow charcoal, made from the shoots of such a vigorous regenerative tree, seems like an excellent medium for sketching out my place-based dreams.
Meanwhile, as willow slowly wakes, alder and hazel are already dancing with catkins in the hedgerows. From this point onwards, the cycle of the moon before the vernal equinox will be dedicated to one of these more wakeful trees.
…the blackcap doth his ear assail With such a brisk and potent matin-song, He half begins to think the nightingale Hath in her monthly reckoning counted wrong.
John Clare, ‘Sonnet’
We have lived here a week now, in a street sandwiched between the canal and the riverside. The far bank of the river is a little flood plain filled with dancing willows; the far bank of the canal is a scrubby patch of land which our neighbours are slowly transforming into an orchard. We fall asleep to the sound of rushing water, and wake up to birdsong.
This is a quieter, gentler, more wooded corner of the valley than our former home, and it is teeming with birds. A tame robin often sits on a tangle of honeysuckle near the local Co-op, delighting children who stand right next to it as it sings. There is a nesting pair of dippers in our local stretch of river; several wrens, tits, and finches; and at the weekend I even heard a family of green woodpeckers yaffling on the hill above. But of all the songs in this new place, the most beautiful and least familiar (to me) belongs to the blackcap.
Blackcaps, like other warblers, are migratory visitors to this island, but they stay closer than most of their cousins. As our traditional seasons unravel in climate confusion, more and more of them are staying for our warmer, wetter winters. I only hope they are not caught out by the cold snap of spring.
Pluck will I the catkin wool, The lint the lovely Bride culled through her palm, For luck, for success, for increase, Without loss of means, without loss of friends, As was spoken in the prophecy, From the bosom of the God of Life, And the courses together.
The woolly willow is a Northern tree, growing mainly in Scandinavia but also in the North of Scotland, where the charm of the catkin wool was collected as part of the Carmina Gadelica. In a family of trees which release their seeds as airborne fluff on the wind, the woolly willow is exceptionally fluffy – but the ‘lint’ described in the charms of the catkin wool will be familiar to anyone who has watched willow seeds drifting on the mild May breeze.
The two charms of the catkin wool follow a similar pattern to the the charm of the tree-entwining ivy: the speaker positions themselves in the role of ‘the lovely Bride’ or ‘the Mother of Christ’ and appeals to a pattern of success and increase as set out by a prophecy or higher power. The mention of ‘the courses together’ brings to mind all the different currents and eddies of randomness, chance, consequence, and possibility which we step into when we speak a charm and send our wishes out into the world.
I grew up with the playground tradition of wishing on dandelion seedheads: close your eyes, make a wish, and blow. If the seeds dispersed, they would carry your wish out into the world and it would grow to become true. This act of making a wish on fluffy, airborne seeds will be familiar to almost everybody reading this post – much more so than, say, plucking an ivy vine or writing a petition to the lady of the forest. It is playground magic, the commonest and most resilient kind.
Like the lover in Coleridge’s poem, this moon we pass forth into light and find ourselves beneath the most beautiful of forest trees.
Birch and snowdrop sound a similar note in the song of this place, snow-washed and clear. Although the ground has barely thawed between fresh falls of snow, the snowdrops are in full bloom and the first hints of yellow are beginning to appear among the budding celandines. The sun lingers in the evening sky for a full hour longer than it did in December. Light and life are returning to the valley.
Perhaps we find ideas when we need them most, or perhaps ideas find us when we are ready for them. The same book read 100 times can spark as many new insights and impressions every time you read it because of what you bring to the reading.
Last May, after a death in the family, I came across a beautiful article ‘On Grief, Joy, and Saying Goodbye’ in The Voyage of the Dawn Treader: ‘In the end, Reepicheep dies.’ It made a quietly profound impression on me. When I found a complete set of The Chronicles of Narnia in our local secondhand bookshop, the day before the current lockdown started, I decided to read them all again. This time, I had the Great C.S. Lewis Re-read on tor.com as my companion, leading me along new paths through old familiar places.
The light and the dark; the revelry and the rest; the long night of the year. The Winter Solstice marks the feast at which the Holly King presides, and I love it.
Holly – like ivy, like yew – is attributed by Culpeper to Saturn. But this is a different side of Saturn: Saturnalia, the feast in the fast of Winter. The contrasts between the cold landscape and the cosy hearth, the frozen ground and our full kitchen cupboards, invite us to consider the purpose of feasting, the nature of revelry, the meaning of celebration. Especially now.*
Into this midwinter feast the Green Knight enters with a sprig of holly in his hand.
Based on my experiences so far, I would swap the yew with the ivy in the order of the year. When I sketched out my approach to the calendar, I tried as far as possible to anchor the cycles of the moon to the fixed dates given by Graves, where the logic of the timing allowed. Ivy is an excellent companion in October, but yew would be just as appropriate for Calan Gaeaf and Hallowtide, while ivy also lends itself a little more to the gathering pace of the end-of-year revelry. If nothing else, it makes a more festive and less deadly poisonous decoration.
I am also, inevitably, swapping the elder for the holly this coming cycle of the moon. It feels too contrary not to focus on a tree which is everywhere at this time of year, bright with berries in the depth of winter and obscure among the foliage of summer. Holly belongs in December.
Silence. As you enter the grove, the scent of centuries of fallen needles mingles with the earth. Tread softly. The rich wood surrounds you with a sense of sanctuary; the deep shade draws you into stillness. All around you, berries shine their sweetness and raindrops gather silver on the boughs. Keep your vigil, and taste nothing from this tree, for you walk now in the realm of the dead.
Silence. A fraught presence for me in this cycle of the moon – sought after, crowded out by my commitments, and finally imposed by a sudden inflammation in my finger joints. Typing is still difficult, so I have written less this moon, but maybe contemplated more: sitting still in meditation has been one of the few things I can do. And the yew invites stillness, and silent contemplation.