Alternative Wheel: Other seasonal cycle stories

When this column started, it was all about exploring different ways of thinking about the wheel of the year, reflecting on aspects of the natural world to provide Pagans alternatives to the usual solar stories. It's still very much an alternative wheel, but there's a developing emphasis on what we can celebrate as the seasons turn. Faced with environmental crisis, and an uncertain future, celebration is a powerful soul restoring antidote that will help us all keep going, stay hopeful and dream up better ways of being.

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Nimue Brown

Nimue Brown

Nimue Brown is the author of Druidry and Meditation, Druidry and the Ancestors. Pagan Dreaming, When a Pagan Prays and Spirituality without Structure. She also writes the graphic novel series Hopeless Maine, and other speculative fiction. OBOD trained, but a tad feral, she is particularly interested in Bardic Druidry and green living.

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Celebrating what falls away

Letting go is often hard, and clinging seems obvious. We cling to habits, to possessions and to people, long after they’ve stopped having a meaningful place in our lives. We cling because we like what’s familiar and because loss can make us feel vulnerable.

Autumn is the ideal time to celebrate the process of dropping away. At this time of year, deciduous trees shed their leaves so as to better deal with the winter. A weight of snow on leaves could damage a tree, and those leaves act like sails and make the tree more prone to damage in winter storms. Further, there’s not enough light in winter to make leaves worth the bother. Tress let them go, and start over. Further, they do it with a display of colour and beauty that is easily appreciated by us human onlookers.

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Bad harvests

From Lammas (loaf mass) through the autumn, we tend to think about harvests and to reflect that in rituals. The normal procedure is to focus on the things we have grown and harvested in our lives because most of us aren’t intimately involved with growing and harvesting food.

However, bad harvests are very much part of nature. Too much or too little water, too much or too little sun, and your crops can fail. Insects, disease, people too ill to work the land, and other random natural acts can mean there is no harvest. This is a good time of year to look at the harvests you didn’t get to make because circumstances thwarted you. It can be oppressive having to be all joy and gratitude about life when life is not full of delight. If you are suffering, if you are restricted, if your scope to harvest has been denied you, it’s important to have space to acknowledge that. Gratitude is good, but not when it makes us ignore genuine injustice or go into denial about what isn’t working for us.

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Celebrating Sloth

In truth, it wasn’t sloth that has me posting this late in the month. It was over-work, and tiredness and being too hot, and forgetting. But here we are, and what I crave more than anything else right now, is rest. Resting is what mammals do, given the chance. In humans, we celebrate activity and achievement, but the way we work is profoundly unnatural and terrible for mental health.

Here in the UK, it has been very hot for some weeks now. We’re not good at heat or snow, or high winds or any other kind of serious weather. We’re good at being damp, grey and temperate! Still we try to carry on with business as usual, busily doing all the things even as the heat melts our brains and saps our bodies. Too much heat can make you ill. It can kill you. Other mammals, faced with uncomfortable high temperatures, get into the shade and flop out.

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The season of second chances

We tend to think of nesting birds and cute fledglings as a spring thing. In practice, right now many birds are raising second clutches as we move into the summer. Some will raise three, even. This is the season of second chances.

The survival rate for cute, fluffy chicks isn’t great. A momma duck can start out with a dozen tiny bundles of fluff and be lucky to raise one viable duck to adulthood. The problem for chicks is that they are mouthfuls of protein with no scope to defend themselves or escape. They come into the world at just the point in the year when everything predatory is looking for neat bundles of protein to post into the mouths of their own cute and hungry young things.

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Celebrating the sun

In other years I’ve been sunburned at Beltain. I’ve been overwhelmed by the heat and had to hide in the shade of the trees. I’ve had to worry about not de-hydrating during rituals. It’s a festival whose traditions include young couples going off into the woods at night.

I’m writing this blog post while wearing a winter jumper, the windows are shut because it’s too cold to have them open. Right now, there is sun outside, but most of the day has been cold and wet. May the first was cold and wet, at the end of a cold, late spring and a winter that seemed to go on forever. It’s years like this when you can start to see why our ancestors might have felt the need to do dramatic things to persuade the sun to come back.

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Celebrating the Lambs

In standard, wheel of the year, northern hemisphere Paganism, we talk about lambs at Imbolc. Or at least, we link the name of the festival to ewes’ milk. That may be all the sheepy goodness we get. Of course, how sheep relate to your landscape is a very local issue. In some places, they don’t feature much, while in others there may be a very long history of grazing. There are huge differences between vast, industrial flocks massively impacting on the local, environment, and small sustainable flocks. We can treat sheep and the environment well, or badly. Not all farming is created equal.

However you feel about farming animals for meat and/or wool, I think it’s important to acknowledge the role they have played, for thousands of years, in the lives of our ancestors. In the UK, grazing has shaped some landscapes. It’s important to know how ancestral use of land impacts on the landscape you now inhabit.

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Nature red in tooth and elf cap

I admit that I don’t watch a great deal of television, but I do get occasional exposure to nature programs. While there’s delight to be had in seeing things that would otherwise be unknown to me, the narratives of nature programs bother me intensely. There tends to be a focus on drama, and that means the four Fs – fighting, fleeing, feeding and reproductive activities. There’s a lot of death in most nature programs.

In the last eight years, while out and about, I have once seen a seagull snatch a coot chick. I’ve seen one rabbit caught by a buzzard, two rounds of a heron eating fish. I’ve seen a lot of fish eaten by kingfishers, and once saw an owl feed a rodent to a fledgling chick. I’ve seen sparrowhawks chase birds, twice. I’ve seen a lot of predators in the process of quietly looking for prey. Pigeons are the only things I’ve seen shagging, although in fairness they do a lot of it. Most days I spend time outside, and there’s a lot to be seen from my windows. There’s seldom much drama out there. Most of the time, most of the creatures I encounter are not fighting, fleeing or shagging. Many of them are feeding in a non-dramatic way. I see them resting, pottering about, and communicating with each other.

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