Monthly Archives: February 2009

Snowdrops

Snowdrops
27th February

When the snows cleared a couple of weeks ago the snowdrops were there. They had already raised their timorous heads before this Cold Snap and had survived its harshness, despite, or maybe because of their small frailty. Too insignificant to be noticed by the frost giant? The snow gods? And yet easily trod underfoot.
Snowdrops are a welcome sight – the first tenuous signs of Spring, although that may be weeks away. Their white petals add a bright firmament to the gloomy days of winter. There is a collective yearning for the light at this time – in the Northern Hemisphere – as we slowly escape the point of singularity of the solstice. Imbolc seems to be its particular event horizon – once we have crossed it, we are free of winter’s gravity. Snowdrops cluster around its edges like stars pulled into a black hole. And yet they reach in the opposite direction, pushing up from the dark earth. Growing out of death, like the Simbelmynë flowers that grow on the barrow graves by Edoras of the Rohan in The Two Towers, called in the common speech of men ‘Evermind’: ‘They blossomed in all the seasons, like the bright eyes of Elves, glinting in the starlight.’ (A Tolkien Bestiary, David Day, p215)
At the weekend I met up with a friend at Nympsfield long barrow, high up on the Cotswold escarpment overlooking the Severn plain. Returning for tea and cake to her lovely cottage, similarly situated, we passed a country churchyard at Edge filled with white flowers amongst the stones.
Life determinedly returns, however transient, though its roots cling to mortal clay. Something makes it grow, despite its brief life. Or perhaps because of it. It feels the impulse more urgently. Every day is more precious, sweeter the dew. Whatever may have befallen us in the past, whatever ‘slings and arrows of outrageous fortune’ it is hard not to feel some sense of renewal, of a new chance, with the virgin year before us. All things are possible on its tabula rasa. Snowdrops are a symbol of that most precious commodity, hope. In these bleak times, when the economic house of cards crashes down around us, it seems foolhardy to be hopeful and yet more imperative than ever – if we are not succumb to the riptide of gloom. In a speech made by President Obama in the light of the economic crsis, the Guardian said that ‘he has undammed the springs of hope.’ (‘The Springs of Hope’, Guardian, 26.02.09) If we listened to the news every day, with its tales of ‘toxic debt’, banks going bust, big firms going under, fat cat payoffs, nuclear folly and celebrity cancer, it would be hard not to surrender to despair. But nature quietly, insistently, tells us, not to give up. That the world will keep turning whatever we do to it, or ourselves.
To feel better, all one has to do is walk out into the garden of Spring and enjoy the morning of the year. The world is still beautiful.
‘Sing cucu, sing cucu now.’

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White Rainbow

Snow on Bathwick Hill, 5th Jan 09

Snow on Bathwick Hill, 5th Jan 09

5th February

Just walked back from the station through heavy snow – the world turned into a snow-dome.  Heavy snowfall in the Bath area over last couple of  days. The first wave came on Monday and brought the nation to a standstill – a flurry of snow and it all grinds to a halt! We just can’t cope, it seems. I can hear my Icelandic and Finnish friends laughing. But I think it’s more than just Anglo-Saxon ineptitude. I think it’s just a secret excuse to bunk off work and go and have a snow ball fight. Snow brings out the child in all of us (perhaps because, for people my generation, most memories of decent snow are related to childhood, when we used to have ‘proper winters’). Monday saw a wave of ‘mass-skiving’ strike the country – as evidenced by Facebook confessionals, photoes, videos, texting, twittering, etc. A adultlescent dawn chorus. A snowfall seems to turned even the hardest cynic goofy. It was wonderful, going for an amble up the hill this afternoon – usually a quiet loop around the National Trust slopes overlooking the city – to see it populated by a swathe of snow-junkies, young and old, making snowmen, sledding, throwing snowballs, juggling snowballs, rolling about in it giggling – high on snow. Toddlers pulled on tiny sledges by parents. Teenagers on tea-trays. Three men on a binlid. Snowfolk of various sizes and skill. An inevitable snow-penis – like a white May-pole – around which the snow-children played. We are made innocent again. The world is reminted, layered in broken slabs of Kendal mint cake.

Leaving the slope of fun, I headed for virgin fields to leave my Man Friday prints, the compacting snow making a polystyrene sound.  The familiar had become a film set. A special effect. I had to take photoes to remind myself what I was seeing – my neck of the woods, re-rendered as a Brueghel painting. 

I saw other snow art on the way to London later that afternoon. A snow-couple – the snowman and his wife, sitting watching the 15:13 to Paddington. Other spirits of the snow sat stoically considering their inevitable dissolution in backyards and parks. Michelin families rolled up winter into a ball, leaving negative slug-trails of naked grass. In Hyde Park, by the Serpentine Gallery, someone had sculpted an impressive snow-head, like the head of Bran the Blessed, singing still, stopping time – as snow seems to – until the strong door of reality is opened once again. Bran’s head was taken to London by the heart-weary seven who survived and buried beneath the White Mount, where now the Tower of London stands. The ravens (Bran’s bird) there have their wings clipped, because it is prophesied that if they were to ever leave, the country would fall. Bran’s head was buried facing France to protect the land from invaders, like the striking oil refinery workers who wished they could hold back the inevitable tide of market forces. ‘British jobs for British workers’ and yet even Bran’s role as tutelary guardian was usurped by another ‘foreign’ incomer, Arthur, who dug him up. Even magical protectionism can fail. As I passed the statue of Peter Pan, a raven landed nearby and looked at me with its black Odin eye. I doffed my cap to both – the forces of joy and death – and continued onto my evening class at Imperial College, a session on genre-busting with my writing students.

I returned home late. Tired. The night turned into a swirling flurry of TV screen static, stuck between stations, whispering from its glass world.

Exactly a year ago on this day, my Dad was cremated. In the summer, just before what would have been his 70th, my mother, sister and myself took the urn (heavy as mortality) over to one of his favourite haunts – where he used to take us walking the dogs as children. There, on a perfect sunny day we scattered the ashes. They made a summer frost on the green blades. I picked some up and let it run through my fingers, watching the particles dissipate in the light breeze. Then gently, so, so gently, I brushed the dust of my father into the earth, leaving no sign of his passing visible to the world. Only a white absence remained inside of us, as cold and as silent as snow.

Now we have planted a silver birch tree for him there (the first tree to establish itself after the icesheets withdraw) and the whiteness has taken on a new significance – a white of potential, for it is the colour that contains all colours. It is the beginning of the spectrum. A white rainbow.

Inklings of Spring

Imbolc, 1st February

Today celebrated what is in the Celtic Calendar the beginnings of Spring – although it feels like long way off yet – the Fire Festival of Imbolc, sacred to the goddess Bridghid, patroness of poetry, smithcraft and healing. We could have done with her sacred flame (which was tended by priestesses and later nuns at her sanctuary in Kildare) today as we held a ceremony outside on a bitterly cold winter’s day – the pre-snow (infintesimal flakes  like fairy tears) as delicate as the snowdrops pushing through the slumbering earth. Sue Cawthorne, current holder of the Ovate Chair of Caer Badon, called it to take place at the Beazer Garden Maze with its mosaic of Bladud and six Greek Myths by Pulteney Weir. A raggle taggle circle gathered – many canal folk – huddling together like penguins in the Antarctic. After Sue started the proceedings, followed by a song for Imbolc by priestess of Sulis and Nemetona, Sheila Broun, I asked people to remember Tim Sebastion Woodman, the founder of the Gorsedd – who died two years ago on this very day – crossing over, with impeccable druid timing on Imbolc (as though consciously choosing the day of his death): the first time he’d ever been on time for anything, I joked. And Tim was, among other things, a joker. His irreverently wise spirit is missed. He has a way of puncturing the pomposity of much of the ‘oaky machoness’ as he put it you can get at such ceremonies. The posturing and publicity-seeking. Last year I held an Imbolc Bardic Showcase in his memory in Glastonbury. For me, the festival will always be associated with him – and I think of it, with some amusement, as ‘Timbolc’! Yet the festival for me has been for a long time the one I associate with Taliesin and Ceridwen. It is a poet’s festival and the ideal time to rededicate oneself to one’s path – which for me is the Way of Awen, the way of the Bard. And yet this year there is an extra sadness – locally we are mourning the recent loss from cancer of Dave Angus, who was a great poet and singer/guitarist. He set up a popular open mic event called What a Performance! On Friday there was one scheduled which became an emotive tribute night, following close on his passing. I performed my ‘Last Rites to John Barleycorn’ there – because Dave was something of a Barleycorn figure, as a merry soul who gave of himself freely to his community. Today we made him an honorary Bard of Caer Badon – a gesture to acknowledge his contribution and talent.  During the gorsedd I performed my Imbolc poem, Bride of Spring (below) above the roar of the weir. It was a nice visual fix to have swans swimming close by in the Avon.

Things were quickly wrapped up, for it was seriously cold, and I headed back home to prepare for my wee Imbolc ‘poetry tea poetry’ – a gentle Sunday afternoon affair. The sharing of poems over tea, cake and other tasties. Folk turned up from about 3pm and it was pleasant chilled out occasion, with contributions of song, verse and tale from some of my talented friends.  This is my ideal way to celebrate such times – I’m not one for ‘High Church’ paganism, preferring bardic sharing around the hearth or campfire to the pomp and ceremony. I like to simply gather in a circle and share. As a bard this is how I engage with the deeper meaning of the festivals – by the reciting and listening the traditional tales and songs. And  by the physical experience of visiting appropriate sites – as I did this morning, making a modest pilgrimage to my local woodland spring: a simple Sunday morning stroll on the surface, but for me, a way of reconnecting with the Source.

The Bride of Spring

In darkest hour of the year

she arises.

Casting off her shadowy gown

as she steps over the horizon –

by sun king kissed,

borne by his golden down.

A dress of frosted cobwebs

veils maiden skin.

Within a seasons turning

the crone has become virgin.

Snowdrops touch her and turn into flowers,

as the slumbering land stirs

in these formative hours.

The earth softens at her feet

where buds shake free their winter bed.

Newborn lambs begin to bleat –

insistent mouths by ewes milk fed.

Rooster heralds her on the ground.

Above, the feathered chorus

make naked trees resound.

We awake to a changing world.

Her white magic revealed –

a petal uncurled.

Stone bound man

let your proud bells ring,

for we are welcomed into her garden

as she stand at the gates of spring.

 

The infant year she presents,

placing the future in our hands.

A gift of renewed innocence,

restoring the egg timer sands…

Kevan Manwaring (from Green Fire: magical verse for the wheel of the year)