The Birds

The desk in my third floor apartment looks out on a large tree. Funny that in three years spent wandering a wooded area, I did not learn my trees better, and I don’t know what sort of tree this is. Perhaps as spring comes on and the leaves come out, it will be easier to tell. There are only a few trees, like the shag bark hickory and the birch, that I can identify by their bark.

Still, sitting at my desk I have already seen three different kinds of birds in my one tree, and this morning it was the setting for a nearly perfect moment. I was drinking tea and pondering the text of the book I’m working on. In the background the classical radio station began to play Respighi’s The Birds. A pair of pearly gray pigeons alighted, as if on cue, on a large branch just before me. They went into what can only be described, quite literally, as billing and cooing. They snuggled, they ran their bills through one another’s feathers, they moved a few inches apart and spent a minute feigning indifference, and then went into another round of affectionate bonding. Then the male hopped on the female’s back. He was off quickly. I couldn’t tell if he achieved his aim. After a few more minutes spent ducking their small heads together and rubbing wings, he was on top of her again, a little longer this time. Once off, they both sat unmoving for a few minutes. Then she slowly began to wander off, as if distracted by something she had to do. Once she had stepped about a foot away from her partner, she took wing. He followed suit a moment later, though notably, flying in a different direction.

Ah, what is love! In poetry, in our own imaginations, even in cartoons, we see these simple behaviors of birds and other animals as mimicking our own emotions. Surely all the fond rubbing of heads and fluffing of feathers is expressive of affection, like we would hold hands and embrace, whether or not it is leading inevitably to mating. But with these birds, it was leading inevitably to mating. I know little about the mating patterns of pigeons. Will they become a nesting pair, the male helping the female to feed and tend to her little ones once they are hatched? Or does he just fly off, perhaps to find another likely mate on another tree on a sunny Saturday morning?

It is one of the great questions and debates of animal behaviorists, whether the animals experience emotions as we know them. I only know that I was so absorbed in watching the pigeons that everything else stood still around me. I didn’t even notice when the Respighi piece concluded. And I don’t know if I was so taken by the scene out of simple interest in the birds’ behavior, or because I was projecting my own feelings of loneliness onto them. I think there can be nothing more difficult than scientific objectivity, especially when it concerns animal behavior.

Sameness and Difference

Last night, well past midnight, I was awakened by what I took to be the sound of gunfire; five or six sharp cracks in quick succession. Startled awake I raised my head and listened for some result—screams, angry voices, sirens racing to the scene. All I discerned were perhaps some muffled laughs, and then the silence of the night closed around me again.

So this is life in the city, I thought. Gangs, guns in the hands of dangerous people, disorder and peril. But upon rising this morning I replayed the incident of the previous evening and recalled that in the three years I lived in the country, there was rarely a day that did not include the sound of gunfire, either in the distance or frighteningly close by. Random bangs that sounded like shotguns, the sharp crack of handguns, or the rapid fire of automatic weapons, drilling bullets into otherwise still Saturday or Sunday afternoons. Who knows, who can tell if these firearms were in the hands of responsible or irresponsible people? Why did I never worry that a crime was probably being committed, that someone was being gunned down? What is the difference, really, between hearing weapons fired in the country and in the city?

There is more noise in general in the city; it’s more traffic, mostly. And more light. Streetlights filter in through the still curtainless windows of my small apartment. There are way more streetlights than I consider necessary. You almost have to look up to see that it is night in the city, when only the sky is dark. Everything else is illuminated well enough to read fine print. In the country, night is dark. You can tell when the moon is full, or close to it, when you step out, without looking up to see it. The light fills the ambient darkness. You know why people in times past worshiped the moonlight, or spoke of its spiritual qualities, by the way its nearly physical presence envelops you. It would be nice if urban planners could design streetlights that dimmed in proportion to how much moonlight was available, so city dwellers could experience it.

I have smiled at, said hello to, or been ignored by more people in the past week than in the entire last three years. They are just there. I feel like Gomer Pyle, like someone who clearly does not belong, but wants to be accepted, putting my friendly face out there in an environment that does not always reward a forthcoming attitude. It’s hard to say if people in the country are kinder or more friendly; certainly that’s the stereotype, but there are so few instances to test the hypothesis that the idea must remain anecdotal at best. All I know is that wherever I am, I regard most people as pretty much the same; kindhearted and selfish by turns, and unpredictable once you put a gun in their hands.

 

Just Another Excuse

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The other night the TV weatherman posed an interesting question. Which season, he asked, do you think is warming the fastest here in the Midwest? Turns out it’s winter. Out west, it’s spring, but here our winters have been averaging a few degrees warmer every year.

This is of course an effect of the global warming that is not happening. The vast majority of the world’s scientists agree that global warming, or what they are now calling climate change, is the greatest problem facing our planet. Fortunately we here in America do not have to listen to scientists, because we have career politicians to keep us informed.

It is only a few days before Christmas and I have not worn a coat yet this year. Yes, sweaters and light jackets, but no heavy coats yet. This is unheard of, or nearly so, in the Great American Midwest. This is either cause for concern or jubilation, depending on who you talk to. Some people like the cold weather and miss it. Some hate the cold weather and remind us that it will soon get cold enough. January and February will be frigid and icy, just you wait.

I heard a botanist the other day saying that our climate here in Missouri is now mimicking the climate of Arkansas, the state due south of us. I’ve been to Arkansas often, and I note that the same crape myrtle that doesn’t bloom until August around here blooms in May there. So that is a significant climate shift. Except of course for the fact that it is not happening.

One thing I have often noted about people’s interactions with the seasons is that they are most compelling in their changes from one to the other. People who have a favorite season like the transition to that season most of all. Autumn is the favorite season of more people than any other, with spring close behind. Summer and winter are distant contenders. When you ask people what they like, they usually cite the change from summer to autumn, or from winter to spring. It’s change they like, the feeling of something welcome and new: cooler days after the heat of summer, warmer days after the chill of winter.

I’m the same way. I try to be creative in my life, and I find that creativity peaks when change is in the air. Lately I’ve felt a little stymied in my creative endeavors, and I am now choosing to blame the weather. Winter has been dilatory in arriving, if indeed he ever intends to get here. Those long, cold afternoons spent indoors with books and papers scattered about are a distant dream. I’m sure it will come though, just as sure as I am that once it does, I’ll be able to find another excuse for my lack of creativity.

Bullseye

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I have always enjoyed the game of darts, though believe me, I’m not good at it. An old hand at the game gave me an interesting piece of advice a long time ago which proved to be somewhat helpful. He said that if you want to hit a bullseye, don’t aim at the bullseye. It’s too small, and nobody can hit that. Aim for the center of the next larger ring surrounding the bullseye. It’s easier to hit the middle of something bigger. I know, you are already sputtering with objections that this makes no sense, and it’s all the same thing in the end, just described in different terms. But it’s not.

I live in my own little bullseye of land. Eighteen acres, which for people living on postage-stamp yards in cities and suburbs sounds like a lot. But in the scheme of things, it is not a lot, and the longer I live here, the more I realize this. I have seen this picture that people post on Facebook and elsewhere that shows our whole galaxy spinning away in its immensity. There’s a small arrow pointing to, well, to nothing that you can see, really, and a message below it that reads, ‘You Are Here.’ The idea is that people with strong opinions about every little thing, who are convinced that those opinions matter, might want to put their lives in perspective.

But imagine that the arrow in the picture is a dart, and it is headed to me. It courses through all those stars to our solar system, down to Earth, to North America, to the United States, to eastern Missouri, to Jefferson County, to my patch of land, my own little bullseye. Will the arrow hit me? Is that where I am?

When I write about the seasons, and about climate, I always describe things here in the Great American Midwest. But the Midwest is a huge area, and includes much climatic variation. There is a lot of snow just to the north and west of here, but we have seen none yet this year.

When I run in the morning and the sky is clear, I can’t help but look at the stars all around. Here in late autumn Orion has shifted far to the east, while the Big Dipper still spins in its same basic place overhead. My heart leaps up and out of me, to the stars and beyond. I feel I am part of the universe, mere stardust.

So between child of the stars and American Midwesterner, one of my main concerns has always been to ask where am I? Am I here in High Ridge, Missouri, or am I at the center of something larger? And if it’s something larger, how much larger? And to me, the question is not so much how much larger do I go, but where can I feel that I am the center of something?

If your feelings are important, if your opinions have worth, if your thoughts matter, if your efforts produce something, if your relationships enrich those around you, it is all because you are grounded in something, and finding that something is maybe the greatest goal of life.

I’ll say one thing: this spot of land, for all the work it entails, is the only place I have ever lived that feels like home to me, that feels like it could contain some part of my identity, if only I keep looking for it. It is my own little bullseye, and I am always working to perfect my aim.

 

Reptiles & Amphibians

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As the season changes from summer to autumn, some of the first things to disappear are the reptiles and amphibians who inhabit this land I work. In the suburbs where I used to live, the rare animals I encountered were mostly mammals. Possums on the streets at night, sniffing around our neighbors’ trash cans. Squirrels eating our bird seed, invading our fruit trees, vegetable gardens, anything they could imagine as food. The occasional skunk leaving an aroma that stretched for miles, and the occasional raccoon outsmarting any attempt to seal it off from a free dinner.

Out here I see more reptiles and amphibians. Skinks dash from cover to cover ahead of my weed whacker, and salamanders, fluorescent orange with black spots, turn up beneath rocks. Turtles shelter in deep grass as my mower passes overhead. Snakes climb trees to get at the birdhouses I put out. Toads of all sizes appear everywhere, including tiny, reddish brown specimens that abound in the compost piles. One day I was turning soil in the garden and a larger toad jumped out and sat by the edge of the garden eyeing me for a long time, ruefully pondering where I got the nerve to disturb his morning. Life is so rich beneath the grass around here.

Of course we have the usual mammals here, plus coyotes, groundhogs, and deer—lots of deer. People always say things like ‘this is their land, we are the invaders,’ and I agree. But the funny thing is, our land is an old farm. It is part of the old Brooks Farm, which encompasses our land and two parcels on either side of it. The Brooks Family, as I have been given to understand by neighboring farmers who know these things, worked this land for several generations. So if we are the invaders, it was an old invasion, and yet the incidence of wildlife has scarcely abated. There is just too much surrounding forest.

Time is relative at the same time it is absolute. Someone could say, ‘My pappy farmed this land, and his pappy afore him and his pappy afore him . . .’—and it all sounds like such a stretch of time. But that little skink, could he talk, might also say, ‘My pappy lived under rocks out here, and his pappy afore him and his pappy afore him . . . this summer.’ It’s all relative.

But what sets it apart most starkly from the suburbs, to my way of thinking, is the amount of reptiles and amphibians. They seem less adapted to sharing the land with humans than the local mammals. When I am cutting deep grass, especially in the pastures, I see little guys scuttling off to the front and sides of me, mostly mice. But the reptiles are less wary. I have mown down snakes, and shattered turtles in their shells, making a sickening thud beneath the mower. I have seen lizards speed away from my advancing clippers with obviously shortened tails. Why don’t they run off as quickly as mice and moles and voles? Do they think that simply being still, hiding out, skulking below ground is a good survival strategy? Because I am coming. Not coming for them, but coming just the same.

And now autumn is coming, and the reptiles and amphibians are going away, to wherever it is they go in the colder months. I’m sorry, I kind of forget my high school biology. I’m supposing they hibernate. This morning I was in the barn before the sun was up, throwing hay to the horses and donkeys. I stopped a moment and looked out the back door to see Venus glowing like a jewel in the eastern sky. Then I looked down at my feet and saw a toad. I said hello to him, and offered that I had just been writing a little essay about his kind. He seemed unimpressed by the information, but toads, as you may be aware, are not easily impressed.

At any rate, I think he’ll be one of the last I’ll see for several months. Things are closing down, drawing in, building towards the darker, calmer, inside weeks. I will shelter where I can, as the reptiles shelter all summer long. And we will all meet again next year.

A Wasp, a Horse

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My wife has been stung twice recently by wasps. She was picking blackberries a few weeks ago when the first sting came. She showed me the nest hiding high in the blackberry canes, and I said I would spray it and get rid of them. But she didn’t want me to; there were still berries to pick and she didn’t want them contaminated with insecticide.

We have blackberries covering a stretch of about 50 yards. Every day for the last month or more we have picked about a gallon. We will never be able to use the blackberries we have, and I do not worry about losing a few. Yesterday another wasp from the same nest stung her, and this morning her hand was red and terribly swollen.

I took the spray out to the blackberries, found the nest, and doused it. Several wasps took flight, a few tumbled down through the thorns, and one held on. I sprayed it again, needlessly probably, but I wanted it gone. I wanted to pluck off the nest and crush it for good measure. But that one kept circling the nest on needly legs, slowly and with determination. Old warrior, I thought, the last of the clan, still trying to protect the nest. But then recalling that this is brood I thought it was probably a female, a mother, refusing to give up on the next generation. I sprayed it again and again until it too fell and I pinched off the nest and crushed it underfoot. I felt a little heartless. Wasps are beings too, just trying to live. But it is important to me to protect my family, and killing that last brave wasp was part of that mission.

When I walked back up to the house my daughter asked for my help. She has volunteered to tend a severely wounded horse, a graceful Palomino mare who got caught up in barbed wire and sustained some really gruesome injuries. The horse would have been put down, except she is showing a healthy appetite and every desire to live. It takes me some force of will just to look at her injuries, and my daughter has to clean and disinfect and re-bandage them a few times a day.

I had to hold the mare while my daughter cleaned her stall. I took the lead rope and stood in the yard, the horse hungrily cropping clover and grass while I watched. She is a sweet tempered, gentle animal, with big brown eyes and eyelashes as fine as those on a My Little Pony. I’m told that she is mostly a trail horse, and I imagine she would be an easy ride. I stroked her neck and her back while she ate, my heart filling with sympathy for her, knowing there is a likelihood that still, if her wounds do not heal or they become infected, she will have to be euthanized. This thought haunted my whole day.

I may feel wicked for the glee I take in destroying a wasp nest down to the last survivor. But I also cannot help being moved by the plight of an injured mare. Both emotions stirred me within a half hour on this sunny August morning, all before I shaved and dressed and drove to work. Again I realized that a life closer to nature, near to other living things, is a life that challenges your emotions and makes you define your humanity.

My wife came out of the house about the time we were finished working with the mare. I told her that I had killed the wasps. ‘Oh,’ my daughter said, leading the mare away, ‘there’s another wasp nest in the barn, right in her stall.’ Immediately my instincts kicked in, spelling out who was the enemy, who needed protection, and what was my role in the drama.

In the Rain

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I am smart enough to come in out of the rain, I want to make that clear right up front. But I was on vacation a few weeks ago and I spent hours working in the yard and fields under varying degrees of rainfall. One day I was moving wheelbarrows of compost to our range of blackberries and while I was doing it a light sprinkle developed to a steady shower and finally to a pelting rain before I decided it was time to quit and go inside. Even then I wondered if I should have gone on, despite the rain.

The fact is, if you’re very hot from physical labor, a cooling shower, along with the breeze that often comes with it, can feel very nice. And what is the difference between having your clothing sweated through from effort or wet from rain, aside from the obvious olfactory associations? I am an amateur, a tyro at this tending to pastures and fruit trees and such. But I wonder if people of considerable experience shy away from working in the rain? I wonder if they ever did in the past?

I know that modern people dislike being in the rain. Once I visited Sea World in Orlando. Before every show featuring dolphins, orcas or seals, the staff warned people sitting close to the pool that there would be splashing and they might want to move back. This caused everyone to crowd to the front for the delightful experience of being drenched in the wake of their favorite aquatic mammals. But this being Florida, there came the inevitable late afternoon rain shower. As soon as it began everyone in the park scattered to find shelter in gift shops or eateries. Clearly the problem is not being wet, it’s being in the rain.

But for people who have a lot of work to do, rain eats into their time. You cannot mow hay or work in muddy gardens when they are rain soaked, but there’s usually something you can get done, if you just tolerate being wet while you do it—or don’t mind working in a rain coat. (I have a nice bright yellow rain coat which always makes me feel like an eight-year-old when I wear it.) We work in all kinds of weather. Deep snow. Blistering heat. But for some reason, even though our skin is waterproof, we shy away from doing anything in the rain.

Rain is predicted for the next three days, a pattern that has dogged the spring and summer so far in the Great American Midwest. Nothing will get done outside unless I face the fact that I will be working in the rain, at least part of the time. This is especially bad because we are in the height of the growing season: we have beets, cucumbers, tomatoes, and lots of blackberries all ready to pick and eat. I sit at the window looking out on the riotous green under grey skies, seeing all my control of it winding away from me, knowing I could take it back if only I could just face up to going out in the rain.

Silver Thaw

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Whether intentionally or not, I have taken a step back in my long-term project of producing a book on human interactions with the seasons. I am not writing much on the book, and certainly not producing interesting blog posts about my research or progress on the book. There are a few reasons for this.

One is that I have been working on–shall we say bogged down in–Chapter 3, the chapter on the mythology of the seasons, for close to three years now. Yes, three years on a single chapter. For one thing, there is so much of it! A strong case could be made that all mythology, originating as it did during humanity’s development as agricultural societies, is seasonal mythology. Even creation myths take a back seat to seasonal myths in prevalence and variety. How does one encapsulate all of that into one chapter? How does one say something meaningful or insightful about it in limited space? At what point do I leave it alone and conclude that I have said enough, I have made my point?

The other problem is that, like the seasonal myth, the seasonal reference is all about us. We live in the seasons. Fiction authors who write that ‘it was a beautiful spring morning’ or ‘the fall was cold and rainy’ are not writing about the seasons, they are writing about characters who live within the seasons. I am increasingly unsure of myself for reading too much into these references; are they important observations or just stage dressing?

Almost every non-fiction book I read has a reference to something seasonal, but the problem I find is that these things are rarely deemed important enough even to make the index of those books. In his last book, The World Until Yesterday, Jared Diamond talked about language development within certain New Guinean societies, and how he believes diversity of language is influenced by climate–particularly by seasonality. After reading the book I wanted to pull out that section for quoting, but of course I could not find it by checking the index for the word ‘season’ or ‘seasonality.’ The closest I came was the much more general term ‘climate.’

I just finished reading Encounters at the Heart of the World: A History of the Mandan People by Elizabeth Fenn. Whenever I pick up such a book I immediately check its index for whether there is any mention of the seasons. I look under the word ‘seasons’ and then under the names of individual seasons. There were no such listings in the index for the book. So imagine my surprise when, deep into the book, I found an excellent section on the work of Mandan women throughout the seasons–the planting, tending, harvesting and storage of corn and other agricultural commodities. If one important activity takes place in spring, and another activity takes place in summer, are spring and summer not worthy to be cited in the index, so we can easily find them?

Am I wrong to see the seasons themselves as a subject of study? Are they truly nothing more than a backdrop, stage dressing for real subjects? It’s like studying time instead of history, like studying canvas instead of painting, like studying the medium rather than the message–but as we all learned from Marshall McLuhan, sometimes the medium is the message. I am uncertain whether I am opening up a whole new field of study, or I am seriously misguided and just looking at the wrong things. Lacking the ability to decide, I am frozen.

But I am lately encouraged, I feel stirrings. In reading Erik Larsen’s Thunderstruck, in which he tells the story of Guglielmo Marconi working to transmit wireless signals from North America to Europe, I find mention of a phenomenon long recognized in Nova Scotia called the ‘silver thaw.’ This occurs during the interval from winter to spring, when variable weather patterns might produce a spring rain but also be met by freezing temperatures, thus coating trees, houses, power lines and all with a light coat of ice. The phenomenon is also recognized in the Pacific Northwest. It brings to mind all of the seasons which the human mind has created, like Blackberry Winter, Indian Summer, or even the Nordic Fimbulwinter–that terrible, years-long winter which, according to myth, preceded Ragnarok, but in common parlance just means a particularly cold winter.

These things re-ignite my interest in the seasons, especially as human cultural constructs, which is what makes them interesting to talk about, and takes them past the level of passing the time talking about the weather. My basic thesis in the mythology chapter is that most mythology, at its roots, is seasonal mythology, and that as societies have been washed over by changing religious regimes, nothing has been more difficult for the new regime to expunge from the popular imagination than the seasonal myth and its celebration. That’s why we celebrate Christmas on December 25th, why Easter–the most important observance in the Christian calendar–bears the name of an ancient pagan goddess.

So, okay, I am becoming interested again in the subject, but it seems to be a slow warming. I start and then find myself stopping, frozen again. Kind of a silver thaw, I’d say, but I am hopeful spring is on the way.

Spring Cleaning

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Everyone has some idiosyncrasies, and among mine is the fact that I really enjoy housework. There are few things as enjoyable to me as a rainy day off work during which I have time to clean every room in the house, top to bottom. Brew some coffee, put on some rousing music, and get to it.

Springtime is upon us, a season that has long been attended by a whole raft of cleansing and purification rituals. In the classical world, February (a warmer month throughout the Mediterranean) was a month of purification–Februaa was an ancient purification ritual. The Celtic spring festival was Beltane, a festival in which cattle returning to pasture were passed between bonfires to purify and protect them from evil spirits. Many ancient people would thoroughly clean their homes and villages, extinguish all fires, bless tinder for the lighting of new fire, and begin the year anew in springtime. Surely, after the sickness and squalor of cramped winter hibernations, spring was a time to clean and brush off the old, welcome the new, and ask for renewed blessings of home and hearth, and especially of field and pasture, from whatever deities did those things. In modern times spring cleaning is still a standard phenomenon, one to which many at least pay lip service, while some do it up with religious fervor.

A while ago I posted an essay in which I asked people what they thought they could teach primitive humans, say 15- to 20,000 years ago, that could help advance their culture. I never offered my own thought. I think the greatest contribution I could make is to teach them about cleanliness and sanitation. What a boon this would be, how simple, and how incredibly long it took humans to realize the importance of it. Even as late as the mid-19th century, when Dr. Ignatz Semmelweis suggested that doctors could save the lives of many mothers and newborn infants if they would only wash their hands before delivering babies, he was laughed at by colleagues in the medical profession. He didn’t have any proof, aside from anecdotal evidence, of what a difference it could make, and so it seemed to other doctors like simple superstition.

For many centuries, cleanliness has been a central part of much superstition. Most of the springtime rituals described above, while they would be salubrious practices just for the cleanliness they offered, were about obeisance to deities and spirits, at least to some degree. While there were many rituals undertaken by common people, quite a few of these were led by priests, witch doctors, medicine men, and shamans. A standard royal implement of many traditional tribal chiefs is the whisk, which is nothing more than a stylized broom, representing the chief’s role as sanitizer of his people. Without knowledge of microbial infection, 19th century physicians eschewed Semmelweis’ hand-washing as nothing more than a ritual practice, a reversion to superstition.

But now we know better. If I lived among primitives, I could show them to keep their dwellings clean of lice, fleas and germ-carrying vermin; to boil water to remove pathogens; to keep food at safe temperatures and throw it out when it had been stored dangerously long; to avoid contact as much as practicable with sick people; to cover their mouths when they cough and their noses when they sneeze. In an ancient hunter-gatherer camp there would be no shortage of wood ash and animal fat, and I would have plenty of time to learn how to synthesize soap from these traditional ingredients. We would be washing our hands many millennia before Dr. Semmelweis comes to his epiphany.

My tribe would grow healthy, strong and populous–the envy of all the other clans. In time they would hand me the ceremonial whisk and I would be recognized as Chief Sanitizer of my people, a role I would fill with grace and humility, waving the whisk with practiced nonchalance. In spring I would not only lead the rites, but partake fully of the tradition of spring cleaning. He may be a chief, they’d all say in their primitive tongue, but man, can he clean! I don’t know where we would find either the coffee or the music.

Samhain: Romance in the Dark

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I can already feel it. I drive home from work at exactly the time when the sun is in the process of setting during winter. A month ago, it was sinking beneath the horizon before I turned on Highway 30 for the seven mile drive to High Ridge; today it’s still up for about ten minutes after I’m home. It’s a little warm today, though I’m aware it’s just a teasing January thaw. There’s still a lot of cold weather to go in February and March, but it will be well-lighted cold weather, and I can feel spring’s approach.

I have been reading much about the Celtic festival year, particularly Samhain. The impression I have been getting is of a poorly understood, even a purposely misrepresented tradition. First let me say that I am in touch with quite a few neopagans who mostly seem to spend much time working to understand the lore and traditions of ancient beliefs. They are a valuable source of information and interpretation for me. But there is also, quite frankly, a lot hooey out there.

For instance, there are yearly ‘Druidic’ rites conducted in and around Stonehenge, when it is clear to anyone who spends more than ten minutes studying the subject that Stonehenge is not in any way a Celtic monument–and hence not a Druidic site. The Druids certainly had nothing to do with the building of Stonehenge, and most likely never conducted any kind of ceremonies there.

But I am also bothered by the proliferation of traditions that see Samhain as a dark, foreboding time full of ghosts and malevolent spirits, Druids skulking in dark robes. It’s true that the Celts began their year at Samhain, a dark time which would grow darker before building to spring. They also saw the day as beginning at dusk, much as the ancient Hebrews did. It’s also true that Samhain was regarded as a liminal time when boundaries between this world and the next grew fuzzy. But there is much in Celtic lore that sees the beauty, hope, and even the romance in the encroaching darkness.

In The Wooing of Emer, one of the great tales about the hero CuChulainn, our hero asks his beloved how he can achieve the ‘beautiful plain’–a coded reference to her breasts. ‘No one comes to this plain,’ said she, ‘who does not meet Benn Suain, the son of Roscmelc, from summer’s end to the beginning of spring, from the beginning of spring to May-day, from May-day to the beginning of winter.’ Summer’s end is of course another name for Samhain, and she is describing a love that can persevere through winter to spring and back again.

Perhaps the greatest love story in Celtic lore is The Song of Aengus. Aengus is one of the Tuatha de Danaan, a race of gods, or godlike heroes, usually portrayed as a god of love and youth. Aengus falls hard for a maiden he sees in a dream, but whenever he reaches out to touch her she disappears. He wastes away with unfulfilled love while his divine mother and father seek the dream girl. She is finally found imprisoned among 150 girls whose sad fate it is to turn into swans at Samhain and back into human form the next year. Aengus is told that if he can select his beloved from among the swans, he will win her. He visits the lake after the transformation and successfully picks out Caer, his one true love. He also becomes a swan and together they fly off, singing such beautiful music that people who hear it are lulled to sleep for three days.

This tale was the basis for William Butler Yeats’ great love poem The Song of Wandering Aengus. One of the most poignantly lovely poems in the English language, it does not speak of the swans, but it does have its hero endlessly seeking his love ‘through hollow lands and hilly lands.’ If he finds her they will spend eternity plucking ‘the silver apples of the moon, the golden apples of the sun.’ So I choose to see the romance, the optimism of Samhain. Yes, there is the mystical and the other-worldly, maidens turned to swans and all that. But within that there is romance.

The Celtic year is not divided by the solstices and equinoxes, as in the Classical World. There isn’t the great lamentation about the death of the sun and the fervid ceremonies pleading with the gods to return their favor to us. It is more about observation of the natural world–when things ripen, when the warmth returns, when the ewes are calving. Things go on, and we go on as well. Samhain may be a dark time, but the harvest is in and we have food and leisure for a while: life goes on, and love endures. I can already feel it. Spring is coming.

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