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 skin

Warmer summer weather makes it possible to have more bare skin without freezing to death. Living in the UK (and not having great circulation) I feel the cold and I spend much of the year covered up. With more skin exposed, I am acutely aware of sun, wind, rain, shade, temperature changes and so forth. I’ve had some intense personal encounters with brambles and stinging nettles this summer and, as usual, blood sucking insects find my bare skin really appetising. Bare skin increases my sense of connection with the natural world.

It’s good to be able to uncover my body without fear of having that sexualised. This is part of why I think it’s so important to deliberately celebrate our bodies, making a clear statement of the joyful innocence that bare skin can also signify. We should not be reading sexual possibility into bodies that happen not to be heavily clothed. We should not be imposing desire on other people’s skin.

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Celebrating the insects

This is the time of year when I see most insects. Dragonflies, damsel flies and demoiselle flies over the water. Hungry, blood-seeking insects at twilight. There have been unidentifiable red moths (too fast, too far away). I’ve seen my first stripy caterpillars – who will grow up to be cinnabar moths. I’ve rescued various other caterpillars I couldn’t identify, I’ve put bees safely onto flowers, and got out of the way of passing beetles. It’s busy out there.

Of all the native wild things, insects are the ones I have the most trouble identifying. There’s so many of them. I can identify a grasshopper, but not which kind of grasshopper it is – and there are many. I can only reliably identify a couple of bee species. I know a handful of beetles and the rest are little scuttling mysteries. I have some idea about butterflies, am rubbish at moths, and have no clue about flies. I try to learn a few new names every year but at this rate I will remain embarrassed by my ignorance for the rest of my life.

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Celebrating the Poppies

Poppies are magical flowers. They bloom in the summer, and are probably best known for the opiates we extract from them. However, poppies are magical in other ways too, especially around how and where they grow.

Poppies grow when the soil is disturbed. They are a natural response to damage, turning disaster into beauty. It’s for this reason that they became an emblem of the First World War. In the shelled and ravaged landscapes of conflict, the poppies grew.

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Celebrating the Summer Migrants

According to the internet, ‘one swallow does not a summer make’ is a quote that can be attributed to Aristotle. The connection between summer and swallows is clearly a longstanding one. British swallows winter in South Africa. Or, arguably, South African swallows come to the UK to breed. There are many other birds whose migration to the UK at this time of year is part of the coming of summer.

Swifts, swallows and house martins aren’t always easy to tell apart in flight, and at twilight when they hunt for insects, telling them apart from bats can also be tricky. It’s the way the hunter is obliged to follow their prey through the air that means insect eating birds and bats are similar. There’s a rather (accidentally) amusing poem by D.H. Lawrence in which the poet is rather upset that his birds turn out to be bats. You can read that here - https://www.poetryfoundation.org/poems/44574/bat

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Celebrating the seasonal plants

Key moments in the lives of plants do not always tie in to the standard eight festivals. Yes, the snowdrops flower at Imbolc and hawthorn blooms around Beltain and the grain is generally ripe for Lugnasadh, but these are just a few plants. Many other plants come into their own at other times in the year. A real relationship with the plant life of the UK calls for more attention than just festival plants. If you are not in the UK, your seasonal plants will be different and I think it’s really important to engage with what’s around you, not what comes from the history of the festival.

One of my favourite April wildflowers is the Kingcup – they tend to bloom once it starts feeling warm and springish. Large, exuberant yellow flowers, often occurring in great profusion.  Kingcups favour damp places, canal edges, riverbanks, ponds and streams.

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Emerging from Hibernation

Early spring means that many of the creatures who hibernated, are now emerging. I’ve seen a few butterflies and one bat. Here in the UK, the hedgehogs will be waking up as well. Many amphibians hibernate, and wake with the warmer weather.  In other places, the great hibernators are bears. I wish we had bears here, but as with many larger mammals, the intensity of human activity in the UK pushed bears out a long time ago.

Late in the autumn, when the weather is cold and the nights long, I feel an urge to hibernate. I want to pull in, wrap myself in blankets, sleep more. I go to bed earlier and I go out less. I feel keenly the imposition of clock time and school time that requires me to get up in the dark.

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Celebrating the snow

I’m no great fan of snow, I admit. It’s one of the things to celebrate where my first port of call is to absolutely hold up your right not to celebrate. For many of us, snow is hard work. Snow days can make getting to work a nightmare, and missed work isn’t fun if you can’t afford it.  Ice means isolation. Slippery surfaces mean real risk of injury. Cold weather kills people – usually the old and frail who cannot afford to heat their homes, and those who have no homes and are rough sleeping. Being able to enjoy the snow is a sign of privilege, and any celebration of it has to include recognition of that. It is not ok to shame or harass anyone who doesn’t enjoy it.

There is one particularly magical aspect of snow that is often overlooked by people who go out to play in it – and that’s footprints. Snow reveals who else has passed through, and if you can be out before human feet have obliterated all signs, snow can tell you stories about who was there and what they did.

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