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.
Imbolc tends to be associated with snowdrops – which is reasonable enough because they do reliably turn up at this time. We don’t talk about blackthorn much, but for me it is the tree of the festival. Blackthorn can come into flower around this time of year, too (in my experience) and it’s an ogham tree as well.
The Woodland Trust site has blackthorn down as flowering between March and April so it may be in part about where you live. The Woodland Trust covers the whole of the UK, and I’ve never lived further north than the Midlands. There are significant regional differences. I’ve always seen blackthorn as one of the first flowerings in the year. There was a roadside tree on the way to my Midlands ritual place that always came into flower around the time of Imbolc rituals, which gave me the association. At present I’ve got a wild plum locally that flowers very early and is likely to open any day now. It points to the way in which tree events can be very specific and local, depending on microclimates, and the unpredictable nature of trees.
When it’s related to ogham, blackthorn is straif. The ancient wisdom of the internet associates straif either with Samhain, or with the period of Samhain to May. It’s worth noting that ‘ancient’ Celtic tree calendars often derive from the work of Robert Graves, not ancient history, and the ogham isn’t just about trees. While we have plenty of ogham lists, no one is able to really prove what ogham was for, historically, or how and why it was used.
Celebrating blackthorn at Samhain seems a bit early – their fruits need the first frosts to be properly ripe. Again, when the first frosts come varies from place to place, so for me this is a November event most years, but can happen as early as September.
Nature is complex. Events in nature often depend on a number of factors, and thus what happens when will change from year to year and from place to place. This is why it’s so important to find out what happens where you are, and to have a pattern of seasonal celebration that relates to what’s going on, not to the national averages, or other people’s creative thinking.
Blackthorn image borrowed from The Woodland Trust.
Find out more about blackthorn trees here - woodlandtrust.org.uk/blackthorn/
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