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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The time of birds

It’s the first day of December, and most of the leaves are now down from the trees where I live. There’s one little ash tree that is, somehow, still mostly green but the yellows are creeping in there, too. It’s been a matter of weeks since enough leaves fell from the horsechestnut to reveal the bird feeder I put there last year.

During the summer, bird watching is a difficult activity because there’s so much cover. Seeing a whole bird isn’t easy unless you can put up a bird table and lure them out into the open. In years when I’ve been able to do that, it’s still not been easy to see birds in summer because most of them prefer to be in the trees or out in the fields. I’ve noticed that birds tend to return to urban gardens in the winter, they’ve got wise to bird feeders.

I can see the branches and trunk of the chestnut clearly now – something I haven’t been able to do for months. As a consequence, all bird activity is easier to spot. I notice that when I’m walking, I have the same experience. Bare branches mean visible birds. I notice how small birds deploy themselves on trees, the sparrows especially, so as to seem leaf-like when sitting. They fall like leaves, hiding in plain sight by seeming to be something else.

We’re at an in-between point in the wheel of the year festivals. Samhain is behind us, ancestors duly honoured, The Winter Solstice and Yule, and all the other mid-winter festivals are ahead, at which point, barely into the darkness we’re already thinking about the return of the light (in theory). This season of birds begins once the leaves are down – timings vary wildly from year to year, it can happen well before Samhain. It continues until the leaves return – perhaps later than Beltain. The horse chestnut outside my window is ill, like many others round here, and it seems to deal with this by both leafing very early, and losing leaves ahead of other trees. It has its own, private cycle of the seasons.

Every day is a unique moment of light and climate in the turn of the seasons. Every part of existence responds to this in its own ways. I watch for the waxwings, who I saw for the first time last winter, and hope weren’t here by mistake or accident. Little pink punky birds with a distinctive call and a fondness for conifer seeds. We’re not their obvious visiting location, but then, I’ve noticed that a lot of birds don’t stick to the rules humans ascribe to them.


It’s said that the Druids of old took omens from the flight of birds. Being a bird watcher, I know that to do this, you have to know what’s going on with them and why, what they normally do. The long tailed tits aren’t visible to me now for some kind of magic, truth revealing reason. They’ve been around all summer, they’re just a lot harder to spot when there are leaves. The flock is at its biggest, swelled with this year’s new life. Over the winter they will diminish and may become harder to spot as a consequence. The truth of their existence is not a message to me, but it is something to value and appreciate.

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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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