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2009/2010 El Niño Crazies? or Just Weather

It was a dark and stormy night – oh, no – wrong genre – start again.

Beauty of a snowflake

I decided winter was going to be a hard one when snow started falling a week before Christmas. Slow and steady, huge hexagonal flakes of white fluff that wouldn’t hurt a fly – until it amasses.

And amass it did.

In this neck of the woods, a white Christmas has become something of a rarity over the last score years: an event you remembered from childhood, when lampposts were short and dogs were tall; when traffic was a report you heard on the radio; when the wind blew from the North and old men predicted the white stuff. In these last few years, it feels as if the Earth is turning on the screws and testing us countryfolk to see if we’re made of the right stuff.

There’s a link there somewhere.

All summer long – I blogged about the weather, because there was nothing I could do to change it – winds brought cloud and rain from the west: dragged it kicking and screaming across the Grampian Mountains – that famous Roman chain that spawned Mons Graupius, which usually blocks precipitation – and dumped it on Aberdeenshire.

geology of Aberdeenshire

Geology of Aberdeenshire: granite, red sandstone and raised beach gravel

For those of you unaccustomed to our spectacular micro-climatic conditions in the Northeast triangle of Scotland, the Grampian county of Aberdeen has paleo-historically been blessed with low-level Pleistocene marine sands and gravels on its eastern coast, Devonian red sandstone on the North coast and intrusive muti-colour granites – also Devonian – in the middle. They’re the ones that usually soak up leftover raindrops.

The Cairngorms form a natural divide between East and West. These stately peaks – though only in the minds of Scots, as they rise to a maximum of 4,000 feet – are geographically closer to the Atlantic Ocean than they are to the North Sea; yet their granite bloc is a block for precipitation, most years dumped unceremoniously on the long-suffering, midge-ridden West.

For every mile east you go you can expect one inch less rainfall. It’s an old Scots maxim that made some sense in Grandfather’s time.

The charmed population of Aberdeenshire has historically experienced early springs, punctual return of swallows, balmy if slightly dry summers and mild falls. Winter, since the storms of 1981-2, was a gleam in the weatherman’s eye.

Until 2009-2010.

Summer was a non-starter. A brilliant flash in late June – like a forgotten dream: one week after solstice, a few days into early July seemed like a world of childhood fantasy; running barefoot through meadow flowers, gathering domestic strawberries, wild raspberries; thinking of lush promised fruits to come: plums and pears and apples.

Then the drought (so-called ‘heat-wave’) vanished and the rains came. And with them the winds.

Hurricane Katrina August 2005

In the Bahamas and the Florida Keys they used to say a hurricane rhyme:

‘June: too soon,
July: stand by,
August: come it must,
September: remember,
October: all over.’

It applied last year to eastern Scotland, to a scary degree.

June and July were the calm before the storm. August – a month when surprise ‘spates’ arrive and inundate fields of ripening grain, sweeping all before them into overflowing ditches, burns and rivers – brought two downpours. Central riverine communities sandbagged doors, secured and taped windows. And still it came. September there were three more floods; this time the river Don burst its banks in several places: in Kintore a farmer died in his tractor, caught out and drowned, unable to extract himself from floodwaters.

A mile of Don’s worth two of Dee
Except for fish and stone and tree

The September ‘spate’, likened to its ancestor, the ‘Muckle Spate o’ ‘29’ (by that they meant 1829), carried away everything not tied down: including fish, stone and tree.

Equinox came and went and still it rained. Still the winds blew. It was as if the hurricane season of Florida had not only exported its rhyme, but all of its storms:

After Ana, Bill and Claudette, the twisting tail headed north, skirted Bermuda and aimed straight for the north Atlantic, round the Pentland Firth and down through the Moray Firth to blast Aberdeenshire.

That’s right. Not only were these storms of gale-force strength (in high summer a wind over 60mph is unusual, to say the least), but they came from the North. Poor battered plants in struggling northern gardens usually basking in an exquisite micro-climate of Icelandic and Scandinavian temperatures, were being blown to bits.

I digress only momentarily to explain that our countryman, Admiral Sir Francis Beaufort is responsible for giving us the scale of wind speeds that we currently use. It really hasn’t changed much since he standardized it in 1806. There’s been no need. Wind, from a gentle summer breeze that cools the romantic brow (3 to 6 knots, Beaufort 2) right through to a full hurricane-force gale greater than 73mph (64 knots, Beaufort 12) has a way of letting you know it’s there.

sheltering toad

Danny, Erika, Fred and Grace brought similar reminders: storm-force conditions injurious to plant, beast and Man. I even found a toad sheltering from the blast in a quiet niche. There seemed no let-up; no sign of a reprieve. Those of us who believed that the Earth was just playing a game, having us on, it would be Okay in another week… were in for a big surprise.

I planted a giant sunflower out of its (greenhouse seeded) pot in May, thinking how lovely the vision that, in a summer like 2005, 2004, 2001 or 1998 (‘Global warming’ years) it might set seed to feed finches by autumn.

By equinox it still hadn’t flowered.

It was so statuesque, so tall, so strong – its stem larger than the area I could encompass with my two hands. It was full of moisture and had responded with phenomenal growth. But no yellow petals.

October arrived. Swallows had long departed – they’d decided for the first time in twenty years that enough was enough. They’d lingered in Ultima Thule only long enough to hatch a single clutch. They left on a singular warm wind three weeks early. I should have known then we were in for more.

I thought things would change after the ‘equinoctial gales’. It is traditionally a time when, if summer has been a little less than kind, the burgeoning vines, the bending limbs, the fully laden branches of fruit and Nature’s bounty make up for all the hard work, lost sleep, missed opportunities: the promise is fulfilled, Mother Earth comes through in spades, the sun shines and all is forgiven. The warm earth brings forth ripened plums, pears and apples in abundance, even a choice late cherry or two.

Not last year.

Green tomatoes so abundant they were going out of style

True, there were Granny Smiths and Cox’s Orange Pippins lying waiting on apple boughs pruned close to a sheltering wall larger than any I have ever seen. Artichokes as big as squash; squash as big as pumpkin. But I had to bring them inside to ripen or they would have moulded in the wet. Green tomatoes so abundant they were going out of style. Zucchini had been under plastic all summer, keeping out the rain. A summer too wet even for zucchini to grow! that gives you an idea of how sodden the ground was. Victoria plums which love a moist year were hanging in abundance, but they were still green, and a few delicate pears – it is a little too northerly for pears here at the best of times – looked like shrunken castanets.

Granny Smiths & zucchini: bounty of summer 2009

There was a lot of green: lettuce, cabbage, parsley and spinach to die for, but not a lot of ripening. I am not usually an ungrateful person. But my expectation was bordering on exasperation.

Then suddenly, as if the weather elves had been napping and awoke in a frantic state of guilt at not having done their usual earth tending, October turned mild.

Roses bloomed, butterflies emerged from wall crevices, a dry shed, and sought out the late blossom of buddleia to stock up for overwintering. California poppies that thought they’d come to an alien planet, flowered and raised their faces to the sun.

And, lo and behold, my sunflower popped her first petal.

But the stratosphere wasn’t done yet. Not by a long shot. She’d started, so she was going to finish.

I mentioned earlier that the Grampian mountain chain forms a barrier that usually holds back rain from the West. And last year, its barricading powers failed miserably. Not only did rain follow wind and wind follow rain, but the midges, the West’s most unmentionable tourist nightmare, followed piggy-back along the trail.

The swallows, great feeders of the heavens, had already gone; so nobody was scooping great mouthfuls of the little monsters in massive numbers. Wrens, robins and a few finches that weren’t busy feeding on grain, demolished a few, but the air was alive with them. Wind seems not to perturb these tiny insects: they hide under trees and reappear the minute it drops.

all birds huddle together for warmth

So, calm evenings in the late Northeast autumn were midge-rampant; not pleasant. No window of opportunity for a leisurely stroll in the balmy, breathless air. The blackbirds had it all to themselves.

Thing is, there was no evening birdsong. Most of the summer visitors had departed. And those that were still around were looking for winter habitat. Wrens can bundle together in numbers up to twenty-two in one disused nest. Body heat is the only thing that keeps out the cold. Wrens were doing a big business in re-roofing spring nests – for future reference.

There were other signs. I should have known.

Greylag geese feast on harvest leftovers

Greylag geese round here have become permanent residents. They like the mild winters, so I’ve heard. They top up and home in on a familiar sheltered waterhole; they feed to stuffing point in leftover barley and wheat in open, harvested fields and then head out a little north of here to overwinter. In previous winters, winters without snow, there have been geese still tucking in in open fields in early December. This last fall, all the grain had gone by late October.

And the geese were gone too.

In late October my drenched sunflower was looking a little the worse for wear, but she was still hanging in there. Her strong stem was sturdy enough to support loads of hungry finches, tits, songbirds.

Sunflower, drenched but philosophical

They used her as a stopping-off point between hedge and feeder-table. As if they hoped her yellow bedraggled petals would somehow unfold to present them with a miracle in fat black and white stripey seeds. It was not to be.

The rain succeeded. Not in taming her, but when her petals closed in late October – usually a (midsummer) sign that the head is transfiguring, metamorphosing, setting seed – they chose not to reopen. She bowed her head and became silent. She’d had enough.

November raged and birds were blown about. Humans and animals prepared for what was to come. Early December brought some sunny days, but there was a chill in the air that nobody could really pretend was unfamiliar.

And then, one week before Christmas, the snowflakes arrived. And they fell in great soft plops of Inuit 32-linguistic varieties. And they didn’t stop falling until every last man, woman, child, blackbird, wren, robin, chicken, fox, wildcat, deer, rabbit and stoat had felt every possible chill factor they were capable of bringing.

* * *

There isn’t much point in going into the blow-by-blow of how difficult it’s been. But it might be interesting to look at the overview.

Scotland isn’t traditionally a snowy place. I’ve explained why. It sits on the northern edge of the Atlantic Ocean in a latitude akin to Alaska, but with temperatures more normal for the 42nd parallel of the Pacific Northwest. Yes, there are storms which come and go in the three months of so-called Winter, and local government services are never ready for them; it’s a standing joke. They complain before it comes, don’t deliver enough salt or grit enough or clear enough if it does and then blame central Government afterwards for not warning them or providing enough funding in the first place. As if the weather were not God’s fault, but the Labor Government’s.

People in Northeast Scotland have over time grown weary of bureaucratic bickering, complaining and infighting. In country districts in particular, they just get out and get on with it: fend for themselves. Farmers with snow-ploughs attached to tractors clear country roads which large council ploughs can no longer access.

This last winter saw more hardship, more strenuous community togetherness, more help-thy-neighbor-like-thy-life-depended-on-it gestures to make up for every snowless winter or heat-blistered summer of the new millennium.

To backtrack a little: we’ve all heard of, or been made aware of the ways of El Niño.

El Nino tropical Pacific anomaly


Spanish for ‘male child’, colloq. the Christmas Child, El Niño was the anthropomorphic name given by Peruvian sailors around 1892 to a warm northerly Pacific current in winter time. It is produced by a weather anomaly combined with atmospheric pressure: Indonesia usually experiences huge amounts of rainfall in winter under low atmospheric pressure, while high pressure hovers over the dry coast of Peru. This cycle produces a westward flow of tropical trade winds.

When the pressures weaken, the trades do too and a period of warmer-than-average sea surface temperatures arise in the east-tropical Pacific Ocean around December, blown along the surface against weakening trade winds which churn its billowing mass into a lingering ‘entity’; the length of its stay can influence weather conditions across much of the globe.

In an El Niño year, warm surface water encouraged by lessening trades migrates east from Indonesia across the central Pacific to the coast of Peru and Ecuador, bringing tropical rains which would otherwise fall on Jakarta, Bali and Papua New Guinea. Not only does the warm water linger, but with weakened winds, it forms a dense mass of warm ocean that does not sustain plankton (which prefer cooler waters) and consequently the larger fish that feed on this resource. In an El Niño year, the high desert, the Altiplano can experience huge rainstorms, while Australia and India suffer from drought.

Recent meteorological interest has been piqued by the growing frequency of El Niño years and the apparent resultant extremes in temperature worldwide which occur the following summer. El Niños since 1982 have occurred so regularly that world attention has been focused, not only on their effect on mean summer temperature but on the fact that they may contribute to ‘global warming’.

Recent El Niños happened in 1986-1987, 1991-1992, 1993-1994, 1997-1998; and in 2002-2003, 2004-2005, 2006-2007 and 2009-2010.

For comparison, using mean world temperature data, the hottest years on record are, in order of maximum extreme temperature:

Red Admiral on autumn-flowering buddleia

1 2005, hottest on record since 1880
2 1998
3 2002
4 2003
5 2004
6 2001
7 1997
8 1990
9 1995
10 1999

These freak hot summers all happened within the last two decades. And nineteen of the hottest 20 years have occurred since 1980.

Notably, and possibly related to the gap of non-El Niño years since 2007, 2009 is not one of them!

What may be happening is that, with an erratic move away from climatic norm, weather patterns become reversed, unpredictable. Bottom line, for the weather man, a nightmare.

So back to the point. The year 2009 already marked the end of the hottest decade in history – or at least since they started measuring annual mean temperature. We are, of course eliminating Northern Scotland as a candidate here.

The winter of 2009-2010 will also go down in the history books, I suspect. Not just because Scotland was cut off from the rest of the world for virtually three months, but weather conditions everywhere were, shall we say, a little out of the ordinary.

Dickey Ridge in the Deep South, USA winter 2010

They had frozen citrus groves in Florida in January, snow in Georgia in February; and a big freeze in northern Virginia at New Year’s. Dickey Ridge (three miles south of Dickey Holler!) had an icestorm, windchill, winds of 50mph (Beaufort 9) which took the temperature down to 8ºF – that, for the Celsius Euros among us is minus 14ºC; and that’s the Deep Saw-uth.

This winter, Belgium had weather like Estonia; Estonia a brief snowfall like Guernsey. Scotland is the land of the deep freeze, British Columbia hasn’t had enough snow to support the Winter Olympics. Torrential rainfall in Sacramento, Monterey and Orange County exceeded seasonal maximum; Las Vegas had more rain in two days than in the entire previous year.

La Soufrière collapse - the 'Sulfurer' from Space (ISS photo)

⁃ Dare one touch on other phenomena, either closely or remotely related to earth changes? After the January 12th and 13th Richter 6.5 and 7.0 earthquakes of Eureka, California and Haiti respectively, probably not; save to mention that Etna is alive again, spewing out volcanic cloud and ash, Kamchatka’s twin volcanoes are active, as are the Chilean twins of Llaima and Pichillaima in the Temuco Lake District, despite an unseasonal cap of snow! And in the Windward Island chain, the Saint Vincent volcano, La Soufrière, the Sulfurer, collapsed last week.

We’re not experiencing anything out of the ordinary.

We’re just in the middle of a shakedown while Mother Earth gets herself ready for spring in the Northern Hemisphere. After all, we, her children, haven’t been behaving all that well these last two decades. So she’s entitled to shake her feathers like a tousled sea eagle and take a look round to see what else she can do to get us to pay attention. Weather is, after all, one of her mechanisms for that.

We decimate tropical rain forests, she sends less rain. We rape the desert for subterranean oil, she sends dust storms and African drought. We create huge whirlpools of plastic waste in the North Pacific Gyre trapping and killing earth’s most evolved sea mammals: it seems fitting that she should turn around and send us an oceanic anomaly to make us scratch our scientific heads in vain.

What’s in store for 2010?

If the Niño camp are right, and the winter of 2009-2010 is one of the ‘strongest’ El Niño seasons yet, then the summer which follows could outstrip all previous chart-topping statistics.

Snowless slopes for Vancouver's Winter Olympics

Let’s look on the bright side. Vancouver may not have had any snow to speak of, but Iowa and Idaho, Kentucky and Montana have had their fill. As has (Scotland and) the whole of the Eastern Seaboard from Virginia to Vermont: snow so deep and penetrating that the earth is going to be busy soaking it up, getting ready for new spring growth, filling riverbeds and lakes, dams and reservoirs.

Snow melts down at about a 10 to 1 ratio, meaning 10 inches of snow equals about one inch of water. One thing’s for sure: we’ll have water in abundance to get us ready for the growing season.

Perhaps that’s what Mother Earth has in store. If the summer of 2010 turns out to be another like those twenty hottest years on record, maybe she’s filling up her tanks; mustering inner reserves; getting ready to take us through some punishing temperatures.

I mentioned animal signs. We humans may have lost our ability to intuit what lies ahead, but the birds, wild animals, flora and fauna know a thing or two.

chickens dared to emerge in frozen snow, but didn't lay for weeks

Swallows left early last fall, as if they knew what was coming. The autumn bird chorus was minimal, to say the least. My few chickens stopped laying in the first week of December and, apart from one jewel of an egg that miraculously appeared (probably by accident) on Christmas Day, the little group of eight didn’t produce a single egg between them until last week. Even then, I think it was only the bright sunshine that shone warm during the day that got them motivated. They’re still pretty quick to get back inside their henhouse before five o’clock sunset. Temperatures outside right now are maintaining a solid two or three below zero.

I mentioned Kamchatka. In the darkest days of solstice – and even in subsequent weeks when January turned to February and the light began to return – temperatures in this part of Scotland were, as I said, more appropriate for Siberia than for an island on the Atlantic seaboard. In the second of three storms, four blackbirds fell off their tree limbs in the night and died. I found the body of a fifth frozen under one of the vehicles, as if she hadn’t had the strength to fly for cover. A greenfinch died in my hands from sheer exhaustion and inability to get enough seed in her crop before nightfall.

As I see it, the winter of 2009/2010 has brought out the best and the worst. At the height of the storms, kind neighbors with 4×4 vehicles ferried immobile snowbound waifs to shop for emergency groceries. Birds died, but hens are laying again and there is birdsong. It’s a signal spring is on the way. The pheasant population, usually set by surrounding farmers as fodder for guns in the Spring Shoot are feeding by day with my chickens, roosting by night in my frozen trees. Safety not only in numbers, but also in the non-shooting enclave.

Aconite petals are gleaming with frost, but their yellow is trying to shine.

They remind me of my sunflower. Beaten but unbowed, she made it through some of the harshest conditions ever to greet one of the girosol family. She stood all winter, too. She stands there still. No flower, no seed, but her stem as strong as a sapling.

If she can make it through, I guess some of the rest of us will, too.
©2010 Marian Youngblood

February 23, 2010 Posted by | earth changes, environment, gardening, nature, organic husbandry, rain, seasonal, sun, trees, weather, winter | , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , | 8 Comments

Candlemas: Forward or Back

Easter Aquhorthies Candlemas sunset

“If Candlemas be dull and cool
Half the winter was bye at Yule
If Candlemas be fine and fair
Half the winter’s to come – and mair”
Scots wisdom – Anonymous

Today is Candlemas: February 2nd in the ancient Celtic calendar signified the half – way point, a cross-quarter day, between midwinter and spring. It’s pretty amazing we’ve lasted thus far: three storms and more threatening; it’s already six weeks since solstice and in another six we’ll have reached the vernal equinox. Looking at Scotland’s current snowy landscape (or, more immediate, trudging through it), that calendar fact seems hard to believe.

Old countrymen before the agricultural revolution – farmers and field hands – kept an inner calendar, depending on the direction of the wind, hours of daylight and signs from birds and wild animals for their information.

We seem to have lost the knack.

One might blame it on global warming, but that’s merely an excuse. We spend less time outdoors now as a culture than we ever did. Despite ‘power runs’, jogging, (with natural sounds deadened by earphones strapped to head) and weekend walks (complete with cellphone), we are constantly reminded by the technology of our own devising that we are no longer creatures of the corn.

We have evolved to become slaves to the newspaper, the television set, radio, telephone and computer media and have stepped out of our former selves, the ones who tuned into birdsong, the opening of a snowdrop, the smell of first growth in the forest, lengthening days of sunlight.

Some would say we can’t be blamed for the way society drifts: isn’t it important to keep up with the news? to judge if politicians are doing their job? Don’t our livelihoods depend on our connection to what’s happening in the ‘real’ world?

To my mind it’s a matter of choice. Some of the thirty-somethings these days are so concerned with their career in the City, commissions on deals that make them millions, the need to unwind on a skiing holiday mid-season, the latest SUV, that they don’t notice that their youth is slipping away. When grandparents used to advocate a ‘back-to-basics’ approach, a ‘breath of fresh air’, or a break from concentrating on the ‘almighty dollar’; they had no idea our culture would so soon become divorced from those concepts so radically; would be so far down the road to technological dependence that we no longer recognize the sound made by a robin in spring.

What has all this to do with Candlemas? you may ask.

Sunhoney recumbent group views winter sunset point on Hill of Fare

Sunhoney recumbent stone circle, Aberdeenshire

Before there were man-made calendars, there was a cosmic one: the language of light spoken by the sun on its annual journey. Our neolithic ancestors recognized the solar (and lunar) rhythms and built ‘calendars’ in stone, dragging massive megaliths to create stone circles whose shadows cast a moving ‘hand’ across the face of the earth like a sundial or the hands of a clock. In the Northeast of Scotland that particular variation of stone circle usually takes the form of a window in stone – a recumbent giant flanked by the two tallest monoliths in the southwest quadrant of the circle. This window invariably faces the point on the horizon where the midwinter sun sets and, conversely, where the midsummer full moon also sets.

There were other points marked on the calendar of stones. Assuming the recumbent and flankers stand at ‘seven o’clock’ in a recumbent stone circle where heights always diminish towards the northern arc, the circumference stone at ‘twelve o’clock’ marks the midsummer sunset point on the horizon viewed from within the ‘platform’ – a rectangular space next to the recumbent group. This is beautifully portrayed in settings such as Midmar (map ref. NJ 699 065), Sunhoney (NJ716 057), above right, or even the ruined Kirkton of Bourtie circle (NJ 801 249), where this unremarkable stone acts as the dial point for the sun to come to rest on the longest day of the year. Not content with marking the four quarters, stone circle stones also point to cross-quarter days, too. At Easter Aquorthies (NJ733 208) near Inverurie in central Aberdeenshire, illus. top left, in addition to a solid block of red jasper which marks the equinoctial sunrise on the east of the circle, its two neighbouring perimeter stones draw the distinctive shadows of recumbent and flankers (the ‘window’) into their own minor magical precinct, until it disappears to a point of nothingness at sunset on Candlemas.

These amazing stone calendars served generations of early farmers through bronze age, iron age and early-historic times, until the arrival of the Celtic Colginy Calendar and its Roman counterpart, the Julian calendar, both originally, like all early societies, based on a lunar month. The sixteenth century Gregorian calendar altered our thinking to calculating almost exclusively in solar time. The oriental calendar, however, like the Ethiopian, Vedic, Muslim and some African calculations, remains lunar.

Candlemas, before Gregorian calendar takeover, was held as a celebration of light on the first new moon in February. It is significant that Losar, Tibetan New Year, still takes appearance of the New Moon in February each year as its calendar starting date: this year Losar falls on February 15th.

It is coincidentally the first day of the oriental Year of the Tiger.

Gregorian time did not totally demolish earlier lunar times. They were seen in Rome, and in Roman catholicism generally as ‘pagan’ (from Latin, paganus, a countryman) and therefore ‘ignorant’ of Christian belief.

Celtic lunar calendar of thirteen 'tree' months

Candlemas had been held by country people as a major light festival from pre-Christian times: Celtic Imbolc (Oimelc), in northern latitudes celebrated the first day when light from the sun feels warm on the face; when larks start into song, when the wren, a magical Celtic bird, the ‘Queen of Heaven’, begins to build her nest. Lambs traditionally started life in February and ewes began lactation. The earth came alive. The farming year looked forward rather than back. So it served the Roman papal calendar well to continue the festival. It, too, was celebrated with light, but held as a mass for Mary, Queen of Heaven (not the bird) and Bride, under the light of a thousand cathedral candles, which gave it its name.

'The Coming of Bride' John Duncan (1917)

Its pagan earth and sun connections were buried deep. Like most adopted Christian celebrations which had featured as a moon date on the Celtic calendar of months named after trees (earth spirits), instead it became dedicated to an early Christian saint: the Feast of Bridget, Bride. The fact that pre-Christian Goddess Bhrìghde, Brigantia, Bride was the Earth Mother, the triple goddess of earth, fire and home, her day seen as the embodiment of the Earth coming awake at this time, was not lost on the papal calendar-makers. They chose deliberately to enhance the festival and make it one of their own; gradually subsuming previous belief.

One pre-Celtic remnant of paganism remains in the, mostly ridiculed, American Groundhog Day. On this day the groundhog, a ridiculous figure, poor creature, comes out of his winter hole. If he sees his shadow he returns to his hole for another six weeks’ sleep. If he does not see it, he resolves to leave hibernation and get on with spring. It has resonance with the Scots version in our opening lines. Another is:

Bride put her finger in the river
On the Feast Day of Bride
And away went the hatching mother of the cold. — Carmina Gadelica

Gregorian calendar festivals became more rigid after the Reformation and by 1660 many previous celebrations which smacked of paganism were banned. One of these is worth resurrecting. In the Highlands and Islands of Scotland, before it was abolished, a ritual was held on Bride’s Feast Day the calendrical opposite of that held by all farming communities until the first European War of creating the harvest corn dolly which was carried round the fields to bless the harvest.

In the Islands, it was believed that on the eve of Là Fhéill Bhrìghde (Feast of Bride), the Old Woman of Winter, the Cailleach, journeys to the magical isle in whose woods lie the miraculous Well of Youth. At the first glimmer of dawn, she drinks the water that bubbles in a crevice of a rock, and is transformed into Bride, the fair maid whose white wand turns the bare earth green again.

On Bride’s Eve in the Islands young girls made a female figure from a sheaf of corn, kept in reverence from the previous year’s harvest. They decorated it with colored shells and sparkling crystals, together with snowdrops and primroses and other early spring flowers and greenery. An especially bright shell, symbol of emerging life, or a crystal was placed over its heart, and called ‘Bride’s guiding star’. They dressed themselves in their own finery and carried their effigy through the village on Bride’s Feast Day to invoke the light.

Harvest warm (Summer) Mother turned ancient cold (Winter) Crone reborn as fresh (Spring) youthful Virgin. And the cycle continues.

There is much to glean from these lovely old tales, fast becoming trivialized and forgotten.

One might suggest that our culture is in its last days, its death throes, too driven to see into either past or future.

Like the prelude to Roman decline and fall when successive emperors and the Senate prescribed bread and circuses as an opiate for the masses, our opiates – television, supermarkets, football games and expensive toys – provoke a ‘dumbing down’ fueled by corporations with political power and access to billions. We are not encouraged to draw lovingly from our past in order to find a gentler path in our future. We are not encouraged to question where we are going; where we as a global community might genuinely contribute to the care of our planetary mother, to save her from destruction; where we her children might become reborn, rise from our own ashes. As Carl Sagan says, the Universe is within us. We are capable of so much more than we allow.

If Candlemas has a message, it is neither to look forward or backward, but to carry with us the best of our past, and yet to anticipate the most miraculous for our future. And to hold in our consciousness the reality, the fragility of the Earth, the planet which is our home, our only home. Therein lies all creativity.

February 2, 2010 Posted by | culture, environment, history, nature, popular, seasonal, weather, winter | , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , | 6 Comments