Legend has it that if Imbolc is a beautiful day, then spring is a long way off. Cailleach – the divine hag of Gaelic tradition – gathers her firewood for the rest of winter on Imbolc. If she wishes to draw it out, she will ensure the weather is fine so she can get a good haul.
Today, the dawn arrives with a gorgeous whisper, stripes of cool blue and grey along the horizon. The sun proceeds to pour gold generously onto the earth, and the sky all around is crisp and bright. In for a long one then, I take my lead from the Cailleach and go into the woodlands to gather firewood. Breaking up the branches that couldn’t cling on during the storms. Seeking out the sticks that are dry but not rotting. The woods don’t show much sign of spring yet, but I soon come across a patch of snowdrops, the early risers of the plant world. I don’t see any coltsfoot though, the bright yellow flower that is associated with Imbolc and presages the abundant floral medicine in the months to come.[i]
Imbolc is a time to celebrate the light coming. The name is thought to have come from the old Irish for ‘in the belly’.[ii] It’s mid-winter and we can begin to feel the pregnant spring. In Celtic tradition, the dark months were a time to rest and deepen trust in intuition. Imbolc marks the awakening world, lambing season begins, and the first seeds are placed snug in the warming earth. It coincides with St Brigid’s Day, the patron saint of Ireland who shares her name with the Celtic Goddess Brigid.[iii] St Brigid founded the first Irish convent in Kildare, where a public celebration for the return of the light continues to this day. Outside of Ireland, it is Candlemas rather than St Brigid’s day that is celebrated, the Christian festival of light that is said to mark the purification of Mary, 40 days after Jesus was born. This evolution of the festival was part of a long, knotty process of incorporating the Celtic imagination into a Christian-Roman worldview, which has retained supremacy into the present.[iv]
Today, the radio news bulletin proclaims eight weeks until ‘Brexit day’. Each day, the light grows steadily and continuous. Yet overshadowing this promise of plants awakening and spring green nutrition, is our progress towards a possible chasm – a dramatic severing of threads that will unravel the tightly bound systems that have cushioned our lives. A second flight of winter is brewing one way or another, perhaps the Cailleach has gleefully taken up residence in Westminster.
Previously, Imbolc was a time to take stock. At this mid-point between the winter solstice and spring equinox, it was said that if you have half your straw and hay left, your animals will make it through. It was a time to seek blessings from the Goddess Brigid for bountiful harvests ahead. This year, with no tradition of rituals to ask for blessings, we’re just anxiously hoping that our food supplies will arrive on the 30th March. Our entanglements have been laid bare by a bizarrely fabricated political crisis – school dinners may be compromised; fingers are crossed for medicines; people and jobs and projects all suddenly stand on ground that is cracking. We’ve travelled so deep into our human systems that the return of the light is largely irrelevant. We need not garner a sense of the future by making predictions from the weather. Instead we tune into one more radio interview or nibble online news to feed our forecasts of how the world might act around us.
I enjoy filling a big box with firewood, tied into a very long human history through the activity. The stream rushing and glinting in the sunshine, the moss slowly spreading on the tree trunks, and a robin to supervise me, invite an indifference to political wrangling. This autumn I moved ‘off grid’, as they say. Woolf’s requirement of ‘a room of one’s own’[v], Gibran’s audacity to ‘stand in the sun with a will’[vi], and O’Donohue’s call to ‘live the life that you would love’[vii] all wound into daydreams of building myself a small home with a desk by the window.
A daydream that became a material reality, a personal reminder that between present and future, there can be rupture instead of tendency. From this little chrysalis of scavenged wood, the twenty first century human I am is brought into focus. I struggled to succumb to the dark months. My expectations of the day pleading with the sinking sun: no! Dusk can’t come yet! I just want to build this or read that. Crammed daylight hours were followed by restless evenings, clumsy cooking in half darkness and holding books up to candles. I intervened against the dark in late November, when I installed solar panels and could plug in the sun’s power out of hours. I was utterly delighted with them. Day after day, as the dusk descended, I plunged my room into brightness, and allowed the activity to continue.
I’m sure my celebration of the light this Imbolc would be infinitely more heartfelt if I hadn’t circumvented the tilting earth with electric trickery. I remain excited about the coming spring though, and see this reflected in friends and neighbours, who note the lengthening days with lively animation. We are far from immune to the seasons. But are these the remaining fibers of a frayed connection? In her discussion of utopian politics, Kathi Weeks reminds that taking on the project of creating a different future includes our self-transformation. ‘Can we want, and are we willing to create, a new world that would no longer be “our” world, a social form that would not produce subjects like us?’[viii] A valuable provocation; my recourse to solar panels is surely a clinging to my subjectivity as it has been constituted – someone who uses their time ‘productively’ and is engaged with society.
I’m not trying to suggest that experiencing winter’s darkness more fully is a guaranteed ticket to the ecological consciousness that could ameliorate our current crises. (Brexit only being the new kid on an already crowded block, with biodiversity loss, climate change, and epidemics of mental and physical ill health enough to contend with). Spending months resting while the committed capitalists run riot seems like a risky option; though playing by rules that we do not believe in is perhaps equally so. Nor do I want to idealise the lives of those whose realities were dictated by the seasons. Yet, somewhere along the way of ameliorating the harsh conditions of our ancestors, we have stumbled into an age of anxiety, a tunnel that has no light at the end. Blinking into darkness ahead, we have to decide where next. Can we excavate down into wisdom long buried, look up and dare to change, move with our imagination unbounded by the past or the present?
Brexit has brought into crisp focus that while we have been broadly liberated from lives dictated by the vagaries of the weather, we are within the currents of another unpredictable force – corporations, politicians, and data analysts, that collude in shaping our existences in ways it is hard to fathom.[ix] It is a public reminder on the capacity for rupture. It may be a rupture towards disaster but – putting a very positive spin on it – it can still serve as a prompt for our imaginations to dwell in broad horizons (as surely the Brexit ideologues did). The challenge to conceive of a bright future that has nevertheless developed in the dismal womb of the present, is both difficult and exposing. It calls for a letting go of the measures of success that have guided our choices, the expectations that have forged our identities, and the strategies that have brought belonging, and to instead work against the production of more ‘subjects like us.’ It also demands that we deflect the apathy that is refracted through the prism of a broken political system, an ever-emboldening backdrop of a changing climate, and a society dispirited by a decade of remorseless austerity. It takes extraordinary hope to believe we can intervene.
Yet this double (near-impossible) challenge of overcoming who we have become and unfolding a different future, is also a beautiful one. As Silvia Federici puts it, it involves ‘dwelling on this earth not as a stranger, or a trespasser…but as if it is our home’.[x] We might feel estranged from political agency, guilt-ridden by ecological destruction, but really inhabiting the earth as a home could be the only way we shed some worn-out subjectivities and remember our power to create the future.
Today I am marking the coming of the light. The few snippets of Celtic traditions I know seem distant and so I take a moment to feel into how else I would like to celebrate the earth, the life that is awakening, and my place within it all. It comes to me clearly – quickly followed by nervous excitement. A swim in the river! Eeep, I squeal internally with the thought of the cold, but it is also appealing to bring my body into contact with the coolness of winter, the water that courses past my home, to where I study, and onto the sea. And it will give me fresh appreciation of my wood burner, which seems appropriate, given Imbolc is one of the cross-quarter fire festivals.
I grab a towel and head down the road. My heart fluttering with the few crisp brown leaves still clinging to the oak trees. Blue tits swoop against the enticing sky. The air is fresh on my face, a soft icy breeze coming from the west. I pass two men and a very large, enthusiastic dog, instinctively backing away as it leaps up, its massive head level with mine. It is happy and friendly though, whole-heartedly saying hello. We head off in opposite directions, and the swimming spot is deserted. A little shore along the Nith, with patterns of ice on the pebbles. I stay a little while, looking at the beautifully frozen borderland between water and shore. A rookie mistake to hesitate. It’s OK not to go in, I say. OK to stay here, wrapped up on land and just walk away.
I meander a bit further up the river nonchalantly, and before I can think about it again, strip off and wade in. I exhale heavily as my warm skin meets the icy water. One, two, three, plunge. Body stinging, lungs pumping. No sooner is my body under, I’m instinctively heading back to the shore. Out and vigorously toweling myself dry, I remember the wonder of the double dip and before thoughts again get in the way, head back into the water. I stay a few seconds longer and then am out on the shore, skin red, toes numb. I get dressed quickly. Very happy about the warm wooly socks and big boots encasing my feet. I’m still exhaling fast and strong. Anything stale is purged from my insides. Everything woken up by the shock of the cold.
[i] Coltsfoot is used for treating coughs and sore throats, with its Latin name Tussilago Farfara – Tussil meaning cough and ago meaning depart.
[ii] Patricia Monaghan, The encyclopedia of Celtic mythology and folklore, (New York: Facts On File, 2004), p.256.
[iii] Also called Brigit or Bríg.
[iv] Mac Macartney, The Children’s Fire: Heartsong of a People, (Milton Keynes: Practical Inspiration Publishing, 2018), p.xxv.
Geannie Kindrid, Sacred Earth Celebrations, (Hampshire: Permanent Publications, 2014), p.87.
[v] Virginia Woolf, A Room of One’s Own, (London: Penguin, 2000).
[vi] Kahlil Gibran, “Defeat” in Collected Works (London: Everyman’s Library, 2007), p.32.
[vii] John O’Donohue, ‘A Morning Offering’ in To Bless the Space Between Us, (New York: Crown Publishing Group, 2008).
[viii] Kathi Weeks, The Problem with Work: Feminism, Marxism, Antiwork Politics, and Postwork Imaginaries, (London: Duke University Press, 2011), p.202.
[ix] Paul Hilder, ‘They were planning on stealing the election’: Explosive new tapes reveal Cambridge Analytica CEO’s boasts of voter suppression, manipulation, and bribary’, 28.01.19, available at: https://www.opendemocracy.net/brexitinc/paul-hilder/they-were-planning-on-stealing-election-explosive-new-tapes-reveal-cambridg reference, accessed on 12.02.2019.
[x] Silvia Federici, Re-enchanting the World: Feminism and the Politics of the Commons, (Oakland: PM Press, 2018), p.77.