I stepped outdoors on Monday, March 20, and the trees and underbrush were buzzing. Like extra-loud bacon frying or radio static. It was all the little birds , revving up, not so so much singing just signally, that yes, the vernal equinox was here. I have never felt it so strongly on the day.
For reasons of weather, however, M.and I waited one more day for our Ostara pilgrimage to the San Luis Valley of southern Colorado to see the migrating sandhill cranes. (They will move on farther north, from southern Idaho into western Canada.)
There is the official Crane Festival, but it comes too early in March to fit into my growing calendar of food and wildlife-related events that match up against an eight-station Wheel of the Year.
Great event with plenty of activities, but two weeks off the equinox.
We had some mountains to cross. I checked the Facebook page for the Secret Cut-off Road I love that every county has at least one road with its own Facebook page, mainly to keep users from cluttering up other groups with repetitious “How’s the pass?” questions. The word was, “Currently snowing but melting in, so maybe muddy.” We went for it.
I dropped into four-wheel-drive when the predicted “muddy” started; then it switched to soft, packed snow (Keep momentum!) and then then, Oh no!, there was a box truck sideways across the narrow road.
But I swung around past its bumper (no one there), cleared it, and charged up the last incline before the crest, a north-facing section that always holds snow longest, then up and over into potholed road dropping down through pasture land and coming out on US 160.
Taking the quickie auto tour loop out from the visitor center, we saw a flock of cranes on the ground and more overhead. From his travel crate in the back for Jeep, Marco, my Chesapeake Bay retriever, whined a few times. He could smell swamp, he could hear waterfowl — why wasn’t he being let out? Special rules today, Pup, sorry! Be patient!
Another short drive, another muddy road to a different corner of the refuge. And there they were, a huge flock, hundreds of cranes, feeding across a grassy field.
This was worth pulling out the spotting scope and tripod — crane-watchers keep their distance to avoid disturbing them. I had not felt like wrangling both the scope and the my best camera with long lenses, so I snapped some with the little Nikon point-and-shoot. That is the photo above: just a fraction of the cranes (and Canada and snow geese) in that spot.
And then back to Alamosa for supper, with toasts in rioja and a bone saved for Marco, and that feeling of having turned the wheel, of having broken out of routine into the chaotic spring weather, of having watched the world in its turnings.
I am all for seasonal rituals, but there is also a place for celebrating the Turning of the Wheel with your larger community, your polis, taking a local event and giving it a Pagan spin.
The solstices are easy: there is always something going on. Samhain — too many choices! But what about Imbolc/Candlemas/whatever you chose to call it?
Migrations. Having grown up on a diet of “Pioneer Days” and other such history-themed local celebrations, I turn in relief to those focused on the natural world. The Sandhill Crane Festival in Monte Vista, Colorado, just down the road from my birth place, would fit the bill, but it does not happen until early March — maybe that is sort of a pre-spring equinox event.
The red triangle is the Lamar area. Blue areas are wintering zones, yellow areas are migration zones, and orange areas are breeding grounds — way up north in the Canadian Arctic.
Flock sizes are big.
Families, bird watchers, and a variety of outdoor enthusiasts come to Lamar each February to see the arctic waterfowl as they arrive via the Western Central Flyway that includes Colorado, New Mexico, and the Texas Panhandle. Prowers County’s scattered ponds, lakes, and reservoirs are waterfowl magnets, and the Snow Goose is no exception. In recent decades, their population has been exploding as they currently have a breeding population approaching 6 million, a sizable chunk of which migrate right through southeastern Colorado.
This year I finally drove down to Lamar with a friend and her middle school-aged son, who is volunteering at the Raptor Center. Yeah, we actually got the kid to look away from his phone and contemplate the flocks.
When it works right, just before sundown, you can sit (or lie prone) under the big praire sky and see layers of various ducks, Canada geese, and snow geese moving in different directions — it’s like looking into a giant clock with turning gears and clicking levers
Wheel of the Year? You can see it turning in the sky.
After two years’ hiatus, the Yule Log was hunted again last Sunday in Beulah, Colorado, a small town in the foothills of the Wet Mountains. This hunt is a twentieth-century revival, passed (along with log splinters) from Lake Placid, New York to Palmer Lake, Colorado to Beulah, where the tradition was renewed in 1952. (Photos from 1954 and 1977 here.)
In the introductory program, inevitably, some local clergyman has to make the usual solsticial wordplay between Son and Sun.
That was subtly countered by my friend Diana, local resident and director of a raptor rehabiitation center, who steps up with a red-tailed hawk on her wrist and delivers an invcation that de-centers humankind in favor of wild animals. (As she did in previous years.)
After final instructions from the head huntsman (one of a dozen who serve as guides, referees, and whippers-in for the hunt) the hunters (mostly teens) scramble uphill into the wooded slopes of Pueblo Mountain Park.
Those of following the hunt stroll behind them, and all too soon, there is a shouting and and a trumpet blast from up the ridge.
But what is this sound? “Click click jingle jingle!”
It’s the Yule goats, harnessed to the log, instead of having it pulled down off the mountain only by the huntsmen and whoever else volunteers.
Pulled by goats. Hmm. How long before a Thor-figure joins the huntsmen?
I live in a Colorado county where evangelical Protestanism is the dominant faith, although there are others, and all the local political races are settled in the Republican primary.As an unaffiliated voter, I can vote in either major party’s primary, so this year I voted as an imaginary Republican, since the alternative is to have no candidates at all. But since I was here, I tried a Wiccan reading of the event: The fire was lit, and people assembled. (That perhaps is backwards from normal practice.) We cast the circle — not drawing it with a sword but digging it with pulaskis, MacLeods, and combi tools.
Then we marked it in fire —two people circled the perimeter with drip torches to make sure eveyrhing burned
And in water. Another celebrant drove deosil around the circle in a Type 4 wildland engine, spraying a “wet line.”
All sabbats begin by creating sacred space, mostly outdoors when the weather permits. This is done by those leading the ritual walking around an area, chanting as a form of prayer and sprinkling the area with water and salt, which are believed to be spiritually cleansing.
And it occurs to me that a hypothecal Smokey Bear coven could do a heckuva circle-casting just with what is carried on the trucks. How about a ring of Class A foam?
In the sutra, I see Smokey as the incarnation of the ancient brown bear of the North and of [the Japanese mountain bodhisattva] Fudo at the same time. But, of course, the Forest Service didn’t know anything about all those associations and reverberations. That was part of the fun of it all, turning the establishment’s imagery on its head.
You read this far and you are still wondering about the fire? The larger fire department in my county and the smaller one to which I belong are operating under a temporary “automatic mutual aid” plan for wildfires because it is so dry now. If a fire pops up in their service area or ours, the other department is dispatched too.
This was in their area: it took our two engines an hour just to drive there.
In this case, a member of one of the well-established ranching families, stewards of the land, etc etc., had piled up an acre of “slash” — stumps, tree trunks, limbs and so onefrom logging or fire mitigation (ironic) or whatever. All nicely dry.
Then he (or his hired hand) decided to burn some other trash adjacent to it. “We don’t need no steenkeeng permit.” And the first fire ignited the slash pile.
The flames were visible for miles, and they sure lit up local Facebook pages as well. It was like a small lumberyard on fire — there was no way we had enough water to put it out, so we just made it burn more completely. One lucky engine crew (not mine) got to stay all night to monitor it.
“Tam Lin,” Child Ballad 39Click here for information on where in Scotland the different versions were collected. is a traditional song about a young man who takes up with the Queen of Faery and his mortal girlfriend, “fair Janet,” who fights for his return, intercepting the fairies’ ride on Halloween and pitting her love against their magic:
They’ll turn me in your arms, lady, Into an esk and adder;
But hold me fast, and fear me not, I am your bairn’s father.
They’ll turn me to a bear sae grim, And then a lion bold;
But hold me fast, and fear me not, As ye shall love your child.
Again they’ll turn me in your arms To a red het gaud of airn;
But hold me fast, and fear me not, I’ll do to you nae harm.
A Musical Interlude
Here is a stripped-down version from Anaïs Mitchell and Jefferson Hamer, performing in Toronto in 2013:
Here is the great German neofolk band Faun’s version, in German with English subtitles, featuring an actual hurdy-gurdy for that 16th-century “big band” sound.
You will hear their version of “Tam Lin” in the 1970 movie Tam Lin (also titled The Ballad of Tam Lin or in one version, The Devil’s Widow). It starred Ava Garder (47 or 48 at the time) as Michaela “Mickey” Cazaret”; Ian McShane, 27, as “Tom Lynn,” her current boy-toy — one of a very long series — and Stephanie Beacham, 22, as Janet.
Plus a large cast of long-haired bellbottoms-wearing young people as the equivalent of the Fairy Crew, both a pleasure-seeking “light” version and a more violent “dark” contingent. The director was Roddy McDowell, better-known for his roles in the Planet of the Apes series.
I will return the question of disparate ages later.
The Gentry Doing Weird Things in the Big House
Isn’t that the favorite trope of British horror films? The action may start in the city, as does Tam Lin, but the real weirdness is at the country estate where the lord/lady of the manor is a secret Satanist, Pagan, sex magician, Reptilian, whatever. One of my favorites is The Lair of the White Worm (1988), but there are So Many Others.
In this movie, once Tam Lin is at the big house, events pretty well follow the ballad’s narrative, with new characters added. He meets Janet (the vicar’s daughter) at Carterhaugh. Sex ensues. She becomes pregnant. He wants to leave his older mistress — but she is not going to make it easy for him, not at all.
The “Carter” Confusion
As an American, I did not have a map of the Scottish Lowlands in my head. When I read the lyrics for the electric-folk band Steeleye Span’s version of “Tam Lin” (Steeleye Span was also in heavy rotation at the covenstead in those days.), they said,
Oh, I forbid you maidens all
That wear gold in your hair
To come or go by Carter Hall
For young Tam Lin is thereTam Lin here presented as a sort of young robber knight, but working for the Faeries.
But “Carter Hall”? To me, that was a brand of pipe tobacco that I saw on store shelves, named for a plantation in northern Virginia.For the record, my Clifton ancestors apparently got off the boat in Surry County Virginia, on the James River, and did not own anything that qualifies as a “hall.” That is in America, not Scotland, but maybe there was another? (Not according to Google.)
Some Scots speakers have a way of dropping final “L” sounds, so “ball” becomes “ba,” for example, and thus “Carter Hall” and “Carterhaugh” would sound about the same. So some English folksinger could hear “Carterhaugh” and think that “Carter Hall” was the “correct” wording. The so-called correction introduced a new scribal error. This happens more than you realize.
I read that as a kid and totally got it “wrong.” I wanted little Kai to live with the Snow Queen. She was magnetic and amazing, and who was pious little Greta coming to drag him away?
And Ava Gardner? In 1966, three years before she made Tam Lin, she tried for the part of Mrs. Robinson in The Graduate, in which “a disillusioned college graduate [Dustin Hoffman] finds himself torn between his older lover and her daughter.”
Nevertheless, the message from pop culture, whether ballad or film, is the same: “Youth must triumph.” But older lovers have some power too, particularly if they are supernatural figures.
The Wisdom of Traditional Ballads
When I lived in Boulder, Colorado, I had a friend named Michael. A decade earlier, Michael had run a small speciality store downtown (before Pearl Street became a pedestrian mall) with another guy whom I will call W.
It seems that W. was in a relationship with an older woman. This woman had an 18-year-old daughter. W., being young and horny, went to bed with the daughter too.
When the mother found out, this did not turn into a porn-movie scenario. Oh no, this was real life.
In Michael’s words, the term “went ballistic” failed to describe the mother’s reaction.
It sounds like the closing verses of one version of the ballad “Tam Lin,” in fact:
Out then spak the Queen o Fairies,
And an angry woman was she:
“Shame betide her ill-far’d face,
And an ill death may she die,
For she’s taen awa the bonniest knight
In a’ my companie.”
“But had I kend, Tam Lin,” she says,
‘What now this night I see,
I wad hae taen out thy twa grey een,
And put in twa een o tree.”
More info from the AAR secret headquarters in north Georgia:
The Annual Meeting will have an in-person only format this year. There will not be a virtual component for the 2022 meeting. For future years, we are exploring the possibility of offering a separate, virtual meeting in addition to the in-person Annual Meeting.
This was the sort of event where you pay your money, get a glass and some tickets, and trade tickets for tastes. And I was out of tickets.
No matter, I asked some questions, then went to the “express” tent and bought a bottle of The Alchemist: “Perfectly balanced and sustainable, as the universe intended. Syrah and Verona grapes come together for a wine that is sure to enlighten. Have a drink, it’s your destiny.”
I might have been just as happy with The Theurgist: “Fun and approachable – magically delightful.” Well, no one ever called the Emerald Tablet “fun and approachable,” but wouldn’t “Emerald Tablet” be a good name for a vinho verde?
The Astrologist, meanwhile, is a riesling-sauvignon blanc blend: “Fun and refreshing in a way Nostradamus would never have predicted.” But M. and I drink more reds, so . . .
I should point out that despite the name and the cross on the label, it’s the Winery AT Holy Cross Abbey, not OF.
“The abbey,” as everyone in the area calls it, was indeed started by Benedictine monks in the 1920s. They operated a respected high school for boys, both day students and boarders, until the 1980s, when it closed due to the lack of vocations — not enough new monks, and the existng brothers all elderly. It’s the same problem that hit many Roman Catholic institutions around then. Eventually the order sold the whole complex after renting out the school buildings for a while for a satellite community college campus and other uses.
I had the usual fantasies about what I would do if I had the building and a jillion dollars. I had been all over the ground floor, the basement (essentially untouched since 1920 or so), but not the second floor with the lodge rooms.
I used to visit a coffeehouse on the ground floor, and the owner said that the Masons were good landlords. (I think the building started out with a bank on the ground floor in the early 1900s. It is part of the Florence Historic District.) When I first came to the area, an auto parts store was in the space later taken by the coffeehouse.
Then the Masonic lodge, slowly shrinking, sold the building in April 2020 for a mere $335,000. Lodge 97 A.F. & A. M. was no more.
The new owners were doing something upstairs — contractors came and went, and I could see new windows all around.
Meanwhile, the coffeehouse had relocated across the street and down a block. Smart move.
Late at night on August 4th, the building caught fire. Firefighters attempted an interior attack but had to retreat, switching tactics to “surround and drown.” I don’t think that the Florence VFD gets to use their aerial apparatus very often, but that night they did.
“Main Street fires are the fires that we’re afraid of because the buildings are so old and there’s so many hidden chases in there for the fire to travel through, which is what happened on this one,” said the fire chief.
It wasn’t exactly Notre Dame de Paris, but the old Masonic temple was part of my mental landscape, as well as for all those who lived in Florence. I had spent a lot of hours there.
The new owners had converted the upper floor to apartments, which were not yet occupied. Retail businesses on the ground floor had the usual smoke and water damage.
I figured that was it, and soon it would just be a pile of bricks. Perhaps the Masons had kept the salamanders at bay for a century, but something had gone wrong.
On my last visit to Florence, I saw trailers from a disaster-recovery firm and what looked like preparations for clearing debris. Did enough of the steel roof trusses survive?
The Yule log celebration is Pagan-ish for sure. So is this Imbolg column. You could have told me that I was reading one of John Beckett’s Druidic homilies, and I would have believed you.
Homily: a short commentary on a sacred topic — something less formal than a sermon.
Especially when the writer moves from observing nature “out there” to personal transformation.
Again, the trees are giving us an ample lesson and functional metaphor for our own new growth and blossoming. Perhaps you are working to lose weight, or to strengthen underused muscles, or to heal some aspect of your body or psyche. These things take time.