Monthly newsletter, February 2023
2023 began with something of a bang, as we rather suddenly sold our house here in Wales, which had been put on the market in November. For those of you who aren’t paid subscribers and so won’t have read my previous posts on all that moving malarkey – yes, it seems I do have one more move in me, after all. I came back to Britain in 2020 as a consequence of a deep and growing need to revisit and come to terms with my maternal ancestral roots in the north of England. Wales seemed like a reasonable halfway house; it was easy to get back to Ireland (of which I’m a citizen, as well as Britain), and it was also a place where my husband, whose work is in Celtic linguistics, could study a new Celtic language to add to the various dialects of Irish and Scottish Gaelic that he already has.
Well, after a strange and often rather apocalyptic three years here, David's research team has unexpectedly upped and moved from Aberystwyth University to Edinburgh, which isn’t the easiest place to travel to, from mid Wales. We agreed to split the difference again: to try to find somewhere to settle in the north of England, rather than Scotland again, so that I could finally do that exploring of roots – and write my next book, which coincidentally happens to be on that very subject. I’ve spent most of my life hankering after the Irish part of my ancestry, but the truth is that the rest of it – 80%, according to Ancestry DNA testing, and according to our family history records – is spread across a swathe of the north of England and south of Scotland that represent the borderlands. Cumbria, Northumbria, the southern Scottish Borders – that’s the place where I really, arguably, belong.
So it seemed, when David received that news, as if all the stars were aligning to take me home after all. And when the offer was accepted for this old house up a hill, the perfect property was waiting in the wings for us. So we hope to be heading to the beautiful Upper Eden Valley in the east of Cumbria, somewhere around the beginning of April. If everything goes according to plan, there’ll be much more to write about that beautiful, wild location once we’re fully installed. In the meantime, I’m more excited than I say to be landing in the old county of Westmorland, where a bunch of my farming ancestors came from, and not too far away from beautiful Teesdale, and the place where I was actually born and raised, in County Durham. All of it feels wholly right.
Well then, life is inevitably a little chaotic right now, and plenty of book and writing projects happening in the midst of it all – more of which in next month’s newsletter.
In the meantime, and appropriately, we’re in the season which, in the old Gaelic year, was known as Imbolc. It’s a festival time which marks new beginnings: traditionally, the beginning of spring and of the agricultural year. Imbolc is mentioned in some of the earliest Irish literature, and evidence for its significance includes the fact that at the Mound of the Hostages (a 5000-year-old Neolithic passage tomb) on the Hill of Tara, the inner chamber is aligned with the rising sun at Imbolc and Samhain. We know virtually nothing about the pre-Christian festival; however, some believe that Imbolc might have been associated with the Irish goddess Brigid, and was later transformed by the church into a Christian festival: the feast of St. Brigit (Lá Fhéile Bríde).
Back in the day, Imbolc coincided with the beginning of the lambing season, and the first ploughing of the fields; the success of these events was of great importance to ancient economies which relied on herding and agriculture. Many of the old customs at Imbolc, then, were aimed at ensuring that crops grew, and herds flourished.
So are we really in the first days of spring? Technically, the month of February is the last month of winter here in the far north, and it’s March which is officially termed the first month of spring. There is no question about it: there’s still plenty of winter ahead of us. But something changes at the time of Imbolc, nevertheless; something turns. All of a sudden the days seem longer and the sun (when it is visible) shines brighter. You can feel the shift in the land. Snowdrops are out in the garden; the birds are louder; the grass is looking greener and less tired, and clearly is thinking about growing again. As ever, the natural world around us recognises the signs that we have grown to forget.
To me, in today’s shifting and challenging world, Imbolc is:
· a time of emergence: the emergence of the land from its wintry, death-like sleep into new life
· a time of awakening
· a time of inspiration
· a time to tend the flames that we hope will never go out
· a time to set intentions for the year ahead
· a time to celebrate the lengthening days
On that note, as always, I wish you a season full of richness and restfulness, wherever in the world you might be.
Animate Earth Collective – a new venture from dear friends
I’m delighted to announce that a new venture from some good friends of mine is now live. Some of you will know the brilliant Rachel Fleming, who was in charge of developing the curriculum at Schumacher College in Devon for several years, and then the same at Embercombe; you might also know Angharad Wynne, who has been working with me on a couple of projects over the past year or so (with more to come – watch this space!) Along with Colin Campbell, they have just launched the Animate Earth Collective, and I’m looking forward to being a member of their advisory circle and to participating in a couple of their events. Here’s what they have to say about it all.
"If nature is reaching back to us now, how will we respond?" – Colin Campbell
We're delighted to announce that Animate Earth, the new home of Contemporary Animism, is now live on www.animate-earth.org
As a gift, we would like to offer you 10% off any event with signup to the newsletter. This includes our upcoming online talks, ‘A Gaian Age: Myth of the Mother Goddess’ with Jules Cashford & Stephan Harding, or our main platform launch event, ‘This Animate Earth’ with Sharon Blackie, David Abram, Pat MacCabe and more.
If you prefer a more intimate setting, ‘The Magician's Realm’ is a wonderful opportunity to spend time with Colin Campbell, in a magical residential setting in Devon and of course there's our ‘Contemporary Animism Apprenticeship’ starting in July. You are also invited to a free event on Divination on 9 February.
Find out more about our events at https://animate-earth.org/courses/ and we look forward to seeing you soon!
The Animate Earth Collective
News and events
It’s shaping up to be a busy year ahead with events centred around Hagitude. I’m at the Leeds Literary Festival on February 26, the Chipping Norton Literary Festival on April 29, and the Bradford Literature Festival in late June; other locations will be announced in due course.
An event that I’m especially looking forward to will take place at Blackwell’s Bookshop in Oxford the evening of March 9. I’ll be joining Katherine May to talk about the launch of her new book, Enchantment, in the context of course of my own 2018 book, The Enchanted Life. Tickets are now available here: https://www.eventbrite.co.uk/e/katherine-may-enchantment-with-sharon-blackie-tickets-512893667767
A few months ago, in Northumberland, I met up with the writer Caro Giles, and took a long, beachcombing walk along the shore with her and two of her four beautiful daughters. She told me about the difficulties of parenting alone, and the joys and many challenges of parenting daughters who are neurodivergent and don’t much fit any of the moulds that our culture would like to force them into. What I admired most about Caro was her fierce determination to allow her daughters to be, and to express, exactly who they are. It’s easy for me to say after one short meeting, but as a consequence I found them beautiful, and remarkable, and gifted, and the memory of them is still vivid in my mind. I hope one day that her daughters will understand just how precious a gift Caro has given them.
Which brings me to this month’s reading recommendation: Caro’s first book, Twelve Moons, just out. A memoir, a song celebrating the harsh beauty of the far north-east of England, and so much more. It is beautifully written. Here’s the publisher’s blurb:
Twelve Moons follows a year spent caught between the wild sea and the changing moon of the wide Northumberland skies.
Caro Giles lives on the far edge of the country, with her tribe of daughters: The Mermaid, The Whirlwind, The Caulbearer and The Littlest One. She is at once alone and yet surrounded. Bound by circumstance, financial constraints, illness and the challenges of single motherhood, she has nowhere to go but the fierce landscape that surrounds her. Over the course of the year, the moon becomes her fellow traveller through dark times, and companion through joyful ones – and even when the sky is wreathed in cloud, the moon is still felt in the pull of the tides.
Twelve Moons follows the lunar calendar, each chapter sharing a month and a moon, and shows the simmering power that lies in our often hidden daily lives. A dazzlingly honest memoir that while never turning away from the awkward truths of life, also shows how love will flourish if we can only find a space for ourselves. Set against windswept beaches and ancient hills, this is a story steeped in nature and landscape. Since our earliest days, mankind has looked up at the moon and seen a story reflected back. Twelve Moons is one of those stories – a book about finding yourself, your voice and a sense that even in the dark of the night, we are never truly alone.
This month’s poem
It was all the clods at once become
precious; it was the barn, and the shed,
and the windmill, my hands, the crack
Arlie made in the ax handle: oh, let me stay
here humbly, forgotten, to rejoice in it all;
let the sun casually rise and set.
If I have not found the right place,
teach me; for, somewhere inside, the clods are
vaulted mansions, lines through the barn sing
for the saints forever, the shed and windmill
rear so glorious the sun shudders like a gong.
Now I know why people worship, carry around
magic emblems, wake up talking dreams
they teach to their children: the world speaks.
The world speaks everything to us.
It is our only friend.
From The Way It Is: New & Selected Poems (Graywolf Press, 1998)
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Love this insight into Imbolc
Congratulations on your new venture into your homeland! Imagining such an opportunity brings up such emotions. ‘So very happy for you!