July 15, 2011 by Ali Ravenwood
The Northern Wheel
By Ali Ravenwood
The Wiccan Wheel of the Year follows the agricultural cycle- at least in the United Kingdom, where our faith originated. These days, Wiccans can be found in virtually every part of the globe, numbering in the tens (and possibly hundreds) of thousands, all following a spiritual calendar based on European weather patterns that may be wildly inappropriate for their geographical location. But Wiccans are nothing if not adaptable; for example, those in the southern hemisphere usually reverse the order of the Sabbats, celebrating Samhain on the first of May, and Beltane at the end of October. This coincides nicely with their growing seasons, and gives their celebrations a localized relevance. However, there are places on the planet where honoring the Wheel according to Wiccan traditions can be a challenging task.
The Canadian north is one of these places. In Edmonton, Alberta, a bare 800 miles south of the Arctic Circle, the growing season can be less than 15 weeks long. It has snowed here, at least a few times, in every month of the year. But despite the environmental anomalies, northern Wiccans do our very best to honor the Sacred Wheel in the spirit –if not the letter- in which it was intended.
Ostara is always difficult here. While our American and European friends are celebrating the rites of spring, northern Canadians remain in the icy grip of winter. Our bunnies are snow-white against the white landscape; the snowshoe hares won’t begin to show their colors for weeks yet. No spring flowers here; their bulbs are still sleeping beneath the snow. Sabbat celebrations are sometimes cancelled when the radio warn of temperatures so low, “exposed flesh will freeze in less than a minute”. Despite this, we doggedly persevere. We plant flower seeds in paper pots in the kitchen, in hope that the weak winter light will sustain them until the risk of frost has passed. We color eggs with our children, hiding them in the living room instead of the back yard, where they would sink beneath the snow. We hold the images of springtime in our minds, because images are all we have.
Making love in the greenwood on Beltane Eve doesn’t work very well for us, either. For one thing, there isn’t any “greenwood”; sap runs slowly from the frozen earth, and buds won’t open until the end of the month. Beneath the stark grey branches, patches of ice gleam dully on the dead, brown earth. Anyone wanting to perform the Great Rite in the woods risks a serious case of frostbite to their nether regions. Modern-day northern Wiccans generally borrow that time-tested teenage tradition; replacing the non-existent greenwood with the back seat of a Chevrolet, heater blasting, parked on a lonely country road. It’s not quite the same, but hey, at least we can see the stars.
At Lammas, the first fruits are ready for harvest, if we have the courage to take up arms. Going into the garden at this time of year is a complex process similar to preparing for battle. First, we must apply armor; a thorough coating of mosquito repellent, followed by long, heavy clothing thick enough to protect from horsefly bites. Next comes the helmet; a wide-brimmed hat and bug netting to keep out the black flies and no-see-ums. Finally, we emerge into the 90F heat to scramble madly in the garden before heat exhaustion sets in and the regiment falls. The wounded return to base, nursing injuries from the indomitable insect army with copious tubes of Afterbite. (Civilians take the easy way out, visiting the Farmer’s Market on Saturday mornings to collect from the exhausted veterans.) The most amazing thing about this process is that, although we lose many battles, we usually manage to win the war.
It is at Solstice time that Northerners are most in tune with the Wheel. On Litha, the sun rises at four and sets around midnight. Only a few miles north, it doesn’t set at all. The bugs haven’t reached full growth yet, and we can bask in the sunlight the whole day long. Now that the ground has thawed, some folks use the opportunity to make up for what they missed at Beltane. For a short time, the earth belongs to us once more.
Last year at Yule, I made the trek 300 miles north to visit a friend in a remote community. It was a long drive through the darkness on a bone-chilling night, with a fierce wind whipping drifts of snow across the highway and over the barren fields. I passed no other vehicles. It’s impossible to travel this route alone at night and not feel vulnerable in the face of the elements; I knew with a terrible certainty that, if my car should break down on this lonely stretch of highway, I would freeze to death before morning. Dark Mother, take pity on me.
I reached my destination shortly before midnight, turning into the unlit acreage driveway just as fresh snow began to fall. I parked on a small rise behind the homestead, and bundled into my parka, mitts and tuque before stepping outside. The air was silent, the fresh snowfall muffling even the crunch of ice beneath my boots. Then, I happened to glance upward, and suddenly the snow and cold seemed to vanish. Above my head, gauzy scarves of brilliant colors danced across the heavens, whipping and weaving and swirling around me in the darkness, so near that I felt I could almost touch their dangling fringes. Deep rose, amethyst and vibrant green wove patterns across the starlight-studded sky. Thank you, Bright Mother, for this blessing.
It’s difficult to follow an earth-based spiritual path when the very earth you worship is invisible eight months of the year. When grounding at the base of your favorite tree is only a meditation image, because the snowdrift surrounding its trunk is bigger than you are. When Ostara celebrations must be preceded by the ritual of shoveling out the driveway. But for all we must endure, the Goddess gives us special gifts to compensate: the purifying snowfall, the wild, unspoiled landscape, the Aurora Borealis to light our way on the darkest midwinter night. There is magick here in the Great White North. And where there is magick, a Witch is always at home.