I don't believe in any gods, not even pagan ones. But I do have a liking for the pagan calendar. It divides the year into eight seasons, each one long enough - longer than a month but shorter than a quarter or a conventional season - to start a new project or achieve a goal. The year is marked at its quarter points by the planetary phenomena that most directly influence our lives - the summer and winter solstices (the longest and shortest days), and the spring and autumn equinoxes, the mid point between the solstices when day and night are the same length. There is an intuitive logic and rhythm to the pagan seasons, and with the year being seen as circular rather than linear, it stresses the eternal cycle of life, death and regeneration - even without gods, somehow a more comforting thought than a linear one way journey through life or through the year.
So, tonight is the autumn equinox (it's a late one this year). The next half of the year will be more dark than light. This could be a depressing thought. Few people prefer the cold and dark to warmth and light. But could we really appreciate one without the other? I have always been one of those people who curse the dark and huddle in the cold, but thinking of things in pagan terms, I'm more inclined to embrace it and try to accept it on its own terms. There is a problem though - that is a lot harder to do these days than it was when the pagan worldview held sway.
In winter it is natural to store fat, be less active, sleep more. It's a time when all of nature rests and gathers its strength for another year and cycle of life. Many animals take this to extremes by sleeping the whole winter through. In the cold we want to conserve our energy. Our minds and our bodies alike long to be less active. Yet modern society expects us to ignore and defy this, as if electric light and central heating is all it takes for us to ignore the seasons altogether (ironic when seasonality of food is all the rage). Many people are able to cope with this. They may not be functioning optimally but they struggle through, and, most importantly, get the job done. For those who find it harder though, there is a label: Seasonal Affective Disorder, or SAD (all too neatly) for short. Those people whose lives are more attuned to the natural rhythm of the seasons, less able to be conned by electric light, are labelled as having a disorder because they can't keep up with the requirements of modern society and economy. I would like to argue that it's society's crazy expectations, not people who would quite reasonably prefer to be hibernating, that is disordered.
I'll not be having any big ceremony to mark the equinox, although I do think one of the good things about the pagan calendar is the punctuation it gives to the cycle of the year. I will however be thinking about things to be thankful for - the christian ritual of harvest festival has been imposed/draws on the celtic/pagan mabon, marking the end of the harvest season and is traditionally a time of thanksgiving. Taking time to think of things for which to be thankful has been shown to be good for us psychologically; in short, to make us happier. The autumn equinox is the penultimate festival of the pagan year - although its beginning and end point could be seen as far more arbitrary than in a linear model. Nonetheless, this is a good time to be thinking of finishing outstanding projects and tying up loose ends in preparation for the new year which starts at the beginning of November.
Most importantly, though, the beginning of the dark months means that we'll be spending more time indoors and will need cheering up. So my most important equinox ritual will be to brighten up my living space, in particular my front room, to make it warm and welcoming, cosy, comforting and cheerful. It's already predominantly decorated in reds and oranges, but I might look for a new throw for the sofa, swap some of the curtains and throws around, and find a safe place where I can have a few candles - in red and orange glasses and lanterns - to represent a hearth - something I sadly lack here. I think just doing this, and looking back on having done it, will help me face the winter with greater confidence and equanimity.
Of course the one thing I failed to consider when introducing Rocky to Jim is the effect it would have on Jim's burgeoning walking activities. Dogs = walks, no? Well, no, I have learnt; not if the dog is a greyhound, in which case the equation is more like dog runs around like a mad thing for two minutes and then sleeps for twenty two hours. Still, he is taking Jim on lots of short(ish) walks, taking full advantage of what the immediate area has to offer, as the 740 has thrown another electrical wobbly. Anyway, more or Rocky another time.
This is about me, me, me and the walks I've been on lately. Lots of 'em, including a sixteen miler - my record so far - last week, which I was pleased to accomplish without any ill effects. Often, when walking with the group, there's hardly time to admire the view, let alone stop and take photos. Also, as stunning, breathtaking and other-worldly as those views can be, once mediated through the camera they become, well, just pictures. Pretty pictures, sure, but the faintest shadow of the real thing, poor enough to be a misrepresentation. You'd think, so what is all the fuss about then. There's only so many arty shots of posts and barbed wire, and wry ones of hills that look like nipples (and many do; there must be some sort of geomorphological explanation. I asked a colleague last week what limestone's made of and she just threw a book at me (Rock Identification in the Field or something) so I Googled it. And so can you, if you really need to know).
Anyway, today I went for a walk with another colleague, her partner and their friend, and there was time to stop and stare, particularly at some sheep with sticky-up rabbit ears, and take some photos of the View.
We went from Hartington to Crowdecote (I'm guessing at the spelling here) for lunch, and back. This is further afield than I usually venture and entailed a longish, although not unpleasant, drive. I am told that at one point we had actually ventured into Staffordshire.
We stopped to admire the site of Pilsbury Castle, a motte and bailey construction of the eleventh century or thereabouts. I remember learning about motte and bailey castles at school; in particular being perturbed by the utter lack of any context and thus comprehension of their purpose. I hadn't given them another thought until today, when I learnt that this one might have been a Norman fortification to subdue rebellion (resistance?) from the north. Or it might not. No one knows really when it was built, or why, although we do apparently know that everything was made entirely of wood, presumably because there's now nothing to show for it at all.
Yes, who'd have thought it? To be honest, although Jim and I had been toying with the idea of perhaps acquiring a dog when the cats were no longer around - we had got as far as discussing optimum leg length for embarcation and requisite degree of hairiness - all this has happened rather suddenly. The story in brief is here, and now Rocky's former owners have blogged about it, I feel OK to.
I first met Rocky a few months ago, and he immediately struck me as that rare beast - a dog that I like. Gentle, friendly and undemanding, (him not me) we hit it off straight away and he let me sit on his sofa and hold his paw, and stroke his lovely velvety ears.
However, it turned out that the wilds of the Peak District, with sheep at every turn, wasn't the ideal environment for a greyhound - at least, not this one. After one scare too many, his mum feared that he would either die of frustration, or at the hands of an angry farmer. She determined that he needed a home away from the the tantalising temptations of what he could not help but see as prey. Because I'd grown rather fond of Rocky, I made a suggestion that might not otherwise have crossed my mind: perhaps Jim could provide that home. The area around Newhaven offers a wide range of walks, and while there are sheep, they tend to be enclosed and in predictable, avoidable places - unlike here where nearly all land is grazing land and animals are moved - or move themselves - into places where only they day before there were none.
So last weekend Jim came up to Sheffield, met Rocky on the Monday and after a walk and a pub lunch decided that they got on well enough to take him back to Newhaven that very night. I have to say that his previous owners were very brave in seeing this through, and it's obvious that they have put Rocky's welfare above everything. Rocky meanwhile has settled in well, attaching himself devotedly to Jim. Willow the cat has of course had his nose somewhat put out of joint, but seeing as he had more or less moved out to live on a part time basis with a number of little old ladies who fed him on best mince and kidneys braised in milk (I kid you not) my sympathy for him was slightly limited. The other cats just ignore him and hide themselves away. Jim has built a special fence to give him a garden all of his own.
Rocky is rather exercised by cats, sheep and, it transpires, swans, but we can work on this. On the (very much greater) plus side, he is absolutely lovely with people, children and other dogs. He has already palled up with Aaron's dog Elmo and they are now walking buddies.
Rocky is three years old, and is a smallish greyhound (possibly part whippet). He's never raced (too small?) and has always been a pet - first to a single man, then to the crew of Princess Lucy, and now to Jim. As a bonus, he is an experienced boat dog. While he is longer of leg and smoother of hair than the fantasy boat dog we envisaged, I can't, of course, imagine any other now. I am sure he is looking forward to meeting everybody (human and canine) when we next get the chance to go boating on Chertsey.
If this works, you can find lots more pictures and stories of Rocky here.