Celebrating Beltane: Courage in Hard Times

by Elizabeth Cunningham

This year, as the festival of Beltane (April 30th) approached, I was aware of feeling anxious. Our community celebrates by leaping bonfires, dancing the May Pole, then gathering boughs and literally bringing in the May. We festoon the rafters of a barn with blossoming branches, and then we crown each other with ribbon, adding violets, periwinkles and daffodils wherever they can be tucked in. Use your imagination. We’ve been celebrating the holiday at High Valley for fifteen years, and I always watch closely and eagerly as Spring unfolds from the first snowdrops and crocuses, to the shadblow, the forsythia, daffodils, quince, and then tulips and the first bloom of apple and dogwood. This Spring everything bloomed three to four weeks early. I kept wondering, what May will be left to gather in?

This might not sound like cause for angst. As I fretted, I discovered many people do not keep such close track of when this or that plant blooms. And isn’t an early Spring (fast turning into an early summer) cause for rejoicing? Perhaps, if it was just an anomaly. But I can’t help feeling that this early Spring is connected to the climate change that is bringing us melting icecaps, disappearing islands and coasts, changes in monsoon patterns, violent freak storms. This year, for whatever reason, there have been five earthquakes and a volcanic eruption. The recent coalmine disaster and the ongoing oil spill serve as immediate and dramatic reminders of the havoc our human dependency on fossil fuel is wreaking. The greenest of us is part of this juggernaut.

On May Eve, we managed to find some dogwood still blooming as well as narcissus, a few tulips and plenty of violets. It was a beautiful, warm, clear day. As my husband and I gathered boughs and flowers and set up the bonfires and the Maypole, I pondered how to acknowledge grief, not just personal grief of which there is always plenty, but planetary grief and yet also open to joy, to possibility, to surprise. Spring, even when it is not early and connected to ominous change, can break your heart. Spring challenges us to begin again, open again, risk coming to life again.

For me celebrating the Wheel of the Year is about connecting with my community, human and non-human, aligning with the rhythms of waxing and waning light, cycles of fecundity and death and regeneration. It is about remembering that we are the earth, we are made of earth, air, water, and the fire of the sun. If I am earth, there is no shame in feeling earth’s sorrow in my body. But it is also important to know joy, to embody joy.

On Beltane morning I wrote a tanka (a 5-7-5-7-7 syllable pattern):

The Beltane moment
~forsythia, shadblow, quince~
passed some weeks ago
still we gather this May Eve,
blossoming boughs of courage.

And that evening we did gather, some seventy strong. We acknowledged sorrow, then danced with joy. We brought in the May and as we crowned each other we made the last line of the tanka into an improvised chant. Over and over, till everyone was radiant and festooned with flowers, we sang:

“We are the blossoming boughs of courage.”

May our courage bear good fruit.

Coming next week, a post on Cristina Eisenberg’s new book The Wolf’s Tooth: Keystone Predator’s, Trophic Cascades, and Biodiversity

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faerian May 4, 2010 - 10:14 pm

i am with you hearing the cries of papatuanuku (mama earth)…but i see the courage of those of us who hear the cry and speak up as bearing fruit…i have to trust that that makes a difference

Tim Dillinger May 4, 2010 - 10:30 pm

I so missed being there for Beltaine this year!

There's something so incredible about observing the changing of the seasons…and yes, this year is quite unusual…possibly disturbing.

I grieve with the earth as well. I have family and friends displaced by the recent floods in Nashville and grieve when I see the animals affected by the oil spill…as I grieve for the water itself.

Thank you for creating the space to acnknowledge the earth…

"she is changing…always changing"…

Elizabeth May 4, 2010 - 10:33 pm

I've been thinking much the same thing, about how spring seems to be coming earlier and passing more quickly. Here in New England, the apple & crabapple blossoms are already mostly past, and they're usually just coming into bloom at Beltane. They moved the lilac festival from the week after Mother's Day to the weekend of Mother's Day, and the lilacs are at full bloom now. While an early spring feels welcome after winter, it's strange to be nearly over by Beltane.

Elizabeth Cunningham May 4, 2010 - 10:38 pm

Maeve speaking. Thank you Jane, Tim, and Elizabeth for your presence and wisdom here. As many of you know I live in the first century BCE. I am in a tight spot in the moment, about to witness the end of the world as I know it. Many people have and still are in this position. There has been climate change before, too, but it has not so clearly been linked to human agency. Just want to say, I am with you all in your sorrow, in your joy, before and beyond time in all the worlds. Love, Maeve

Anonymous May 5, 2010 - 1:30 pm

It was a joy to be part of the Beltane celebration that you so gracefully and heart-fully convened. It does take a life-force fuse of courage to burst into blossom. And you do.

Unknown May 5, 2010 - 3:42 pm

Just continuing to get up in the morning can be an act of courage.

Certainly the spring is heartbreakingly beautiful, and it's my time of year, which makes it even a bit more poignant for me: my birthday is supposed to be (always was) when the apple blossoms bloomed. This year, they will all be long past. In fact, I'm sitting next to an apple tree right now: it blossomed later than the others and all the blossoms are shriveled, their pips almost visible.

But while we face early spring, significant parts of the world face growing disaster, like the rains not coming, nothing growing. We need to be compassionate to their plight, which our profligacy with oil and coal has created.

We will need to open our borders to the increasing flood of "climate refugees."

If we do not, the world will be even more violent as it divides into armed camps.

Usha May 5, 2010 - 4:00 pm

Thank you – this is beautiful. You so eloquently describe my family's mixed feelings this Beltane. It was such a joy to hang rowan branches over our door with our young son and literally nauseating that those branches were, for the first time, covered in leaves (even here in the wilds of Ontario!) I feel that the energies in my garden are as electric as they always are this time of year, but there is now a palpable trepidation to that electricity.

Despite all this, I know that the earth is majestic in her wisdom. Some How, some new Way, I know she'll find harmonic balance again.


Brooke May 5, 2010 - 5:16 pm

I come away from reading your post feeling the sweetness, the sensitivity, and the intimacy you share with the earth, a relationship so attuned to the the cycles and seasons, it must feel maternal. I want to so know that my daughters are blossoming at the right moments, that they are the on the right course, and that they can weather what life brings.

It is nice to see myself as a 'blossoming bough of courage' as I can really only stand back and observe, hoping I can be sure to notice the beauty when reality looks harrowing, hoping that all is, and will be well in the end.

Thank you for softening me this morning with such a beautiful celebration honoring the sadness with the joy.


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