Photo-Journal

Photography and Writing by James McCarthy

Celtic lore

Imbolc


melting-ice


Lament of the Old Woman of Beare


Ebb tide has come to me as the sea.
What the flood-tide brings, the ebb-tide takes away.
I have known the flood and I have known the ebb.
The sun does not touch me. In me I feel the cold.
But still a seed burns there.
The time is at hand that shall renew me.

— a version by John Halstead


CAILLEACH
, the old woman of Beare, the veiled one, laments in a 10th century Old Irish poem for the loss of her youth, for sweet loves and wine-filled nights of long ago that have given way to white hair and a cold that creeps into her bones untouched by the warmth of the sun.

I’ve been thinking of this early Old Irish poem in relation to the Celtic festival of Imbolc, which is traditionally celebrated on Feb. 1. It is the mid-point between the winter solstice and the spring equinox, the turning point of winter, a time when the lengthening days give rise to thoughts of spring. The Celts, no less than us, looked forward to spring and the return of warm days and the new life that would rise up from the cold ground.

They watched closely for the signs of this turning. Imbolc, from the Old Irish
i mbolc, meaning “in the belly,” refers to the pregnancy of ewes. The lambing time of year, for them and for us, is a sure sign of the coming spring.

But we also have our Punxsutawney Phil, the groundhog who comes out of his earth-hole on Feb. 2: If he sees his shadow, he quickly returns to his burrow and we know our winter will last six more weeks. This year, that ageless chubby groundhog did not see his shadow, prompting his handler to proclaim on his behalf, “There is no shadow to be cast! An early spring is my forecast!”

In Maine, we never get too carried away with hopes for an early spring. After all, that groundhog is from “away” and not nearly as grounded in the vagaries of our winters as we’d like our own weather prophets to be.

I had always wondered about the origins of the Groundhog Day tradition and the prophecy based on whether or not a shadow is cast. And then I learned about Imbolc and the Celtic stories about the old veiled woman Cailleach who rules over winter and death. Imbolc, the mid-point between the winter solstice and the spring equinox, is the day she gathers wood for the rest of the winter. If the day is bright and sunny, she can gather lots of firewood to keep warm and she lengthens the winter to hold back spring as long as she can, which, in the world of myth-dream, also extends her own life as the old veiled woman of laments. But if the day is overcast, she sleeps in, fails to gather much firewood and rather than going cold herself she brings about an early spring. That’s one version of the tale.

Another is that Cailleach dies on Imbolc, but is reborn as Brigid, a maiden who rekindles earth’s fire and the renewal of life in spring.


January-shadows_0005

Here in Maine the old woman’s veil is the winter’s snow.

Walking with friends on the trails of the Cathance River Nature Preserve in early February, I revel in the fresh snow blanketing the ground, creating cover for the voles that tunnel underneath, safe from predators as they nibble on their feed stock of grasses, seeds, bulbs, tubers, bark and roots. The height of the sun in the sky tells me it is surely mid-winter, but the cold and snow suggest otherwise. I don’t give much thought to Punxsutawney Phil or Cailleach of the old woman's lament or how long or short this year’s winter might be. It is bone-chilling cold this day and the snow looks like it's here to stay for quite some time.

Three weeks later, on the third Sunday of February, again walking with friends in the preserve, I notice how much snow cover is now gone. We’ve had several days in the mid-to-upper 40s, warm enough to make you think of spring but early enough to worry about apple trees going to bud too soon, snowshoe hares no longer hidden in white snow but standing out to winged predators like a fast-food restaurant with a blinking neon light. Then, as we go deeper into the woods, with enough coniferous trees to shelter the snow from the sun’s direct rays and warmth, it's winter again, with bent grasses frozen in ice and snow still hiding green mosses and the duff of the forest floor.

Then I notice all the circles of bare ground around tree trunks. Ah! That's the sign that always puts me in mind of Imbolc — even if it is a good three weeks after the true mid-point of this year’s winter between Dec. 21 and March 20. When I see those circles I know, truly, winter is turning: That the trees now take in so much of the sun's warmth and energy into their trunks, the stored heat emanates outward, melting away the encircling snow.

Imbolc-holes-0022

Down by the river, where ice still lines the banks, a pattern of ripples spreads outward from a lip of overhanging ice. Drips of melting ice? A small rivulet of snowmelt pushing through to the river? I dare not risk going to the edge of the riverbank to lie down for a better view. Whatever the cause, I take it to be another sign of spring’s slow, sure coming.

ripples-from-melting-ice

The wheel of the year turns slowly. New life stirs in the world at large and within. The ebb tide of winter will soon become the flood tide of spring. Sap rises, tight buds unwind. Snow melts, the river rises.

I notice where green mosses circle the base of trees, no longer buried in snow. Were they always green beneath the snow? How do they live when as much as 80% of the sun's energy is reflected by a blanket of snow.

I do not know. I do not yet speak their language.

Dried ferns, broken and bent. How do they know when it's time to become fiddleheads, slowly unfurling as spring advances?

I do not yet speak their language.

Why so few chickadees during our winter walks this year? Where are they hiding? Are we too noisy to hear their voices during the dead of winter?

I do not yet speak their language.

How can I say "I know these woods" when so much goes unnoticed, unheard, unknown?

The simple honest answer: I do not yet speak their language.