I do what many people do -- I keep a nature calendar in my head and maintain small, interior rituals to celebrate some of the events.
For instance, I welcome spring with a ritual. When the forsythia first blooms, I pick a flower from the first blooming bush I saw and make a wish on each petal. I'm not sure where I learned this, but I suspect my mother taught it to me when I was very young. I have done it without fail for as long as my memory serves me. Three? Four years old? Forsythia is a harbinger of very early spring, just as the days are tentatively giving way to greening when everyone is begging for no more snow or cold. But other things happen around the same time, at least on the land I inhabit: the first spring ephemerals begin flowering just a little before the forsythia, Crocus and dandelion shoots push through the earth, the crows start building nests in my ancient maple tree.
Many people, I think, welcome the seasons with an internal calendar of events like this. What is happening in the land, what is happening with animals, what is happening in the sky. Of course, in the time before calendars (or the time when the institutional calendars still held little power over the day to day of most people), this was how people regulated their activities (such as trade), celebrations, and farming. What was blooming? What was happening in the sky? What were animals doing? Everything was fraught with meaning, even if that meaning was, "Now is the time to plant carrots." Earth-based religions focused their rituals around these land-based happenings so that their religious calendar could be seen in the land.
But we haven't kept these earth-based religious calendars for a very long time.
To reclaim land-based calendars, I've begun to keep track of the land's change more and more as I age. Here is an off-the-cuff example of a yearly calendar for my neck of the woods (SE Pennsylvania). I'll start with the fall equinox, and completely ignore calendar dates and religious dates (like Christmas and Easter) since these were imposed over the natural calendar late in the game.
Fall equinox, First fire in the woodstove, First fall color (tips of leaves), Full fall color, Smell of smoke in the air, Red on the maple, Trees fully de-leafed, Robins feeding en masse on holly berries, Ground hardens with first hard frost, First Snow, Solstice, Drooping rhododendron leaves, Snowdrops emerge, daffodil shoots, maple sap running, Crocus blooms, spring ephemerals blooming (Lenten Rose; bloodroot), Snow geese return, First forsythia blooming - wish ritual, Spring peepers, Daffodil flowers, Robins return, Spring Equinox, Ramps begin growing, Dandelions in bloom, Redbud blooming, Lilacs blooming, Hummingbirds return, Wild Garlic, Tree leafing begins, Lilly of the Valley blooms, Ferns rise, Fruit trees in bloom, Trees fully leafed, Grass needs cutting, Paw paws flower, Baby foxes barking at night, Lilacs bloom, Cherries in fruit, Honeysuckle is fragrant, Fresh greens in the garden, Summer Solstice, First Tomatoes, Canning and food processing, Fall Equinox.
The above was just off the top of my head. I've decided many times to make such a calendar officially, complete and outlined, for the year, but I always forget to write it down as the events happen. I guess this is what an almanac does, but it ties the happenings to the calendar dates. I'm more interested in what happens in the land in connection to what else happens in the land. For instance, crows begin nest building on March 1 is less interesting to me than crows begin nest building when the first forsythia blooms.
I'll bet you have such a calendar in your head as well.
To make matters even more interesting, I've been trying to make these calendars for my main character Una in The Other Land. I thought it might be an essential way to orient myself to HER landscape rather than my own. And her landscape changes -- four times -- in the course of the book as well, so for each place she traveled, I tried my best to fit the arrivals and departures, the comings and goings, the leafings and barrenness of nature into my writing of place.
For instance, for Ireland -- a landscape I did not know -- I made a calendar of trees, bushes, animals, birds, insects, and amphibians, and answered questions for myself: When did bilberry ripen? When did bluebells flower their fullest? Coltsfoot too? How about hawthorn and alder? When would you find primrose or cowberry? When did the Spotted Fly Catcher return to the land after winter? When did spring peepers begin? When did you hear corncrake for the first time? How about a warbler? When did bumble bees start buzzing around flowers or the orange tipped butterfly?
I made these calendars using online data and a great deal of research about what animals and plants are native to where. Some plants, for instance, are invasive in Ireland, so I had to find out which were native and which weren't. Before I began writing about the land and my character's relationship to it, I tried to have a nature-calendar as complete as the one I might have for myself in my own land.
This was a time-consuming exercise, I'm not going to lie. Some might call it procrastination. But these calendars helped me time and time again. When I felt blocked about where to turn next in my writing, I would seek out plants and animals from this list and describe THEM in the landscape instead of some aspect of my plot-driven narrative. Some of it got edited out in the end, but having more in-depth knowledge about the land in this way helped my creative mind look back to the source of myth, ritual, story -- the land.
by Marie Goodwin