Stations of the Sun

An Ecocultural Journey [i]

Helen Moore

(UK)

Performing in Edinburgh’s world-renowned annual ritual theatre show, the Beltane Fire Festival [ii] in the mid-90s with a new tattoo of a Pictish Boar on my arm, I found my power as a woman, and learned how ecology and culture intersect.

Ecology Stations of the Sun Beltane Fire Festival Edinburgh late 90s credit Marius Alexander 16x9 1

© Marius Alexander

*****

If you think about it, we ‘humanimals’ are both cultural and ecological beings – as are myriad other species, whether Wolves, Boar, Dolphins, Salmon. [iii] And yet we’ve been conditioned to think that ‘Nature’ [iv] has little to do with culture, and that as humans we’re exceptional, endowed with the divine right to do as we please. In recent decades, many of us have been waking up to the harm that this worldview is causing. But how can we change, shed our conditioning, and embrace what has been termed our ‘ecocultural identity’, at the intersection of ecology and culture? [v] This essay charts the time, around thirty years ago, when my own journey was beginning …

*****

‘Right, so you’re all set, then?’ Morag asks, as I settle myself on the leatherette couch, my upper arm exposed. 

‘Yes, thanks,’ I nod, head swirling with the designs lining the walls. Stylised Japanese dragons, geishas, Cherry blossom. Mandala patterns spreading intricate fractals. Celtic knotwork. Comic book art. Portraits of pets. 

‘Feeling okay?’ 

Morag smiles impishly from below a wispy fringe as she stretches a fresh pair of gloves over her fingers. She shows me the stencil she’s made, then cleans a palm-sized area of my right biceps. This is where the dermis will be pierced with black, green, and red inks. Pressing the stencil in place, she has me check it’s where I want it.

‘Perfect.’ 

I feel myself relaxing, and as she readies the machine, I close my eyes. 

My first tattoo!

The buzzing starts. There’s a light, but fiery sting. I exhale as instructed, raising the thumb of my left hand. A tingle courses through my body. 

I’m really doing this! 

Indelibly decorating my body to remember this moment of finally feeling good inside my own skin. Years of mental ill health, including an eating disorder that started in adolescence, are receding behind me. As is an experience of domestic violence from a year back that marked me with a mosaic of bruises and bites for at least a week; emotionally, much longer. This moment also to prepare myself psychologically for the rite of passage I’m soon to experience …

Supine on Morag’s couch, I’m already imagining how my tattoo will look when’s it healed. And how it will sit like a talisman beneath the blue body paint I’ll be wearing in a few weeks’ time, when I perform one of the most respected roles in Edinburgh’s annual Beltane Fire Festival. Looking back, I recall how the prospect was both thrilling and nerve-wracking. And I can see that getting my tattoo was a measure of how far I’d travelled. When I first moved to Edinburgh in 1994 to study a master’s degree in literature (eight years prior to entrusting my skin to Morag’s needles), I’d never have imagined the direction my life would take. 

Places often teach us more than we realise, and during my first year in the Scottish capital, the city had begun subtly shaping me, sloughing off the conditioning of an oppressive, middle-class childhood in England’s Home Counties. I was enamoured with Edinburgh’s wildness. The austere-looking castle perched on an extinct volcanic plug. The rugged features of Holyrood Park, with its crags and viewpoints over the city and out to the glinting waters of the Firth of Forth, where the iconic rusty-red rail bridge connects Scotland’s capital with the old kingdom of Fife, once a Pictish stronghold. I was intrigued by the light that at times had a clear and dazzling quality unknown before. The relationship of light and dark was also more extreme, with much longer Summer days and depressingly short amounts of daylight through Winter. And I was fascinated and frustrated by the ‘haar’, the sea mist which can unexpectedly roll in, draping opaque veils over the streets. Then, just when it seemed to have lurked for days and was driving me crazy, I’d be astounded by the beauty of the vistas revealed when the Sun dispelled its damp dominion. 

I’d planned to stay the year, then travel. But here was this cauldron in which I was starting to bubble. Edinburgh in the Nineties had many sides, including the heroin-fuelled hedonism depicted in Irvine Welsh’s brilliant Trainspotting. In those years immediately prior to Scottish devolution and the construction of the Parliament buildings, property prices and rents were low, and creativity flourished in the city’s nooks. There was August’s Fringe Festival, with its colourful stalls, buskers, and street artists on the Mound and along the Royal Mile. Around this part of the Old Town, I was discovering artists’ squats in semi-derelict tenements, vintage clothes emporia, bohemian parties with psylocibin. And in the city’s libraries and bookshops, the writings of Terence McKenna, Carlos Castaneda, Allen Ginsberg. I attended courses in shamanic journeying and Celtic mythology; wrote poetry; frequented a Spanish bar where Flamenco guitarists drank and played. I was also discovering a more visionary and engaged politics. Lectures at the Centre for Human Ecology, with the inimitable ecologist, activist and writer, Alastair McIntosh. Zapatista-solidarity events at the Autonomous Centre. Anti-war marches.

Alongside all this, there was the Beltane Fire Festival, blending ritual, outdoor physical theatre, and spectacular fire performances. And featuring near naked, body-painted characters. On April 30th, the eve of May Day, this free festival would draw thousands to Calton Hill. Against the backdrop of Edinburgh’s ‘Acropolis’ – an unfinished monument of twelve tall, stone columns, and an icon of the city’s skyline – fire sculptures, drumming and pagan celebration thrilled the night air until dawn. Then, weary from our revelries, our body paint smeared, we’d wander home, a rag-tag counter-flow to the first flush of commuters hurrying past us, eyes fixed straight ahead.

Living in a tiny studio flat near the university campus, I held down various part-time jobs. Waitressing at a vegetarian café. Teaching English as a foreign language. And assisting in the radical bookstore known as Word*Power, just a few shops along from ‘Tribe Tattoo’ on West Nicolson Street. Inside this cauldron of the Scottish capital, my creative practice was also brewing. Influenced by Virginia Woolf’s ‘A Room of One’s Own’, I believed I needed to live alone to pursue my writing, paying insufficient attention to the fact that Woolf had a private income and a husband to support her creative work. Having plugged away at a novel, I sent the manuscript to a literary agent, who admired the writing but informed me it was ‘too anti-consumerist to market to the major publishers.’ 

My involvement with ‘Beltane’, as it was generally referred to, came unexpectedly in 1996 while I was clearing tables at Suzy’s Diner. Two young women asking if I’d join them as performers in the upcoming festival. Making my debut as a ‘water nymph’, dancing in bluey-green body paint with a sequined costume and my fish-shaped headdress, I soon became drawn into a loose community of creatives. Musicians, visual artists, puppeteers, street and circus performers, theatre practitioners, dancers, storytellers, poets. Everything we did was DIY, our creativity and resourcefulness putting on one of the biggest shows in town, and yet with almost no external funding. We attributed the regular rejection of our grant applications to the austere moral tone still pervading the city. This was annually embodied by a group of dour, bearded men bearing placards proclaiming: ‘The wages of sin are death!’, who ventured up Calton Hill to ‘resanctify’ it, as The Scotsman’s letters pages explained, after our departure on May morning. 

Moving in a ‘youth tribe’ of ‘modern primitivism’, (these problematic terms were used by The Sunday Times in a 1996 article headlined ‘Pagans rule on the hill’), I was clearly aware of the countercultural nature of our celebrations. And wryly amused by the description of our community as espousing ‘the developing liturgy of the New Age: vegetarianism, ecological awareness, body piercing and communal living’. Pouring my energies into the Beltane community, where I found kinship, meaning, and lovers, if not the deeper love I sought, I undertook a range of performance roles at Beltane, and in our smaller festivals marking the Celtic Wheel of the Year. Developing leadership skills, I also became Chair of Beltane Fire Society’s organising committee. All of this was unpaid, and my writing was increasingly being crowded out. Yet I felt passionately about our festivals’ role in reconnecting me and others with the rhythms of the seasons. Celebrated for thousands of years by our ancestors, before being subverted by Church and State, they had steadily been overtaken by a nominally Christian calendar characterised by over-consumption and passive spectacle. Valentine’s Day. Easter. Hallowe’en. Christmas. And, of course, two secular celebrations, Guy Fawkes’ Night and Hogmanay, as New Year’s Eve is known in Scotland. A culture divorced from its roots in the ecology that sustains us.

In the Celtic tradition, which in the modern world can readily sit alongside other faiths, the year starts with Samhain, the origins of Hallowe’en, when we honour the ancestors and mark the descent into Winter. After this comes Winter Solstice, at the maximum point of darkness, the land in deep stillness and rest. Imbolc follows in early February, witnessing inklings of Spring, the first green shoots pushing through the earth. Next is Spring Equinox when the hours of day and night are in equal balance. Then Beltane, celebrating Earth’s fertility and the start of Summer, followed by Summer Solstice, the longest day and shortest night, the Sun at the peak of its power. After this comes Lughnasa, or Lammas in the Anglo-Saxon tradition, in early August, a time to give thanks for the first fruits of the harvest. And finally, Autumn Equinox, again restoring balance and preparing us for the dark days to come. Marking these stations of the Sun, and increasingly the monthly lunar phases, alongside which I traced my menstrual cycle, offered a structure, a natural rhythm that was providing my life with equilibrium in a world that felt increasingly unsteady. 

In those early days of the now internationally renowned Beltane Fire Festival, and before a police presence, safety barriers and a ticketed entrance substantially changed its character, it was largely the unruffled focus of the ‘Blue Men’ as they were known then – ‘Blues’ generally now – that formed a boundary between unruly revellers and Beltane performers. And so, my tattoo was symbolically steeling myself with Wild Boar energy and marking my personal rite of passage, reclaiming my ‘inner warrior’ …

*****

The buzzing of the tattoo machine stops, and Morag enquires: ‘Okay there?’

‘All good,’ I murmur, raising my eyelids to glimpse her changing needles.

Drifting off again, I’m imagining my costume. Strong boots. A copper-coloured loincloth. A leather-and-copper breastplate. And with my henna-red hair wired out like the Medusa’s serpent-covered head, I’m seeing myself as a modern-day ‘Pict’, painted woad-blue from top to toe. Rehearsals are already underway, and I consider how as one of five ‘Blue’ guides, I’ll manage the crowds and ritually cleanse the ground with bundles of Willow stems for the safe passage of the procession. 

This will be headed up by the shimmering May Queen, an embodiment of earthly divinity, and the foliage-covered Green Man to whom she’ll be ritually wed. By the Acropolis, I’ll feel the insistent rhythms of the processional drummers, which send shivers to my core. From there, I’ll guide the procession as it winds ‘widdershins’, counterclockwise, around the hill. In my mind’s eye, I’m seeing the dizzying detail of costumes and choreography partially illuminated by fire torches, which gusts of wind can swirl over the cloaked heads of the stoic Torchbearers. At Air Point, honouring the element of air, horn-blowing, kite-flying, stencilled banners billowing on the breeze. At Earth Point, a heart-beat rhythm of hand-drums and masked Badgers, Hedgehogs, goblins. At Water Point, sinuous, sequined creatures dancing to marimba, xylophones, gongs. At Fire Point, red-painted sprites’ fiery breath bursting close enough to warm my skin, while their swinging ‘poi’ inscribe the night with flaming spirals and figures of eight. All the while, shouts, cries, and ululations from the audience, and as Blue I’ll have eyes and ears for everything … 

‘He’s starting to come to life,’ Morag smiles as she greases my throbbing arm.

‘She’, I smile, ‘I’m calling her Henwen. After an aspect of the ancient British goddess. A shape-shifted form.’

‘Is that right?’ 

‘Yes, I found Henwen in Celtic mythology. She represents fierceness and fertility. In one story from the Welsh Triads, she gives birth to Bees, grains of Barley and Wheat, an Eagle, a Wolf cub, and a Kitten.’

‘That’s kinda strange,’ Morag pauses to give me a quizzical look, then resumes the greasing. 

‘Yeah, I’m still trying to figure it out.’

‘Well, I hope Henwen will be a fine companion for your life,’ Morag smiles, securing a bandage over my fresh tattoo. 

‘Thanks,’ I say, ‘I know she will …’  

*****

Back in the early Noughties, I loved hearing about that kind of resurgence – species thriving after a centuries-long absence. But it wasn’t until 2015, thirteen years after getting my skin inked, that I had my first encounter with Wild Boar … 

I was staying with my then partner, a Countryside Ranger and budding ecotherapist, in the heart of the Scottish Highlands on the Dundreggan Conservation Estate, not far from Loch Ness. Home to Red Squirrels, Pine Martens, Golden Eagles and many other wondrous creatures, the estate is owned and managed by Trees for Life, the charity committed to replanting the ancient Caledonian Forest. We were volunteering, helping to erect fences to protect tree saplings from Deer. At the time there was a pair of captive Sows at Dundreggan, and I was longing to meet them. Kept within a 12.3-hectare enclosure, they were the remaining members of a larger group studied for their impact on Bracken, which, if uncontrolled, can swamp the growth of tree seedlings. Boar are partial to Bracken roots and dig them up. Bracken fronds also make snug nests for Piglets, and were traditionally harvested for human bedding, thatching roofs, and packing materials. 

It was a warm July morning, and the meadow where our yurt was pitched was alive with the buzzing of Grasshoppers and Crickets. Overhead, the high-pitched mews of circling Buzzard, and in the distance, I could see foliage-flushed forest rising up towards bare-topped mountains. Armed with a bucket of feed pellets, I followed Conall through various gates, all of which had to be carefully closed. Legally classified as ‘Dangerous Wild Animals’, Boar are generally shy creatures and mostly nocturnal. Would we see them?

Rattling the bucket as we entered, Conall and I waited expectantly. It took time. Suddenly I spotted stands of Bracken moving in the distance. 

‘There!’ I murmured.

Energy rushed through me as they came into view, stocky brown bodies beetling down the rocky inclines. Bodies evolved over millennia to live in this rugged landscape. Ears pricked, dark intelligent eyes watching, they approached. 

‘Torc’, Conall whispered back, ‘That’s Gaelic for Boar’. 

And my heart surged with joy and love for these wild creatures. Missing from the British Isles for over four hundred years, their return was starting to seem assured. Studies by Dundreggan’s ecologists were also revealing various benefits for woodland regeneration, and over a meal that evening with Doug (operations manager of Trees for Life), we joined volunteers in questioning him about this. Usually a quietly spoken, reserved man, Doug could talk at length when prompted. Soon he was enthusing about these resident ‘forest engineers’, whose snouts work like small ploughs as they forage in the soil for food – acorns, chestnuts, Beech mast, Bracken rhizomes, invertebrates. 

‘If the Boar are in the right density within an ecosystem, the effects can be highly beneficial,’ he enthused with a broad grin. ‘In our Caledonian Forest, they cycle nutrients and minerals, expose subsoil invertebrates to predation by birds and other animals, and create patches of bare soil for invertebrates’ burrows …’ 

The Trees for Life website also informed me that Boar help to disperse seeds both by pushing them into the soil as they rootle, and by ingesting and defecating them elsewhere. When their populations are balanced (and without Wolves, their natural predators, this isn’t always possible except through culling), Boar increase plant diversity by clearing areas that can then be inhabited by other species and can create ideal conditions for seedlings to germinate. 

Suddenly, this research made sense of Henwen’s strange progeny. The ancient myth I’d found in the Welsh Triads seemed to show how Boar contribute to the land’s fertility (Bees, grains) and biodiversity (Eagle, Wolf cub, kitten, if the latter is taken to be a native Wildcat.) Understanding this, I felt a deeper respect for the stories of our forebears and the wisdom encoded in them. This ancient symbol of Boar, which lent me courage … 

Boar are, of course, the wild ancestors of their domesticated brethren. The tortured creatures of factory farms. Prisoners confined in steel pens barely able to move, their teeth and tails cut away – a brutality only possible within a culture so disconnected from ecology that even as they live, they’re perceived as bacon, their sentience and suffering ignored, denied.

‘Old MacDonald’, a two-year-old friend and I nowadays often sing heartily together, her strong, little body swaying with gusto, curls dancing lightly on her head. 

In her youthful innocence, those horrors are unknown to her. And oh, for a world where culture and ecology are reunited, and where our children have sane, compassionate relationships with all other species!

*****

Endnotes

[i]  ‘Stations of the Sun’ references the title of Ronald Hutton’s book Stations of the Sun, a History of the Ritual Year in Britain, Oxford University Press, 1997

[ii] For more information about the Beltane Fire Festival, see: https://beltane.org/

[iii] Names of more-than-human Beings and wild phenomena are capitalised as part of my longstanding ecopoetic practice, raising their status from the margins to which industrialised culture has relegated them.

[iv] I put the word ‘Nature’ here in single quotes as a reminder that this is not a phenomenon that’s external to us humans. We are part of ecology, regardless of whether we perceive ourselves as being so.

[v] I derive my inspiration around the use and meaning of the term ‘ecocultural identity’ from the Routledge Handbook of Ecocultural Identity, eds. Tema Milstein and José Castro-Sotomayor, (Oxford: Routledge, 2020)

Helen Moore

is a

Guest Contributor for Panorama.

Helen Moore is an internationally acclaimed British ecopoet, writer and socially engaged artist. She has three ecopoetry collections, Hedge Fund, And Other Living Margins (2012), ECOZOA (2015), and The Mother Country (2019). INTATTO. INTACT: Ecopoesia. Ecopoetry, a bilingual Italian-English work, co-authored with Massimo D'Arcangelo (Italy) and Anne Elvey (Australia), was published by La Vita Felice in 2017. In 2018 she won the Hay Festival’s annual INSPIRE essay prize, and in 2020, was a joint winner in the Center for Interfaith Relations' Sacred Essays competition. Helen mentors students internationally via her Wild Ways to Writing programme and curates ECOPOETIKON, an online showcase of global ecopoetries. ‘Stations from the Sun, an Ecocultural Journey’ is an excerpt from Helen’s memoir, for which she’s currently seeking a publisher.

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