Climate Change and The Wheel of the Year

This article was originally published in The Magical Times magazine in March 2013

As I sit here writing, snow is falling outside my window. It is late January and the world outside is blanketed with a covering of white that is getting thicker all the time. The newspaper headlines are filled with the usual references to ‘The Big Freeze’ and ‘Arctic Blasts’ and their inside pages are devoted to calculating how many millions of pounds the Winter weather is costing the economy. Most workplaces will experience at least one outbreak of recrimination and backbiting about the person who missed work because of the snow while someone else, who lives further away, battled in heroically.

By the time you read this, hopefully Spring will have well and truly arrived. The Snowdrops that pushed their way through the frozen ground at the beginning of February to bring their message of hope and promise of new life will have been followed in their turn by Crocuses and Daffodils. In April the hedgerows here in the Midlands will turn white once again, not with snow this time, but with the Blackthorn blossom, the effect even more striking as the flowers appear before the leaves on bare dark twigs, unlike the Hawthorn blossom in early May which puts the finishing touch to hedges and bushes already clothed in fresh vibrant green.

The period between early February and the beginning of May, between the festivals of Imbolc and Beltane, brings the most intense and dramatic transformation of any three-month period of the year. Within the space of thirteen short weeks, the countryside will change from a bleak, possibly still snow-covered, apparent wasteland of Winter to a verdant landscape that is pulsing with energy and positively bursting with life.

But is this seemingly ageless rhythm being disrupted by changes in the Earth’s climate caused by human activity?

Although not yet accepted by one hundred percent of media commentators or at the top of many people’s lists of worries, where some of us feel it should be, the vast majority of scientists now accept that the natural fluctuations of our climate between warmer and cooler periods have been significantly altered since the Industrial Revolution by the emission of large quantities of carbon dioxide as a result of burning fossil fuels such as coal, oil and gas to power our modern economies and lifestyles. What has been more difficult to agree upon has been the rate at which this global warming is occurring and, when we experience extreme weather events such as 2012 being the wettest year on record in England despite the fact that the early Summer saw warnings of a drought and the imposition of hosepipe bans in many areas, to what extent is this a product of a shift in the climate as opposed to the famously unpredictable British weather.

Research published in the 2011 Journal of Climate suggests that Spring in western North America has been arriving around 1½ days earlier each decade since the 1950s, based on observations of the appearance of plants’ first leaves and blossom. Of these 1½ days, the authors calculate that half a day can be attributed to natural variations in weather patterns and a whole day per decade to the effects of climate change.

Assuming that something similar is happening in Britain and Europe as well, this slow but steady shift will eventually mean that the days habitually allocated in the calendar to the seasonal festivals (Major Sabbats or Cross Quarter Days) of Imbolc (2nd February), Beltane (1st May, Lugnassadh/Lammas (1st August) and Samhain (31st October) become out of sync with the seasonal changes that they traditionally mark.

I think this is a good example of the rhythms of the Earth refusing to conform to our modern human desire to regularise, categorise and allocate them to fixed dates in our diaries. The fact that modern humans are responsible for the changes in the climate that have caused this dislocation just adds a touch of irony to the situation.

The Eightfold Wheel of the Year that is used by many Pagans of today (or “Neo-pagans” if you prefer) for ritual purposes is a modern device that was devised in the 20th Century to divide the year into neat, regular portions and to provide more festivals than history shows were celebrated in any one tradition. There is evidence that all eight festivals were celebrated in one ancient culture or another but the idea of combining them all into a single, regular cycle is undoubtedly modern. This is not to say that there is anything wrong with the Eightfold Wheel – modern Paganism is a young tradition and is as entitled to devise its own ritual system as any other religion. Indeed, “walking the Wheel of the Year” gives a structure and method of connection to the cycle of the seasons to many people’s spiritual practice.

We just need to remember that the Wheel is a device that originated in a time and place where such a regular division of the year happened to fit quite well with the changing seasons so, if the seasons continue to shift, we will need to bear in mind why the Wheel came about in the first place and re-design it accordingly, even if the result is not quite as neat and regular as the original. But, then again, Nature does not seem to be as neat and regular as she used to be and whose fault is that?

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