Imagine a windy but warm night at 10pm on 1 August 2017. Three women gather outside a blue beach hut at Hove Lagoon. Fishing boat lights twinkle on the horizon, and Carl and John, the two resident homeless chaps are already bedded down for the night on their beach shelter benches.
We drag a pile of firewood and kindling onto the pebbles, along with a large bunch of beautiful wild flowers Asha has picked from Whitehawk Camp Community Orchard. I grab sheepskin rugs, cushions and blankets from my hut. No one else is around, all is quiet.
What are we doing at this time on a wild Wednesday night, trying to start a bonfire?
Well, we are here to celebrate High Summer otherwise known as Llammas in the old English Anglo Saxon pagan calendar, and Lughnasa in Gaelic. Originally held on 1 August, the celebration marked the first harvest, and was an important seasonal feast alongside the pagan festivals of Samhain, Imbolc and Beltane. Lughnasa is the mid-point between the Summer Solstice and the Autumn Equinox, it celebrates Mother Earth and the abundance of nature; plus says farewell to the Oak King as his power slowly starts to subside to make way for the Holly King. Feasting with neighbours and honouring the still powerful forces of the summer sun’s light are important elements of this community-based sabbat. The festival’s energy is one of optimism, hope and well-being and brings out the best in people. This was particularly relevant, as we had just been feasting at my flat on Hove seafront whilst sorting out outfits to wear at the Brighton Pride Summer of Love Parade – the biggest and best of UK Pride events, celebrating sexual and gender diversity and freedom. So many people across the world remain repressed in their communities, and I feel so lucky to live in a beautiful part of the world, which is abundant and relatively progressive and tolerant.
Before we got the fire going, Selina, who had just come down late from her London commute, started the proceedings by reading aloud to the sea, a poem she had brought by Mary Oliver. It summed up our mood –
The Summer Day
Who made the world?
Who made the swan, and the black bear?
Who made the grasshopper?
This grasshopper, I mean-
the one who has flung herself out of the grass,
the one who is eating sugar out of my hand,
who is moving her jaws back and forth instead of up and down-
who is gazing around with her enormous and complicated eyes.
Now she lifts her pale forearms and thoroughly washes her face.
Now she snaps her wings open, and floats away.
I don’t know exactly what a prayer is.
I do know how to pay attention, how to fall down
into the grass, how to kneel down in the grass,
how to be idle and blessed, how to stroll through the fields,
which is what I have been doing all day.
Tell me, what else should I have done?
Doesn’t everything die at last, and too soon?
Tell me, what is it you plan to do
with your one wild and precious life?
Then Selina said her farewells and retired for the night, as we realised it was going to be a while before our ‘spontaneous’ fire ceremony got going. Asha, who is an incredible Polish shamanic scholar and celebrant, directed me to build the fire in a sheltered spot on the beach and lay out the flowers in a circle around the pyre. She’s an expert fire starter, and despite the wind, we got it going with the help of some additional candle wax dripped onto paper.
Wearing yellow to celebrate the high summer sun, the two of us created our own ceremony, drumming, chanting, and praying to the spirits of the East, South, West and North, to Father Sky and Mother Earth. We shook our rattle, beat our drum and sang to the sea and the stars. We fed the fire with frankincense, tobacco, wine and fruit in offering to the harvest; then cast our prayers and wishes to the waves. We drew animal totem tarot cards and I pulled the turtle whose wisdom teaches us about walking our path in peace and sticking to it with determination and serenity. Slow moving on earth, yet also incredibly fast and agile in water, the turtle also teaches us to be grounded yet fluid. An art that I am forever practicing and developing since my natural temperament is to fly high without a solid anchor, but I am learning to cultivate and nurture my root system.
Then my friendly vixen made an appearance – ever so tame, she arrives like clockwork at my hut every evening I am there. She has almost braved the inside my hut on one occasion. So we said ‘hello’ and she lay down and watched us awhile. At midnight, Asha and I decided to read aloud some of favourite poems about the moon and summer (mobile internet has its uses), inspired by Selina’s earlier contribution. One of my favourites is by e.e.cummings, and felt so appropriate for the occasion:
i carry your heart with me (i carry it in
my heart) i am never without it (anywhere
i go you go, my dear; and whatever is done
by only me is your doing, my darling)
no fate (for you are my fate, my sweet) i want
no world (for beautiful you are my world, my true)
and it’s you are whatever a moon has always meant
and whatever a sun will always sing is you
here is the deepest secret nobody knows
(here is the root of the root and the bud of the bud
and the sky of the sky of a tree called life; which grows
higher than soul can hope or mind can hide)
and this is the wonder that’s keeping the stars apart
i carry your heart (i carry it in my heart)
Before we knew it, the fire had burned right down and it was 1am. Still warm and windy, with the moon shining amidst the clouds, we closed our High Summer circle, gathered our instruments and cards, and left with a song of joy in our hearts for the last days of summer.
Serena Constance is a dancer and wand-maker with the soul of a gypsy queen, who dresses like a peacock and has the spirit of a white tiger. By day, you can find her at the University of Sussex, weaving her networking magic for Sussex Alumni Relations.
Asha Sali is a shaman in training; a sweat lodge builder, a Biodanza facilitator and all round magical being.
Selina King is a moon sister, a fire starter and a great freelance researcher.
We all live in Brighton, UK.