Ah, Beltane! That Most Glorious of Days!

Happy and blessed Beltane to one and all! It is the First of May, also known as May Day. 

On some calendars, Beltane is the first day of summer, while on most, it is the mid-point of spring. Either way, it is the day that we wave farewell to the wan wisps of winter and salute the sultry sunshine of summer. From here, we romp toward solstice, the longest day of the year, and hope for a gentle season that does not turn the ground into the sun’s anvil and the sky into its forge. For our friends up north who endured one of the most snow-laden winters of recent memory, today is a day to truly celebrate.

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The world of the north (it is autumn in the southern hemisphere) has awoken from its snowy slumber. It is green and growing in ways forgotten during the short days of December, January, and February, yet hoped for in the tease of March and the promise of April. Trees are resplendent in their majestic cloaks of foliage. The air is filled with the peeping of sparrow chicks. Thick carpets of grass vie with clover and dandelion. Even we humans bud and bloom and leaf, turning winter dreams into summer realities.

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In days of ancient past, Beltane was the time when farmers in Britain moved their cattle and sheep from paddock to pasture, passing them between two bonfires for protection and blessing. We have no modern equivalent, unless it is to stand with our faces to the sun. With the threat of frost but memory, farmers of old rolled up their sleeves to plant wheat, barley, and corn. Tools sharpened in winter, they planned and prepared through blustery March and rainy April for this time. We may think of tomatoes, carrots, and roses.

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The First of May was the day the Fae came out to play —  not always a welcome thing — and the rains of April formed rings and lines of mushrooms, Fairy Rings and Elven Paths, to mark their way to our hearths. For us, that book lost in December mysteriously reappears in the bathroom.

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May Day was also the day (or night) of “greenwood marriages.” Lusty lovers full of naked abandon embraced in trysting beds of asters under bowers of oak. As Guinevere sang in Camelot, “It’s May, it’s May, the month of yes-you-may!” Given the abundance of ticks in woodlands of my part of the world, such nocturnal frolics are best left to the symbolism of wrapping a maypole.

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For us modern folk, Beltane is a day to look back at winter in gratitude for survival and knowledge gained. It is a day to jettison all the junk and dust and gunk and rust accumulated during the dark cold months. It is a time of both spring cleaning of the house and spring cleaning of the soul. While we may not plant wheat, we plant ideas and goals formed during winter, and such require soil clean and rich. As Ralph Waldo Emerson said, “What potent blood hath modest May.”

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Beltane in Denton this year began with nuances usually ascribed to poets. Cardinals and mockingbirds greeted the rise of the sun in sweet serenade. I noticed that they put a little more exuberance into the throaty music, and added a few more trills at the end. When the sun arose, I expected Apollo to roar into the sky upon his chariot. Instead, the cool hues of violet and blue crept into the dark, slowly caressing the day awake. I suppose that’s fitting. The sun had no need to shake Texas awake this Beltane morn, when plants already did that for us. A wet and mild winter surrendered to a wet and mild spring. Never before have I seen Texas so lush and green. It is glorious.

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Our three tomatoes, planted off the patio just last week, have shaken off the shock of transplantation. They now stretch forth their limbs and embrace their supports, ready for the task of fruition. No doubt the potatoes stir within the warming soil, and soon will poke their heads above ground. This year’s morning glories are but sprouts, two leaves each. By the end of May, they will consume the fence. The morning hoard, grown weary of song, descended upon the feeder for breakfast; cardinals, doves, a whole slew of sparrows, and a rare cowbird. The chickadees and finches will not be far behind. They all have young to feed from my free-for-all smorgasbord of thistle, sunflower, and millet. I watched the neighbor walk to the bus. While she still wore a light jacket to ward off the lingering chill in the air, she walked with just a little more gusto in her step than last month. As the sun cleared the rooftops, it struck gleaming gossamer threads in the laurel beyond the window. Strong strands of snares set by a spider to catch emerging midges.

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Beltane seemed like a good day for a stroll through the park. I began with the concrete trail around the two lakes. They are but retention ponds for drainage, stocked with rainbow trout. That is my one question for Denton. Do fish native to clear mountain streams belong in prairie ponds? Be that as it may, several men sat upon coolers on the banks, fishing line languidly lazing in the lake. From their posture, they were more intent upon the tranquility of the day than catching anything. I passed joggers and walkers with dogs. We greeted each other, and on the opposite side of the lakes, greeted each other again.

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The park was a living tapestry of color, woven with threads of flowers. Should I compare it all to a bride walking down the aisle, the regalia of a king, or a painting by Monet? Solomon in all his glory, indeed! While flora is easy to stalk with camera, fauna is more troublesome. The great acrobats of scissor-tailed flycatcher and barn swallow were out in full squadrons, performing aerial stunts to make the Red Baron drown in envy. All but one were too fast for the finger upon the trigger of my camera.

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The ducks, however, cooperated. One mallard couple, grubbing in a puddle for insects and weeds, posed for their portrait. I thanked them and wished them a good day.

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A jogger passed me, wearing a blue tie-dyed tee shirt and orange plus-fours baggy enough for a circus clown. At least, his beard was trimmed. But today is the day of yes-you-may, and yes, he may indeed celebrate in style.

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On the backside of the far lake, I greeted the tall Texas cottonwood, and the trio of elderly mesquites. I passed through the grove of post oaks where my wife and I often sit to talk and watch the squirrels. This grove is young, curious, and full of mischief. In autumn, they like to drop acorns on us.

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Back at the parking lot, several school buses unloaded troops of sixth graders. Some wore blue tee shirts, others wore orange. The shirts read “Keep Calm and Fish.” All carried small coolers and fishing rods. A field trip to go fishing? Where was that when I was a child! Ah, but what a way to celebrate Beltane!

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Now, I reached the nature trail, and plunged into the forest. I know these trees: turkey, burr, white, and post oaks, laurels, cedars, and those I know but cannot name.

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At the heart of this forest lies a grove of thirteen oaken sentinels, tall trees full of days and wisdom. They speak to me, even if I cannot yet understand their language. Today, they lay thick in their leaves and the younglings growing at their feet. In years past, this did not happen until July. I wanted to stop to talk and take close up photographs, but a lone woman sat on the bench underneath them. I respected her privacy.

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The prickly pears were full and ripe with buds. Next week, they will erupt with desert roses. I passed through the most spectacular aroma. It belongs on my wife’s neck. Jasmine? Honeysuckle? A search of the woods did not reveal its source. Usually, I hear birds in this forest. Today, only one. The kinglet is the smallest bird in the woods of Denton, yet he is the loudest.

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All the while I walked, I also thought. There is nothing like a good stroll in nature to inspire reflection. Today was a good day to leave behind that which does not serve. I left behind in the forest four years of sitting on my butt and drinking beer, a habit that rendered me forty pounds overweight and suffering from a weakened heart. The oaks will turn that no longer wanted emotional trash into compost within hours. With that, I returned to my car, three and a half miles and two hours later, my shirt soaked and my feet begging me to go home. It was a good beginning. As I passed across a field of white clover, I wished the park a happy Beltane.

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May you have a wonderful Beltane, a very merry May, and a spring and summer full of personal blooms.

Now the bright morning-star, Day’s harbinger,
Comes dancing from the East, and leads with her
The flowery May, who from her green lap throws
The yellow cowslip and the pale primrose.
Hail, bounteous May, that dost inspire
Mirth, and youth, and warm desire!
Woods and groves are of thy dressing;
Hill and dale doth boast thy blessing.
Thus we salute thee with our early song,
And welcome thee, and wish thee long.

 John Milton

“Song on a May Morning”

All photographs taken by Nathan Boutwell on May 1, 2015, at South Lakes Park in Denton, Texas.

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