Tuesday 13 May 2014

The Rites of Spring

MAY! She has skipped in barefoot, trailing her beautiful skirts through our days. It has taken me a surprisingly long time to land after our Australasian travels: my seasonal clock has been all disrupted, and I found myself bemused to see the hedgerows in the relative cold announcing spring after my body had been through a tropical and otherworldly summer. The spring uprush has taken my senses by surprise, and I am awkward and unfamiliar with the flowers, like with friends I've not seen for a long time, feeling slightly bad for having missed their birthdays. I have struggled to re-find my rhythms and to re-track my own seasonal footprints. Writing about our journey for you here has proved harder than I thought, though it will come, I am sure. This strange seasonal-soul-lag has made me reflect a lot upon travel and how it changes you on your return, and on the different kinds of weight you can have, depending on how much you travel, and on how much you sink your roots into the loam on your homecoming. 

But Oh! the Bluebells are singing! A ridiculous beauty, sapphire blue, dancing outrageously with acid spring green, with bright yellow gorse, with delicate white stitchwort and pink appleblossom,

The last clouds of April showers scud across the skies and leave rainbows and ever-warmer sunlight in their wake.

And Dartmoor moss maps continents on granite amid a resounding ocean of blue.

Everywhere we look, slopes are carpeted with this cerulean cloak of spring treasure.

And we walk to the tops of them to look over this land of ours with a thermos of tea and flapjacks and thoughts for the year ahead,

While Macha swims after flower-fish in the flower-ocean.

Dartmoor's colours have called my still-floating spirit back to this beloved place, and surrounded me with wild and mossy, blackbird-singing here-ness, allowing me to once again catch up with my own tail disappearing round the next corner, as it always does at this urging time of the year.

The Mayday holiday was spent celebrating the rites of spring in old ways. On May 1st I went with friends to Padstow in Cornwall where they hold the well-known 'Obby 'Oss festival - a strange and delightful folk ritual drama held every year to celebrate the coming of summer.

The pretty seaside town of Padstow is bedecked with bunting - centering on a maypole - and crowds from far and near throng the streets. 

We stand, clutching song sheets, squashed among the red-and-white clad rabble waiting outside the Golden Lion pub for the emergence of the famous 'Obby 'Oss and its retinue. 

When what to my wondering ears should appear, but armies of efflorescent accordions!

Driven on with the beating of drums and all playing the same tune for the entire day they wander the town heralding that strangest of creatures - the 'Obby 'Oss...

The early origins of this festival and its 'Oss are unknown, though in its current form it can be dated back to 1803. Speculations have been made about its roots in pre-Christian spring celebrations, and the 'Oss is certainly a cousin of the Welsh Mari Lwyd and other European hobby horse traditions
It is a strange and unnerving thing made of black sailcloth draped over a 6-foot wide hoop worn by a member of the Padstow community, and topped with a gruesome mask with a power and design seeming more akin to the folk ritual of Africa than the coves of Cornwall. At the front and back of the hoop are a kind of horse head and tail, and as the 'Oss dances through the crowds to the music, the skirt sways up and down, attempting to catch young maidens under it. If you are one of these luckies, it is said that you'll become pregnant within the year! All the while a "teazer" dance-jousts with the 'Oss and leads it through the throng. People take turns at this role, and all the while the master of ceremonies calls: "'Oss! 'Oss!", and the crowd responds: "Wee 'Oss!"

There are two 'Obby 'Osses parading through the town. The one with the red-and-white retinue is the Old 'Oss, the original. The one with the blue-and-white retinue is the Peace 'Oss, introduced in the early 20th century at first to discourage over-consumption of alcohol, and then after the First World War, for peace. The two 'Osses eventually meet and dance together under the maypole in the evening. (And alcohol consumption is still a central feature of the festivities!)
I was quite taken by the experience of being in a fired-up crowd of ordinary people (i.e. not belonging to some special interest group or society), not partaking in dry pomp-and-circumstance or Christianized calendar observance, but celebrating a frolicsome pagan holiday. The tune that was played round and round all day (with death and rebirth refrains) I found eerily compelling, and even more so when I later watched this early film footage of the festival in 1932 when they evidently danced to the exact same tune:

The red and white piratey get-up emerged apparently after folklorist Alan Lomax visited Padstow in the 1950s and prompted the people to dress up for the filming. The outfit has stuck as firmly as the tune.

I love what it says in that clip about the people of Padstow needing the 'Oss to come back every year, about them not feeling right all year if the 'Oss didn't come and visit them on May morning. I love that the tune is always the same, and that the 'Oss is so odd and compelling in its presence. I love that only people born in Padstow can take part in the mumming, And I love that these things still go on in the town squares and village greens of England.

Not content with one May rite, a few days later we all went to a nearby Dartmoor village - Lustleigh - to enjoy its somehow more quaint, yet utterly delightful May celebrations.

There was music and Morris Dancing, there was the familiar jester figure, there were families out with picnics on the grass.

There was a May Queen, enthroned in a bower of flowers and paraded round the village, followed by blossomed youngsters all in white, and us all, too.

Back up to the village centre where a town crier announced proceedings and the vicar - religiously diversified - flicked us all with branch-flung blessing water.

And then we made our way to the orchard where the May Queen was crowned atop a stone carved with the names of all previous May Queens. The May Queen has to have been born in Lustleigh, and is chosen because she is the girl who has danced most times around the maypole.

The May Queen's retinue walks around the maypole and lays flowers at her feet.

And then they dance to music played by a local posse of musicians and weave the colours of the year in patterns around the axis of the world...

And then after all of that, once the raffles and picnics and Morrising were over, my little trio Krasa played some Klezmer in the pub garden. Lisa (on fiddle), being a Lustleigh girl, was May Queen one year too, and has her name on the stone.

All of this delighted and warmed me in a way only an English village event could. I loved watching the people's faces as their children danced, and witnessing the particular tantrums and larks of a day out in the sunshine with my community.

To round off the weekend of Spring celebrations, we gathered in a neighbour's field and jumped a fire to leave all the old unwanted things in the flames, to make space for the new... And I felt a deep sense of really having celebrated the season, welcomed the May, of really having embodied the coming of the summer, which was exactly what my out-of-kilter body clock needed.

And now, it's time for me to show you some new work! This piece was painted at the end of last year, many months in the making, but I could not show it to you until its intended recipient had seen it. Now, as the fires and blossoms and dances of spring fill the margins of my vision, I shall show you this painting of nature goddesses, of the earth's fertility, of Maiden, Mother & Crone.

She was born from a rounded-pregnant oak burr, which took weeks to sand smooth, and which was so awkward in shape I had to work on it on the floor.

She gradually took shape, the triple goddess against the full moon. Maiden, Mother and Crone joining hands in the circle of life-death-life, Maiden and Crone holding a garland of Hawthorn, Rose & Elder over the head of the Mother. In the belly of the Mother are housed all four elements - earth, air, fire, water - and from this holy crucible spring vines which reach out through the painting and entwine the godesses all three. At their feet in the leaf mould grow mushrooms of all incarnations - life from death. The whole scene is nestled within a red womblike window, as if the oak is revealing to us a secret of the true nature of things.

This was made for very dear friends Emma and Graeme. Graeme commissioned me to paint it for Emma's birthday, and suggested a triple goddess, but beyond that left the imagery to me. Inspired by the wonderful piece of wood we'd found, and somehow a little daunted at making a painting for a friend, I set off determined to make this Maiden-Mother-Crone much earthier and more real than any other triple goddess imagery I'd seen before (all too purple, airbrushed and costumed for my taste). The characters of each aspect of the goddess emerged of their own accord.

This is a painting I am proud of, and it now awaits its perfect alcove.. 

Meanwhile, the earth provides a green granite niche, and offers up its own unanimous tendrils.

There will be prints of this painting available soon, along with other new works and completely revamped prints, which I can confidently say are the best yet, and quite covetable, so stand by for the spring reopening of my shop in just over a week!

Maiden, Mother, Crone ~ oils on oak 2013 ~ by Rima Staines

As I walk down the lanes of frothing hedgerows into my thirty-fifth summer, gathering wayside treasures, I see honesty,

and gold,

I see paths deep in the woods,

and homesteads, 

I see the path and the river side by side like elemental opposites,

and always I see the Maiden, 


and Crone watching over me...