So you want to be a Heathen

hornonharrowRecently in a Facebook group I’m part of a friend asked the question: “lets say someone is interested in becoming a Nordic Pagan, what advice would you give and what would you suggest to them?”I find this to be an important subject, and how we answer says a lot about what Heathenry is to us. As I’m a Swedish Heathen, there are parts of how I answer that won’t work in other countries – societal and cultural differances may be in the way, or the way Heathenry works there may be too different. Still, I’m going to give this a shot. (Obviously, this isn’t the only way to become a Heathen, if that even needed to be said…)

I always argue that one needs start by practicing rather than getting bogged down in the minutiae of belief. Europe, and the areas once under European control, has been heavily influenced in matters of religion by Christianity; maybe one can even claim that our collective understanding of what religion is has been largely shaped by it, and in particular its focus on belief. Especially in northern Europe where protestantism has dominated for cenuries, emphasising “sola fide”, there is a tradition of disregarding things like sacraments and the more ‘magical’ practices in favour of just talking. And talking about what people should believe. What is the right thing to believe. This causes many people who are interested in Heathenry to ask what we believe about certain things, expecting me as a representative of a Heathen organisation to convince them that I have all the answers. Or recommend them a book that do.

If one wants to understand Heathenry, one needs to start with actions, by doing Heathenry. To my mind, one cannot overstate the importance of practice. I would argue that practice is the most important part of becoming a Heathen. Ours is a religion of doing. This doesn’t mean, as some critics of Heathenry would have it, that we don’t believe, but that belief is largely a personal matter. Heathen religion spans thousands of years, and belief has varied a lot over time and between places. (And, lets not forget, so have practice, which sort of rules out the One Right Way of Doing It approach to cult as well.) But it was never an armchair religion. Taking a purely theoretical and philosophical approach to Heathenry isn’t bad, but if that is what you’re looking for this post won’t have very much of interest for you, I’m afraid.

asatruarfelagid01But how to start doing Heathenry then. While it’s strictly speaking true that “you can do it anyway you want”, this is not a very helpful answer. Saying this is meant to validate and empower the person asking to allow them to take responsability for their own connection with the gods, but all too often it’s just confusing and paralysing. Someone that has never seen a blót or anything similar may be at a total loss about what they can do. Because of this I usually advise that they try to find an existing group – blotlag, hearth, kindred – in their area and ask to attend a blót there. Learning from participating in a living tradition of a group that actually practices was the only way for thousands of years. A group that has existed for a few years, at least, will have found ways that work for them and developed relationships with both local spirits and certain gods, which will make it easier for someone starting out on the Heathen path. Even if one does not remain in a group, the experience and practical knowledge gained is invaluable when one practices on one’s own.

Of course, not all groups are open to outsiders, and even if they are they might not be the right group for you. There are a lot of things that can go wrong in a group, and if your gut feeling tells you there’s something off you should probably go with that feeling. But the complexities of joining a group is a much longer discussion than there is room for in this post.

Maybe there is no group where you live, or the groups around are aren’t admitting new members, or you just don’t like the people in them. In many countries there are organisations that hold larger blóts, open for anyone to attend whether one is a member or not. These blóts tend to be more infrequent that those held by local organisations, and due to the larger number of participants they may be quite different from blóts you will do by yourself at home. However, larger numbers also means not having to fit into an existing circle of friends, and if it turns out you don’t like the people or the mood there you can probably just slip away without worrying about people being offended. At the same time you can get a feel for the way a blót is done, and established organisations are likely to have knowledgable people open to answering your questions, or even trained clergy whose job it is to do so. Even if you have to travel far to get to something like this, the occasional cross country roadtrip shouldn’t deter you. Taking part in and experiencing blót at both the spiritual and hands-on level will tell you much more than reading about it.

There may be tonnes of reasons why you can do none of the things I’ve suggested above, does that mean you can’t hold blóts to the Norse gods? Of course not. I do believe you miss out on a big part of what modern Heathenry is, the shared experience and accumulated knowledge of our living traditions, but there are many Heathens that live away from others, doing their own thing and being happy with that. If that’s what you end up doing, by choice or out of necessity, my advice is to test different ways to approach the gods, different ways to hold a blót. Find what works for you.

img_20160913_110830Start simple, very simple, and build from there. Find a place where you can be undisturbed, a place that feels good, and bring a small offering. Find a tree, a lake, a stone that gives you a good feeling, and think of it as a meeting place. A place at which to find and be found. Talk to the place, talk to the gods, and do it out loud if you can. Speak from your heart or write something down in advance, but be personal, this is you introducing yourself to the gods, after all. You may feel silly to begin with, but you’ll get over that efter a while. Speak the names of the gods you want to know, greet them, tell them who you are, and tell them you bring them an offering. Hang it from a branch, throw it in the lake, or leave it on the stone. Or bury it in the ground, or burn it in a fire. I’m sure you can figure out what to do, but remember not to offer something that might be harmful to nature, you’re there worshipping gods that are immanent in nature.

You might not feel anything the first time (or times), or you might be blown away by the intensity of the experience. Regardless, there are going to be times when nothing seems to happen, but persistance in practice is what gets us there in the end. Try doing things differently and see what works better for you. And this is the time to start doing research. I don’t know of any good beginner’s books for Heathens – good being the operative word here – but there’s a lot of suggestions around the web. Try them. Keep doing what works, and discard the rest. You’re the boss of you, and you’re doing it right.

/Räv

A shrine in the woods – part 3

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The shrine in the woods, where I talk to Bergsrået, the keeper of the mountain.

A couple of days ago, for the first time in weeks, I went to visit the tiny shrine I built last year on the mountain in the woods. The weather has not really allowed for even light trekking, and today, with most of the snow gone, getting there was still a bit of an adventure. The thaw had made the ice patches even more slippery than before, coating them in a thin film of water.

Another reason for me waiting to go there is that it had been a while since I had remembered to bring a good blót gift with me, a convenient excuse when too tired to brave the tiny mountain/hill where the shrine is located – it’s a vicious circle, the longer I wait the worse I feel not bringing a gift. That day, however I brought a tiny bottle of liquor and braved the damp forest.

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Ernst Josephson, “Näcken”

It was a damp and grey morning, and the woods were very still. I walked in silence, hoping not to meet anyone on the way. I really feel this kind of blót is strengthened when I go there and home in silence, it’s something that is often required in folkpractices like collecting flowers for love divination or approaching the Näck to be taught expert violin playing skills. Living in a small village, if I meet someone on the path, I can’t NOT greet them and exchange a few pleasantries. That would be very rude.

 

I got to the mountain and climbed the slope. The bare rock can be very slippery when wet, so I zigzaged my way up, form mossy spot to heather patch until I got there. I hadn’t been sure that the little structure I’d built had survived the snow and winds, but there it was, moss covered roof and all. And also a new addition that I hadn’t seen before: Someone had attached to the stone wall, just under the roof, a small twig with white strips of cloth tied to it. It’s beautiful.

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The blotlag (hearth/kindred) Fröskog

I still don’t know who has done this, but I am really happy about it! As I pointed out above: This is a small village. And while I don’t really know everyone living here, I know of pretty much everyone. That also means that pretty much everyone knows of me. We have been very open about our religion, my wife and I, even before we moved out here a friend of my wife’s was told by a friend of hers who already lived out here that there were Asatruar moving here! (Gasp!) Everyone here has been very nice, and a few people have even started coming to our blóts. If one of them had left the little offering I’m pretty sure they would have told me, but I don’t know who else might have.

I’m actually quite happy for this to remain a mystery, though my nosey side can’t help being curious. Just the thought of someone else feeling the urge to leave something at the shrine warms my heart. I found the stone structure, built by someone else, and added what I felt was fitting to mark the special feeling of the place. Now someone else too has felt that it’s a special place and decided to leave something of themselves behind. That, to me, is the very heart of heathenry.

/Räv

Morning Devotional 

This morning I cuddled with our youngest in bed before I did anything else. Normally yoga and coffee takes precedence, but a lovely, cuddly four-year-old has too much going for him. Darkness, stillness, and my hand softly stroking his naked back, his eyes just half open. Morning meditation. 

Walking home after leaving the kids at school I saluted Delling, the dawn. The birch trees look so naked and cold, like bare nerves exposed to chilly winds and bright morning light. 

At home I caught a last glimpse of my moon shrine dressed to honour Skade. Tonight I am taking it down, letting the mirrors close gradually until the moon is lit again and the doors open for the next goddess. Who will it be?

/B

Heathenry in Trump’s America

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Image by Timothy Krause

While I’m not a citizen of the US, nor live there, the recent election in the US has been pretty much impossible to miss. News media in Sweden made a big deal about it since American politics impact us a fair amount and also because Donald Trump is a cartoonish, larger than life character that inspires a certain kind of horrified fascination in people. My American friends also kept me updated, and their dread at the very thought of him in the White House was only soothed by a growing conviction that he could not win. Well, we were wrong, he managed to get elected, and many of my friends (mainly Heathens and Pagans) are scared and angry. But what does this outcome actually mean for Heathens in the US?

I don’t know terribly much about the finer details of American society and politics, so I turned to Senior Lecturer/Associated Professor Fredrik Gregorius of Linköping University who did his PHD dissertation on modern Heathenry  (“Modern Asatru; To construct Ethnic and Cultural Identity”) and later went on to study extreme Christians in the US – notably John Hagee’s Cornerstone Church in Texas. I asked him to speculate about how the Trump presidency might affect Polytheists/Pagans and more specifically Heathens in the USA.

–It’s a complex issue, he stressed, and one can look at it in several different ways.

Laws on freedom of religion are strong in the US which may make it harder for those so inclined to legally discriminate against minority religions. Also, while Trump has sported bigoted views about religious minorities, neither Heathens nor other Polytheists have so far been the target of his hatred which has mostly been aimed at Muslims (on a personal note, I would like to point out that this rhetoric of hate should be treated as equally vile whether it be aimed at us or another community). However, it is important to note that should Trump introduce legislation aimed at restricting Muslims, there is no reason to believe this wouldn’t eventually be used against other religious minorities, Heathens included. The Gods know there are enough people out there that would jump at any opportunity to take down Heathens and Pagans.

satanic_panic_small– One shouldn’t forget that there has been persecution of minorities in the US, Gregorious points out and reminds me of the terrible consequences of the Satanic Panic in the 1980ies and 90ies.

Another point: Heathenry tends to attract people of alternative lifestyle, sexuality and/or identity disproportionally more than mainstream religions (thought perhaps slightly less so than some other modern Polytheist movements). This tendency will naturally lead to Heathens being affected to a greater degree than the majority by the measures Trump has promised evangelicals, such as repealing laws granting the LGBT-community the same rights as other people. On the whole, being of a minority in Trump’s America will probably be worse than in the recent past (already suicide hotlines have received record numbers of calls from LBTQ people), and Heathens will always be a minority vulnerable to the whims of the majority.

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Image by Johnny Silvercloud

Further threat comes not from Trump himself, but from the right wing Christians who helped elect him. Emboldend by the rhetoric of Trump, and perhaps even more so of Mike Pence, they may very well take it upon themselves to inflict their vision of a white, Christian-dominated society whether inside or outside the law, believing they have the backing of the president. After all, this is a man who promised to pay the legal fees for anyone who ran into trouble with the law after beating up anti-Trump protesters. Having had to share American society with people who don’t necessarily accept Christian claims to exceptionalism, they have for some time been throwing tantrums such as the comical “War on Christmas”. I cannot help but wonder what they will do with an administration in the White House that seems to share their idea of the supremecy of Christianity over other religions.

–There’s an attitude among some right wing Christians that religious freedom is really only about Christianity and that Christianity should have a privileged position [in society], Greorius explains. With Trump seeming to be ready to appoint young Earth creationist and climate change denier Ben Carson to Secretary of Education, having appointed conversion “therapy” proponent Mike Pence VP, and promised Christians to “restore faith to its proper mantle in society” and “respect and defend Christian Americans”, it seems anything but far fetched that this is what the hard line Christians expect to get.

While the US has, as mentioned above, strong laws protecting religious freedom, these laws are vulnerable to attacks of this type. The Satanic Temple has had some stunning successes, forcing different state governments to adher to the letter of these laws – most spectacularly they managed to get a monument to the ten commandments removed from the state capitol of Oklahoma, just by offering to donate their own statue of Baphomet – but even they have now run into trouble.

– They’ve been met with the argument that they’re not a “real religion”, Gregorius says, and that could point to a rather unpleasant trend where minorities aren’t considered to have the same rights as “established religions”.

By redefining the meaning of “religion”, Trump may be able to give his backers what they need, without having to change the laws.

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Yeah, you know who it is…

Lastly I need to bring up what is to me the most unsavory effect of all that Trump may have on American Heathenry, namely that of strengthening and encouraging the hateful and destructive forces within our own ranks. With a president that have no qualms labeling an entire nationality rapists that bring drugs to the US, it is more than likely that racist and national socialist interpretations of Heathenry will feel bolstered. White supremacists in other parts of American society have already flocked to Trump like flies to so much bovine manure, and I imagine the AFA will come to the party. Members of theirs have already been part of at least one Trump rally where people where stabbed by the pro-Trump crowd. And this is the very greatest threat to us Heathens as a community, for even if society at large would turn on some or all of us, we can band together and take care of eachother, but racist Heathens destroy us from two directions at once – their actions make all Heathens look bad, and they make us mistrust one another.

Ghosts

Bachelors_Grove_in_IR.jpgIt’s Halloween season, and eventhough it wasn’t celebrated in Sweden until about 20 years ago it has taken root – scary costums, pumpkins and all. My kids love it, and frankly I don’t mind it either. According to friends of mine, similar traditions existed in some places in Sweden when they were growing up, but were connected with Lucia celebrations in December. It seems obvious that this dark time of the year would make us all think about the scary stuff. Not least about ghosts.

There’s an old story (very old, apparently; according to Swedish historian Dick Harrison it may be 1500 years old and from continental Europe) about a woman attending Christmas morning service, but mistakenly arriving too early and finding herself at a service held by the dead. She escapes with the help of a dead relative, leaving behind a coat that the ghosts grab on to in an attempt to catch her.In the morning she finds her coat turned into dirt. The dead of folk tale are often dangerous, but there are also stories of ghosts showing the way to treasure and warning their descendants about danger.

Most people I know can also tell stories from their own families about interactions with deceased relatives. Some will say they talk to them, others will describe how ghosts or spirits of the dead have made themselves known through sounds or things being moved. I had a girlfriend a long time ago that told me she’d been properly haunted not just once, but many times, and indeed relatives of mine have had many encounters with ghosts of dead family members – some frightening, some comforting. My old girlfriend did not appreciate her ability to see the dead, but some of my relatives did.

The dead are ambiguous, much like living people. New Age beliefs would have us believe that people, when they die, get much nicer and more enlightened than when they were alive. That seems odd to me. I would imagine we stay pretty much the same. We care about the same people as we did when we were alive, but we can pretty much be persuaded to help through gifts and attention. If offerings work, like some say, as a transfer of power, of “energy”, of megin, our offerings to the foremothers and forefathers may give them the power to help us. To act in our lives on our behalf.

At any rate, I hope they’ll like the food and drink I plan to give them at our Alvablót.

/Räv

Susy Spied An Elf

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Älvlek, by August Malmström

What are elves? That is notoriously hard to pin down. In Swedish, only the feminin form of the word – “älva”, plural”älvor” – survived to more recent times, and they’re typically seen as very erotic female beings capable of helping or harming people, depending on how we interact with them. In Danish there’s the “elverfolk”, quite similar to älvor, but also “elverpigen” (“the elf girl”) who seems to be more similar to the Swedish “skogsrå” (which I tend to translate to “the keeper of the woods/forest”) and the Norwegian “huldra”. Norwegian folklore hardly mentions elves, but Iceland is full of them – though they seem much more like the wights (“vättar” or “vittra”) of Swedish tradition.

As if that wasn’t enough, in older sources there are many different kinds of elves as well. There are Svartálfar (black elves), Dökkálfar (dark elves, not necessarily the same as black elves), ljósálfar (light elves) and even occasionally landálfar (land elves). Admittedly, there are a few scholars that just think Snorri is confused and mixes up elves, dwarves and possibly other beings, but that still doesn’t sort out the vast variety of roles that elves fill in the mythology. In Havamal, Dáinn is described as having cut runes for the elves, Wayland/Völund the smith is called an elf, in Kormak’s saga there are elves living in a mound that help with healing, and the phrase “ása ok álfa” is used in the poetic Edda to mean “all the gods”.

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By Arthur Rackham

In the end, the elves – like the wights, trolls and disir – are categories that we make up and ascribe meaning to. Too often do I hear of Heathens who seem to claim that our names and stories are the objective reality, rather than our and our forbears’ attempt to put in words experiences of the intangible. It’s presumptuous to assume that our systematisation, or that of those who went before us, of the wholly other is perfect. That is why ours is an evolving religion, why our theology is a fluid rather than a solid – so that we can adapt our understanding continuously.

So, what are elves? The concept is in all likelihood thousands of years old, since there was an ancestor word of it in proto-Germanic, and they are consistently portrayed (from myth to folklore) as magical but human-looking beings of  supernatural beauty, helping or hindering humans depending on the circumstances. In myth and saga they are associated with death and ancestor worship, and they inhabit prominent features in the landscape. But what are they? WHO are they? In the end, texts and sources can only take you this far since there can be no ultimate consensus, and this is where you have to find out for yourself. When you go into the woods to listen to the wind and the rain, when call to them as you pour beer onto the stones of your hörgr/harrow or leave coins on an old elf mill stone – and you hear them answer.

/Räv

Autumn Darkness

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“Nótt”, by Peter Nicolai Arbo

In the darkness of autumn and winter, that which is hidden by the light of the summer sun becomes visible. I say those words every year at the Höstblot, our autumn blót at the equinox, and yet the transition from the bright light of summer to the dark half of the year catches me as off guard as always. Here, in this village out in the woods, where street lights and other electric light are too few to light up the clouds at night, darkness is very present. My wife, having been born in Stockholm and brought up there, was taken by surprise our very first autumn here; in October, night is like a tangible thing here, a curtain that you can imagine reaching out and touching with your hand.

There’s really nothing like being outside the lightpolluted skies of our cities and towns and watching a vast, starry sky above your head. But the darkness of the October and november nights are often starless; then darkness is close up and personal, but deep at the same time. Nótt, the goddess of night, may often be imagined as the star-lit sky and we often talk about how small we feel below that sky, but when the darkness is thick and formless, whipping cold drops of water in your face that is when you know her. There is little of marvel, you are left alone with yourself. She is an awesome goddess. In every sense of the word.

/R

The “Hill of Frith” Bronze Age Grave

I took a different route when I went out walking yesterday, and rather than looking for mushrooms – what I usually do these days – I went looking for an ancient monument. While we don’t have any pyramids in Dalsland, and we have yet to find anything resembling Stonehenge, the area surrounding our village is not bereft of history. People have apparently lived here since the Stone Age, and they have left their marks on the land.

This area is named after Frey, and legend has it that there used to be a cultic site dedicated to him not far from here (supposedly on the spot where there’s now a 16th century wooden church). There are remenants of Stone Age and Bronze Age settlements, their agriculture and cultic activities – there are quite a few of both rock carvings and graves in this area. My wife and I have already visited the local rock carvings and held blót there (thought not ON them – while we act in a tradition of thousands of years, one has to be careful not to destroy that which has been handed down to us through time), but I took it upon myself to find one of the local Bronze Age burials.

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These are the main type of rock carvings in our area. I haven’t even found any cup markings, so prolific in almost all other areas of rock carvings. These symbols make me think about the sun, but who knows what they meant to the people originally making them.

The Swedish National Heritage board has an online tool with which one can search for interesting sites, Fornsök. (They also have an app, but I’ve never had that work for me in any meaningful way.) It’s a map and it allows you to zoom in on an area and see all recorded find sites there, and lets you click on places with finds to get the information. I would have loved to have the map information in Google maps, so I could use the GPS to get there, but I guess you can’t get it all…

It took me about half an hour to walk to the hill where the map showed the burial mound to be, but the trees grow so dense and the undergrowth is so thick that at first I didn’t think I would be able to get anywhere near it. I was looking for an old path that was supposed to be there, but the map must be old, because I couldn’t find it. However, eventually I braved the pine needles and thorn bushes and beyond the initial wall of vegetation I found trekking a lot easier. A sepentine search up the slope eventually lead me to the top of the hill and there it was.

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The mound on top of the Hill of Frith (Fridens kulle)

I suppose it doesn’t look that imposing in a picture – it’s a pile of lichen-covered stones with a pine tree growing in their midst – and I don’t know whether it’s the knowledge of it’s ancient origins or a real spiritual connection with the people who built it, the person buried there and the gods and spirits they turned to, but it was a powerful moment. I had forgotten to bring anything give as an offering, so I just sat there, hands on the rocks, and thought about this place. While it’s really hidden these days, back two and a half or three thousand years ago this hill was likely visible from the lowlaying farmland below; or maybe there were a trail on which many people traveled, or maybe water flowed where no water flows now. Whoever was buried there so long ago would have been remembered as whenever someone say the monument, and they would have seen it constantly.

I’ve just re-read the book “Frey – God of the World”, by Ann Gróa Sheffield. As the title suggests it’s a book all about Frey (and a very good book, in my opinion), and the writer spends quite some time on Frey as a god of burial mounds. While this book references sources more than a thousand years younger than the mound, and the religion and traditions in all likelihood had changed quite a bit, the continous use of places like Ekornavallen for up to 7000 years suggests that some things were constants. And while the Bronze Age people’s of this area used another name, the spiritual connection between the people, their foremothers and forefathers, and the deities of land, life and death, are in essence the same as that which I feel at that mound and name Frey. Names change, traditions change and even the very land beneath our feet can rise or fall, but the bond we experience is the same, and that is at the very heart of Heathenry.

/Räv

Autumn

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I’m an autumn person. I’m not talking about the colour scheme I should be wearing, I don’t know what an autmn person in that respect would entail, I just like autumn; which is weird because I really, really love feeling the sun on my skin, and my skin seems to thrive on a high ultraviolet diet. But I really love the time of year when night comes back and there’s a chill in the air. I like being able to get my tweed on and take a walk among colourful leaves, and I love picking mushrooms in the woods. Chantarelle, hedgehog mushroom and Yellowfoot are treasures, and I’ve just started to learn about Boletales like penny buns and a group of mushrooms that I can only find in English under their Latin name: Leccinum.

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Chantarelles, forest gold

While I’ve already been able to pick mushrooms for a while now – yesterday I made a nice stew from freshly picked penny bun and birch bolete for lunch and it was fantastic – that crisp autumn air is still making me wait. There’s a strangely humid heat covering everything like an uncomfortably warm blanket, leaving me feeling sticky and tired. Far from the pleasant cool I associate with this time of year.

img_20160822_122428The heat may even be interfering with my brewing. I started a new batch of mead a week or so ago, and at first it was fermenting away, happily bubbling along through the airlock. Then, all of a sudden, it stopped. Last time that happened I got it starting again by adding some slices of apple from a neighbour’s tree, but it would still only ferment during the night, when it was colder. This time I’m hoping to get a mead only tasting of the honey, as I get a very nice honey from a local beekeeper just down the road, but if I can’t get it going soon, I’ll add a bit of apple peel to see if that can get it going.

So far, September has been consistently warmer than normal, and with us having a southfacing wall with lots of windows, and a very well insulated house, it get hot in here. Until recently we couldn’t leave the doors or windows open, because there’s been so much wasps. No nest in our garden or anything, just so many wasps everywhere.

img_20160831_084730I’ll get my autumn fix, sooner or later, but  it’s sad to think this kind of weather is going to be a far more regular occurance in the future. It may be a tiny bit of the troubles that global warming is bringing, but it hits closer to home for me than most other outcomes. The trees around are already responding to the change in daylight, especially the birches are starting to turn yellow and shedding some of their leaves. Now nights are proper nights again and soon we’ll celebrate autumn blót. I hope by then it’s really autumn in the air.

 

/Räv