In a traditional neopagan Wheel of the Year, Imbolc is the holiday that offers the first signs of spring. Most traditionally, this is when the ewes began to lactate, and the snowdrops appeared on the landscape in the British Isles. In the age of climate instability, traditional seasonal interpretations become challenged for many reasons–not the least of which are climate disruptions. So how might we bring the holiday of Imbolc into the 21st century and think about what this holiday means to us today?
As I’ve discussed in earlier posts in this series, the 21st Century, the Age of the Anthropocene, offers us a set of unprecedented challenges and yet opportunities. As a permaculture designer, I think it’s important to recognize that while the problems we already face are unavoidable, these problems give us a chance to re-see, re-think, and revise our way of living and interacting in the world. Or, “the problem is the solution.” We know that our way of life is unsustainable,–so the opportunity and impetus is now to do something about it. Because the Age of the Anthropocene presents us such challenges, it is an excellent time to think about how we can create spiritual practices that deeply engage us in the here and now of this age, and provide us a clear set of spiritual and physical tools that empower us into being part of the solution.
If you look at my previous posts in this series, starting at the Fall Equinox, you can see a clear progression. Here is our wheel so far:
- Fall Equinox: Receptivity. Working to embrace receptivity rather than expected harvest and reward and being open to the unexpected; working to adapt to what comes rather than being disappointed by what we expect which does not appear. In other words, it is setting aside traditional notions of reaping rewards for hard effort and instead focusing on receptivity and flexibility.
- Samhain: Release: Releasing and letting go so that we can embrace a different and unique tomorrow. Samhain is about unburdening ourselves from both our expectations of the future (tying into the Fall Equinox) and also dealing with our own pain and trauma surrounding an increasingly unstable age. By letting go we put ourselves in a place to be ready to heal and rest.
- Winter Solstice: Restoration/Rejuvenation. Now that we have let go of our expectations (founded on a different age) and dealt with the pain and trauma, we are ready to heal, rest, and immerse ourselves in our own spiritual practices. In the age of the Anthropocene, many people are finding that self-care and rest are more important than ever before.
These three holidays set the foundation for what is to come–they are all internal, asking us to look inward and lay the spiritual, mental, and emotional foundation for the work in the light half of the year.
One final thing before we get into today’s topic–I’ve gotten some serious pushback on this series. My take is this: the further we move into human-driven climate disruptions, the less the traditional seasonal celebrations are going to make sense, and the more sense of loss we may have surrounding an age that has passed. From my perspective, it is important to make adaptable tools that work for my spiritual practice that work for right now and that helps me create and foster positive visions for the future. But if you are a traditionalist, my approach probably won’t appeal. That’s ok, do your thing.
Reskilling at Imbolc
Today, at Imbolc and our last “dark half of the year” holiday, we consider the next step in our new Wheel of the Year: Reskilling.
As a basic activity to introduce reskilling, consider your answer to the following questions: Do you know how to provide your own food, water, shelter, clothing, and warmth from nature or the land around you? How resilient do you feel you are if you no longer had access to the supermarket for a period of time? What traditional skills do you practice?
One of the major challenges we face in the age of the Anthropocene is that most of the traditional skills passed on from generation to generation were lost. The social and economic movements of the 19th and 20th centuries created generations of people who are entirely dependent on others for taking care of their basic needs. For hundreds of thousands of years–millions even–before we were even homo sapiens, it was a basic necessity for a human being to act like every animal on this planet: to be able to know where to find food and water, to take shelter, to keep themselves warm and safe. These basic skills have been stripped from us–and as we are watching the global engines which drive systems we depend for these things upon grind to a halt–it is time to do something about that problem.
Reskilling is the idea that we can learn new skills: skills associated with taking care of our basic needs like water, food, shelter, clothing, and other basic know-how. Reskilling encompasses a great many skills including those in wilderness survival and bushcraft (e.g. how to survive in the wilderness, make fire, wild food foraging, wild crafts and arts) but also those surrounding our homes and lives such as how to grow your own food, food preservation techniques, animal husbandry, beekeeping as well as how to create things for your use: spoon and bowl carving, sewing, hand papermaking, tool repair and creation, blacksmithing, and so much more. The whole point here is to develop a set of new skills–skills practiced by all of our ancestors throughout much of human history–so that we are more resilient and prepared to meet our needs and the needs of our family, friends, and community.
Why is Imbolc a good time to do this work? Because for those in temperate climates, it is usually the deepest part of winter, and it’s after the rush of the holidays. This time of year is great for learning and practicing new skills. Traditionally, the winter months were useful for developing and maintaining new skills in a traditional household–this is when the mending got done, the spoons and bowls got carved, cordage was made, quilts were finished, and a host of other skill-based activities took place.
Reskilling is also about planning and figuring out what kinds of things you want to do and what skills you may need to get yourself there. For example, this year, I’m starting to work on a massive project–building our family’s root cellar using earth bag construction. Because this will be entirely done by hand, I have to have the right set of knowledge to know how to build it, how to prevent frost heaving, how to ensure good airflow, etc. So that requires me to develop a new set of skills surrounding earthbag construction. That’s what I’m focusing on at Imbolc this year–reading books, watching a number of videos, putting my plans on paper, and developing a new set of knowledge and skills to begin the project.
There are two approaches to reskilling that people often take: reskilling around basic human needs and developing specialist skills.
Basic human skills: At one time, all people were generalists in the sense that they knew how to take care of their own needs: forage or grow food; preserve food; make fire; make shelter; source clean water, etc. So there’s a set of skills that probably all of us can learn and share together surrounding our basic human needs. These basics actually encompass quite a few things:
- Food: Growing food, wild food foraging, animal husbandry, food preservation, fermentation and brewing, low-impact and traditional cooking methods
- Shelter: how to protect yourself, how to build simple shelters, natural building, building outdoor spaces (outdoor kitchens, etc), root cellars, appropriate shelter for animals, etc.
- Warmth: Building and tending fires, working with fire for cooking and heating, being able to start a fire with different methods
- Water: knowing how to source and filter clean water
- Clothing: Learning how to mend clothing, sewing skills, this may also include things like cobbling (shoemaking) or creating other items
- Household and functional items: Making things that we need and use every day (cups, bowls, spoons); learning how to do things without fossil fuel (people power), etc.
- Supporting earth. I would add to this basic list of human needs that we need a healthy, diverse, and abundant planet on which to live, and so skills supporting protecting and preserving our own lands also go here. These are techniques like permaculture, regenerative agriculture, and other practices that help us directly impact the life on this planet.
This list is actually a huge number of different skills. Here, I think, it pays to be a dabbler. Learn a bit about a lot of different things so that you can help prepare yourself for a variety of different challenges that may arrive–and become much more sustainable and earth-friendly in your own living.
Specialist skills. In traditional and pre-industrial cultures, beyond the generalist skills that everyone knew, there were people who specialized in crafts and techniques that were unique. For example, a typical medieval village would have a miller who milled grain, a cobbler who made shoes, a blacksmith who worked iron and other metals, a healer who specialized in herbs and plants; an apiarist who worked with bees to produce honey and candles, and many more things. These skilled professionals could also be found in traditional hunter-gatherer societies.
There were also specialist skills surrounding needs beyond the basic–storytelling, poetry, and other arts were traditional forms of entertainment that some individuals chose to specialize in. When we think about reskilling, it’s not just about providing our basic needs but also other things that enrich our lives, like providing our own entertainment.
If you are serious about reskilling, I would suggest in addition to working on the basics (which may take a number of years) you might choose to specialize in a particular specialist set of skills from the list above. Learn how o really hone your craft in that skill. Perhaps you already have a skill set, and this is a good time to re-commit yourself to those skills. Or perhaps this is your first time considering it!
Where does the part about ceremony and ritual come into play with these skillsets? There are several ways, which we’ll now explore.
Sacred Actions and Reskilling
One of the ways to ritualize the idea of reskilling is through the concept I advocate in my book Sacred Actions: Living the Wheel of the Year through Sustainable Practices. In this book, the idea of Sacred Action is that of living in a manner that is sacred–recognizing that everyday life can have sacred intent and bringing in some of that to your life. (There’s a lot more about reskilling in my book too, if you are interested!)
Thus, if you want to focus your energy on learning to sprint and knit, and make your own clothes, recognizing that this is a sacred and earth-honoring activity will help bring your own spiritual principles in alignment with the work. It allows you to approach the work not as “work” but as a sacred activity that puts you deeply in touch with the land.
Blessing and Honoring Your Tools
Most reskilling requires some kind of basic tools. For me continuing to learn natural building, for example, my drawknife, hatchet, shovel, soil sifter, and wheelbarrow are really important tools that I use regularly. These tools were all that I used to build the heat sink back wall of my greenhouse, my earth oven (posts forthcoming!), and will be what I use for my new root cellar project. These tools represent my connection to the skills I am developing, and I could not do these projects without them. Thus, the tools can be treated in honor and respect. I like to honor my tools in several ways:
- Before I begin a new project or start working on a project, I like to do a small ceremony invoking the elements and doing a smoke cleansing of my tools
- I make sure I care for my tools properly, sharpening them, cleaning them, and putting them away after use. When I put them away, I thank the tools for their help.
Recognize too that your body is the most important tool for reskilling–thus, you can also honor and bless your own body as part of this work. You can do this when you honor your tools at the start of the project or in any other self-care-oriented or ritualized way (sacred bath, smoke clearing, etc).
Honoring the Ancestors of the Craft
Another way to bring sacred practices into your reskilling is by honoring the ancestors of your craft. Every skill that you might want to learn has individuals–known or unknown–who have helped preserve the tradition, taught it, rediscovered certain things, wrote books, historically documented material, or whatever else they did to ensure the tradition remained alive. These ancestors of the craft can certainly be honored as part of a reskilling practice.
For example, one of the skills I have committed to learning is leatherworking, both to create things like bags or knife sheaths but also cobbling. I shared more of the story of my tools and how I honor the ancestors of that craft in this post. In a nutshell, I named my industrial sewing machine “Coco” after my ancestor of craft and make regular offerings. In a second example, for my ongoing reskilling surrounding wild food foraging, I honor my Grandfather Custer as my ancestor as he taught me my first wild plants and always took me into the woods. Thus, I have a special place at my parents’ house that I go that is named “Grandpa’s field” and I make offerings and remember him there.
You can create a small shrine, say a small prayer, put up a picture, name a project or tool after your ancestor of the craft. You can do this work at Imbolc once a year or, consider doing it more often (such as when you clean your tools or when you start a new project). This is an excellent thing to establish as you are establishing your new skill–consider how you can honor the ancestors of the craft and be inspired by them.
A Commitment to the Journey
A final way that you can ritualize your exploration into reskilling is by doing a ceremony of commitment to your new craft. I would suggest that you spend some time in the craft first (e.g. in AODA, individuals who are pursuing a new bardic art are encouraged to spend 20 hours–which is enough time to know if they would want to continue it or set it aside. After you’ve done enough of the craft to know that you want to continue it, you can do a commitment ceremony. For this ceremony, I suggest that you:
- Honor and bless your tools
- Speak about what you’ve already learned and what you would like to learn
- Set goals
- Invoke the assistance of higher powers/diety/ancestors/spirits
You can craft this ceremony in any way that is appropriate. For example, when I took up the leatherworking journey, I did a ceremony like this. I pulled out the lovely supplies and tools that I had been gifted and I set them around me. I touched each one and spoke to them of what I might create with them. I held the tools and honored those who had used them before me and made them. I set goals for the kinds of things I wanted to create. I then spent some quiet time sketching designs and meditating, and then I closed the space. I’m not giving a specific ritual here because I feel that each person and path would require a unique approach.
When I started learning these traditional skills about 15 years ago and moved into more radical lifestyle changes, like taking up homesteading, I think a lot of people (particularly those at my workplace) looked at me like I was crazy. I think that the tide has finally turned on this, however, and more people are waking up to the fact that the systems we depend on will not be there forever. If anything of the last two years have taught us, at least here in the US, is that things are not as stable as they once were. We are likely to experience much more instability as climate change continues to progress and we continue to see more social unrest and upheaval on the long descent. Thus, learning these kinds of skills not only cultivates resiliency in our lives, but it also provides some distance from the very systems that are harming the planet. Everything I’ve outlined above allows us to live more richly, slowly, connected, and regeneratively, and those are skills well worth cultivating. They are meant to be done in the community, inviting others in to participate and enjoy.
The big issue that a lot of people have is time. Yes, this kind of approach takes time and energy. But this is energy and time well spent, both to developing a more sustainable and spiritual practice and creating a better tomorrow for ourselves, our loved ones, and future generations. Like anything else, I think if we are creative about how we engage in these skills, we can find time to enact them.
I would love to hear from you, readers, on your own reskilling efforts! What are you working on? What have you learned? What would you like to learn?