In recent years several friends have sent me a “Happy Beltane” greeting on 1 May. I always feel I should respond with a photo of me wearing an antler headdress (yes, I do own one) dancing naked round a burning wicker man, but aged 55 I leave such antics to younger women and the Fire Festival crowd on Edinburgh’s Carlton Hill. It’s all part and parcel of a surging trend by which the UK embraces its pagan roots. I don’t remember anyone talking about the Green Man in my long-distant schooldays when Thatcherism and its antidote, punk rock, were driving forces. But now the revived motif is everywhere, including on Charles III’s coronation invitations. In Hastings there’s a Jack in the Green festival that has gone mainstream since its counterculture founding in 1983. It’s fair to say we’ve come a long way since the Puritans banned maypoles in 1644.
These ancient celebrations may seem phoney to some in 2023 (there’s certainly an element of druid-lite about it all) but evoking the spirits of wild places is surely a positive thing in our age of eco-destruction. Where’s the harm in honouring trees and hedgerows and attuning ourselves more finely to the seasons, so we’re better aware when nature is out of kilter? On a practical level, we have a far stronger instinct to protect what we value and revere.
My senses went into hyperdrive trying to divine the eerie force that stopped the birdsong
To further convince the sceptics, there’s solid science underpinning the new green mysticism. In 1997 Suzanne Simard (now Professor of Forest Ecology at the University of British Columbia) published research alerting the world to her astonishing discovery that trees could communicate and cooperate via subterranean mychorrhizal networks – or “beneficial” fungi that act as extensions to trees’ root systems. More recently, she alerted the world to the concept of a “mother tree” – the tallest in a forest – that nurtures the smaller trees surrounding it.
Simard’s discovery made perfect sense to me. As a child growing up surrounded by beech woodland, I had a real sense of being tracked by some form of wild entity. A canopy of branches stretched over my head with a legion of bird spies and dead leaves crackling underfoot. At the forest’s centre there was a sudden clearing, overgrown with tall bracken where adders lurked, and you were wise to stick to the path. I often had a sense of being Lucy in the Narnia books, about to stumble across a faun. My siblings and I made “homes” from the pliable woven branches of stripped saplings, with beds of lush green moss. Sometimes we left gifts of food on tin plates for nocturnal visitors.
One area of the woods felt more forbidding than the rest of our green playground. The old beeches here were gnarlier and had once been pollarded; they looked like trees from an Arthur Rackham storybook. You could easily climb up amongst their branches, but there was a sense of only grudging permission. Aged eleven or so, I once made my way to this spot with my best friend Polly. We clambered up into what I’d term a “goblin tree” more than a maternal entity, making up a story as we went, to amuse ourselves. Then all at once, as if compelled, we ceased chattering – and the woods went silent too. Birdsong ceased and my senses went into hyperdrive trying to divine the eerie force that had taken its place… Even now I’d struggle to describe it. The closest I can manage is some form of overwhelming yet silent hum that conveyed with absolute authority that our presence wasn’t welcome any more. We almost fell from the tree in our haste to escape and ran like kids in a horror movie, scrambling and tumbling over fallen boughs and through brambles, to get back to safety.
If you think I’m hamming it up, I have a record of this escapade in my primary school diary and when I reread it last year it made goosebumps rise on my arms. Something wild and ancient sent us a message and – porous vessels that children are – we heard and obeyed. This goes some way to explaining why, even now, the Irish will reroute roads rather than cut down a sacred “fairy” thorn bush and provoke the wrath of the spirits of the land.
I would argue it doesn’t matter what narrative you favour for our relationship with nature, mystic or scientific (or both), the reality remains the same: if you upset the delicate balance of our ecosystems, the outcome is never favourable to humanity. So I see no reason not to go full-Beltane every May as a symbolic gesture of atonement to the whispering flora, thrumming fungi and angry little deities, who may well be voles and beetles.
But on a purely primal level, who doesn’t feel a springtime urge to revel in rising sap, unfurled leaves and verdant pastures? When I was editor of the Erotic Review magazine, many moons ago, I took a childish delight in the traditional ditty, “Hooray, hooray the first of May, outdoor fucking begins today!” It absolutely captured the urge to go astray in a fairy forest and was a salutary reminder that May Day festivities were originally fertility rites. In fact, I would argue it’s our sacred duty to don ivy garlands, venture into the wild woods and engage in the act of renewal.
Rowan Pelling is editor at Perspective and former editor of the Erotic Review