ETCETERA COUNTRY LIFE

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The Independent Culture
I DON'T know what the Secretary of State for Education would have made of it, or the local clergy for that matter, but a spot of tree-worship at one of the local primary schools was exactly what most of us needed after the debilitating winter. It was the day after the spring equinox, and we'd gathered to commemorate the 10th anniversary of Haresfoot School - and of the blue cedar that had been planted in the grounds all those springs ago.

It is a remarkable school - Green, gutsy, liberal-minded - that has cut across my life in many ways, and not only because my sister teaches there. It sits in the dramatic hill country at the southern edge of the parish, where I did most of my own growing-up, in an old mansion once owned by the family that liberated our common a century-and-a-half ago. So it didn't seem at all odd that its anniversary was being celebrated in ways that echoed some very old and earthy rites.

The children, plus what remained of the staff after the winter's epidemics, held hands and wound round the cedar in a long spiral, togged up like miniature Green Men with papier mch bushes on their heads. They hung lanterns around the tree, and sang a song comparing its growth with the school's that even a Victorian Sunday school teacher could have smiled on. The sun blazed, a sparrowhawk did another spiral high above us, and there weren't many dry eyes among the adults present.

I suspect that the loss of most of our seasonal rites of passage has affected us far more than we care to admit, and that we may need these ways of easing age and transience even more than our more naturally-rooted ancestors. I know I miss the one that I relied on to break winter's spell until just a few years ago. It was our local Beltain, an Easter Monday Morris festival that was held outside a canalside pub - until a new landlord decided that the whole bacchanalia was far too extravagant. The Morris was not the twee stuff of village greens, but intense, strange, evocative dancing by sides down from the Midlands with blackened faces and fanstastic floral outfits. It used to give me gooseflesh. For a whole day, bad humour and hangovers were miraculously banished. Friends not seen for many years homed in on the spot. And nearly always one other remarkable thing happened. Some time during the afternoon, even when Easter was early and we were drinking and dancing in sleet, the first swallows used to coast overhead, into the wind.

There were no swallows at the Haresfoot ceremony, and it was of course a complete coincidence that the sun shone for three days, and the plagues began to lift.

Seasonal rituals are now played out tongue-in-cheek; they aren't things that we believe in any more. But maybe they do serve to celebrate renewal, and the fact that we are creatures governed by biological calendars ourselves. They don't, as our ancestors believed, help the world go round, but they do remind us that it does. 8

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