In early February, I attended the online Global Gardens Imbolc celebration. An invitation to welcome the light coming back with stories, songs and food.
“Imbolc in the celtic seasonal calendar signals the beginning of Spring and the stirrings of new life.” Global Gardens
Cath Little told us stories and sang us songs. Her stories make me feel connected to an older and wiser part of us.
She told me of her grandmother, Laura Hwyl who’d lived on Broadway and sold apples that she’d grown in her back garden.
I was particularly caught by the story of Anne and the Snakes. A tale of the importance of being connected with each other, nature and wildlife for health and balance in our lives. I’m retelling it here with my own twist.
Anne grew up in the town of Cowbridge to a well to do family, a mother and a merchant. Her father was off trading in the town and the city most often, so Anne spent long days at home with her Mother.
She was a pretty well adjusted child, she did well in her studies and seemed content to play in the garden whilst her mother cooked, and to read her books. She did love to read. She didn’t see so many other children, although they lived in town, her parents weren’t such sociable folk.
Anne had a friend or two in school, but no one close by where she lived. So she didn’t see anyone over the long weekends or the even longer school holidays.
Her parents had bought the house they lived in quite recently. The previous owners had tended a large vegetable patch in the garden. There was a small orchard, a pond, a large compost heap, and raised beds, mostly full of weeds now. Those opportunistic pioneer plants who occupy space when human hands have finished. Soil doesn’t like to be bare.
Her mother was not a gardener. She much preferred the new shiny supermarket that had opened its doors recently in town. She loved all the produce she hadn’t been used to, things from all over, all in shiny packaging making the food look rich and delicious on the shelves. And the cakes! She had a sweet tooth for sure, she’d languish in pudding, long for the luscious desserts and trifles that came ready prepared. It was all so new. ‘Why bother tending the veg patch when I can get carrots all ready for the pot here’, she thought. As did most other folk at that time of change in the world.
Anne enjoyed the summer days, but when the seasons started to turn, around her 7th birthday, she started to wither a little. Her skin became paler, her mood not so buoyant. Her parents worried.
Then as the heart of winter arrived and a cold covered the world, Anne started to stay in doors. Not moving much from her chair in the library. She felt terrible and her skin started to itch. As the days went by first her arms then her legs then her face came to be completely covered by a sore itchy red rash.
Her mother was terrified. She covered Anne in the latest balms and liquids and doused her with waters from the local chemist. Anne felt miserable. She didn’t want to go to school because she looked so hideous, like a bright red tomato. So she stayed home. And her rash became red raw.
The world turned once more and the light of Imbolc came. Anne saw out of the library window that buds were starting to appear on the bushes, crocus were poking there green stems tentatively above the Earth, snowdrops the same.
She wrapped her blanket tightly around her shoulders and walking past her busy mother through the kitchen she stepped out the back door. The cold hit her hard. Her mother kept the house very warm, almost too warm.
She sucked in the brisk air. She felt a kind of delight she’d not felt for ages. She walked slowly, looking around, feeling the crisp leaves and grass beneath her feet, noticing tiny spots of green budding into the world all over the garden.
She went to sit leaning against the sides of the large compost heap that hadn’t been touched for a good long while. She could feel warmth coming from the pile. There were some abandoned logs making a good perch.
Out of the corner of her eye Anne noticed something moving. Something slithering and sliding. She jumped! She wasn’t familiar with wild things, she had no clue about the kinds of beings who lived here.
But she was comfortable sitting on her log pile, so she stayed, sitting with the curious feelings of fear flashed with intrigue and, a bit of emerging delight.
‘What could live here?’ she thought.
She sat and listened, her senses attuned so sharply, somehow being out in the cold made her feel more alive than she had done for ages.
And then, out of the corner of her eye, she met the creature who had been stirring close by. It was a snake. She froze! She’d read in books about far off lands that snakes were super poisonous and deadly. She gasped, grabbed her blanket and ran back to the house as fast as she could.
Once back in the safety and warmth of the library, she looked out the Wildlife Explorer book she had seen many times, but never opened, preferring the tales of far away places she found in books like the Arabian Nights.
She turned page after page, she wondered at creature after creature, and then she saw it, the snake she had seen in the garden. It was a common grass snake. She felt a bit foolish as this creature was harmless. What was most unusual, Anne noted, was that grass snakes usually hibernate from October until April, but it was barely February. What would bring a grass snake to be awake in such cold?
Anne was intrigued and wanted to do something to help the grass snake who should really still be sleeping. She thought the snake might want something nourishing, so she went to her mothers pantry and found a glass bottle filled with delicious fresh unpasteurised cows milk. Milk was still being delivered from the farm up the road, Mother thought it tasted nicer than the milk in the plastic bottles in the supermarket. And you got the penny back if you returned the bottle too.
She found a saucer, put a little milk in it, being careful not to spill the precious creamy white stuff, and tiptoed carefully back out the back door, quietly so as not to disturb her Mother, or succumb to any questions about what she was doing.
She laid the saucer carefully just by where she had been sitting, stepped away a little and waited. Soon enough the snake slithered along and drank deeply from the saucer. The snake looked at Anne, Anne felt as if she had been thanked. And off it slithered.
Anne felt satisfied by her attempts to help the snake, so she did the same the next day, and the next. On day 21 of offering milk to the snake, Anne was a bit surprised when, for the first time, the snake moved closer to her. The snake touched her hand slightly with its face. It felt all soft and slidy, not slimy like Anne was expecting. Anne was so touched by this moment, she felt all overcome with emotion and felt tears welling in her eyes. In this tiny moment she felt love for this new snake friend she was making.
The next day, the snake came even closer to Anne, so close in fact it wrapped its long thin body around Anne’s arm in what felt like an embrace, then licked at Anne’s skin where it was visible under her sleeve. Anne noticed how good that felt.
The day after that the snake climbed up Anne’s body and touched her face with its slidy skin. Anne felt positively dizzy, what a wonderful feeling to be kissed by a snake.
On the third day when Anne woke up she felt different. She looked in the mirror, the sore red patches that had plagued her so all winter were gone. She looked at her arms, gone, her legs, gone. She ran down to her Mother and showed her. Her Mother was so delighted to see her daughter looking so well, she cried tears of joy and hugged her, and hugged her. Her mother asked her what had happened. Anne told her the tale of the snake in the garden.
From that day on and for everyday for the rest of her life, wherever she was in the world (and she had travelled much), Anne always left out a saucer of milk for the snake.