‘We do not know what things look like, as you say,’ Aunt Beast said. ‘We know what things are like.’
~ Madeleine L’Engle, A Wrinkle In Time
It’s Imbolc-tide! Milk is filling, sap is rising to turn branches red. In between polar vortices so cold they burn, there is a freshness in the air that can’t be denied. Now is the source of the Spring: Imbolc, the feast of Brigid, Celtic goddess of milkmaids, midwives, healers and fresh sources of water.
So I’m spending this ancient Celtic holiday in a wetsuit in Florida, swimming with manatees.
What do manatees have to do with Imbolc?
I didn’t even think of the timing for this retreat when my ocean activist friends Wayne and Samantha invited me, but it is synchronistically perfect: in the season of sacred wells and healing springs, I’m immersed in the Crystal River, the riverine child of over 30 natural springs.
The timing makes sense: cows are sacred to Brigid, so why not sea cows?
Imbolc means ‘lactation’; it means, ‘in the milk.’ In Northern European herding cultures, Imbolc marked the time of year in which ewes and nanny goats are expecting lambs and kids. The mamas start to lactate in advance of giving birth. So, you know birth is coming, the same way you know Spring is coming.
This time of year, the revival of energy that is Aquarius the water-bearer, the water in everything is activated and turns liquid as milk.
Perhaps because of its watery nature, Imbolc is a traditional time to commit a pilgrimage to a holy well, or spring. These places are streaming birth-canals of possibility, the lifeblood of the land, fair thrumming with magic. So people have always recognized them as sites of conversation with the Universe, to ask to heal us, to bring fertility to our hopes and dreams.
At Imbolc in the British Isles, folk visit magical wells and spring-sources, to tend, clear, and care for them and to tie ‘clooties,’ clouts or strips of cloth, to the branches of the trees above them. A clootie tree is a stunning sight when you happen upon one; they vibrate and shimmer with wishes. They are offerings of beauty to the guardian of the well, and to everyone around who sees them.
This journey, like all my journeys, is a healing pilgrimage for me—I am a pilgrim to manatees.
Of all marine mammals, manatees are the least glamorous: they do not dash shinily through the water like dolphins; they do not have the wizard-god-like mysticism of whales, or the huge liquid, soulful eyes of seals. They look like big grey sweet potatoes with fat beaver rudder tails. Slow moving vegetarians, they swim so gently that barnacles and mosses grow on them, and little fishes come to graze on them. They move up and down in the water like dirigibles, internally adjusting their buoyancy. Sometimes they cradle their calves in their elephant-toenailed foreflippers as they swim. They are completely non-aggressive, gentle, peaceful and never harm anybody.
Manatees see just fine but their small eyes make them look nearsighted. They have vibrissae like walruses, and prehensile upper lips. In their unassuming humble homeliness, they remind me of Aunt Beast in Madeleine L’Engle’s A Wrinkle In Time. And that in addition to their milk-giving mammal nature is one reason manatees are perfect for Imbolc, the healing holiday.
If you’ve read A Wrinkle in Time, you remember that after Meg Murry’s first run-in with IT in Camazotz, she is paralyzed. In an emergency action, her father, a novice tesser-er, wildly transports them to the planet Ixchel, where the natives are great shaggy tentacled humanoids with no eyes. Meg is nursed back to health, rocked, fed and treated tenderly as a baby, and sung to, by one native she comes to call Aunt Beast.
That passage of the novel reminds me of the Houses of Healing in The Return of the King, where Eowyn and Merry and Faramir are brought back to health and life from their Morgul wounds when Aragorn crushes athelas herb in his hands.
The passages describing athelas are the feeling of Imbolc, when you sense Spring life in the air:
‘And then he cast the leaves into the bowls of steaming water that were brought to him, and at once all hearts were lightened. For the fragrance that came to each was like a memory of dewy mornings of unshadowed sun in some land of which the fair world of Spring is itself but a fleeting memory’; ‘the fragrance of athelas stole through the room, like the scent of orchards, and of heather in the sunshine full of bees’; ‘as the sweet influence of the herb stole about the chamber it seemed to those who stood by that a keen wind blew through the window, and it bore no scent, but was an air wholly fresh and clean and young, as if it had not before been breathed by any living thing and came new-made from snowy mountains high beneath a dome of stars, or from shores of silver far away washed by seas of foam.’
Just to read those passages in Tolkien is to be revived. Just to read the ‘Aunt Beast’ chapter in Wrinkle is to feel what it feels like to be tended to after being harshly wounded, by someone strong who is firm with you but will never judge you.
Like athelas, Imbolc is purifying: on the liturgical calendar, it corresponds to the Feast of the Purification, or Candlemas, 40 days after Christmas, when Mary re-enters the Temple after giving birth to Jesus. If Imbolc were a Tarot card, I think it would be The Star: like the naked goddess image of The Star, the kind Mother Universe brings us back to health, mending us from our traumas, through her love making us ever stronger.
“From the most holy water I returned/ Regenerate, in the manner of new trees/ That are renewed with new foliage,/ Pure and disposed to mount into the stars.”
~ Dante, Purgatorio (33.144-145)
So like Meg in the arms of Aunt Beast, I am cradled in the waters of the Spring. It doesn’t matter in front of the manatees if I am awkward or imperfect. I just am: a being among other beings, a soul among their gentle souls.
To be with the manatees is to know grace. They are utter acceptance and patience. I know it doesn’t matter to them what I look like, only that I am kind.
Springs are the source of rivers. Imbolc is the source of Spring. New beginnings start in the womb of the spring, and of the Spring, under the Earth, in the dark, in the water, center of the self. I would love to do a photo series of river baptisms, of the expressions of people when they come out of the water, that reflects what is happening in their hearts at that moment. I think it is no accident that we go into water, the source of first life on the planet, to reemerge and be reborn. The water is the reset button.
This Imbolc, even if you cannot encounter manatees, try to encounter water: use the water for a soulful baptism, as a rite of passage, to wash away the Winter, the stagnation, the past, any husks that surrounded you. Use water to bless a new beginning, to put back together anything that was broken or torn apart.
Our hearts themselves are holy wells, full of the waters of love and joy and new ideas. Imbolc is a time to remember that we are in our essence always clean and pure. Regardless of outward appearances, Imbolc is Spring’s true beginning.
May we swim with the blessed.
Here is an Imbolc treasure for you: a mermaid and manatee video of heartbreaking kindness, peace and grace:
Blessed be you, blessed be all of us; in all things, may we be understood, accepted and loved for what we are.
Love elephant and want to go steady?
Editor: Bryonie Wise
Photos: Brian Skerry