Let us seek the green rush by the green woodland springs
July's Focus: Rushbearing | Monthly rhythms | Invitation
[...] The green rush, the green rush, we bear it along,
To the church of our village with triumph and song,
We strew the cold chancel and kneel on it there,
While its fresh odours rise with our voices in prayer.
Hark the peal from the old tower in praise of it rings,
Let us seek the green rush by the green woodland springs.
Letitia Elizabeth Landon (1802-1838), "The Rush-Bearing at Ambleside"
If you’ve been following my art for a bit, you’re probably accustomed to seeing rushbearing appear around this time each summer - an annual, beloved fascination of mine…the kind of tradition that makes my heart sigh. (I’m in good company - William Wordsworth1 felt this pull strongly, too).
Historically, churches and other buildings had hard, cold dirt floors. To provide some warmth and comfort to parishioners in a time before pews were used, rushes (Juncus effusus & other varieties), mixed with aromatic flowers & herbs, were strewn on the church floor. The flowers added both a fresh scent and a natural insect-repellent. This tradition was steadily formalized over time into an annual festival, when churchgoers would gather rushes to bring to church – it was a beautiful procession that invited all members of the church community to participate in caring for their worship space. Some processions were subdued and simple, while others were lively - with rushcarts bedecked with tinkling silver goblets & spoons, mummers, sculpted bearings, and more.2
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As with all of these liturgical-agricultural customs, rushbearing adjusted to regions, seasons, & weather - haystrewing was another alternative, with hay or straw from nearby fields being used instead of rushes. The date of the rushbearing service itself varied from place to place, usually being held near the feast day of the parish’s patron saint (for those churches with summertime saints).3
As years passed & the necessity for gathering rushes & hay for flooring waned with modernization, most rushbearing ceremonies fell by the wayside. Some, though, have continued on or been revived in a handful of parishes in the UK - and to my mind, this speaks volumes about both the generational value of ritual as a whole, as well as the concentrated value that parishioners sensed in the tradition of rushbearing.
Churches, after all, are about relationship: with God, with our community, & with our landscape. There is (hopefully…ideally…!) a balanced give-and-take between the formal Church and her members - and rushbearing serves as a ritual opportunity for parishioners to tend their place of worship, working with their spiritual shepherds to revive and invigorate this community gathering space.
So, here I am in the 21st century in the US, having never attended a rushbearing service - and yet I find myself transported to this charming tradition each summer. Because, like these generations before, I’m drawn to tend to common spaces using the gifts offered up in the harvest - tall grass, blowing hay, flowers & herbs. To gather in community & care for our places.
Every summer, we harvest our local version of rushes (broadfruit bur-reed, Sparganium eurycarpum, I think?) to gather a basket-full for plaiting. This is also the pinnacle of haying season, when we’re cutting and baling hay that will tide the herd over during the cold winter months - so we look for projects to do with hay. So far, we’ve used these plaited mats of rushes & hay to bless our little domestic monastery of our home (though the dog sure loves rolling on them & they’re gone in an instant, haha!) - but it makes me wonder how the heart of this can be translated to our local church community, too.
The liturgical calendar can be overwhelming - strewn with so many festivals & feasts, traditions hailing from all over the world & all different times. That’s why I like to familiarize myself with one holy day each month, allowing myself to steep in this single holiday throughout the month & really get to know it beyond the frenetic “check all the boxes” mentality. As the years pass, all these monthly focuses gather up & accumulate into holidays that are now like old friends - I’m able to fold in more holidays each month, but with the old familiarity of having really spent meaningful time with each one in years past. And my goal for this little Substack is to bring you along for my monthly focus journey!
For July this year, I’m not focusing so much on a specific feast day as this delightful tradition that historically spoke to multiple feast days, depending on the parish - so, throughout the month, I’ll be sharing some rushbearing adventures, thoughts, artwork both old and new. I’ll aim to share some of my previous resources for other July holidays, too, but rushbearing will be in the limelight.
Would you join me on the journey? If your interest is piqued by rushbearing, too, I’d love for you to share your thoughts, questions, reflections…ways you’re finding of grafting this ancient tradition into your world…any creations (art, poetry, meals, etc!) inspired by it.
Feel free to send your rushbearing reflections my way (tag me here on Substack or send me an email), and I’ll happily share them with our growing community here - like a little virtual rushbearing procession!
I’ll leave you with Wordsworth on this July day…
Closing the sacred Book which long has fed
Our meditations, give we to a day
Of annual joy one tributary lay;
This day, when, forth by rustic music led,
The village Children, while the sky is red
With evening lights, advance in long array
Through the still churchyard, each with garland gay,
That, carried sceptre-like, o'ertops the head
Of the proud Bearer. To the wide church-door,
Charged with these offerings which their fathers bore
For decoration in the Papal time,
The innocent procession softly moves:--
The spirit of Laud is pleased in heaven's pure clime,
And Hooker's voice the spectacle approves!
William Wordsworth, "Rural Ceremony"
A resident of Grasmere for several years, Wordsworth was enamored with the annual rushbearing at St. Oswald’s Church - which still takes place! https://www.nationaltrustcollections.org.uk/object/419408
Kightly, Charles: The Customs & Ceremonies of Britain: An Encyclopaedia of Living Traditions