September 20, 2014

For the Fall Equinox (Mabon)

This is the eve of Mabon or the Autumn Equinox and one of the three observances dedicated to the harvest, the other two being Lughnasadh (or Lammas) which fell on August 1 and Samhain (or Halloween) which will follow in a few weeks time on October 31.  So here I am this morning, waxing thoughtful about a cosmic event that celebrates natural equilibrium, harvest and community.

September 21 goes by many names: Harvest Home, Mabon, the Feast of Ingathering, Equinozio di Autunno (Strega), Meán Fómhair, and in Druidic tradition, Alban Elfed, to name just a few. Mabon is the name by which Autumn Equinox ritual observances are most widely known, but the connection between the Welsh hunter god and September 21 is flimsy to say the least - Mabon's only likely link with the Autumn Equinox is that it may have been the date of his birth, but we don't know for sure.  Lugh, Demeter, Ceres, Persephone or even John Barleycorn might have been better choices for a deity presiding over autumn equinox rites.  South of the equator seasonal patterns are reversed (of course), and this day is celebrated as Ostara or the Spring Equinox.

In the old Teutonic calendar, the Autumn Equinox marked the beginning of the Winter Finding, a ceremonial interval lasting until Winter Night on October 15, and it was also the date of the old Norse New Year. In Christian tradition, the festival is closely associated with St. Michael the Archangel - his feast takes place a few days from now on September 25 and is known for obvious reasons as Michaelmas. The purple Michaelmas Daisy with its golden heart is one of my favorite flowers ever.  Today is about abundance and harvest, but most of all, it is about balance - this is one of only two days in the whole turning year when day and night are perfectly balanced in length. Like all the old festivals dedicated to Mother Earth, this is a liminal or threshold time, and we are poised between two seasons, summer and autumn.

A ballad by Bob Dylan always comes to mind around this time,  "The Times They Are a-Changin". Written for Dylan's third studio album in 1963, it expressed the social and political tumult of the times and published a few weeks before John Fitzgerald Kennedy's assassination.  Dylan's lyrics were inspired by the Book of Ecclesiastes, and he tucked in a reference to Mark 10:31: "But many that are first shall be last, and the last shall be first."  Critics claimed that Dylan's creation was passé before it saw the light of day, but it always seems to me that his words are as apt for today as they were for the upheaval of the sixties. Dylan's friend Pete Seeger later adapted passages from Ecclesiastes to write his own folk anthem "Turn, Turn, Turn" (recorded by the Byrds).

One holds out hopeful thoughts on the Autumn Equinox - that skies overhead will be brilliantly blue and full of singing geese, that trees and vines and creepers will be arrayed in ruby, russet and gold, that a splendid yellow moon will be visible when darkness falls.   This year, of course, the moon is waning and can be seen before dawn, but not as darkness falls.  As always, there is a bronze chrysanthemum in a cauldron blooming on our threshold, and sometimes the flowers are visited by fallen leaves from the old oaks watching over the little blue house in the village.  The oaks are our guardian trees, and the "mum" is our personal nod to the season, a homage of sorts. Together, trees, fallen leaves and bronzey blooms convey a benediction on anyone who knocks at our door, treads our cobblestones or even just passes by in the street.

On such an autumn day of color and richness and equilibrium, we can be still for a moment and savor our bond with the place where we have been planted this time around.  We can offer up thanks for home and hearth, the bounty we are harvesting and "putting by" to see us through the long winter nights.  We can celebrate clan, tribe, community and sharing - all the fine old qualities that unite us in a dancing train spiraling on down the years, from our the ancestors in their seasonal migrations to the present day and our own tattered motley selves.

Whatever you call it and however you choose to celebrate it (or not celebrate it), a very happy Autumn Equinox, Harvest Home, Mabon, Feast of Ingathering, Equinozio di Autunno, Meán Fómhair and Alban Elfed to you and your clan.

September 19, 2014

Friday Ramble - Autumn

Autumn comes to us through the Middle English autumpne and the Old French autompne, thence from the Latin autumnus, and the Latin likely derives from even older Etruscan forms - the first part of autumnus (autu) may come from the Etruscan autu, related to avil, or year. There may also be a connection with the old Venetic autu or autah, meaning much the same thing. The second part of autumnus (mnus) comes from menos meaning loss, minus, or passing.  There we have it - the year is passing away.

At the end of our etymological adventure is the burnished notion that autumn, both the word and the season, signifies the passing of a bright and fertile time and the waning of another calendar year in what I like to call simply, "the Great Round," the natural cycle of our days and seasons. September days are about harvest and abundance, but they are about balance too. The Autumn Equinox falls this weekend (Sunday), one of the two times in the annual cycle when day and night are perfectly balanced in length, the other being the Vernal Equinox on March 21.

"Autumn Equinox" (also called Mabon and "Harvest Home") describes the day on which the sun seems to pass over the equator on a long journey southward, moving steadily away from our northern hemisphere. Of course things are actually the other way around, and it is the earth that is in motion, the northern hemisphere tilting away from the sun shining merrily at the center of our galaxy. Earth's tilting is caused by a slight wobble (or in astronomical lingo, "precess"), and our planet is about 23 degrees and 27 minutes off true perpendicular as it spins merrily on its own axis. The wobble determines how many hours of daylight and darkness we receive at various times of the year, and it gives rise to the four seasons that constitute our calendar year.

Mindful that the old is passing away, we harvest the yield of the summer, storing the abundance of aestival fields with the knowledge that colder, darker, and leaner times lie ahead. For the ancients, autumn must have been a time of frantic activity, anxiety, and uncertainty about winter survival, but we moderns have fewer anxieties. We have time to walk among the leaves and marvel at colors surrounding us, knowing that we are witnessing a swan song of unparalleled brilliance, a last hurrah before the world falls asleep and gathers its energies for the year to come. Many of the activities we are engaged in at this time of year are ones in which our ancestors were engaged in their time. Across the years, we nod to each other in greeting, ancestors and moderns moving to shared and timeless rhythms in the great dance of time.

We stood in the garden before dawn this morning, and a blanket of stars covered the sky from here to there.  Orion commanded the sky, the moon and Jupiter dancing over his right shoulder and Sirius twinkling madly under his right foot.  When the sun rose, every frost bedecked roof in the village wore stars too.  With mornings like these, how can one feel anything but as rich as old Croesus and jubilant in spirit? 

Geese fly over the village and countryside in waves, honking a resonant pleasure in the exercise of their days. On morning walks, fallen leaves drift around our ankles, making a fine rustling music, the earthbound papery foliage is going transparent and turning into stained glass in splendid buttery colors.  We stop every few feet to look at the wonders under our feet, and it's a wonder we ever get anywhere at all.

September 18, 2014

Thursday Poem - WIld Geese

You do not have to be good.
You do not have to walk on your knees
For a hundred miles through the desert, repenting.
You only have to let the soft animal of your body
love what it loves.
Tell me about your despair, yours, and I will tell you mine.
Meanwhile the world goes on.
Meanwhile the sun and the clear pebbles of the rain
are moving across the landscapes,
over the prairies and the deep trees,
the mountains and the rivers.
Meanwhile the wild geese, high in the clean blue air,
are heading home again.
Whoever you are, no matter how lonely,
the world offers itself to your imagination,
calls to you like the wild geese, harsh and exciting --
over and over announcing your place
in the family of things.

Mary Oliver, from Dream Work

September 16, 2014

Autumn at the Gate

A single burnished oak leaf floats down and comes to rest in a pot of bronze “mums” on the threshold of the little blue house in the village. Nights are cold, and the pot must be carried indoors every evening as darkness falls and the wind rises.

As the oak leaf makes itself comfortable among our potted blooms, a long v-shaped skein of geese passes overhead, heading south and calling goodbye as it moves out of sight. Above the wedge of high-flying geese and slightly to their right, the waning moon is translucent against the morning sky.

All the swallows of summer packed their bags and left last week, their places on local telephone wires taken by flights of chirruping sparrows and chatterings of ebullient starlings who are putting on winter stars and flashing their yellow beaks.

The first McIntosh apples of the year appeared at farm gates a few days ago, and several “Macs” rest flushed and rosy in a bowl on the kitchen counter.  We carried a lovely big brown paper bag of apples home from a local orchard yesterday. Some are destined for eating of course, but later today there will be applesauce and pies, perhaps a few jars of cinnamon scented apple butter too.

No doubt about it—Lady Autumn is standing outside our gate, and she is rattling the rusty latch vigorously.  The lady knows the magic words that will grant her entrance, and she knows the tune that goes with them.

September 15, 2014

September 14, 2014

Sunday - Saying Yes to the World

The stars we are given. The constellations we make. That is to say, stars exist in the cosmos, but constellations are the imaginary lines we draw between them, the readings we give the sky, the stories we tell. We come to see the stars arranged as constellations, and as constellations they orient us, they give us something to navigate by, both for traveling across the earth and for telling stories, these bears and scorpions and centaurs and seated queens with their appointed places and seasons.  Imagine the lines drawn between stars as roads themselves, as routes for the imagination to travel.

The desire to go home that is a desire to be whole, to know where you are, to be the point of intersection of all the lines drawn through all the stars, to be the constellation-maker and the center of the world, that center called love. To awaken from sleep, to rest from awakening, to tame the animal, to let the soul go wild, to shelter in darkness and blaze with light, to cease to speak and be perfectly understood.
Rebecca Solnit, Storming the Gates of Paradise: Landscapes for Politics

September 13, 2014

September 12, 2014

Friday Ramble - Fleeting

The word is an adjective that comes to us from the Middle English flete and Old English flēot, both meaning to float. In common usage, fleeting describes entities that live for a brief time and pass out of the world swiftly, sometimes in almost the twinkling of an eye.  Synonyms for this week's offering are some of my favorite words - cursory, ephemeral, evanescent, impermanent, meteoric, momentary, passing, transitory, vanishing, volatile, elusive, ephemerous, ethereal, gossamer, temporal, transient, transitory, vanishing, vaporous, volatile.

Himself, Spencer and I walked for hours in the Two Hundred Acre Wood this week, making our thoughtful journey through windy sunlit woods that seemed to go on and on forever, across rocky slopes and through groves of whiskery trees, drifts of gold and copper leaves everywhere underfoot.  The Two Hundred Acre Wood is a different place than it once was, just a few weeks ago.  A hollow wind careens through the trees scattering leaves, pebbles, acorns and pods in all directions. The great oaks overlooking my favorite trail still wear their foliage, and tamaracks nearby are turning lacy gold.  Stands of goldenrod and milkweed are going to seed, and they watch us, committing our progress and the season to wild and fragrant memory.

And then there are the fine wild musics everywhere...  I take my blackthorn walking stick along on our rambles, and it makes a pleasant racket as it scuffles through the fallen bounty around my feet.  Wherever we go, we are accompanied by flocks of geese overhead, by the exultant tumult of the creek in the gorge as it plunges headlong toward the beaver pond on the other side of the woods, bearing its precious freight of liberated leaves and whiskery twigs.

As we lean against old trees on sunny afternoons and bask in the light slanting through the woodland, there is the clear sense that everything around us is fragile and fleeting and precious. It seems like only yesterday that we were rejoicing in the filtered emerald light of summer and contemplating our unruly rural garden. Now here we are in burnished autumn woods, seeing all around us the clear, irrefutable evidence that another season is on its way.

The passing of the seasons is a powerful reminder that we are here in the Great Round for only a brief time.  For a scant handful of days, we go walking through this world, and we blaze with life and spirit as we go, lit from within and throwing off sparks. Life is a glorious, fleeting thing, and autumn says that best.