We Pagan folk have many festivals that revolve around the natural events of the Wheel of the Year. In spring, come Bealtaine, we’re all about maypoles and frolicking as we rejoice in the awakening of the land. Come autumn, we build bonfires, create lavish feasts and do rituals to mark the sleeping of the year. And of course we have powerful, ancient mythologies tied to each of our festivities, of gods waking to their lover’s embrace, of goddeses birthing summer life, of corn gods and deer gods and livestock gods who see to the bounty of all, of ancestral spirits who share with us in the celebration. It’s a beautiful hodge-podge of celebration and mythology that combines to give the Pagan paths their colorful, enchanting feel.
Sometimes we host such celebrations at our little deep woods homestead: Twa Corbies Hollow. When we do so, it’s always a lot of fun. Inevitably there is good food and company, some magic and some mischief, and a plate set in the woods especially for the little spirits of the land. Visitors to the homestead quickly realize we cultivate and raise most of our own food, or gather it from the forest, and someone will inevitably suggest we do a little harvest festival come autumn. I always cringe when that happens. It’s not that I don’t like harvest festivals. In fact, I love them and we have hosted several. It’s more that I wonder when is it really a right time to celebrate the harvest. To most modern folk, it’s simple: there is an early harvest around high summer, and a late harvest around September or October (reversed in the southern hemisphere). But that is more misunderstanding than mythology. Read on and you’ll understand . . .
At Twa Corbies Hollow, we live very close to the land by practicing woodscraft, primitive technology, raising livestock and organic gardens, wild food foraging and many other skills of what not-so-long ago was just plain living. My wife, Daphne, and I made a commitment to this more than two decades ago when we dwelt at a cabin deep in the Alaskan wilderness. We had no power, no running water, no television, yet we were never bored and wanted for nothing. We could grow very little in gardens due to the intense weather and the acidic soil of interior Alaska, but we foraged and gathered and hunted a considerable amount of food from the surrounding lakes, tundra and taiga. In warm and cold times, we did these things. In spring there were early mushrooms, wild potherbs and hares to fill the pot. In summer we picked other kinds of mushrooms, took various lake fish and salmon, and gathered other kinds of wild vegetables. In autumn, there were abundant berries, more fish and usually a caribou or moose. Even through winter we supplemented our food by ice fishing for enormous burbot, and taking game birds like spruce grouse. The land was bountiful and yielded a harvest all year.
But as the years went by, we felt more and more that we wanted to be able to give back to the land and teach others the skills of living well with Earth:. So, about eight years ago, we pulled up stakes and returned to my wife’s home country: Canada. We bought our little farmstead deep in a region of the Gaelic highlands of Nova Scotia. Soon we were up to our armpits in chickens and ducks, dairy goats and horses, and even the odd cow, all of which provided abundant dairy, eggs and meat. Using permaculture methods, we grew enormous gardens of vegetables and staples such as potatoes and Jerusalem artichokes. From the rich forests that surround us for hundreds of square miles, we harvested many kinds of wild mushrooms, as many wild potherbs and spices as we could hope to use in a year, and took a deer or two each autumn to supplement our food stocks. As in Alaska, in the warm seasons and cold, if one knew how to see what the land had to offer, one could draw a harvest any time.
So, if there is always a harvest to be had, it begs the question: when is it right to celebrate the harvest?
In the contemporary era, the majority of the population is heavily urbanized. Even in relatively small towns and farming communities, people get their food at the grocery and spend their days at the office, or some community spot (like a mall), or online . . . Few anymore have any real sense where their food comes from or the workings of the land. There is a vague sense that in spring farmers sow and in autumn they reap. And there may be some truth to this because the modern diet is heavily constricted. The vast majority of the average North American’s food is based on about two dozen grains, vegetables and meats. But primitive diets relied upon the innate bounty of the land at any given season, perforce our ancestors enjoyed a much broader selection of foods (which was, incidentally, healthier) and they understood that at all times of the year there was a harvest that deserved appreciation.
When Daphne and I decided so long ago to live traditionally and close to the land, one of our goals was to understand “from the inside”, so to speak, the mind of the ancestors from whom our mythologies and high days come down to us. Over the decades, I’ve found this a powerful approach, shifting the way perception works in a truly deep and shamanic manner. Living by the ways of the ancestors, one ceases to see the land as this ordered thing functioning according to human-contrived expectations—neat little moments of planting time, growing time, harvest time. The land becomes this complex entity with shades of growth, life and death at any given moment, and we then perceive ourselves as collaborative partakers of its marvellous spiralling journey. In my latest book, Seasons of the Sacred Earth (Llewellyn, ©2013), I wrote about this as I described the magic, insights and blessings my family has experienced living close to the land. But the concept that the land is alive is nothing new, of course. Andean aboriginals knew the land as Pachamama—the Earth Mother. The concept has been recapitulated in more recent times under the archetype of Gaia. But living close to the land brings this knowledge from the theoretical plane down to the demesne of day-to-day life where it becomes a very real, very important truth that directs how we must interact with the sacred Earth moment to moment.
When we actively interact with the land, we begin to see that each season is full of little textured, shaded harvests. They are different everywhere, according to the local ecology and spirits, but around our homestead, in earliest spring there is the harvest of birch and maple sap when the fires burn long in the sugar shack and the air is fragrant with smouldering logs. In mid-spring we begin milking the dairy goats again and get our first taste of fresh milk after a long winter. In late spring, the meadows, woods and glades are lush with new green life, and we draw upon its bounty, harvesting sorrel, hosta, ostrich ferns, dryad saddle mushrooms, faerie spuds, plantain and so much more. And all that is just a brief description of the many shades of spring harvest. Such harvests continue all through the year, some from the gardens, some from the wild country, some from the water. The land is always busy with its own affairs, its own dramas of life and growth, and a person living close will learn to see it, to flow with it, and understand that at any moment there is a harvest season deserving attention and appreciation.
So, when is it right to have a harvest festival? Even the elder folk—well aware of the many shades of each season’s offerings—clearly identified certain times as best. For Europeans—so dependent on cultivated grains—it was when the autumn sheaves were winnowed and safely brought in. For the American aboriginal of the plains, it was after the buffalo hunt, when they could make the pemmican that would see them through the year. In Alaska, it might be after the salmon run or the caribou hunt. In Seasons of the Sacred Earth, I wrote, “[Living] close to the land has taught us to think of the year in terms of seasons, not months or dates on a calendar. We tend to think of the year as ‘gardening season’ or ‘the season for Lughnasadh celebrating’”. In other words, the seasons are not set by a calendar; they are created by what Earth, at any given place and time, wants to do.
If you observe carefully and respectfully, you will learn to see the many ways the land works as well as develop a sense of its timing. Soon it becomes clear when and how the land will offer some goodness. And you will deeply internalize the truth that it is always a good time to celebrate its harvest. For practical reasons, no one can hold actual festivals all through the year, but we can celebrate—thus showing our appreciation—in various small ways at all times. One way we do so at our homestead is by setting out faerie plates, little offerings for the spirits of the land in appreciation of all they do, for they guard our livestock and nourish our gardens. Some North American shamans offer the spirits tea and smoke of tobacco to honor them and keep them close. In the old days, maids wove corn dolls and men folk had rituals to thank the corn spirit with the felling of the last stand of grain. Honoring the harvest could be as personal as walking a meadow and speaking to the plants, or enjoying a meal of one of the year’s local, special delicacies while meditating upon the truth that the act of eating it unites you with Earth’s goodness. Such small, earnest acts develop a clearer, deeper awareness of the absolutely essential role of the land in sustaining life—it is truly Pachamama, Gaia, the Mother from which we all depend. Drawing once more from Seasons of the Sacred Earth: “What is ultimately important is a simple lesson: respect Earth and she will care for you. However you look at it, she is aware. Ultimately, Earth responds to how we live with her.”.