All around the globe, these are days of balance. For much of the planet’s midsection, this is not a big change, but it is a shift, usually between rainy and dry seasons. For the South, summer is approaching and it is finally getting warm again, while up North, we’re heading into winter. But South or North, night and day are evening out, becoming more equatorial.
Here in Vermont, a few days after the autumnal equinox both day and night will last for twelve hours. The weather is evening out also, moderating, becoming neither summer hot nor winter cold. In my opinion, just right — shirt sleeves in the afternoon, snuggly sweaters and socks in the evening. I believe in the balanced scales of Libra like I believe in nothing else. A healthy world, a right relationship, a happy life — all are based on balance. Similarly, any skewing of the scales upsets the entire system. If there is no balance, there is no well-being for any body. Fortunately, for me I live in a part of the world where the time of balance coincides with gorgeous weather, wondrous color, and the ripening of my favorite foods — apples, pumpkins, roots, nuts and seeds. My body is particularly happy in autumn, and I have constant cause for reflection on the beauty of living in balance with the world.
Autumn in Vermont is achingly beautiful. The warm palette of the falling leaves, pumpkins and goldenrod is balanced by cool blue skies, pearl grey mists and deep purple of asters and ironweed. The air is scented with apple cider donuts, leaf mould, and wood smoke. The light rises pink and lavender in the morning, turns golden in the afternoon, and deepens to indigo and violet in the evening. One morning soon, the morning fog that rolls over the river valley will turn to the lace of frost, netting my garden in crystalline wonder. And each night the Harvest Moon grows fatter, glowing huge and orange when full and rising at about sunset for several days in a row, giving bright evening light for those abroad in the fields and orchards. Or otherwise.
However, most nights of the Harvest Moon are dark, as we face the deep space skies in between the Milky Way summer spangle and the close blazing stars of winter. Conjunctions between heavenly bodies are all the more striking in September. If you are reading this on 10 September, look to the west in the evening. There is a remarkable alignment of Mercury, Spica (in the constellation Virgo), Venus, and the waxing crescent Harvest Moon (in that order). Mercury will be the lowest and furthest north; the moon will be high and southmost.
Though we call this the Harvest Moon, much of the actual harvest has been over for months by now. It is approaching time to plant winter wheat. Other over-wintering food crops are already bedding down in the gardens and fields. Grass is going dormant just like the leaves of woody plants, so even the pastoralists are finishing up their growing season work. It is time to slow down and gather in. I believe that this gathering together is likely to be the harvest that is celebrated at this time. It is a metaphorical harvest — what have we gathered in the growing season of our lives. It is also a time of stock-taking, tallying up the old year and preparing for the new.
There are a number of cultures that begin the new year in autumn. This past week Rosh Hashanah began the Jewish calendar year. There are many indications that the Goths and perhaps other ancient Germanic peoples began their year at the close of the growing season. In as much as they tracked solar years, several Northeast Indigenous American peoples seem to have begun counting moons in the fall. And then there’s Halloween, Samhain, the new year celebration ascribed to Celtic-language peoples based on literature, oral traditions, and one calendar fragment. It may or may not have been an ancient new year celebration, but it is certainly the new year for many of today’s pagans.
Of course, to begin the year in the fall, there must be a fall season. I was well into my teen years before I fully realized that autumn does not happen over large swaths of the planet. And autumn means different things even where it does happen. The Southern Hemisphere sees an autumnal shift in February and March — though it is not as pronounced a season over much of that half of the planet. Australia, for example, has just one native deciduous tree; and neither Africa nor South America are close enough to the southern polar region to see the dramatic day length and temperature changes that happen in North America and EurAsia. There is an autumn down south, it’s just not that impressive. So what I take for granted as autumn — vibrant leaf color, fitful winds and gentle days of rain, foggy mornings, cool nights, first frost — is really rather unusual. And beautiful enough that it is fitting that the old year should go out with the growing season and the new year begin with the frost.
It is not quite time for the new year in my tradition. That comes at the end of October. September is a time of putting things to rest and saying goodbye to many things. There will never be another aubergine plant like this lovely slate grey monster in my herb bed. We’ve had a good summer, but it’s time to let go. Next summer there may be goldfinches nesting in the junipers out back, but the little ones I watched all summer are grown now. They’ll be leaving soon and who knows if they’ll ever make it back here. And it is high time to cut back the Queen Anne’s lace and the clean-picked echinacea stalks, especially when the frost turns them sharp, black and scraggly. To put the garden to rest, I will be covering the winter root beds with straw and mulching the herbs with a thick blanket of crushed leaves. Not many herbs are actually hardy here in Zone 4; so we’ll see what makes it. Of course, it’s quite likely that much of Vermont is no longer so cold, and my garden is on a south-facing slope. It will be warmer here before it warms on either the hilltops or in the valleys.
All through these last weeks of the growing season, I will be turning walnuts, apples, winter squash and pumpkins into breads, sauces, preserves and all manner of sweet treats. But the bulk of my harvest work is already noticeably done. The chest freezer is more than half full. There are shelves of jam and chutneys. I didn’t do any pickling this year because I was learning a new home and new work schedule — and pickling is low priority for me. But ordinarily that would be done by now as well. I discover whole hours in September that have no demands ripping the time from me. I think this, too, is part of the harvest being celebrated in these few weeks. Or I celebrate this reclaiming of time to relax, in any case. Usually with a glass of wine or a mug of tea and always a good book. One that I don’t have to read.
Autumn is the loveliest time of year in my part of the world. If you also live where there are bright falling leaves and cool falling temperatures, take a moment to appreciate just how amazing and unique your home is. If you don’t, then savor whatever season you have around you. It is likely beautiful. And it is certainly a time of balance — the world over.
©Elizabeth Anker 2021