Celebrating Harvest Home

Time is telescoping again. I’m fairly certain I was just writing about Lughnasadh a few days ago, and here it is the autumnal equinox. The Full Harvest Moon will have risen and set by the time you read this. The blueberry bushes are picked bare; peaches are a sweet memory; tomatoes are just an annoyance at this point. But apples and pumpkins are clamoring for attention with all their warmly seductive colors and scents. I’ve had pears fresh from a tree this past week, and there are new beet greens for omelettes. We had our fall festival at the garden center with the requisite pumpkins, mums, hay bales, bad country music, and fresh pressed cider — even cider donuts! The town will be following suit next weekend with more of the same. And then it will be October. 

Autumn goes by so quickly. There is so much to do. When you are young, it’s the beginning of school. There are sports and parties and a great many family activities. This consumes the autumn days from early childhood until your own children are grown. Book people have even more on the calendar. All the best books are released in the fall. Or it seems that way in any case. The event calendar at my store was double and triple booked throughout September and October, and I still have the tallest reading piles in the autumn weeks. Luckily the nights are growing longer. In the purple evenings, reading vies with a mildly alarming pile of crafting — knitting and making odds and ends for gifts and holiday decorations.

But then there’s the garden. The harvest may be dwindling down to apples and winter cucurbits, but there is work in every bed. The weeds still need to be pulled; the grass still needs mowing; flowering plants still need dead-heading; and there are still daily bug patrols with the pail of soapy water. The veg garden needs mulch, and the garlic is going into the ground as soon as I can get the summer squash plants into the compost bin. There is a new rose bed project that needs attention, and the plants I ordered for that bank out front are arriving. They all need to be planted and nursed into contentment after their encounters with that special plant hell that is shipping. And there are cabbages… I’m remembering why I don’t grow them very much. Unless you plant one seed every few days, you get an onslaught of cabbage that no human could possibly consume without severe gastrointestinal distress. It might be terminal. I’m not going to find out. I don’t have chickens to help me through this glut. Maybe I can slip it into the veg bins at work.

I don’t know about other folks, but I also get the wanderlust in autumn. I march out the door and walk for hours. If I enjoyed anything about travel, I might be the type to disappear into the blue in September. But I like my own bed and breakfast. So I walk. I tend to pick up things in the fall. Leaves, of course. Living in the land of maples means I can hardly step out the back door without encountering yet another heartbreakingly beautiful ephemeron. But leaves share pocket space with all manner of things. Acorns, hickory nuts, snail shells, mossy twigs, feathers, and rocks. All sorts. Basalt to mudstone, sharp-edged crystals to smooth river pebbles, they all whisper the prologues of their stories to me, simply begging me to take them home for more rocky tales. My wanderings are cataloged in pilfered stones. 

In the midst of all this autumnal activity comes the Harvest Home celebration. Not one day but many. Some celebrate the Harvest Moon. Lady Chang’e looks down on the exchange of moon cakes and floating lanterns in the oldest lunar festival in the human world. Some watch the sunset on the equinox and remember those who have gone before, lighting candles in western windows. Some fill the boards with groaning piles of produce and all manner of foods, giving good health to their loved ones and neighbors and thanks for the bounteous harvest, whatever it might be. In Wales, they climb to the hilltops and hold bardic competitions. It is a high honor just to be allowed entrance. In New Mexico, they dance their gratitude in majestic marathons that can last for days as long as the singers still have voice.

A priest sitting at the entrance to a cell on Skellig Michael, circa 1890-1910 via National Library of Ireland / Flickr

In all this pageantry and feasting, my favorite day is Michaelmas, 29 September. I have always loved this holiday even before I discovered there were dragons involved. This is the thanksgiving feast I celebrate each year, a time set aside to actually give thanks — an element somewhat missing from the American Thanksgiving hoopla. I have prepared the traditional Michaelmas goose and  potato mash with various deserts consisting of apples and blackberries. Last year, I made colcannon. This year, I will likely eat lightly and focus on the less edible harvests in my life. I have a beautiful new home, a new town, a thriving garden, a happy job, and many new friends. I also am reaping more success at this keyboard than I could ever have imagined when I began to map out this first year of publishing my writing. I have you to thank for that, of course!

I will also remember. Autumn is the traditional time of remembrance. The wild color and frenetic pulse of fall come from the approaching death of many living beings and the death-like winter sleep of many more. Indeed, as we are reminded by the song “John Barleycorn”, we only have a harvest because some formerly living thing is now dead. Our thoughts become reflective as we consider that balance of living and dying that makes our lives possible. It is only fitting that we remember those who are now gone. And we’ve all lost loved ones, lost our livelihoods, lost our way in this plague era. One Irish tradition that I follow is lighting the candle in the western window to guide the ancestors back home for a time of communion. I am not sure there are discarnate entities at my Dumb Supper, but I can feel my roots wrapped around me and penetrating inside me as I eat simple foods in silence.

There are many Harvest Home traditions, but in much of the world none predominate. This makes sense if you consider it. There is no harvest that happens the world over at this time, not even within the northern hemisphere (the south is beginning their growing season, not ending it…). So any celebration of the harvest is necessarily going to be highly local and idiosyncratic. It is the ultimate in rooted time. What is your harvest? Celebrate that! There is no reason you can’t create your own tradition. After all, someone has to. 

And now, I’m off to the hilltop woods to find the dragon…

©Elizabeth Anker 2021