Battling

This is the moment when the year turns to gold.  It is the first harvest.  When the spirit of the corn retreats before the blades into the last sheaves of wheat.  The essence of the sun, the spirit of summer, the promise of spring.  All of these nestle within grain and husk, slumbering through the winter.   It seems an eternity since the last harvest, and yet here we are again.  I see the gold settling over the land and my soul longs for autumn.

It is one of the hottest days of the year and we drive past molten fields.  Past verges stippled purple and yellow with flowers.  Hay pressed into cylinders.  Fields brown with ploughing and still green with crops.  Sheep gather together in the meagre shadow of trees.  It is Winston’s first hydrotherapy session since lockdown.  We can’t enter the building so we wait in the car park for his hydrotherapist to collect him.  A family is saying a final goodbye to their dog and we cry with them as they let him go.  We wander the nearby lane while we wait for Winston.  Sheep trot away as we approach.  A hare bounds across a field of golden stubble.  Winston returns to us tired but with a good report.

In the dene, the landscape is straggly and overgrown.  Unmolested, wildflowers have grown into giants.  Rowans flame with berries.  The burn is virtually dry, flanked by monster willowherbs, dock and bulrushes.  Raspberries droop from the foliage.  There are rustlings in the undergrowth, among seed heads and thistledown.  Butterflies spiral and meander, mostly whites and speckled woods.  The occasional quick whirr of wings and soft tinkling calls are the only things that give the hidden songbirds away.

It has been a battle to get here, to walk along this familiar path.  This time last year I was travelling to a writing conference.  This time last year I had just given my first public reading as a writer.  But that was an eternity ago.  Now I battle ennui.  It is a struggle to get up each morning.  A struggle to stray beyond the end of the street.  Work feels hard.  Creation is even harder.  But I am fighting.  Battling my way out of limbo.

I sit by the pond.  A woodpigeon fusses in the willow above my head.  Two gulls glide in circles as though they own the water.  One of them chases away a youngster that gets too close.  Some years the harvest is meagre and hard won.  This year there will be a harvest but it won’t be a harvest anyone could have expected.   The seeds of early spring have led us into a new way of being in the world.  We are uncertain.  We know there may be more battles ahead  But the seasons still turn.  The land still turns to gold and the spirit of the sun is safe for another year to come.

 

A harvest from the deep

  

We gather on the Sunday following the autumn equinox, that moment of balance between light and dark when we celebrate the completion of the harvest.  Our efforts are over for another year; whatever we sowed in spring and nurtured through summer has already borne its fruit and soon we must begin the cycle again.  The sun spreads a silver skirt on the river and a light mist softens the landscape.  The tide is low, laying bare the rocks that have wrecked many ships and a kaleidoscope of pebbles and empty shells.  Gulls mewl from the breakwater and a cormorant sweeps upriver.

This town is built on river, rock and sea.  Its motto messis ab altis means ‘harvest from the deep’.  Emerging from a handful of fishermen’s huts in the 13th century, it went on to harvest not only fish, but coal and salt.  That there is a town here at all is a result of what has been harvested from deep within earth and ocean.  But in this time of gathering, we come together as a town to remember those fishermen who lost their lives to bring in the harvest.  Today, a statue will be unveiled as a memorial to all those fishermen who never returned from the sea.

The air vibrates with local songs of sea and river and the statue is unveiled to a fanfare of ship’s horns.  His name is Fiddler’s Green.  Fiddler’s Green is an old fisherman’s legend, a version of heaven where the fiddle never stops playing and the rum never stops flowing.  He is positioned so that he will always gaze out to sea, recollecting those that are still out there.  And greeting those that return safely.  We absorb his grave features and the stories they represent, as a sweet voice conjures a rendition of the old Fiddler’s Green folk song, before the blessing of the memorial with the seafarer’s version of psalm 23.

The Lord is my pilot; I shall not drift.
He lights me across the dark waters. He steers me through the deep channels.
He keeps my log. He guides me by the Star of Holiness for His Name’s sake.
As I sail through the storms and tempests of life I will d:read no danger; for You are near me; Your love and care shelter me.
You prepare a haven before me in the Homeland of Eternity;
You quieten the waves with oil; my ship rides calmly.
Surely sunlight and starlight shall be with me wherever I sail,
and at the end of my voyaging I shall rest in the port of my God. 

It’s easy to forget how important the harvest is and what it costs to bring it in.  Fishing is the most dangerous peace-time occupation in the UK.  After the unveiling, we wander back along the fish quay, thronged with people enjoying a lunch of fish and chips.  Perhaps today more than any other they will understand the price of the harvest and give thanks for it.

This year in my small back yard we have grown some vegetables in pots.  The broccoli did well, but in late August, I rounded the corner to a couple of Brussels sprouts plants in pots, to find them no more than skeletons.  Crawling on every remaining stalk and leaf were caterpillars.  Because I don’t rely on these for food, I was excited by seeing so many caterpillars and that a butterfly had chosen to lay her eggs in our yard.  But at this time of year, it was also a reminder of how easily the harvest can fail.  What would my ancestors have felt if their food was wiped out by insects?  And what hardships would they have faced to feed their communities?

But the harvest isn’t only about remembrance and acknowledging hard work.  It is also a celebration.  There are many kinds of harvest.  While I always give thanks for the food harvest at this time of year, my personal harvest is a creative and personal one.  I look back over a year in which I struggled with my creativity and expect to find little worth harvesting.  Yet there were moments worth celebrating: an invitation to the first Write Now event in London, a story published in an anthology and being an editor’s pick on Discover.  And then there were those experiences that fed my creativity: a glimpse of a kingfisher, the hush of Christmas day, the birth of spiderlings, a walk to an overgrown bridge, the discovery of a rare flower…

We all have a personal harvest to celebrate.  Three years ago, I held a harvest festival on Harvesting Hecate in a shared celebration of creativity.  Since then, I’ve also gathered a whole host of new blogging friends, some very recently.   So, please join me in a harvest celebration.  In the comments, share the creative achievement you are most proud of since the last autumn equinox, big or small.  For those of you in the southern hemisphere, who are just moving into spring, what do you hope to achieve?  Most importantly, leave a link to your favourite of all the posts you’ve written this year.  The harvest isn’t about celebrating alone, it’s about celebrating as a community.  So as well as leaving a link, please also follow at least one, to a blogger you’ve never met before and perhaps a fruitful new relationship will begin.

A harvest festival

In the forest, the earth has succumbed to a peculiar alchemy. Far below the canopy, in twisted root and shady hollow, the fruits of the wood have bloomed. These flowers of autumn are strange blossoms: bruised purples, sickly yellows, blood reds, viscous whites. Waxy, slimy, gnarled blooms with names that hint at death and decay: fly agaric, sickener, shaggy inkcap, brittlegill. Some are delicate sprinkles as though a character from a fairy tale has carelessly scattered a trail of crumbs. Some are enormous, meaty things, the size of dinner plates, crawling with insects and already rotting inside.   They are the stuff of fairy tales, stools waiting for their toads.

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It is the sunset of the year, when the seasons once more inch towards balance. At the autumn equinox, the hours of darkness and daylight will be the same, but the year then tips into darkness. If we’re lucky, this is a time of plenty, when we gather in our final harvest to see us through the winter. This is when the year suddenly makes sense. The work of growing and nurturing pauses and the shape of the past year can be seen. And just as the fruits of the fungi emerge from the earth, so our dreams are ripe for foraging too.

At Candlemas, I took a handful of seeds and swaddled them in darkness. These were the dreams that emerged during the dark months, the ideas and the projects I wanted to work on this year. At harvest, I will unwrap them and consider whether they have been fulfilled. I’ll look back and wonder whether I did all I could to nurture them. I’ll celebrate those that have reached their potential. And then I’ll let them go. For this is a transition time, when we must leave behind what no longer serves us and begin to seek the seeds of new dreams.

My dreams this year were dreams of creation. I wanted to write and I wanted to paint. In fact, words took precedence over images. A dozen short stories written, my novel readied for submission to agents, an outline of a non-fiction book produced. This year writing has been about work: completing projects and submitting them. There has been a modicum of external recognition – a short story publication coming soon, another publication that almost came off before the magazine stalled, invitations to guest blog. I haven’t achieved all my writing goals for the year (the biggest being to find an agent), but I’m happy with the fruits of my harvest.

My painting has been about pure enjoyment.  I’ve resisted the temptation to see them as something that I might one day sell.  The paintings have been personal.  Some of you may remember that I have a vision of myself as a landscape painter  but haven’t been able to stop painting portraits.  Some of you suggested that I could combine the two. So landscapes have begun to creep into my portraits. And unexpectedly I’ve had my first offer of a sale.

Have you ever been to a harvest festival, where the best of the harvest is gathered, displayed and celebrated? Well, I’d like invite you to a harvest festival of creativity in which we’ll celebrate what we’ve created this year. In the comments, please share your greatest creative achievement of the year (big or small, whatever means the most to you) and insert a link to your favourite post that you’ve written in the last twelve months.  (For those of you in parts of the world where harvest is still months away, we’ll call it a celebration of spring!) My contribution to the festival is a coming magazine publication that I’m particularly pleased with (of which more soon) and a link to my favourite post I’ve written this year: The small wild things  And now, over to you. Don’t be shy about your achievements, this is a celebration!

On the turn

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The sycamore knows what the other trees still only sense.  It has already turned, leaves ablaze against the green of its elders.  Already, its leaves are scattered on the grass, a fiery mat like a magic circle inside which autumn reigns.  Outside this world between the worlds, summer clings on.

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The insects know.  The last of them are greedy for nectar before the cold season begins.  A painted lady, suckling on the remnants of the knapweed.  A bee guzzling clover on the last meadow.   Wasps at their most clingy hovering over food and drink.  The garden spider squats in her impressive orb in my yard.  She will die with the coming season leaving a clutch of silk-wrapped eggs to hatch in spring.   The last of the swallows still swoops for insects to sustain her on her African odyssey.  Mobs of sparrows and starlings, born earlier this year, squabble in hedgerows and on pavements.   Yet though spring is long over, the piercing call of baby seagulls wanting to be fed is still a common sound.

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The flowers know.  Those few still in blossom are starkly bright, like star performers under spotlights.  Goldenrod and toadflax are reminders of the sun.  The willowherbs offer up a last glimpse of the colour purple.  But the plant life is now overgrown and messy.  It’s the season of seeds and fruit.  The seed heads are dry skeletons and furry tufts – the flowers doing all they can to reproduce before the dying season begins.  Berries take on the mantle of colour now, waxy spheres of crimson, black and orange.

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The weather knows.  Summer is wrestling with autumn for dominion.  It’s difficult to know what to wear for the best.  Put on something warm and the sun will be blazing by the time you come home.  Don’t wear a coat and it will rain.  The mornings are chilly and often misty.  The wind has howled a taste of what is to come.  The days are mostly still bright, but you can feel the change in the dark of early morning.

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And I know.  I can feel the turn in my soul.  I know it when I wake to the dark, cold morning and my body wants to continue sleeping.  I know it when I sense the mist in the air.  I feel it in the craving to wear woollens and to sit before the fire, even though the sun is shining outside.  I feel myself slowing down.  My creative cycle for the year is coming to an end.  There are fewer new ideas sparking.  I don’t have the same urge to fling my work out into the world.  Instead, I’m finishing projects where I can before the harvest.  My thoughts are turning towards reflection and renewal.  Most of all, I’m looking forward to the long, dark dreaming months, during which I can conjure new dreams for the year to come.

The colour of summer

Summer is a purple season: willowherbs, thistles and buddleia bloom in vibrant profusion, self-heal punctuates the grass, vetch curls its tendrils in the undergrowth, small clusters of viper’s bugloss and foxglove bloom in hidden spots.  The fresh whites and yellows of spring and early summer have given way to deeper colours in preparation for autumn.

Summer is a rainbow season.    A time for donning rainbow flags and fancy dress and taking part in colourful parades.  A season for  merry go rounds, bandstands in the park, celebration and frivolity.

Summer is a growing season.  Blackberries and rosehips are appearing in the hedgerows, green turning to orange, to red and deep purple.  Rowan berries are already ripe on the trees, while others are still green, waiting to burst.  But summer is also a dying season.  Many of the flowers that bloomed just a few weeks ago have already lost their blossoms.  Seed heads in browns, reds and ochres preview the autumn colours to come.

It has been a summer of searing temperatures, the sixth hottest July on record.  Humid, dry, too hot to do anything comfortably.  Coinciding with something of a fallow period for me.  An occasional sea mist in the evening the only respite.  The grain harvest has arrived early in the UK, with rape and barley harvests beginning weeks earlier than normal.  Wheat harvests are predicted to be bountiful.  Before autumn arrives we’ve been doing our last outside work, those final jobs in the yard to see us through the coming winter.  And despite that fallow spell, I have done some creative work: finished one painting and started another, drafted some short stories.

Lammas falls on the first day of August and begins the season of transformation, when, as the wheat is turned into bread and sweet treats, our projects begin to bear fruit.  This is the last tide to focus on what I want to achieve this year, before the reckoning of the final harvest on the equinox.  I spent Lammas thinking about what I have created so far this year and what I still want to do before the harvest.  I think about and give thanks for the work I’ve put in, but also consider what I might have to sacrifice over the coming weeks to achieve my goals.  The day after Lammas, a hint of autumn crept in: mist over the sea, rain, thunder and wind.  The first day in many that I’ve wanted to cosy up indoors.  But the seals are still on our island, a sign that the responses I’m waiting for on my novel might still come.

Summer is a season for recognition, for sharing your gifts with the wider world.  Inese, over at Inesemjphotography recently nominated me for the Very Inspiring Blogger award.  Inese shares some wonderful photos on her site and I particularly love her nature photography.  Pat over at Plain talk and ordinary wisdom has nominated me for the Butterfly Light award.  Pat shares inspiring stories that might be told around her kitchen table.  Pat and I took part in a blog hop recently, so you can learn more about her here.  Though I no longer take part in awards, I’d like to thank Pat and Inese for thinking of me and, instead of following the rules, I’m sharing links to three bloggers I’ve recently discovered, all of whom have a strong focus on nature and connecting with the earth.  At this time of the first harvest, I hope you’ll pay them a visit:

My wild life is about the adventures of a zoologist working in the Inner Hebrides.

Maia of the birds writes about shamanism, poetry and nature.

Partridge, Pine and Peavey is about the outdoors and the people who live in it.

Completion

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As we approach the autumn equinox, which is a point of perfect balance within the year, wind and rain have heralded a palpable change in the season.  Though the vegetation is still green and the trees are clinging to their foliage, the first few leaves litter the park.  I notice berries everywhere: fat clusters of rowan, glossy rosehips, fiery sea buckthorn and white snowberries.  Fungi still fruits and disappears overnight.  Seeds latch on to clothing and drift through windows.  The heating is on once more and I often wrap a blanket around me to keep me warm.  The nights have darkened rapidly and it won’t be long before we put the clocks back.

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Night and day are equal on the equinox, as they are in spring, but this time, the hours of darkness will take over, with the nights lengthening until the solstice in December.  This is the time for turning inwards, both physically, when we don’t feel so much like leaving the house, but also mentally.  It’s the season of the mind and of the soul, when we can rest, be still and concentrate on intellectual and spiritual concerns.  If we’re willing to embrace the darkness, this can be a time of deep creativity.

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But before the stillness arrives, the turbulent energies of this transition must come into equilibrium.  It’s a season of storms in the physical world and just as in the spring, it can be a challenging time mentally, as we let go of the light and expansion of summer and accept the coming darkness and repose.  For me, it brings a return to a challenging time of year in my day job after a couple of weeks of holiday, when I once again feel constrained by the routine stresses that suck energy from family life and creativity.  In her excellent post, Unpeeled, Helen White captures many of the things I am feeling at this time of year.

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At Lammas, we celebrated the grain harvest, but at the equinox, we celebrate the completion of the harvest, when the final fruits and vegetables are brought in.  It’s a time of reckoning, when our ancestors would discover whether or not the harvest was enough to see them though the winter.  In the UK, this is a crucial harvest for many farmers, after the wet summer last year and this year’s long winter and slow spring.  If you’re like me, you buy your groceries without giving too much thought to the effort involved in bringing them to harvest – I hardly noticed the bad harvest last year, because I could still buy the fruit and vegetables I wanted.  This year, I’ve been learning more about what it takes to produce the food I eat and it’s given me a great respect for all the attention paid to each crop.

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But this is a time of reckoning for all of us, when we identify and celebrate our more personal achievements.  The goals we set in spring with hopefulness have either come to fruition or not.  This is a good time to gather together symbols of what you have achieved this year – completed work, plaudits, awards, complimentary words, new ideas, new connections – and display them in your own ‘harvest festival’.

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But the cycle always continues, so just as the farmers will be planting new seeds into the stubble of the current harvest, it’s also time to begin thinking of the seeds you will nurture next spring.  Consider what went well this year and what you could do differently to have a more bountiful harvest next year.  And begin to think about the ideas you can contemplate and refine during the long winter slumber, ready to be sown in spring.

If you’re in the southern hemisphere, you will be experiencing the spring equinox, so you may find this post of interest.

The spirit of the corn

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Lammas arrives on 1st August and heralds the slow fading of summer.  This is the beginning of the end for the sun, when the first hints of autumn are in the air.  But on this Lammas Day, you would never imagine that autumn would ever come.  This has been the hottest July for seven years in the UK and, as August arrives, we are still in the sticky centre of a heat wave.  The summer flowers have been vibrant, the air busy with insects and for many, the heat is welcome after the cold, slow spring.  But for a nation that loves to talk about the weather, we’re ill-prepared to deal with its caprices.  The humidity has been relentless, stopping thinking, cultivating ill-temper and indolence.  The shops have run out of fans and huge sums of money are changing hands by those desperate to conquer the heat.  On the evening of Lammas Day, I’m travelling south.  Two hundred miles and still in the north, but when we get out of the car at the services the air is so humid and thick, it’s as though we’ve stepped off a plane into a hot country.

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Lammas is sometimes known as the harvest of the first fruits and is the time when the wheat is harvested.  If it has been a good year, it is a time of abundance, when summer is still in full bloom and the gathering of the first harvest is celebrated.  But it is also a time of sacrifice.  The corn must be cut down to feed us.  The spirit of the corn, which is really the essence of the summer sun, retreats to the last few stalks of corn and is cut down by the crone goddess with her sickle.  Traditionally, the last stalks of corn were woven into a corn dolly, to provide a refuge for the spirit of the corn during the darkness of winter, until it was released once more over the fields at spring time.   The dolly is decorated with red ribbon to represent the sacrificial blood of the corn spirit.  Travelling south on Lammas, I observed the harvest in various stages: the wheat still slightly green further north, combine harvesters in mid-harvest to the south, and cylinders of hay dotting the fields.  The corn dolly I have made is a simple one, representing the power of the sun and the lessons I learned about my creativity at the summer solstice.  It will hang above the hearth – the heart of the home – throughout the winter, as a reminder.

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But the harvest of the wheat brings transformation as well as sacrifice.  It is cut down and ground into flour, to be transformed into bread and other baked goods.  The sacrifice is worth it, for the alchemy it brings.  This is a hopeful time: a premonition of the bounty of the September harvest to come.  It’s a time to be thankful for what we have harvested thus far, to recognise and celebrate the hard work that has led to these first fruits of our labour.  If, like me, you used the time around Imbolc to plan your new creative goals and re-dedicate yourself to your creative path, what first fruits of that creativity have you been able to harvest?  Have you recognised the sacrifices of time and effort you have made to reach this first harvest, or have you not sacrificed enough for it to have borne fruit?  Lammas is another pause in the year when we can consider where we have come from and what we still need to do to achieve our goals.  What do you need to do to ensure your creative harvest for the year is an abundant one?

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My first intimation of autumn comes a week after Lammas.  Taking the dog for his early morning walk, I notice the dew thick on the grass.  From a distance, it looks like frost and I feel the relief of the autumn to come.  The air is becoming cooler and over the next few days, I have to wear an extra layer in the mornings for warmth.  I see the first blackberries and haws in the hedgerows, still small and green but already promising their autumn harvest.  The lavender still buzzes with bees, but the flowers are fading and its summer vibrancy has passed.

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I’m fortunate that I no longer need to rely on the harvest in the way that my ancestors did.  If the harvest fails, I will still have the sustenance I need to live through the winter.  So this is also a time to think of those who don’t have what they need to see them through and to consider what you can do to help.  This may be practical help, such as donating food to those who need it.  But in addition to this, perhaps we can use our creativity to help those who may have enough in the way of food and shelter, but need some kind of mental or spiritual sustenance to make it through the darkest months.

If you live in the Southern hemisphere, you may want to read Quickening, written at Imbolc, which will be more relevant to the energies in your area at this time of year.