Holy Wild, Rite & Ritual, story

Lughnasadh: Honoring the Harvest Through Grief and Gratitude

For me, today, the saying, “I don’t want to work, I just want to bang on the drum all day”… is not a metaphor.

After all, it’s Lughnasadh — a holy day, the first of the harvest festivals — and I am practically salivating in anticipation of this evening’s festivities. Nothing fancy, just great food (including hand-picked wild blackberries that we harvested from along the bike path that runs through our neighborhood!), silly songs, and a simple ritual in the local park to celebrate the season and honor the land.

lughnasadh_feast

Often, I find it hard to concentrate on work on holy days, and of course it’s even harder when that day happens to be a gorgeous, sunny Friday in late summer with the lazy hum of the bees and the idle meanderings of the butterflies whispering, Slow down, take your time, don’t push so hard, it’ll all be fine…

So I wasn’t planning on doing much work today, let alone blogging. But then I came across this post by Merhamet Miller, exploring themes of hard work, hope and sacrifice during this season of harvest — and what it means for Pagans living in the Deep South of the United States, who not only struggle with the summer’s intense heat and the land’s unyeilding clay, but also with the legacy of religious intolerance and fear that have kept them from being able to freely and openly practice their faith for so long. She writes:

I ingest the bread, and I look at the people and enjoy that air conditioning, and see the roof over our heads and I personally know some of the Clergy and Leaders that went before me making sacrifices, watering our souls for hours when we were parched, planting in the stony soil and despite obstacles yielding generations and generations of a Pagan community. We have become so prolific and so scattered we forget, that in 1991 one of our own marched with snipers at his head for our rights. We have become so prosperous we forget that one of our own went to court 7 or more times to just have the right to have an occult store in our town. We forget the sacrifices made, so that we could have this building. We do not look at the Clergy standing in the middle of the Circle as farmers, gardeners, people who are planting their seeds under harsh conditions…but they are. They must have incredible “green thumbs”.

Over the past few weeks, Jeff and I have had many occasions to remark just how amazingly lucky we are. This afternoon, Jeff will be leaving work early in honor of Lughnasadh — his boss not only knows about his Pagan spirituality and supports Jeff taking time off to celebrate the holy days, but often enjoys asking him about his plans and sharing stories about his own experiences of being inspired by nature. This evening (barring a thunderstorm that might be headed our way!), Jeff and I will head back to the local park where, only a week ago in honor of the new moon, we held a small ritual with candles, incense, libations and prayer — and where not a single person stopped to harass us or accost us for performing this Pagan rite in public. Later this year, we’ll celebrate a multi-faith winter solstice ritual with our extended family (after which Jeff’s awesome aunt might write an endearing blog post bragging about it to her fellow Christians). We are so incredibly fortunate to be surrounded by loving, supportive people and to live in a part of the world where our spiritual practices are accepted as a valuable and meaningful part of who we are.

summer_wheat

In Druidry, Lughnasadh is a time for the community to come together in celebration and playful competition, to take a moment to rest from the labor of the summer’s work in the fields and enjoy the first fruits of that labor, to show off the skills and talents that we’ve been cultivating all year. The gods know, we spend enough time in this society with our noses to the grindstone! Even when that work is joyful and fulfilling… it’s still work. So this holy day is a time for playfulness and relaxation, a moment to pause during what is for many the peak of summer’s heat — to seek the relief of cool shade, sweet mead, strong beer and the cheer of good company.

But it is also a time to honor the sacrifices of those who have come before us and made this good life possible. The festival is named for the Irish god Lugh, who established the holiday as a funerary rite in honor of his foster-mother, the goddess Tailtiu, after she died of exhaustion while clearing the plains of Ireland for agriculture. It is easy to see in this story parallels to other grain-goddess figures who have blessed the land through their loving sacrifice — Demeter, grieving the loss of her daughter to death; Selu, Corn Mother of the Cherokee, instructing her sons to drag her corpse across the fields so that new life may spring from it to feed her progeny. Right now in my life, I know several women who are struggling with grief and depression, a sense of exhaustion, a lurking hopelessness. Lughnasadh is not only a time to celebrate the bright strength and impressive skill of successful work, but to embrace the darker side of work: the fear that all that we are working for will ultimately fail us; the fear that our work will not be enough to overcome scarcity, insecurity and injustice; the fear that the products of our work will be consumed thoughtlessly or mindlessly wasted, that we ourselves will be utterly used up, driven to the point of exhaustion, left at last to be forgotten when we are no longer considered “productive” members of society.

Strangely enough, I think that it is this very acknowledgement of fear and loss during the most fruitful time of the year that marks this as a holy season. It is this mingling of love and sorrow, hope and grief that transforms the cycles of production and consumption into something more: a sacred harvest. When we forget the hard work of our ancestors, when we distance ourselves from the sweat, blood and tears that connect us to the living reality of those who have come before us, when we anesthetize ourselves to the grief we feel at the struggles they faced and the sacrifices they made — that is when we risk becoming mere consumers. Grief serves a sacred purpose, for we cannot grieve what we have not loved. Grief is one of the fruits of love, even as joy and prosperity are the fruits of labor.

This acceptance of death, loss, grief and fear runs through all of the harvest festivals — the ghouls and ghosts of Samhain, the balancing of light and dark on the equinox — but it is perhaps during Lughnasadh, when the sun is still high and the harvest is just beginning, that we most need to see grief as a necessary aspect of the work that we do. The afternoons are hot, the storms roll over the landscape, the berries ripen, the wheat and barley rustle in the fields. There is still so much to do. It would be so easy to convince ourselves that we have no time to rest, no time to relax — no time for self-reflection or the grief that it might bring with it.

But the bees hum and the butterflies whisper, Slow down, don’t push so hard, be gentle with yourself for a little while… During the sacred season of Lughnasadh, we can allow ourselves to take a few moments to explore the transformative grace that turns death into life, work into wheat, and grief into gratitude. We can root ourselves in all that it means to be human on this wild holy earth, and remember that part of honoring the work of those who have come before us is to enjoy the gifts of that work in the here and now, the sacred present, with all the gratitude and laughter we can muster.

The world won’t fall apart if we give ourselves time to grieve. The world won’t fall apart if we allow ourselves to be happy.

So bang the drums! And sing the song!

Hoof and Horn, Hoof and Horn
All that dies shall be reborn.
Corn and Grain, Corn and Grain
All that falls shall rise again.

Conservation, Holy Wild, Pagan Blog Project 2013

Invasives, Revisited: Warfare and Harvest

My post on invasive species provoked some really wonderful discussion from readers last week, reminding me once again just how diverse our attitudes towards the natural world can be. Even when we all agree on what practical actions we need to take, our motivations and reasons can be very different!

Take Robert Paxton, for instance, who left this comment on my G+ page:

Some invasives are sufficiently benign that one could address them in this gentle-hearted way. However, out at Circle Sanctuary, we cheerfully work hard to eradicate the buckthorn that has already killed some of our oldest oaks. We spend a lot of effort to beat back the multiflora rose that nothing eats — that repels the native birds — and that creates dense, fiercely prickly hedges. We fight the garlic mustard which chokes out dozens of native understory species, as well as causing butterfly populations to crash. And we fight the reed canary grass which creates monocultures that choke out wetlands.

Every local ecology has its own challenges, some more severe than others. In our case, a century of fire suppression — and some problematic but well-intentioned choices to introduce non-natives by DNR people of generations long past — left us a mess that we need to actively work on if we want the full natural diversity of the land shine.

The Gentle Heart of the City Girl

Bee on a FlowerRobert is absolutely right that every landscape has its own challenges, as well as its own sources of resilience and adaptability. Learning how to work with the unique characteristics of your own local area is absolutely vital in the work to conserve and support thriving natural ecosystems.

I can’t argue with Robert about whether or not the environmental challenges that face Puget Sound Country, and Seattle in particular, are more or less severe than those he faces at the beautiful Circle Sanctuary Nature Preserve in Wisconsin. (Though I will readily admit that I’m envious of the opportunity he has to work at such an amazing place!) I do know that Seattle has many of the problems common to cities all over the world — increased air and water pollution, soil erosion, heat islands, urban run-off, suburban sprawl — as well as some challenges unique to this area. Often times, invasive species find a foothold in a new landscape in the wake of disruptive changes that temporarily jeopardize the ability of native species to survive and thrive, and then stick around because they are hardier, more resistant to pollution and more flexible in nutrient-deficient environments. The city of Seattle, like many cities, has a history of environmental devastation and pollution from industry that make it ripe for invasion by non-natives.

Like Robert, I love the land where I live and I’m dedicated to doing everything in my power to live respectfully and to support an ecosystem that is vital and thriving. Do I think that my approach to handling invasives is too “gentle-hearted,” in light of the damage done by the more than 700 invasive species in my area (with Scotch broom and himilayan blackberry being among the fifty most problematic)? Not at all.

There is a great deal of violence and war in the language that Robert uses to describe his relationship with the land where he lives. He must “beat back” and “fight” and “eradicate” dangerous invaders in his efforts to protect old trees, butterflies, birds and other native wildlife. He might even see himself and his fellow conservationists at Circle Sanctuary as eco-warriors, embroiled in a battle of good versus bad, desirable versus objectionable, dangerous and strong versus weak and vulnerable. Yet I suspect that, as with most invasives, these efforts to eradicate the enemy will never be wholly successful. The invasives are here to stay, and the question we need to ask ourselves is how are we going to deal with them now that they’re here? Do we really want to be at war with a part of our landscape for the rest of our lives?

But what if we simply changed the metaphors we use when we talk about our approach to these invasives? What if we intentionally worked at shifting our attitudes away from images of war and hardship, and towards images of harvest and prosperity? I’m not suggesting being any less persistent or thorough in how we do the physical, practical work of land management. But instead of seeing this work as a constant battle that we will probably never win, what if we begin to think of these invasives as allies who present new opportunities? No plant or animal is wholly bad — every species fits into and carves out a niche, serving the larger community in some way. These invasives are, like many of us humans, dislocated settlers who are wreaking havoc in their attempt to survive. As Heather notes in another comment:

In their native environments, these species have natural checks on their growth (animals that eat them, competitors, etc.). By working with these species in the ways that you describe (using them for food or decoration), I think that humans have the ability to become those checks on the species in their new environment.

We can partner with invasive species in order to find a new balance, instead of wasting our time, energy and resources in a hopeless endeavor. Through careful research and creativity, we might just find positive qualities these plants possess that can be put to use by our communities, transforming this endless war into an opportunity for harvest.

The Cost of War

Our society tends to resort to the language of war and violence when trying to describe things that are difficult. People “fight their way up” the corporate ladder for a successful career. They “wage war” on social problems like poverty and crime. Hidden within Robert’s comment is the assumption that the most effective, most important kind of work is unpleasant and violent — work that we cannot do with a “gentle heart.”

Yet the casualties of war and violence are tragedies. We mourn the waste of life, the lost potential. This is true even when the war is metaphorical, and especially when it’s an endless battle that can never really be won. Many environmentalists have been inspired to great heroics and dedicated service by seeing themselves as courageous eco-warriors, fighting the good fight. But such an attitude is ultimately unsustainable — it can lead to feelings of despair and cynicism, when all the energy, time and resources we’ve poured into a good cause seem to come to nothing and we find ourselves, decades later, still locked in combat with the same intractable foes.

War is also the work of the few, rather than the many. As a metaphor, it is by its very nature exclusionary. A small number of soldiers put their lives on the line and make great sacrifices to protect the homeland and keep the rest of the community safe. Not everybody can be a soldier, and not everybody wants to be. For environmentalists who want to inspire and mobilize entire communities into action to protect the environment and live sustainably with our beautiful planet, using the metaphor of warfare can backfire, alienating supporters and undermining their cause. When we think of our environmental work as a war, we encourage the community to sit back and let those few of us shoulder the burden alone, brave eco-soldiers on the front lines doing the hard work so they don’t have to.

The Opportunity and Community of Harvest

Autumn WoodsAs a city-dweller, I know how easy it would be to give in to pessimism, seeing the landscape where I live as too far gone, too scarred by human exploitation. The problem is just too big for a handful of conservationists to tackle on their own, no matter how dedicated they are. Seattle will never again be a pristine wilderness — the invasives, human and nonhuman alike, are here to stay. But that doesn’t mean that there aren’t new ways of thinking about how we live with our local landscape. Unlike other invasive species, we have the opportunity to change the stories we tell about our place in the world and, by changing our stories, changing the ways we live with and relate to the many other beings that share the world with us. Instead of seeing ourselves at war with invasives, and with ourselves, we can embrace the story of harvest.

The beauty of the harvest is that it promises sustenance and interdependence as the fruits of our labor. The effort we put into the harvest — the blood, sweat and tears — helps to foster connections instead of severing them, sustains and supports life instead of destroying it. We’re used to thinking of harvest as something easy: as easy as going to the grocery store and choosing between oranges and apples, or at most doing some gentle weeding and watering in our backyard gardens. The truth is, harvest is hard, sweaty work that demands a great deal of discipline, teamwork, commitment and courage. Rather than lionizing the sacrifices of the few, reclaiming metaphors of harvest gives us the opportunity to celebrate the efforts of ordinary people doing ordinary things that add up to real, meaningful change. It gives people a chance to be heroic in their everyday lives, as well as reacquaint themselves with the pleasure of hard work and its rewards.

Harvest also reminds us that life is cyclical: a part of this year’s yield will be sown as seeds to grow next year’s crop. In approaching conservation work, it’s essential to understand how our actions today affect the reality we will live with tomorrow, or next year, or in the next century. War, on the other hand, has a beginning, a middle and, hopefully, an end. When we are at war with the invasives in our landscapes, our primary focus is on killing as many of them as we can; we rarely ask ourselves the question of what happens to the casualties of that war after our task is done, or how the landscape will adapt and recover in their absence. Reframing our conservation work as harvest instead of warfare can help to keep us grounded in the cycles of nature that we’re a part of, and it can spark creative ways of recycling and integrating invasives that respect the balance of the native ecology. In a healthy ecosystem, nothing goes to waste, and everything serves some purpose. Rather than worrying about whether or not we are being too “soft on invasives,” treating them as enemy combatants or ecological criminals, we can embrace a more effective solution by focusing on rehabilitation and restoration.

Different stories will inspire different people. Some people might come to a blackberry ice cream social not because they care deeply about protecting the environment from the invasive himalayan blackberry, but because they like ice cream and hanging out with friends. For some, cooking and crafting is their way of fostering a relationship with the natural world, while others might be inspired by the greater call to serve the community on a global scale through conservation. If our efforts are effective and the stories we tell are inspiring, does it really matter whether we approach the work with the courageous heart of a fighter, or the gentle heart of a farmer?

Featured, Holy Wild, Nature Photography

Late Summer Outdoor Altar

A few days ago, our landlord and his son asked us to clear our tiny front porch area while they worked on stripping and repainting the ceiling. Usually we have a small barista table set out front with a few candles and the odds-and-ends the kids bring back with them from the woods — bits of sticks, interesting rocks, a delicate bird’s nest Jeff’s oldest daughter found two winters back. We don’t always do a great job of maintaining this outdoor altar, especially during the cold months of snow and ice, and this past spring and summer has been somewhat overwhelming with wedding planning and work schedules keeping us hopping.

But today, I needed some spiritual down-time to ground in the textures and scents of the earth and replenish my soul a bit. So I spent a few hours out in the garden, weeding and trimming back, harvesting vegetables and taking flower cuttings. Our landlord’s home improvement project seemed a perfect excuse to revisit our outdoor altar with fresh eyes. After sweeping away all the left over dust and paint chippings and beating out the welcome mat, I set to work washing our offering bowls and candle holders of the grime they’d accumulated over the months. I dug a bright butterfly-patterned altar cloth out of the closet (an old one, with a few tears and more than a few stains, that won’t mind too much being out in the weather). Before I knew it…

Voila! A cheerful summer altar!

The vase is filled with a variety of wildflowers from our backyard garden, and the bowl beside it holds a few of our lumpy, multi-colored summer squash fresh off the vine (vines which managed to take over our entire vegetable plot and make a noble escape towards the neighbor’s lawn!). Towards the back is a small set of wind chimes — each time we pass our front stoop altar, coming or going, we set the chimes swinging as we whisper a prayer to our patron goddess Brighid: “O Brighid, bless this hearth and home, and bless all those who dwell within. May peace, love and beauty reign in our hearts.” (Our cat has learned to listen for the tinkling sound of those chimes to tell when it is one of us coming home, or when it’s a stranger at the door.) Our blue offering bowl full of fresh water and a small votive candle complete the altar.