Naught of blood nor flesh nor bone
Can halt the wheel that rolls like stone.
On time’s own bold, relentless flow
Into the darkling days we go.
Autumn has been whispering to me like a lover for the last few weeks. The soft voice speaks in the chill of early morning hours and golden sunlit afternoons. It calls to the magic within me, sending hope and comfort drifting down with the falling locust leaves. There is much work to be done to prepare for the time of introspection during the dark days of winter, but there is no hurry – at least not in the matters of spirit. Work in the garden, and work to fill the pantry, require a timelier effort.
The familiar scenery of harvest season and the autumn landscape remind me to carry forward that which is needed and leave behind that which no longer serves a purpose for me. Leaves on the ground, stalks in the field, memories held in the heart, these will still serve a purpose elsewhere. A fine point of balance is reached when one comes to understand that items, thoughts, or emotions released eventually become nourishment for earth, body, or spirit. The changes that occur during this time of year highlight the continuous contradictions that maintain the existence of that balance between beginnings and endings, renewal and ruin, and life and death.
The corn stalks in my garden have fallen, hurried along in their demise by the midnight marauding of three hungry black bear cubs and their mother. I carried the stalks to the compost bin and habitat fence where their nutrients and strength will be put to good use. The last of the squash and potatoes have been harvested and will help feed my family through the winter. The vines have been pulled out and added to the compost bin. Okra is still on the stalk where it will dry for seed to be planted next year. Carrots, parsnips, and beets have recently been planted and will provide a healthy late autumn crop.
Although the gardens are still warmed by the colors of late summer and early autumn flowers, the black-eyed susans and the sunflowers have said their goodbyes. No matter that I love this season, I am still a little sad to see them go. The bright yellow blooms are faded or simply gone; already fallen to the ground, already becoming part of the compost that will nurture next year’s flowers. However, the stalks still stand dry and dark and against the landscape, rattling with every passing breeze.
The dried seeds of the black-eyed susan are held by the cone that was once the center of the flower, and sunflower seeds are held in the head’s gently curved face. Although not as visually appealing to the human eye as they were in full bloom, these withered plants are still doing vital work, providing food for various birds and tiny creatures. Bright goldfinches and other birds are the living color in those parts of the garden now. They move from plant to plant, eating the seeds, calling to each other, and singing their songs.
Both of those plants are self-seeders. What the birds and other creatures do not eat will fall to the ground where the plants stand. The soil will take hold of those seeds, and eventually, they will germinate and begin the hidden process of growth within the earth, out of sight through the long days of winter. The words to a ritual song often come to my mind when I am in the garden these days, and I sing to the plants and the land spirits. “Hoof and horn, hoof and horn, all that dies shall be reborn. Corn and grain, corn and grain, all that falls shall rise again.”
When I sit in the garden for meditation, I consider these and other changes. I am amazed how much of that work has happened naturally, with little effort on my part. In some instances, I am merely an observer. All that is required of me is patience and a willingness to listen to the land spirits and to garden passively. The entire process is one of the seasonal contradictions that holds the cycle of life and death in balance and mirrors the process for some of the spiritual work that must be done at this time of year. As above, so below. As within, so without.
Other aspects of tucking the gardens in for winter involve hard physical labor. There is a balance to be found between leaving plants that will benefit wildlife and clearing out plants that are finished for the season. Weeds must be removed, the soil and mulch prepared for spring, and perennials pruned to winter over. Tulips, lilies, and other plants must be divided or newly planted. All of this work means spending time outside in the fresh air and sunlight and getting my hands in the dirt, connecting directly with the land spirits. It also presents the opportunity to release physical and spiritual energy into the soil where it can be cleansed and redirected.
My love of the harvest season takes me into apple country every year, searching for fresh cider, donuts, and a bushel of apples for making homemade applesauce and apple butter. This is one way that I simultaneously celebrate the harvest while beginning the process of putting the land to bed for the winter and take another step toward finding balance in all things.
This year, I had an extra reason for traveling to the orchards and farmlands south of my home. My own small orchard has apple trees that are a year old, and they showed considerable growth over the summer. But their energy is curious and tentative, and like their roots, not yet deeply established. I wanted to compare their energy to that of an old-growth orchard.
The day before the Autumn Equinox was bright and clear, with no clouds in the Carolina blue sky. I asked the land spirits to send me in the right direction, and after stopping at a favorite place for cider, ended up driving half a mile up a poorly signed dirt road in search of pumpkins. I was happily not surprised to find myself in the middle of a small orchard. I found a spot that felt just right and went to sit for a while under a tree that was laden with fruit and had bees buzzing all around it.
The energy I felt from the tree and the land was so intertwined it was difficult to tell them apart, or even to tell where the energy of that tree ended, and another began. The land and the trees function almost as one being, and they carry a gentle but strong power. I stayed long enough to form a clear impression of that energy and interconnectedness because I wanted to show that snapshot to my land spirits and apple trees.
When I made it home some hours later with pumpkins, apples, cider, and corn stalks, I sat in the middle of my own orchard for a while. I conversed with the land spirits and the trees and poured some of that gentle energy over the land. Feeding the spiritual side of the land and gardens is another important step in preparing for the winter. I sang the ritual song again: “Hoof and horn, hoof and horn, all that dies shall be reborn. Corn and grain, corn and grain, all that falls shall rise again.” Then I set to work, creating a garden scene to celebrate the harvest and honor my land.
We rise, and we fall with the seasons just as we roll with the turning of the wheel. At harvest time, heading into the dark days, I pull close the good memories of my ancestors and wrap them around me like an autumn colored cloak.
There is still much work to be done in the days ahead, but I am ready.