Alternative Wheel: Other seasonal cycle stories
When this column started, it was all about exploring different ways of thinking about the wheel of the year, reflecting on aspects of the natural world to provide Pagans alternatives to the usual solar stories. It's still very much an alternative wheel, but there's a developing emphasis on what we can celebrate as the seasons turn. Faced with environmental crisis, and an uncertain future, celebration is a powerful soul restoring antidote that will help us all keep going, stay hopeful and dream up better ways of being.
In your standard Pagan wheel of the year arrangement, harvest happens in the autumn. We tend to celebrate it at the autumn equinox, when many regular Pagan teachings encourage you to reflect on wider ideas of harvest in your own life. However, if you grow soft fruit or salad vegetables, the odds are that you’ve been harvesting since some time in June.
The exact timing of harvests varies according to the weather. There needs to have been enough rain to fatten things up, and enough sun to bring about the necessary chemical changes. The shift of colour in berries and grains that shows ripening, is a chemical shift of sugars, hence the radical difference in taste between an apple in early summer and late autumn. Some fruits and roots do not ripen until frosts have acted on them to make changes in the chemistry.
If the weather has leant itself to the process, the first hay harvests can occur in June, and if conditions are right, you can sometimes get a second harvest off the same field. I used to be confused by the whole hay/straw thing, so I think it stands explaining both in terms of where the two come from and how they are used. Straw is the stalk of grain crops – wheat, barley, oats and rye are the standard grains of Europe and now the north Americas. When these are cut, the seeds are separated from the stalk. The stalks are dry, and have no real nutrients left in them, but make warm bedding for livestock. Hay is grown specifically as a crop, in meadows set apart for just this purpose. Traditionally, a good hay meadow is not just grass, but a range of edible plants and flowers, especially clover. Hay is dried and used to feed livestock during the winter. These days we also do silage, which is a kind of fermented hay, and I don’t know much about how that works.
We’ve been harvesting hay for so long that many species have adapted around it. The hay meadow is a haven for wildflowers and insects, if done properly. Making hay goes back to our earliest days as settled farmers. Traditionally it would have been cut with scythes, a long handled, straighter bladed relative of the sickle. While sickles may have an association with Druids cutting mistletoe, in practice they are used for the grain harvest, which comes later in the summer.
Contrary to popular belief, harvest is not just an autumnal event. There are things to harvest all year round – the winter wheat and root vegetables, the spring greens, the soft fruits of early summer, the grains of late summer, then the nuts and berries that have become the focal of autumnal harvest. We think of autumn as a winding down and end time, but in practice different plants do that at different times. The daffodils, bluebells and other spring flowers have already died back now, their work for this year largely done.
The moral of this story is that when you harvest depends entirely on what you harvest and where in the globe you are. There is no one time of the year to be bringing it all in. We don’t gather everything in the autumn. We never did. Harvest is a part of life. The seeds we sowed last year might not lead to fruit for a decade. In our personal lives and our spiritual work, we can be sowing seeds all the time, nurturing them, and making harvests. For anyone who takes up herbalism or gardening, this will become an entirely literal process too, and that isn’t all about the autumn, either!
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