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.
For me, Autumn is far less about the dying away, and far more about the stocking up. Granted, the leaves beyond my window are turning, shades of yellow and brown creeping in amongst the greens. It’s late this year, but then, so was the spring.
In amongst the leaves, I see glimpses of squirrels, scurrying here and there with whatever they have foraged. Mouths full with the big, spikey cases from chestnuts, for comedy effect. I learned recently that the jay, shy woodland member of the crow family, also gathers nuts and buries them at this time of year. For hedgehogs and bears (we don’t have the latter here, but you might) autumn is all about stocking up inside the body, laying down a sturdy fat lay with deliberate and sustained gluttony so as to survive hibernation. The last flowers are blooming, the end of season bees are stocking up too.
Even in human terms, harvest and provisioning for the winter isn’t a brief, September event. There’s still wood to gather in. It’s apple season now, and alongside harvesting those goes the cider, chutney and jelly making. Most produce will not keep well, especially not the soft summer fruits, so to keep a supply you either have to get chewing and convert it into a fat layer, or get on with the work of preserving.
Our modern age makes it easy not just to buy jam in any season, but soft fruits. If you want strawberries in a snowstorm, it’s no longer the thing of Russian myth, dependent on divine intervention. We’ve lost something there, I think. It may be nice to have soft fruit all year round, but for the majority, the price tag has been dislocation from the seasons. Who knows when real strawberry season is? Only those who grow them in a garden.
We used to live and work in ways that connected us to our land, and the seasons as they happened on the ground. Now most of our ‘seasonal’ experience pertains to what the shops carry stock for. Right now that would be Halloween, then we’ll be straight into Christmas mode, Valentine’s day, and before you know it, it’ll be Easter. If seasons are nothing more than marketing, we lose something.
I experienced disengagement of this sort in my teens. I was a hard worker at school, nose most usually in a book, and I remember the lack of awareness of the nuances of the year. There was nothing in my life to tie me back in, and when, in my late teens I started to feel that disorientation and loss keenly, it was hard work getting back to a feeling of involvement. Learning what my ancestors did seasonally and taking on some of that traditional work helped a lot.
I’m not even sure I accept the Pagan Wheel of the Year Narrative that says right now everything is dying away. Deciduous trees and other tender plants go into planned retreat at this time of year because their softer parts would not survive the frost. What they’re doing, as they appear to be dying away, is drawing all the nutrients back into themselves. They’re stocking up, bringing in whatever remains of what they made over the summer. Perhaps for the tree, this is less like a death period, more like wild feasting. Perhaps those colours should be less seen as exuberance in death and more as a sign of the hedonism the tree is indulging in right now. Even after the leaves are down, they aren’t entirely dreaming. Trees have to get their buds, shoots and catkins ready for next year. And here’s a thing, putting out those fresh growths isn’t triggered by daylight levels or temperatures. Scientists don’t seem to know what the trigger is, and the arrival of spring could vary a good deal. Through the winter, trees will be figuring out when to get moving again. There’s a thinking process going on in every tree, and we don’t even know what the mechanism is for that.
Stock up, make sure you have what you need, enjoy the warm days that are still balmy enough to pass for late summer. Get ready for the first frosts. Dying is, as ever, entirely optional.
Squirrel Trying To Acquire Peanuts" by papaija2008
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