The Fall Equinox is traditionally about harvest, harvesting the fruits of your labor and the fruits of the land in preparation for the coming of winter. This model of the wheel of the year focuses on earned outcomes: you’ve planted your crops, you’ve tended them all season, you’ve invested the time, and now, you are able to receive the rewards of your efforts. And a lot of our own understanding of the celebration of these seasons works on that narrative: planning, planting, tending, harvesting, and the cycle of the seasons. This same cycle is expected, perhaps, anticipated, in our everyday lives. For example, if you put the effort into getting degrees and starting a career, or if you put in a ton of hard effort at your workplace, you will eventually be rewarded with a harvest, a payoff, and a sense of stability. There’s this large sense that if you put your time in, then your harvest and rewards will come.
For weeks now, I tried to write a different post, a one celebrating the harvest and using the traditional themes of the Fall Equinox in the druid tradition. Yet, it turned out to be very difficult to write. There’s been so much change and challenge in the last two years. While our garden is certainly bountiful and we are bringing in the harvest on our homestead, I found these narratives of “putting in your work and getting a harvest” really problematic to dwell on because for myself and so many others, that whole idea has crumbled in workplaces and cultures. In talking with friends in a variety of fields and contexts, I think that’s perhaps the thing that’s been most difficult for everyone during the last year and a half–the loss of that narrative, of that stability, of that dependable way forward. A lot of those expected cycles and seasons were disrupted, and it appears that most of us are never going back to “before.” This led to my own thinking and meditations about the new skills that getting such a harvest in today’s age requires–resilience, like I shared a few weeks ago, but also other themes I’ve touched on, such as flow. In other words, just like our traditional wheel, this new set of skills and themes may help us find balance, grounding, and stability in an increasingly unstable world.
I’m not suggesting that we abandon the traditional wheel or the themes of harvest or balance at the Fall Equinox, because these themes are still very much present on our landscape and in many aspects of our lives. But, I do think we need to build into our traditional wheel and celebrations a broader set of thinking, visioning, and ideas that might help us live, adapt to, and thrive in this new and less predictable age. In other words, if the stability of the Holocene allowed agrarian societies to develop elaborate spiritual traditions surrounding planting and harvest, what does the instability of the Anthropocene require of our spiritual traditions? What themes or concepts can those practicing nature-based spirituality embrace now so that we can offer a better vision for the future? It is this question that I will consider today for the Fall Equinox, and I will return to this question for the next seven holidays as we move froward through the next eight seasonal holidays–creating an wheel of the year that offers us tools for visioning and resiliency.
So with all of that written as a way of introduction to why I’m deviating from the traditional theme for the Fall Equinox (and subsequent holidays for the wheel of the year in the coming seasons), I’m going to present some themes that I think are powerful lessons for us to incorporate into spiritual practices and seasonal celebrations. So let’s turn to one of these themes: receptivity!
Receptivity as a theme for the Fall Equinox
Hickory, Maple, Aster, Hawthorn, and Poke mandala on moss
Receptivity has a lot of dimensions and definitions. In its most simple form, it is about openness: openness to new ideas, to change, and new experiences or patterns of life. Its about accepting what comes rather than trying to force things in a specific direction. Receptivity is about us simply allowing things to flow in, rather than trying to force things in a specific way. When you dig into it, receptivity is a very good theme for the “harvest” narrative, because with receptivity, rather than cultivating an expectation of what we want and expect to come, we are open to what is and what comes our way.
One of the reasons that Receptivity is such a good theme is that it is a counter balance to the effort-reward cultural narrative that is tied to the Fall Equinox and themes of harvest. There is one enormous problem with the effort/reward theme on a larger cultural level: it belongs to a different age. It belongs to the Holocene, an 8000-11,000 year period of stable climate that allowed humans to develop agriculture, allowed humans to have some predictability about their surroundings, and allowed us to develop symbolic understandings like those drawn upon for the modern wheel of the year. It also belongs to the 20th century, when stable careers were common and people would retire from blue collar jobs with pensions. But we are not in the Holocene any longer, both climate-wise and culturally, we’ve moved onto the Anthropocene (or, as Stephen Pyne recently called it, the Pyrocene, the age of fires). The Anthropocene is characterized by human-driven planetary changes which destabilize every aspect of our lives. These changes are increasing in intensity and will continue throughout the course of our lives and into the lives of our descendants. Many now point to 1950 as the time when the Anthropocene officially began, with humanity’s “great acceleration” of consumption and capitalism. But like any age, it takes time to ramp up, and it is now in the 21st century, seventy years later, we are really starting to see the accelerating effects of the Anthropocene. In thinking about these changes, both culturally in the last 18 months with the pandemic, and in the wake of the UN’s release of the IPPC 2021 climate change report, we need some new themes.
While we have traditionally based the wheel of the year on more recent agrarian human ancestors as part of the Holocene, we no longer live in that age. Agrarian societies depend on very limited numbers crops for sustenance and survival. For a culture that depends on a small number of crops, getting a harvest from those crops becomes absolutely critical for life, and it makes sense that a huge amount of their spiritual tradition was focused on the harvest. If you think about many of the harvest traditions–they was (and still were) focused on staple crops like apples, wheat, and barley without which our agrarian ancestors would not have survived. This is also of why situations like the failure of one crop were so devastating; for example, the Irish Potato Famine in the 1850’s killed over 1,000,000 Irish and sent many of them (including my own ancestors) in search of new places to put down roots.
However, if we go back further to the time of our more distant hunter-gatherer ancestors, we know that they lived and thrived through multiple destabilized climates and planetary ages. If we examine their experiences with obtaining a harvest–the picture emerges quite differently. Most hunter-gatherer societies still had a few foods that were central to their diets (like acorn eating cultures, specific animals that were hunted and revered, etc) but most lived off of an incredible variety of different foods, in some cases 1000 or more (as you can learn from ethnobotanical guides like M. Kat Anderson’s Tending the Wilds or Charlotte Ericssen-Brown’s Medicinal and Other Uses of North American Plants). These foods vary considerably from season to season–hardwood nut crops, for example, have a “mast year” every 3-5 years. That is, while there was always food to harvest, the kinds of food, amounts of food, and timing of it was pretty variable and required us to simply accept what was, capitalize on what was, and move forward. (As an aside, hunter-gatherer societies did also not suffer from what some scientists would call “diseases of civilization” like heart disease or diabetes; see more about this at this article).
So let’s focus for on gathering and how it is tied to receptivity. I do a lot of wild food foraging and wild food education in addition to tending a 5-acre homestead and growing a lot of food. The mindsets for gathering vs. farming are really different. Both are based on innate wisdom and knowledge of the land, but there are expectations in homesteading/gardening that are simply not present in wild food foraging. With foraging, you never really know what you might encounter or how abundant things might be. You can only use your knowledge to go to places where you’ve found food before and use your knowledge of the timing of the season to help you see what is out there. One year, the wild berry crop is massive while the next there’s practically no berries to speak of because of a late frost. One year you could harvest hundreds of pounds of chestnuts and in the next, they are full of worms but there are incredible amounts of lamb’s quarters to make flour. That’s how it is when you are foraging for wild foods–you just put yourself out there to look and see what you can find. Hence, receptivity and gratitude for the harvest.
Receptivity: Bardic, Ovate, and Druid Practices
A ritual altar at the fall equinox
Receptivity is a pretty challenging concept for many of us who grew up in Western cultures, and I think its grown a lot more difficult in recent years. Here in the US, for example, an extremely polarized cultural and political climate encourages us to shut down, to not even be willing to hear voices that are different than our own, and to spend time only with people who think and act like we do. US culture also maintains the effort-reward faulty narrative that suggests that if you simply work hard you will be successful. Obviously, that’s a lot different from cultivating receptivity. Thus, I think it is useful to work to cultivate spiritual practices that cultivate receptivity. And yes–I keep using the term “cultivate” very specifically–this is something we can bring into our lives, like a new skill we are learning. Here are a few methods to practice receptivity through the lens of bardic, ovate, and druid practice.
Receptivity and Wild Foods: An Ovate Practice
One way of cultivating receptivity and honor the harvest is to take up a wild food foraging practice and take a day to go out and seek out wild foods. Wild foods can be found in all settings, from urban to wilderness, and its just a matter of time and building your knowledge. See if you can find enough for to create at least part of a meal. This time of year in Eastern North America, they are particularly abundant–you can find wild apples, hardwood nuts (hickories, chestnuts, butternut, walnuts, hazelnuts, acorns);fall greens (usually there is a second harvest of greens like dandelion); grain harvests (wild amaranth, lambs quarters, or yellow dock); and fall mushrooms (Hen of the Woods, late Chicken of the Woods, Honey Mushrooms, etc). Building an ethical foraging practice and bringing some of this into your regular practice allows for not only a deep knowledge and reverence of nature, but also a way to align with ancient human ancestors and cultivate receptivity.
With any wild food foraging practice, I want to stress the importance of ethical harvest. Offer gratitude and respect to what you are harvesting, seek permission, and monitor wild food populations. For an introduction to ethical foraging, please see this post. I also have two general posts that can get you started on wild foraging with resource and book suggestions: here and here.
So as a fall equinox celebration, you might gather some wild foods leading up to the Fall Equinox and then prepare a celebratory meal in gratitude and reverence for what the land has provided. Supplement this with food from your own garden or farmer’s market and enjoy the feast!
Receptivity: A Fall Equinox Journey of Spirit
On the druid side, we might think about how to create receptivity through spiritual connection and ritual. Druid practices are about ritual, meditation, and celebration. For this practice, rather than planning a formal Fall Equinox ceremony, you will simply allow yourself to experience the magic and enchantment of the living earth, be guided by spirit, and create an ongoing ceremonial experience for yourself.
To do this, plan on spending some deep time in nature, at least an hour or more. Ideally this will be a place with some wildness to it. You might take a few tools with you–an offering blend, a harvest knife, your crane bag, a spiritual journal. But don’t plan too much–the idea is to allow the ceremony to unfold on your journey.
When you get where you are going, start by opening up yourself to a ceremonial experience. Keep your mind and intentions open but do any protective work you see as necessary (e.g. I would do AODA’s Sphere of Protection ceremony to begin). After that, begin to walk and explore, seeing what you are drawn to. Leave offerings, talk with trees, and spend time simply communing with the living earth. Look for messages in the forms of animals, clouds, wind, trees. See what calls to you and the work you can do to celebrate this year. This might be a tree meditation, a grounding ceremony in the woods, forest bathing, taking a nap, making offerings, building a nature mandala, etc. The point here is that rather than prepare a pre-concieved plan for your Fall Equinox, you simply allow spirit to guide you.
As you are exiting the forest, give yourself some time to return. Breathe deeply, “close” the ceremonial experience in whatever way you see fit, and take time to return to the mundane world. Carry what you’ve learned about yourself and nature with you into the coming season.
Receptivity: Cultivating in Community
Bardic practices involve both creative expression as well as community, and in this case, this practice focuses more on cultivating open relationships with others. The practice is simple:
Talk to someone who believes very differently than you do in a non-judgemental, open way*. One activity to help you cultivate receptivity is to find someone who has very different life experience, different political or social views, and/or a different way of seeing the world from you. Spend time asking that person questions to understand what they believe and why they believe it. As you are listening, work to withhold your own judgment (note your emotional reactions) and also work hard not to respond to them in a way that would put your own beliefs at the center of the discussion. Ask questions, listen, and absorb what they are saying. After you’ve done this, express gratitude to the person for sharing their time and thoughts. (And yes, I realize how incredibly hard this might be to do, at least for those in the US right now. Try it anyways. Strip aside the common political stigmas and simply listen to a person as a human being).
After you’ve done this, meditate on the experience. What did you gain from this experience? Did it reaffirm your beliefs or did it allow you to really experience a new perspective? Do you have more empathy and understanding for those who may believe differently than you?
(*I am grateful to Dr. Abby Michelini for this practice. Abby recently completed a dissertation and I was honored to be a dissertation reader on her project. Her project was to create poetic narratives from people on radically different sides of the spectrum and use those as a way of cultivating deep listening to bridge political and cultural divides. And you know what? It worked. After seeing her study, this practice gave me a lot of hope. I started trying this practice in my own life and I was really grateful for this as a new tool to cultivate openness and receptivity towards others! So I’m sharing it here!)
Learning how to cultivate receptivity in such challenging times offers us a powerful tool. It allows us to be more flexible and adaptable to things that we can’t change and encourages us to find delight in the unexpected. May your feet tread ever lightly upon the soil and your lungs fill with clean air at this blessed Fall Equinox!
Also, If you are interested more in this topic, cultivating your intuition, connecting with our primal ancestral roots, and in connecting deeply with nature, I wanted to draw your attention to a fabulous 8 week online course by Jon Young, Nate Summers, and Sarah Fontaine starting soon! Here’s a link to the Intuitive Tracking course https://www.primalnate.com/intuitivetracking I’ll be taking this course, and I hope you consider it as well!