We are almost at the Autumn Equinox, that magical point at which day and night stand equally balanced before tipping into the dark half of the year. That is one reason Pagans mark this time of year with ritual. Another reason is that we are slap bang in the middle of the harvest season, which begins at Lammas or Lughnasadh and goes on until Samhain. Lammas is celebrated in high summer, at the beginning of August when the grain harvest usually begins. Samhain comes at the end of October, when farming communities traditionally brought their livestock down from the hills into more sheltered pastures and culled old or weak members of the herd. The culled animals would provide meat for a celebratory feast and this would also be salted down or cured to provide food through the coming winter months.
Autumn Equinox, or Mabon as some like to call it, is a time for harvesting the abundant fruit and nuts available as summer gives way to autumn. Apples, pears, late plums and damsons, squashes and pumpkins, blackberries, autumn-fruiting raspberries, quinces, hazelnuts, elderberries, haws, and sloes... The summer crops of potatoes and onions should be dug by now and safely stored somewhere cool, dark and dry. Then there are mushrooms to be foraged and the last of summer's bounty to be stored away in jams, jellies, pickles, cordials, wines, syrups and chutneys. And of course, seeds of flowers, vegetables and fruit can be saved for sowing next spring.
Unfortunately the fruit and vegetable harvest at Halfway Up a Hill is rather meager this year. The vegetable patch has been somewhat neglected as I no longer have as much time to devote to it, and much of the fruit harvest is disappointing due to the terrible weather we've had this summer negatively affecting pollination rates. There are no damsons at all and my usually reliable cooking apple has only three fruits, comparing miserably with the fine harvest we had last year. Even the elderberry crop is sparse. Defying all expectations though, the tomatoes have done pretty well and continue to produce, and there is an extremely heavy crop of haws in the hedgerows.
Our modern estrangement from the natural world to an extent insulates us from the extremes of food shortage that we could expect from such a cold, wet summer. Food prices may increase, but there will still be plenty to choose from at the local supermarket, greengrocer or market stall. We are so lucky in the Western world, and we so often take that for granted.
But we are also lucky to have the wonderful human spirit of altruism, generosity and the instinct to share in times of plenty - in times of scarcity, too. Just this week I have been gifted with some homegrown runner beans, a big fragrant bunch of sweetpeas, a pretty oriental fan and a jar of redcurrant and blackberry jelly by different people. In the last year I have been given rhubarb, plants, vouchers, magazines, a vintage radio for restoration, cucumbers, fabric, kitchenware, a computer that needs fixing, yarn, a large amount of firewood and items of clothing by friends, family and neighbours; they have also gifted me freely with advice, expertise and various skills that I lack when I've needed help. I myself have passed on books, surplus eggs, incense, my old car, toiletries, magazines, perfume and homemade jam. I have borrowed a wall-paper steamer/stripper, a router, a tile-cutter, a mitre saw, and have lent out a bagful of DVDs, my carpet-shampooer, a dehumidifier, my pressure-washer and books. And I have done lots of liftsharing!
Since T left, money is a constant issue. I receive alimony, but it decreases each year and will end altogether in a couple of year's time. I am now working, but I don't seem to earn enough to manage without the alimony. And as we find ourselves in the middle of a recession with no end in sight - no matter what the politicians say - the cost of living increases almost daily. Money - or lack of it - is now a permanent worry at the back of my mind.
But in this time of balance between summer and winter, light and dark, abundance and scarcity, I breathe and choose to remember that it is true that the best things in life are free. I choose to remember that I am part of a community of friends, family and neighbours who look out for each other, share what they have and help when they can, just because that's what we humans do for each other. I choose to remember that co-operation is more important than competition. I choose to remember that abundance and money are not the same thing. And most of all I choose to give thanks for the harvest of my many blessings, which are priceless.