This evening marks the Autumn Equinox. As is our custom, we will gather with friends to note the changing seasons, to explore our journey around the Medicine Wheel, and to express gratitude to Mother Earth and Grandmother Water.
For the past several years the equinox has preceded the first frosts, a lived experience of climate change. (I can remember when frosts came in mid-September, even near the lake.) Surprisingly, last week brought the first frosts and freeze, although, as we live near the lake, most of our plants survived. This week promises a return to late summer. Traditionally in New England a warm spell following the first freeze is termed, “Indian summer.” Indian summer may offer long weeks of warm sunny days and cool nights, as well as the occasional tropical cyclone complete with drenching rains. The past few weeks have been remarkably dry and we find ourselves hoping for those prolonged autumnal rains.
Indian summer reportedly was so named because the Indigenous people of New England spent those last gentle days of early autumn gathering berries, drying corn and game, and otherwise securing food stocks for the winter. Even so, winter was a challenging time. Preserved food stores seldom lasted the winter, and if the weather was harsh, hunting and fishing might be difficult or impossible. Hunger was routine, and starvation a real threat. Even so, this late season warmth also lent itself to feasts and play, the return of warm weather offering an opportunity for both preparation and socialization.
I grew up among subsistence farmers. We made our weekly trips to the local big box grocery, but our purchases, aside from meat and dairy products, supplemented whatever we had canned or frozen from the garden. Those ancient subsistence practices remained central late into my parents’ lives. My uncle died in an accident while hunting raccoon that would surely have ended up on the dinner table.
I was taught only to take as much as I could use, whether I was fishing or attending a church supper. As we enter the West we are reminded that life and resources are finite, that we must provide for the next generation, and that we have an obligation to give back to our families and communities. Here in the West we are invited to be adults and to care for the young and the elders. We are encouraged to remember the past and to honor those who prepared the way for us.
In Indian summer we are reminded that soon we will enter the North and prepare for our journey to the next life. We are asked to prepare a place for those who will follow after us, those who have not yet been born. Hopefully, we take time to savor the goodness of the harvest, to play with loved ones and friends, and to express gratitude to Mother Earth and the Creator.
As the leaves slowly turn, we acknowledge the changing year and look forward to the holiday season that will soon follow. Come February, we will sit at the table, seed catalogs in hand, plotting out next year’s garden as generations have done before us. For now though we can enjoy the sun and warmth of early autumn, taking pleasure in the brilliant folliage. Surely, it is a good time to be alive.