the gentle harvest

In my spiritual tradition, there are three progressive harvest festivals -- one in August, one in September, and one in October. As we approach the first harvest this year, I’m thinking about the three and how they differ. I’m thinking about this first harvest, the lightest of the harvests. Lightest as in, the furthest from the darkest part of the year. Lightest as in, more gathering flowers than reaping wheat or bundling hay. A gentle harvest. 

Gentle harvest. A drawing together of what’s bloomed and ready to be gathered. 

Pansies were one of my maternal grandmother’s favorite flowers. She had them by her house, and we had them by ours, and in the garden by the family cabin in Wisconsin. Pansies have this almost animal face, this variegation of color and black splatches in pattern on their fur-soft petals. There’s a theory that the word pansy has its origins in the French phrase pens ée, meaning lost in thought. The idea being that when a pansy blossom bobs from the heat, it looks like a person nodding yes, yes, to an idea. 

What has me thinking about pansies today is the way they respond to the process of being pinched back. When a pansy flower withers and withdraws toward its stem, it’s time to pluck it gently so the plant knows to put its energy toward new growth.

Sometimes what our life needs is a full reaping followed by a plowing under of whatever isn’t useful except as fertilizer, so the field can lie fallow for a season and prepare for the next planting. Sometimes we have to get sober, quit the job, call off the wedding, sell the house and travel the country selling beaded bracelets and caricature drawings in the parking lots of concert venues.

And sometimes we need to get really close to the ground, kneel before the flowerbed and lightly, with thumb and forefinger, pull away what’s done to make energetic room for what’s next. Give up dairy for a year, try a new set of prayers, cancel plans made out of obligation, stop apologizing when no harm’s been done.

And sometimes, sometimes what we need is to go to the garden and gather what’s still blooming. We take it inside, put some pansies in baskets, sprinkle a couple of blossoms over ice cream, press a few faces between the pages of books to dry and be retrieved, colors lasting long past their season. 

This is the gift of Lughnashagh, the first harvest: to honor not just the major revisions, the total life overhauls, the massive transformations, but also the shifts in perspective, the almost missable transcendences, the incremental victories. These too are sacred, and worthy of pause and recognition. 

Welcome to the gentle harvest. Gather away. 

analogy of the flowering plants

Months ago, my partner and I decided that it was time we become the kind of people who can keep flowering plants alive. We’d had good success with a few vine-based houseplants, the kind you really have to work at killing, that one can propagate by cutting off a portion of it and sticking it in some water. We’d also succeeded at not killing air plants, the kind that do best if you manage not to even look at them too often.

So we went to Home Depot and bought two hanging plants, exuberant purples and oranges already blooming. How could we fail, we thought. We read the little plastic care cards and hung them on the back porch in what seemed the proper amount of sun, we watered them and watched them and watched them steadily die.

When it was clear that they were truly gone, we each assumed the other would throw them away, and left for a string of vacations and other distractions. And the strangest thing happened. A month or so later, they were resurrected. Green shoots shooting up from among the dead branches. Then flowers, not so many as when we overpaid for them at the oversized hardware store, but definitely, defiantly, flowers.

And what do we make of this? Not, certainly, that neglect brings blossoming in all cases, but that we often overcare for things. We tend our lives like overanxious parents, rebudgeting daily when our accounts have not changed, lying awake nights spinning our mindcogs about something we could have or should have or would have done differently, overcaffeinating in the hope that by crowbarring more work into each hour things will be better. Easier. Happier. More blooming.

Yesterday morning I went to lay out three tarot cards, one way I check in with myself and the Everything. Traditionally, a three-card draw indicates past, present, and future states, but I wanted something else. So I sat quietly until what came to me was this: Know. Be. Do. I just googled it, and of course I’m not the first person to come to this mantra -- apparently the U.S. Army’s leadership model is based on the variation “Be. Know. Do.” But in any case, it felt like a newish thought to me.

We -- I -- get so caught up in the doing, the action, that we lose connection with what centers and grounds us: the knowing, and the being. It’s only from here that truly effective and meaningful action can come.

Sometimes, we have to leave the plants alone. Step away from what knows how to grow all on its own, leave it in a place it can get sun and rain and some friendly insects. For me, to become a gardener of sorts was to become an adult -- my mother has an award-winning garden designed not only for beauty but to support butterfly migration. So I overtended, ineffectively, because it was only about the action and what I wanted to happen.

It’s an imperfect analogy; I don’t know how long the flowers will survive, or what we’ll do with them over the winter. Benign neglect is hardly an answer to most of the world’s problems. But caring enough, without ego-driven grasping -- what the Buddhists call loving detachment -- is something those tenacious flowering plants in their plastic hanging pots taught me. To pause, to go hands-off, to trust, to let go and let the Everything do its good work in its own time. That’s today’s magic.