Folklore: Fall Equinox/Harvest Home

In 2019, the autumnal equinox occurs September 23, when the sun will cross the equator and head towards its lowest point of the year in December (Northern Hemisphere). On that date, the sun will rise exactly in the east, shine for 12 hours, and set exactly in the west. Everywhere on earth will experience close to 12 hours of light and 12 of darkness. Exact times vary from place to place  due to light refraction and other factors. This is the date on which the sun enters the sign of Libra, the balance, an appropriate symbol of this astronomical event. Because the earth wobbles  a bit on its axis, the date of the equinox varies slightly from year to year.

Fall is the time of harvest, and in Europe, the equinox was a period of celebration known as Harvest Home. Numerous megaliths and tombs, such as Stonehenge, built in prehistoric times, were organized around the solstices and equinoxes. However, much technological knowledge was lost over the eons, and in the middle ages, since most peasants weren’t able to do astronomical calculations, the date of the festival was set to September 25, which the Church named Michaelmas. Various traditions sprang up in different countries. Modern misconceptions aside, there is no evidence that human sacrifice was ever a part of Harvest Home traditions. But there were many mock sacrifices involving effigies of various sorts.

from Eastborne Lammas Festival

Probably the best known of the effigies was a large wicker figure of a man, in England called John Barleycorn. Based on mythologies in which the the god of night conquers the god of day, John Barleycorn represented the spirit of the fields/summer/light, which was believed to reside in the last sheaf cut. When the harvest was done, the wicker figure was burned in symbolic sacrifice amidst great rejoicing. Everyone knew that they had not seen the last of him, because, if all went according to natural plan, he would return in the spring. The traditions of making “corn dollies”, little figures made of wheat or barley, is closely related. The Harvest Queen, or Kern Baby, is made and bundled by the reapers who proclaim, ‘We have the Kern!’ The sheaf is dressed in a white and decorated with colorful ribbons depicting spring, and then hung upon a pole (a phallic fertility symbol). In Scotland, the last sheaf of harvest is called the Maiden, and must be cut by the youngest female in attendance.

Other historic symbols of the season include apples, gourds and melons, and cider, beer, and wine. Sometimes a loaf of bread, shaped as or marked with a wheat sheaf, is baked using the last of the harvested grain.

In the rhythm of the seasons, putting up the harvest led to a time of rest and plenty, before the onset of winter. It was a time for beginning new leases, resolving accounts and paying the annual dues.

Updated 9/26/19

Folklore in My Garden: The Wooly Bear

Growing up in the in Northeast U.S., my neighborhood friends and I always looked forward to fall, mostly because of Halloween and our pillowcases heavy with candy. In the weeks leading up to the holiday, we’d meet up outdoors after school, shuffling through the growing piles of leaves we helped rake up and trying to settle upon what costume we’d adopt this year and how we ere going to make it. If we happened to spot a wooly bear caterpillar, we’d spend and hour or so with the little fella trying to decipher whether the coming winter would be mild or severe, based upon the relative size of its black and rust stripes. We never could agree on which color was the significant predictor, or how a fuzzy, inch long creeping critter might actually know what the season would bring. Today I stumbled upon an article from the venerable Old Farmers Almanac, which made everything clear at last.

In the fall of 1948, Dr. C. H. Curran, curator of insects at the American Museum of Natural History in New York City, made up his mind to figure out scientifically, once and for all, whether the wooly bear legend was fact or fiction. Over the course of eight years, he collected caterpillars from New York’s Bear Mountain, and counted the number of rust-colored segments each one had, compiling the data into records of the average number that occurred each year. He used the data to forecast weather for the coming winter. If the central rusty band comprised a third or more of the caterpillar body , folklore held, and Dr. Curran predicted, that winter would be mild. Conversely, if the black bands at each end predominated, severe weather was due.

What did Dr. Curran discover? Well, his results suggested that there was indeed some merit to the folk belief! Huzzah!

As a scientist, he was careful to emphasize that his samples were too small to prove the caterpillar’s forecasting prowess. But he founded The Original Society of the Friends of the Woolly Bear, which each year visited Bear Mountain to check them out. Thirty years following the society’s final excursion, the park’s nature center took over the annual wooly bear count and predictions, without guaranteeing accuracy.

They can’t be any worse than the forecasters on tv, right?

On a side note, I try to avoid direct contact with such creatures as insects, amphibians, and reptiles, but the wooly bear is the one exception. I have no problem with gently picking them up to hold for a few moments before releasing them to resume their search for the perfect shelter in which to overwinter. can’t wait to spot the first one this fall….

Fall’s Coming, But Not Just Yet

On this beautiful late August afternoon, during the lull between tour groups at Nathan Hale Homestead in Coventry, CT,  I took a stroll around the museum grounds and noticed quite a few early signs of autumn, which is still three weeks away. Out came my iPhone and I photographed my favorites. Fall is a very evocative season in these parts, actually my favorite, for its warm, dry days and chilly evenings, not to mention the riot of color that surrounds us out here in the country. But that’s still in the future, and today I took much pleasure in the experiencing the last third of our current summer.

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Goldenrod begins to bloom in late July to reach its peak around now, bright and full for a few more days before it begins to turn brown. Contrary to popular opinion, goldenrod is not a plant that causes allergies. Up with goldenrod, down with ragweed!

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The corn is a high as an elephant’s eye….

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Hops! Just about ready for picking, but not enough, alas, to make beer.

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Pokeweed, with its prolific crop of berries about to turn purple. I like to use this with school groups, to make ink for our spy class documents.

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Our junior docents are already hard at work preparing for our haunted corn maze, which takes place on late September, early October weekend evenings. Especially fun when there’s no moon, which makes the maze even darker and spookier. First the props, then the costumes. It’s their favorite event of the year, and possibly our most popular.

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Monday Morning Poem: Starlings in Winter

by Mary Oliver (1935 –   )

Chunky and noisy,
but with stars in their black feathers,
they spring from the telephone wire
and instantly
they are acrobats
in the freezing wind.
And now, in the theater of air,
they swing over buildings,
dipping and rising;
they float like one stippled star
that opens,
becomes for a moment fragmented,
then closes again;
and you watch
and you try
but you simply can’t imagine
how they do it
with no articulated instruction, no pause,
only the silent confirmation
that they are this notable thing,
this wheel of many parts, that can rise and spin
over and over again,
full of gorgeous life.
Ah, world, what lessons you prepare for us,
even in the leafless winter,
even in the ashy city.
I am thinking now
of grief, and of getting past it;
I feel my boots
trying to leave the ground,
I feel my heart
pumping hard. I want
to think again of dangerous and noble things.
I want to be light and frolicsome.
I want to be improbable beautiful and afraid of nothing,
as though I had wings.

Monday Morning Poem: Autumn Song

by Katherine Mansfield

Now’s the time when children’s noses
All become as red as roses
And the colour of their faces
Makes me think of orchard places
Where the juicy apples grow,
And tomatoes in a row.

And to-day the hardened sinner
Never could be late for dinner,
But will jump up to the table
Just as soon as he is able,
Ask for three times hot roast mutton–
Oh! the shocking little glutton.

Come then, find your ball and racket,
Pop into your winter jacket,
With the lovely bear-skin lining.
While the sun is brightly shining,
Let us run and play together
And just love the autumn weather.

Monday Morning Poem: November

November
by Thomas Hood

No sun–no moon!
No morn–no noon!
No dawn–no dusk–no proper time of day–
No sky–no earthly view–
No distance looking blue–

No road–no street–
No “t’other side the way”–
No end to any Row–
No indications where the Crescents go–

No top to any steeple–
No recognitions of familiar people–
No courtesies for showing ’em–
No knowing ’em!

No mail–no post–
No news from any foreign coast–
No park–no ring–no afternoon gentility–
No company–no nobility–

No warmth, no cheerfulness, no healthful ease,
No comfortable feel in any member–
No shade, no shine, no butterflies, no bees,
No fruits, no flowers, no leaves, no birds,
November!

Photo by Linda. View of Loire river, November, 2002.

Monday Morning Poem: Autumnal Sonnet

by William Allingham

Now Autumn’s fire burns slowly along the woods,
And day by day the dead leaves fall and melt,
And night by night the monitory blast
Wails in the key-hold, telling how it pass’d
O’er empty fields, or upland solitudes,
Or grim wide wave; and now the power is felt
Of melancholy, tenderer in its moods
Than any joy indulgent summer dealt.
Dear friends, together in the glimmering eve,
Pensive and glad, with tones that recognise
The soft invisible dew in each one’s eyes,
It may be, somewhat thus we shall have leave
To walk with memory,–when distant lies
Poor Earth, where we were wont to live and grieve.

Plants for dyeing: Pokeweed

pokeweed Pokeweed is shrub that commonly grows in dry, neglected areas. In New England, it generally blossoms in mid-summer and sets fruit in September. Throughout history, pokeweed has had several uses. One of the first plants to show itself in spring, young shoots were gathered, boiled and eaten as a tonic after the long, cold winter. As the plant matures, however, parts of it become poisonous.

The Algonquins called this plant puccoon, which means “plant used for stains or dyes.” An English name for the same plant is “inkberry”, and in my museum classes I sometimes have kids pick, mash, and write with pokeberry. Though technically a berry, which provides a stain rather than a dye, pokeweed can be used to color wool a rich shade of magenta. Unfortunately, stains fade a discolor rather quickly, and are definitely not as colorfast as true dyes. (Think of what happens on that white T shirt that gets blueberry or strawberry stains on it. )

For that reason, I have only used pokeweed to color my yarns a few times. While alum mordant is usually pretty effective with plant dyes, I have not found that it works well at all with pokeweed. My best results and truest, deepest colors have been achieved using white vinegar as mordant.

Pokeweed dyepot:

This is a simple recipe. For a pound of yarn, pick a large paper grocery bag full of pokeweed berries. Crush them until the juice runs, combine with about 1/2 gallon of water in a suitable steel or glass container. Pour in about 1 cup of vinegar. Submerge presoaked yarn skeins into dyebath, raise to a boil, reduce heat and simmer for about 1/2 hour. Allow yarn and dyebath to cool. Rinse yarn in cool water, allow to air dry.

If you try this yourself, I’d love to hear about your results.

 

Post revised 9/26/14

Monday Morning Poem: March

By Celia Thaxter

 

THE keen north wind pipes loud;

Swift scuds the flying cloud; 
Light lies the new fallen snow;
The ice-clad eaves drip slow,
For glad Spring has begun,
And to the ardent sun
The earth, long times so bleak,
Turns a frost-bitten cheek.
Through the clear sky of March,
Blue to the topmost arch,
Swept by the New Year’s gales,
The crow, harsh-clamoring, sails.
By the swift river’s flood
The willow’s golden blood
Mounts to the highest spray,
More vivid day by day;
And fast the maples now
Crimson through every bough,
And from the alder’s crown
Swing the long catkins brown.
Gone is the winter’s pain;
Though sorrow still remain,
Though eyes with tears be wet,
The voice of our regret
We hush, to hear the sweet
Far fall of summer’s feet.
The Heavenly Father wise
Looks in the saddened eyes
Of our unworthiness,
Yet doth He cheer and bless.
Doubt and Despair are dead;
Hope dares to raise her head,
And whispers of delight
Fill the earth day and night.
The snowdrops by the door
Lift upward, sweet and pure,
Their delicate bells; and soon,
In the calm blaze of noon,
By lowly window-sills
Will laugh the daffodils!

Monday Morning Poem: Dear March — Come in

by Emily Dickinson

Dear March — Come in —
How glad I am —
I hoped for you before –Put down your Hat —
You must have walked —
How out of Breath you are —
Dear March, Come right up the stairs with me —
I have so much to tell —

I got your Letter, and the Birds —
The Maples never knew that you were coming — till I called
I declare — how Red their Faces grew —
But March, forgive me — and
All those Hills you left for me to Hue —
There was no Purple suitable —
You took it all with you —

Who knocks? That April.
Lock the Door —
I will not be pursued —
He stayed away a Year to call
When I am occupied —
But trifles look so trivial
As soon as you have come

That Blame is just as dear as Praise
And Praise as mere as Blame —