It is an old feeling, older than human history, pert is an old feeling, older than human history, perhaps pre-dating even humanity itself.
That feeling when autumn gives you time to prepare for winter, to pack in supplies, to find a place to hibernate. That sigh of relief and gratitude when you have stacked the last piece of firewood, finished the canning, stocked the pantry.
You take off your gloves and wipe your brow, grateful you got it done.
The word “harvest” derives from the old English word for autumn; both words linked inextricably with the feeling of preserving the plenty of the growing season. Agricultural summers were often lean times, as last year’s food was running out and this year’s crops were not yet ready to eat.
Little wonder then, that once those crops were safely gathered and preserved, a feeling of relief and satisfaction washed over the farmers.
Harvest festivals are near universal among agricultural societies and date back at least as far as recorded history. Regardless of the season or the crops involved — from the Moon Festival in China to the ancient Roman Cerelia — all these human celebrations share an appreciation for what we have and a prayer for the coming year.
And though we have increasingly divorced our modern lives from the seasonality of agricultural cycles, we’ve preserved that feeling of thankfulness and hope in our holidays.
A sunny day in November is a bonus day not to be wasted inside in front of a screen.
Yet there are things to be done inside and out, and with each task marked off the to-do list, a small feeling of satisfaction and self reliance is reached. We have a barn full of hay put up for the year. We have weaned the calves, and they have stopped bawling for their mothers.
Chainsaws echo around the valley as we cut firewood that will season for next winter (our modern equivalent is stocking up wood pellets for our stove). We dig up the garden, plant bulbs and gather windfall apples.
It has been cold and dry enough to rake leaves this year. Often, they are blown away in an early storm.
Thus, dry leaves are a sign of our good fortune.
We preserve what we can by canning pickles, tomatoes and apple cider. We fill the freezer with meat, some with what fall hunting and fishing trips provide.
The woolly bear knows
The bears are growing their fat for winter. The horses and cows develop woolly coats to insulate them from the coming cold.
On a bright fall day, the road is crawling with brown and black caterpillars, which folklore suggests can predict the length of the coming winter.
The banded woolly bear caterpillar has 13 black or brown segments. If more segments are brown, early colonial folklore suggests a milder winter, whereas more black segments suggest a harsh winter. Of course, the vast variability in a given population makes those predictive powers hard to prove.
The truth is, the woolly bears are just trying to find a rock to hide under for winter. They have cryoprotectants in their metabolism that allow their cells to withstand freezing temperatures during hibernation. The “hairs” don’t keep them warm, they help them freeze and thaw in a regulated manner.
They are found most often on the warm pavement of a sunny fall day. They have adapted to the seasonal changes and are wise enough to seek shelter.
Living in a rural area, you know the isolation you face if a storm knocks out the power or the road is cut off by high water, a slide or fallen trees. Temporary setbacks as these are, we rest easier knowing we have done a bit to prepare should that isolation come.
I never get everything done on my summer to-do list. Even after the bonus days of fall, I still don’t get it all done before the rain sets in.
Summers aren’t forever
It is a natural feeling of relief to have the harvest in — the fruit of the year preserved for the long winter ahead. Summers don’t last forever, and that is a good thing. I think we need seasons, and I don’t begrudge them for drowning my fun. We need the rain to appreciate the sun. We need the lean times to appreciate the plenty.
Celebrating harvest in early November is more than just appreciating that the hardest part of the year’s work is done. It’s an acknowledgement of all that has been accomplished and an appreciation of how far we have come and what we have survived.
Sometimes, you need to remind yourself of the seed that has borne fruit to give yourself resilience in the dark and rainy months ahead.
Fatten your heart with gratitude to get through the long winter.
We celebrate the harvest each year because we know we can take nothing for granted. We think of those less fortunate and understand that nothing comes with a guarantee.
Thus we take a moment to be grateful, to give thanks and pray for the year ahead.
This time of year, we see the morning frost and feel the chill of the wind and know that it is not always — that nothing is always — and that change is the only constant we can rely on.
And that is OK.