One of the benefits of spending solo time in Nature each week is that I feel increasingly tuned in to natural processes and cycles. Quality of light, shortening of day, direction of wind, emergence of Haemanthus – these and many other signs have been announcing the arrival of autumn in Cape Town.
Haemanthus lily announcing autumn
And so it was that, when looking for an excuse to gather together some of the friends we’ve been longing to spend time with, Pat and I realised that the autumn equinox was approaching – and that this was something we could celebrate. While Christmas may awaken, through its trees, lights and parcels, a distant memory of winter solstice celebrations, few of us still mark the turning of the other seasons. We’ve forgotten the symbols and the rituals that once graced these times with significance.
So, how to celebrate the autumn equinox? Just put the question to Google!
The most obvious quality of the equinox is the balance between light and dark: twice each year, the day and the night are of equal length. That balance is not static – it represents a point of turning in the cycle of the year, and reminds us that it is natural for us too to fluctuate between seasons of expansion and contraction, confidence and doubt, effort and rest. Celebrating together would provide an opportunity for rest and nourishment in our busy lives.
Honouring the soil and its gifts, and the balance of light and dark
Living in twenty-first century Cape Town means that we can easily hop in the car and visit friends all through our mild winter. But for thousands of years in many parts of the world, people were cut off from friends and family for months on end by snow, flood waters, grazing availability, or the allowances of trade winds. How special it would have been for my ancestors centuries ago to have gathered to celebrate the autumn equinox by sharing food and stories, knowing that it might have been their last opportunity to socialise before drifts of snow kept them apart for the cold, dark months of winter. One ingredient in our equinoctial cocktail would have to be an opportunity for story-telling and the sharing of reflections on the significance of autumn – a season that many of us have reached in our lives.
The autumn equinox occurs during the season of harvest – the time of year when our natural response is to be thankful for the many blessings in our lives. This year, the arrival of our five red hens has dramatically increased the productivity of our vegetable garden. And with this, our sense of gratitude has expanded proportionately. What a blessing that here, in the midst of suburbia, we can harvest vine-ripened tomatoes, plump aubergines, sweet carrots and orange-yolked eggs – all in their natural seasons. We decided to rekindle childhood memories of harvest festivals by inviting friends to bring home-grown produce to add to the harvest display around the fireplace. Squashes, granadillas, mushrooms, flowers, and a jar of pickled olives from George’s one olive tree all represented the potential of suburban gardens to sustain us and to rekindle aspects of our agrarian past – including seasonal celebrations.
Our harvest festival display
There has been a resurgence in recent years of individual thanksgiving practices, with gratitude journals and meditations becoming part of many people’s daily rituals. But unless one is part of a religious or spiritual community, there are few opportunities for the collective expression of thankfulness. So, just before serving dinner, we invited our friends to form a circle, and in turn to light a candle and give thanks for one special blessing in their lives. Listening to everyone honouring their partners and children, expressing their sense of privilege at living in South Africa, sharing their love of Nature, and appreciating their friends, I was struck by the way in which gratitude both deepens our connections with one another, and elevates the quality of sharing. As one friend observed, starting with gratitude dispelled much of the pessimism that often characterises dinner party conversations these days!
Fuelled by Pat’s famous fish curry and a salad from the garden, dinner-time conversation ebbed and flowed around the table. As we tucked in to two scrumptious home-made tarts and coffee, it was time for the whole circle to form again.
Friends had been invited to bring “an item or something you have created that embodies the significance of autumn in your life.” Already delighted by the harvest display and contributions to the meal, we were now inspired, moved and entertained by the sharing of images, poems, the first paragraphs of a nascent novel, and some hilarious stories. Sandra and John’s witty adaptation of Keats’s ‘Ode to Autumn’ – recast as ‘Ohdear of aging’ – presented, in their inimitable style, the challenges and gifts of this ‘Lifestage of glaucoma and wealth of reflections.’
Knowing how busy people’s lives are, we felt honoured by the time friends had invested in preparing their unique contributions on the significance of autumn. Gathering with gratitude and sharing our creativity deepened our appreciation for one another and for life. I sense that co-creating our own autumnal ritual of celebration brought a touch of the sacred to the evening.
I hope that you too will be encouraged to consider the possibility of breathing new life into old rituals. Making time for the observation of nature, and for nature-based observances, can bring a richness of meaning and connection to our individual and collective lives, and re-enchant the experience of suburban living.