“There was a beginning, and in the moment that my garden stands alight, I remember it all. She saw a dust-bearing bee sink into the sanctum of a bloom; the thousand sister-calyxes arch to meet the love embrace and the ecstatic shiver of the tree from root to tiniest branch creaming in every blossom and frothing with delight. So this was a marriage! She had been summoned to behold a revelation. Then Janie felt a pain remorseless sweet that left her limp and languid.”
~Their Eyes Were Watching God—Zora Neale Hurston
If you were to be driving down our remote county road in Alabama on October 31st, you might glimpse an orange glow through the trees and tiny sparks peppering the night sky. We have yet to have been accosted by the local fire department . . . and with any luck, that will continue. It is rather tedious to explain this once-per-year occurrence to the locals—but I hear that we are now considered the hippies of our rural community, and that will do just fine. It keeps them on their side of the fence. (No patchouli necessary.)
In some years, we have invited friends to attend the burning of our garden. In others, we have quietly stood in reverie. This year, we are only inviting our CSA members, as they have supported the growth and sustained the efforts of our little farm. Well, that and it’s an answer to our longing for a socially-distanced fall shindig. Our harvest marks a harrowing ride through the pandemic, proving to be much more taxing than any haunted house I’ve ever had the displeasure of surviving intact. We have all earned a little Saturnalia, and it’s not cool to bogart the fire—especially at harvest.
Fortunately, masks are totally in season and love can be felt from six feet away. Some traditions matter enough to just make do.
Our first garden effigy was constructed in 2012, the year we learned that bamboo creates an explosive effect and is not conducive to a peaceful event. (The launch of a ball of vine twenty feet into the air can cause folks to run into lawn furniture and ruin their best britches.) Alas, we have become more proficient in the construction of our lovely burn.
Every year at harvest, the vines are gathered from squashes, beans, and cucurbits and wrapped around heartier stalks from peppers, tomatoes and such to create a figure in the clearing on our land. The work is a labor of love, and everything we have grown has a place in this moment. Over the years, the figure has become a woman dressed in a skirt of goldenrod that covers her legs of okra or corn stalk. Miniscule peppers, their life cycles cut short by the shadow of winter, decorate her chest here and there like so many charms, while wisps of dried flowers flutter from her fingers of hay. We tie on slips of paper with jute twine, modest notes etched with thanks and hopes for a year we have not yet met. She is, on this day, the embodiment of our garden, the goddess of the field—and deserving of a little reverent mayhem.
Celtic folklore has it that honoring the harvest in such a manner secures a good planting in the following year—although, such a premise discounts the sonorous thump that settles into my heart when I stand in front of my garden and release it all to fire. After all, we were dancing together for a time, weren’t we? The bees, the rain, the welts on my hands from pulling throes of Chamberbitter . . . all culminating in this one, symbolic eve.
While not quite a Wicker Man (which, by the way, has way less to do with Hollywood’s version than anyone might think), nor akin to a Burning Man (the climax to a radically-participatory and temporary community), the burning of our garden has roots in both Appalachian and Deep South farming principles. Usually done between late fall and the beginning signs of spring, farmers would burn the fields to clear pest and debris—a clean slate to start over. Of course, more than once per year would not be environmentally sound, and perhaps even then such an act is contentious when we consider carbon and pollution. Yet, our little farm event involves only decaying garden waste, excess tree litter, and the requisite ghost story. Maybe even someone lights a pipe, does a jig, and recites a verse of Walt Whitman amid the smolder and crackle of it all.
Of course, there is science to back our gleeful nod to folklore: the potassium, calcium and magnesium from garden ash is a lovely addition to the soil. It increases soil Ph, so it is critical to test each year and resist applying to such things as blueberries, azaleas, or camellias. Even so, with a little care and a good mask (as a cautionary step), the light application of garden (or untreated hardwood) ash can be a very good thing. We employ quite a bit of hay bale gardening each year, a process that benefits from the addition of ash. The leftovers of decaying vines and stalk also encourage the persistence of viruses and other pests, and are therefore put to rest (along with any pesky insect eggs) in a bed of searing coal. It’s convenient, really, that science could be my warrant here. Otherwise, I could look a might daft standing there each year, hot-buttered rum in hand, basking in the glow of all that work.
And, I would still do so. It gives me a chance to grok on the deeper meaning of it all, man.
As it is with anything that has been a core player in our lives, closure helps to move through the ragged terrain between death and rebirth. Farming through a season is a love affair, in the end. Nothing we love that fiercely can just slip away: It must go out with a bang. Like all romances that have etched themselves upon our hearts, the one that begins with seed and soil shouldn’t just end with what the plants could give the farmer. Rather, I am humbled by their lives’ work. Past culinary sustenance, my harvest lives within my skin. It harbors there in my muscle memory, turning and twisting in my arms as we all became something bigger, stronger, together. I grew older in that sanctuary, butterflies danced there, and flowers opened their faces against the rage of August sun. These plants tried to live, to fruit, to create tiny seeds.
I know the feeling—although, regardless of the season, would rather not be part of a harvest pyre. Life has been hot enough, and Southern hippies make splendid fodder for witch hunts. It does not escape my attention that I am, at least within my community, somewhat of an anomaly. Folks like me cause a stir at the local feed and seed: we grow our own teas, my hat has quite the scandalous brim, and I’ve been known to wear a scarlet cape when the weather turns brisk. And then, there’s that appalling effigy every year. . .
Perhaps, I am bit by bit becoming the stuff of local folklore. How very groovy . . .
Although, such a topic would always remain in the underbelly of proper conversation. Here in the Bible Belt of America, superstition and local lore are deeply embedded within the daily life of a farmer, yet rarely discussed over fried chicken and sweet tea. It’s strange to me that the folklore of a place, whether it be of black cats or the careful keeping of the last sheaf of a field, would be so unexamined within a culture. It’s as if the mystery of it all requires a silent nod, but never a rigorous exploration of folklore’s peculiar relationship to science—or at least, common farmer sense. Personally, I enjoy a little irreverent investigation. Maybe it is all just superstition. Or, maybe those stories of bygone farmers have something left to teach us. Folklore has a way of blurring the lines between the provable and the possible, and it’s in that preternatural gap that dreams reside.
And I’ve never known a farm that couldn’t use a little of that kind of flower child magic.
Regardless (and perhaps in wicked disregard to all that is proper and civilized), our harvest ritual will begin as it has in the past. We will put the final touches on our effigy, fluff out her skirt, assure that the garden hose is somewhere nearby, and arrange haybale seating. I will scoop out the innards of pumpkins, roast the shells in garlic and olive oil, and pour butternut squash soup into them before the night’s feast. Somewhere along the way, the songs and stories will begin, mulled wine will be poured, and we will tie a slip of paper to the last of our garden before she becomes utterly consumed in flame. Between the last embers and daybreak, all that will be left of her bounty will be nestled safely in Mason jars on a shelf. And in the morning, the ashes will be gathered into a copper kettle to nestle away until spring planting—an offering to the garden of its ancestors and proof of life from yesteryear.
It’s the hippie thing to do, after all.
photo credit: Chuttersnap, Unsplash
 Semi-feral cats, for instance (yes, most of these in my area are black or of the tuxedo variety) are actually prized for their barn-hunting capabilities—keeping rats and other pests out of the corn or hay. If one were to dart across a path, there would almost assuredly be trouble afoot: either they are chasing a thing, or they are running from a thing. Both, it would seem, require immediate attention. For that matter, the keeping of the last sheaf is a reminder of the size and health of the corn, as well as a marker of harvest time. If nothing else, these also served as cornhusk dolls that decorated winter kitchens and brightened the days of children until spring came back around.