The mythology of the ancient Greeks helps to describe the changing seasons and the natural world through storytelling that still offers meaning today. Our understanding and acceptance of the environmental and human cycles of life and death are depicted by stories of the goddess Persephone, known as the goddess of the underworld, the dark goddess, and the goddess of death.
The story begins when Persephone is captured and imprisoned by Hades, the god of the underworld. So enraged is her mother, Demeter, the goddess of the harvest, by the abduction of her daughter that she ceases to let anything at all grow until her daughter is returned to her. Crops wither and die, and the land becomes still and barren. Acknowledging that he must return Persephone to her mother but having become quite attached to his bride, Hades hatches a plan to send Persephone home.
Demeter is overjoyed to see her daughter again but dismayed to learn that upon leaving the underworld, Persephone had eaten six seeds of a pomegranate proffered to her by her husband, thus tying her to the underworld for six months of every year. An almighty deal is struck between Demeter and Hades. Forevermore, in the six months of the year that Persephone descends to the underworld, nothing will be allowed to grow; this gives rise to the birth of the seasons we now know as autumn and winter. Spring is finally once again sprung with the safe return of Persephone to her mother’s side. For thousands of years, cultures all over the world have observed and celebrated the winter solstice, the shortest day of the year, signalling the approaching of summer as the days begin to grow longer from that time on.
Our ancestors of all cultures have known what it is to live simpler lives, tied to the seasons. They’ve eaten, drunk and socialised as the seasons have permitted and they’ve celebrated the arrival of each season and its departure. Now in August, as we in the Southern Hemisphere spiral out of the longest night of the year and begin to emerge from the depths of winter towards spring, I steady myself by following a woollen winter’s thread, a thread born out of autumn’s harvest months before and the pleasure of practising a set of life skills that have stood the test of time. Foraging, gathering, harvesting, pickling, fermenting and infusing are the inherent practices of the people who came before me.
“Another jar of the lush berries, used in folk medicine as a heart tonic in times gone by, are covered with honey for spoonfuls to be enjoyed with my children over the winter”
Backtracking to March, the beginning of autumn heralds its arrival here in country Victoria when the blue wrens appear and a carpet of crab apples lies on my neighbour’s nature strip. I know then to prepare for the colder months ahead. It’s at that time that I start making apple jam. Fragrant rose petals in my front garden are preserved in honey and left in a warm room to begin to ferment before being placed in cold storage. As the last of my roses bloom and I start to put on a jacket during the day, I know the rose hips will be waiting for me, red and gleaming by the nearby train line.
These returning patterns around me begin to guide the way, protecting me from the inevitable melancholy of the loss of summer. A road trip with friends as the days grow cooler yields hawthorn berries, fennel seeds and apples, all abundant if you know what you’re looking for and where to find them. The hawthorn is an ancient and revered tree, known as ‘the tree of the fae’; I steep the hawthorn berries I have collected in apple cider vinegar. Another jar of the lush berries, used in folk medicine as a heart tonic in times gone by, are covered with honey for spoonfuls to be enjoyed with my children over the winter. Long known as an ally during winter, I steep dried elderberries in balsamic vinegar to drizzle over the coming season’s meals.
After lighting a cosy wood fire in the lounge room with the grey box collected from my husband’s parent’s family farm, I move to the kitchen where hearty soups and stews made out of root veggies and leafy greens are our new staple for the months ahead. As my jars of pickles and ferments sitting on a shelf in my laundry begin to dwindle, I promise myself I’ll make room for more jars next season. Large glass jars of cumquats steeped in brandy years before are strained for their deep amber liquor and family rambles are rewarded with finds of bright red hawthorn berries, rose hips and fresh pine needles.
I fill a glass jar with the fruits of my foraging and begin the wait until I can strain it off and maybe drink it as a liqueur, or perhaps add it to cream to go with a dessert. The happy abundance of autumn’s harvest bolsters me for the long, cold stretch of the darker, more internal and contemplative months ahead. And while it seems the world is being choked by the remnants of last night’s Uber Eats plastic containers, I’m comforted to know that I am not alone. Throughout the world, for generations, each season has been marked by a celebration. There are traditions, both large and small, that celebrate harvests and the joys of the natural world.