Simple rituals to prepare us for the gifts of the season
As fall moves on, some folks complain that the days get short. But think about the longer nights! You can feel them now. When the moon is full, the arc it traces lasts from sunset to sunrise, instead of getting drowned out early by the insistent, enthusiastic July sun. We get the full harvest moon, shining over the fields with its gift of extra light to gather the grain. Then, the hunter’s moon and the first cold nights. And finally, the frost moon--also called the beaver moon--can light up the woods with a surreal glow if a thin cover of snow lies on the ground. Quick on its heels will come the cold moon of December, the first true moon of winter. But for now, there’s still a chance to walk out into this glow while the plant world is active and take a moment to mark the shifting season. It may be darker, it may be frigid, but we are hardy folk and the plants we find thriving this time of year are hardy, too. The nights bring mist as the moist soil and wet places breathe into the frosty air. The moon enlivens it with a kind of cold fire, but softer than the flames we are used to, and helps us encounter late-season herbs even after sunset. On open hillsides you might find armfuls of heather (various Erica species), some still in flower. In forest clearings, creeping in wide mats and lit up by the moon, there’s the bearberry (Arctostaphylos uva-ursi) and wintergreen (Gaultheria procumbens).
joiseyshowaa from Freehold, NJ, USA [CC BY-SA 2.0 (https://creativecommons.org/licenses/by-sa/2.0)
These plants are all members of the Ericaceae, or heather-heath family. Their characteristic feature is bell-shaped flowers, sometimes exquisitely small and clustered together (heather), sometimes larger and showy (wintergreen). Some have leathery leaves and can be persistently green through all the winter months, making them perennially useful if the snow cover isn’t too deep. After exertion, cold-weather gardening, or just a long sunset hike, wintergreen liniment makes a welcome, sweet-scented balm: take a good handful of leaves, chop them coarsely, and cover them with vodka inside a well-sealed mason jar. After three or four weeks, your liniment will be ready(note: use only on small sections of an adult’s body, like the hands or knees, but not big areas like the whole back, and keep away from sensitive mucous membranes). While this is a useful remedy, I more often turn to these Ericaceae for two main purposes for their enlivening, characteristic pine-wintergreen fragrance, and to support the urinary system.
Sten Porse [CC BY-SA 3.0 (http://creativecommons.org/licenses/by-sa/3.0/)
Both refreshing aromatic preparations and herbs with an affinity to the kidneys, bladder and urethra merit attention during this time of year. Just as water “hardens” into ice during the colder months, the drop in temperature is seen by traditional herbalism as a trigger for similar processes in the body. We begin to “congeal”, or as they used to say, “the humors thicken”. For herbalists, who love the movement and free flow of a living system, this can be cause for concern. So, part of the tonic strategy at this time of year is to use plants that encourage normal, healthy flow. The Ericaceae like heather, bearberry (a.k.a. uva ursi, which is just the Latin version of the English name), and wintergreen help this happen in two ways: they can be used as a refreshing steam, or as a tea. When taken as a warm tea, they encourage and support the health of the whole urinary tract, which was always seen as sensitive to this “congealing” energy of the cold weather (in part because it’s so exposed).* You may have noticed this yourself.
To make a steam, take two good handfuls of one or more of these herbs, either as individual plants or together in combination. Throw them into a small pot of hot water just off the boil. Cover your head with a towel, close your eyes, and lean over the pot so that the towel makes a little tent to hold in the vapors I like to imagine that this is the mist from my nighttime walks, but more fragrant, evergreen and aromatic. To make a tea, the process is very similar: onto about two tablespoons of coarsely chopped herbs per 12-ounce mug pour some hot water just off the boil. Steep, covered, for at about ten minutes. Strain and drink hot, if possible.
During these longer nights, it pays to spend time outdoors! The air feels this “congealing” too, and as it crystallizes, its clarity increases, revealing the stars (part of this, of course, is that frost literally crystallizes humidity out of the air). In the weeks after the full moon, find a darker corner or rooftop, or sit at the edge of a wide field, to really get a feel for the stars. Warm Antares, the red heart of Scorpio, sets early now while cold Orion, the celebrated hunter, begins his climb to dominate winter’s southern sky. This is beautiful to see and, for me, very centering: it is the familiarity of a well-worn memory, playing out in starfire above me. I could watch for hours. But you and I would both quickly learn that long periods outside, at night, sitting still can quickly lead to bone-chilling cold. Without movement, we congeal--and cold is both the cause and the symptom of this fact. Many years ago, I was speaking with a friend who hunts using bow and arrow in the cold pre-dawn fall mornings. He bemoaned the long hours sitting, waiting, in the bushes at the edge of a field: yes, the sky, with moon and stars on a velvet cloth. The crisp air. The frost tracing lace on the last leaves. The ripe berries still to be found, here and there. But the cold! Was there a way, he asked, for herbs to help?
If there is a “master” flow in the body, perhaps it is the blood. The tide of breath and the waves of consciousness are crucial, too--but since forever, we’ve seen warm blood as the stand-in for life itself. So of course, herbalists will have some ideas about this flow! I recommended a blend that I’ve turned to often during this time of year, to support healthy circulation on cold fall walks or late-evening stargazing.* Half the blend is hawthorn (Crataegus) berries, and most of the rest is an extract made from gotu kola (Centella asiatica), a water-loving groundcover that comes to us from the tradition of Ayurveda. Depending on taste, five to ten percent is ginger root. My friend liked the mix to be spicy, so the ginger content was high. But your palate may differ--after all, hunters have been known to sprinkle cayenne (Capsicum frutescens) pepper in their socks before heading out, and that’s not too comfortable for me. Everyone has a different constitution.
To make the blend, you can obtain whole, dry hawthorn berries, dry chopped gotu kola leaves, and dry chunks of ginger rhizome. Measure about five tablespoons of hawthorn, four of gotu kola, and one of ginger and add them all to a pint-sized mason jar. Cover completely with 100-proof vodka, seal the jar, and let it sit about 3-4 weeks, shaking occasionally. After straining it out, I like to add the fluid to small, portable bottles (the one-ounce size works well) to bring along on moonlit nights. Alternatively, you can purchase the tincture--pre-made extract--of each of the three plants, and mix them in the same ratio: 2.5 ounces hawthorn, 2 ounces gotu kola, and 1/2 ounce ginger. Take about a teaspoon of the blend before heading out and have about the same every couple of hours throughout the evening. It really does support healthy circulation, and tending to that “master” flow makes a difference.* We can focus on the magic of being outdoors, not the cold.
Humans have long added to the light of the moon, crafting their own lanterns to set on windowsills, on garden stones, or at the crossroads. This is both celebratory and also a type of resonance: we add our small fires to the night, seeming to acknowledge the longer darkness and working to stake our own place in it. We see the jack-o-lantern everywhere now, carved-out pumpkins to mark Halloween. But pumpkins aren’t the only squash suitable for lantern-making: this time of year, you can find all sorts. Kabocha, or the red kuri. Acorn squash, or the thin-skinned delicata. Even butternut squash, tall and bulbous. All can be hollowed out (and, unlike jack-o-lanterns, the flesh is delicious). Small carved openings provide enough ventilation for a candle and, placed strategically around the home or garden, these squash lanterns both rejoice at the abundance of harvest and welcome the shift into the longer nights. It’s hard not to feel a sense of benevolent mischief, walking out into the mist for a moonlit wild harvest, the faint flame flickering behind you. And upon your return, the lantern’s glow will be a welcome reminder of the comforts of home.
Image credit: Mathew Schwartz
Creative Commons 3.0 license
I lived in the country for many years but call a small city my home now. I’ve ranged over hills under the moon, and sat out in cold, frosty clearings watching shooting stars and shafts of moonglow through spruce boughs. It may seem impossible to find that same magic in a city setting, but in my experience, the opposite is true: in many ways, it’s easier here in town! On full moon nights we’ll sometimes turn off all the lights and watch the silver spill across the floors. Have you ever done this? It’s worth trying any time of year but now, with the longer darkness, I feel more compelled. Sometimes, waking up in the middle of sleep, I walk from room to room, some windows still opened just a crack, letting in cold air along with moonlight. I notice corners of the bookcase, new patterns in the rug, reflections in the glass left on the countertop. Everything looks different; then I go back to sleep. When morning comes, it’s hard to separate the moonlit house from a dream, because the experience was so different from waking reality. If I’m walking outside on the street, seeing the moon above me is an instant reminder that I am still walking in nature, inside a city that lives in a bioregion on the edge of a deep lake. While in the country the moon is part of daily life, in the city it is more rare--and more delicious thereby. I watch my moonshadow, dark and inky, standing beside the paler shadow from the streetlight. No matter where you are, nature, the moon, and the plants are with you.
McKay Savage from London, UK [CC BY 2.0 (https://creativecommons.org/licenses/by/2.0)]
The moon does for us what the sun never could. Under the sunlight, we work, we sweat, but most importantly, we see--clearly, with an eye that can discriminate, that can find edges, that can weigh and judge. This is useful, and it is no coincidence that most commerce is transacted under the sun. All summer we have been growing, working, transacting--exchanging value for our work, contributing to the economy. This work powers our homes, moves our food, it makes us “worthy”--in the sense of commercial worth, at least. The sun drives all this work, all this worth, and watches us, warm, on our productive paths. Now, when the harvest is through, and we feel (rightly) tired, and the sun yields more and more of the day to the darkness, the moon, and the stars, we have a choice: carry on as if nothing had changed, or try a different way and take the opportunity for a new perspective. That is what the moon offers: vision still, but one with blurry edges, where the unexpected comes alive from the shadows and our productive, waking world looks radically remade in silver.
Many say that fall, like spring, is a liminal time--a time between. This is true, and the mutable energy of fall does mimic spring’s. But unlike spring, when ice breaks and rivers crash into flooded fields as part of a universal expansion, fall contracts, pulls in, and prepares us for the crystallization of winter. It is a good time to celebrate and share the achievements of summer, true. But fall also finds us more receptive, focused on gathering--stories, food, friends, gifts and inspiration. The sun, with its call to analyze, assess, and assign value, will never be able to provide these gifts, or fill the lacuna left behind as summer trails off. Here we turn, as humans always have, to the moon and the gift of a new perspective, one where a tree isn’t a firewood commodity, but rather a pattern-dance of branches naked against the moonlit clouds. Taking in these gifts enables us to keep going all winter, returning the favor to the land once the snows melt.
It’s no coincidence that, under the moonlight, key herbal allies shine forth. They may not look like much under the sunlight: gray almost, hidden behind a bed of echinacea or between rows of sunflowers. But by night, their silver foliage reflects the moon and they pop out of their hidden places: willows (Salix species), red raspberry (Rubus idaeus), and my most favorite--the Artemisia genus. All these plants have been associated with receptivity, creativity, and lunar gifts, but those named after Artemis, the hunter-goddess of the moon, most call to me this time of year. Mugwort (A. vulgaris) is setting its seed now, tall and rangy, silver-gray and sweet. Wormwood (A. absinthium) hides a wicked bitterness mixed with camphor, sage and evergreen. And sagebrush (A. tridentata, and other allied species) sets the land aglow on full moons, sometimes filling canyons with shining veins of quicksilver on a dark, cold field. Almost everywhere they are found, these plants are thought to purify and open, making us ready to receive the gifts of the season. Some bathe in a mugwort bath before heading out for moonlit harvesting (don’t do this if you’re pregnant). Others take the leaves, dry them, and burn them to release billowing, aromatic smoke--enchanting to watch under moonlight. But don’t be fooled: all these plants, be it mugwort, the squash lanterns, the warming hawthorn, or the opening heather, are just ways to help us prepare for the real gift: the moment when, under the fall’s moon, we forget the work of the sun and just stand, receptive. Now, our edges blur and we feel less defined, less individual. Now, something enters us and we feel the voice of the gift. By preparing with plants, by taking the opportunity to walk the dusk and watch the moonrise, we make this moment more likely to occur.
If you’re far from the bustle of the village and the town square, you’ll find the lunar light flung, silvery, like a blanket over the whole land. You’ll breathe in and, for a moment, see the world in a different way. And if you dwell along a busy avenue, where streetlights flicker in the pre-dawn hours, you’ll rise one night, transported to an ephemeral world apart, a waking dream. May the moon shine bright into your city room.