Autumn has always been my favorite time of year. The mournful notes of a cello, the desperate blaze of leaves' last color, the crisp bite in the air. I go to the endings. I go to the fallen leaves. To driftwood.
These move me more than the green shoots of hope, the spring.
These are the love poems of my ancestors:
What is the use of cherishing life in spring? Its flowers only shackle us to this world.
by Izumi Shibuku
This body grown fragile, floating, a reed cut from its roots . . . If a stream would ask me to follow, I'd go, I think.
by Ono no Komachi
The book, The Ink Dark Moon, is missing, again. I've bought and lent it several times...happy to share it with people. These poems are mournful and lusty, women articulating longing for lovers in a particular style of poetry in a sliver of life, high courts in ancient Japan, a context which is hard for us to appreciate today. What I love about the poems is how much can be conveyed in a just a few words. It seems impossible. With a bright harvest moon, and summer's end, my thoughts have turned toward harvest.
My disparate and mindful friends offer provocative reflections on all kinds of things: random jackrabbits passing by a campsite, butchering of animals, eating of meat or opting not to, rants against excess, followed by reflections on severity and tenderness. Who else but Elissa Altman can make me cry while reading about brisket?
As it often happens, these threads catch each other, wind up together, and stick with me. Mental lint of the most valuable kind. E.M. Forster put it beautifully:
“How do I know what I think until I see what I say?”
...and this is how these collected thoughts come together for me. This week it is harvest that keeps tumbling over in my writer's mind.
Thoughts keep beckoning in softer or louder voices, asking for some quiet time. I am just now longing for, craving, a few days or maybe just one with no other errands, tasks, pleas from those that need this or that from me now! Even as I begin to type, my mouse batteries are dying making things impossible and the next batteries are not yet charged and that perfect turn of phrase is escaping and I am chasing mercury again - and again.
Autumn is a time of gathering in, collecting, harvesting.
Harvest can mean so many things. We harvest food, we harvest organs, we harvest meat that was once walking, bounding across fields, or lazing in summer sun, we harvest and animals become meat. This is something many would rather ignore. Others ruminate on this in reflective or harsh ways. Some bring a silver-clear light to it and illuminate it beautifully.
This Harvest Moon has me reflecting on many of these percolating things.
We Japanese say we see rabbits, not a man, not bleu cheese, in the moon. At harvest moon, we make and eat mochi, honoring those mochi-pounding rabbits in the harvest moon. I've just reconnected to that imagery and at the same time recall the beauty of butchering my first rabbit. Jarring isn't it? Cute little bunnies and mochi, to denuded meat and bones.
noun, often attributive \ˈhär-vəst\
: the season when crops are gathered from the fields or the activity of gathering crops
: the amount of crops that are gathered; also : the amount of a natural product gathered in a single season
: to gather (a crop)
: to gather or collect (something) for use
Giving thanks for the harvest. Around the 15th day of the 8th lunar month Asians celebrate the harvest moon. This year it fell on our Gregorian calendar on September 19th. I made mochi and began to write in anticipation of the holiday about these various harvest threads. It was meat, not mochi, that kept calling.
Itadakimasu means not "bon appetit!" or "tuck in!" as it is so often mistranslated. Instead it conveys a mindfulness and an appreciation of the thing that gave its life so that we may eat. I much prefer this reverence and mindfulness about the meal to the more familiar 'dig in' sentiment.
Appreciate the harvest you eat. Appreciate that thing that gave its life for your meal. Appreciate those that had a hand along the way, farmer, fishermen, butchers, cooks.
If you're enjoying heritage pig, even in excess, appreciate the biodiversity being sustained by farmers growing these pigs. Old breeds are often commercial nonsense, taking longer to grow to market weight, being trickier to have butchered and generally finding a much smaller market of buyers willing to pay the price. Elissa's Gloucestershire Old Spot is one of maybe 200 breeding animals in the US, making it one that is in "Critical" need of conservation. Yes - we have to eat it to save it. GOS are huge - some of the biggest. Other smaller breeds, and going in on a meat share with neighbors, can be a wise way to enjoy heritage breeds, to preserve them and to sustain community.
How an animal lives, what it's fed, is no less important than how it dies. My friend Tamar wrote so eloquently about it in the Washington Post. She's grown and harvested her own pigs. I have such a connection to animals, I find it difficult to imagine taking a life, but perhaps incongruously, less difficulty eating the harvest. I accept a charge of hypocrisy. I resolve it by buying meat less often, but buying better meat. We choose meat that has had a decent life and hopefully met a not-too-brutal end. (I exclude oysters from this, the occasional live spot prawn, and am marginally more comfortable with killing a lobster or crab.)
Fragility and Tomorrow
There are days when people abstain from eating flesh as a reminder of the precious fragility of life. Chinese abstain on New Year's Day, Catholics on Fridays or during Lent. Some folks are ravenous after funerals, some are sickened by their own excess after grief. Our appetites are intimately tied to the cycle of living and dying. The revulsion some feel when they are reminded that their dinner had a prior life are most likely repulsed not by the food with faces, but with facing their own mortality. When we're connected to the transition of another animal going from living-to dead-to dinner, we are facing the reality that we too will die.
The rituals of Halal butchery are particularly eloquent, but all butchery done well, takes on a reverance for life that we take and consume. It's often done with a certain hush. In the presence of butchers I often feel a weight in the air, the best of them stay connected to reality of what they are doing. Chef Josh Lewin approaches his lamb butchery with this sort of reverence and mindfulness.
I suppose some might approach a side of beef as a seamstress would a few yards of fabric, but the ones I've been in the presence of do not.
We have no certainty in tomorrow. Rituals in religions or at meal times can connect us to each other, to a renewed appreciation for life, for now, for community. Josh taught us:
Baynatha Khubz wa Milah - a Jordanian phrase, if memory serves, roughly translates to “now that we have shared a meal, we are connected.”
Our harvest can be more than the crops we gather at the end of a growing season. Our harvest can include joy in a shared meal and appreciation for that which gave its life to feed us.
I'm grateful for the harvest, for the abundance that allows me to use words like "starving" which only means I'm a few steps away from my next meal.
I'm grateful for friends who send me home with an embarrasssing amount of food from their garden, feeding me with their company, and feeding us with this bounty.
In this time of gathering in, I'm happy to share friends who touch me deeply in our shared reflections on these things.
Elissa Altman - Poor Man's Feast
Hank Shaw - Honest Food
Tamar Haspel - Starving off the Land
with respect for those rabbits: cocoa mochi for the harvest moon and all its reflections.