It's not really a fire and it doesn't actually burn, but the metaphor works: about this time of year, I start to feel the heat of a particular flame. I know that many others feel it all over the northern hemisphere, and I'm connected to them by a shared knowledge and a set of practices in which we will soon engage.
We tend gardens and farms, from the humblest container neglected on an urban fire escape to a broad swath of Mississippi bottomland flirting with thaw on a lingering, warm afternoon at the earliest margin of spring. It's an old tradition, and it sustains all human life, making possible the fragile hold we keep on civilization. No, I'm not overstating it. Tomorrow marks Imbolc, Brigitania, or if you prefer, the festival of fire—a cross-quarter day when all gardeners can acknowledge their work begins.
Wait. It's not spring yet. Any calendar will tell you it's the last day of January and winter runs until mid-March. Our contemporary culture, largely divorced from agrarian concerns, says it's midwinter. February—a month named for the Roman goddess Februa, the mother of war god Mars—has a bit more war to make on us before gradually and fitfully relenting.
I go by a different calendar, one more ancient than the Roman one in common use, with its roots in Neolithic times when humans were first committing to the desperate struggle of agriculture—a necessary corollary to the rise of cities, civilizations, and a larger cultural flowering. The natural world (there was no other kind then, or now) was not linear but cyclical—a fact that would have been obvious to any person 10,000 years ago, and that knowledge was a survival tool. A circular calendar to represent this allowed the marking of key days in the cycle—key because they signaled necessary action if one was to have any hope of coaxing sustenance from a patch of earth.
Fortunately, I don't have to wage that desperate struggle. If my lettuce fails to grow or gets wiped out by pests, I know where a ready supply can be had. But my calendar tells me it's time to start planning where I'll grow my greens—and all the rest. If my struggle is not desperate, it's still important—a struggle against relying on processed food, produce laced with chemicals and additives, grown far off and fossil-fueled to my neighborhood—and priced subject to the whims of merchants who despite all their ranting never really mean it when they talk about "savings."
I'm ready to take up the challenge again. The days are getting subtly longer, the winter ice is melting in patches, and I can literally smell the soil thawing when I stand amid the blasted Front Range of the Rockies ground I call a garden.
So tonight I'll build a fire on my patio, sip a little Laphroaig single malt whiskey (not up for building a still—not yet, anyway) and make plans. I'll connect, at some level, with 10,000 years of human agricultural endeavors. I'll be briefly and nominally neolithic.
I've been reading Karen Armstrong's A Short History of Myth—and I want to quickly add that I am learning much from her historical framing of mythology though I disagree with the premise of some of her arguments in the book, most notably the leaning toward a "monomyth." In short, I don't concur that all myths necessarily spring from or lead to one set of common human values—that they are equivalent and ultimately corresponding in their messages. It may be postmodern of us to believe that we can sneak into ancient stories like thieves of insight and then retreat with our sackful of truth to some lofty transcendent position above the chaos and grit and grinding of the world—but I doubt that. To understand any myth, one must enact it. Without that action, the story will likely feel weird, random, profane, or otherwise sketchy in its passions and plot.
That said, I like how Armstrong succinctly explains the shift from the paleolithic everywhen—a worldview comprising an undifferentiated physical/metaphysical plane corresponding to the Dreamtime of Aboriginal people—to the neolithic agrarian worldview in which one must give back to the earth in order to take from it. To be sure, it's more complex than that, but Armstrong posits a leap in human consciousness reflected by the myths of neolithic people, fragments of which survive in the texts of early civilizations, a subsequent period defined by that very emergence of texts.
What came to matter for neolithic people was the shift from a hunter-gatherer mindset, where human and animal life were equivalent, sacred, and interpenetrating, to the housing of the sacred in the cyclical turn of the year, with seasons that gave rise and fall to sustaining harvests of food.
OK, it's getting squishy and metaphysical here, which means it's time for me to draw back. I don't pray to my radish sprouts. Trust me. I don't see a god in a sweet June strawberry. But I do get a serious buzz from rotating my circle calendar as I will do tomorrow to land on Imbolc, the fire festival. It's a connection to the ancient human history I've described. It's connected because I will act on it—and only because I will act on it. Rituals are a step toward dogma, which I despise. Practical action—the work of preparing a garden for planting—is no ritual to me. It's not an empty husk signifying magic. It's science and labor and—hopefully—sustenance. That hope of a payoff is a definite connection to the ancients, even with my safety net of modern conveniences.
I'm filled up with anticipation and pleasure at the thought of what I'll do new this year, and also by the knowledge of the practices, tried and true, that will combine to give me a bounty of food and color and sensory overload all the way to next fall and beyond. I have my garden journal notes from the last 21 years to guide me, and I've already roughly sketched out my garden beds. Soon I'll start cleaning planting trays, surveying my saved seeds, and preparing compost and soil. I'll fire up the heater in the greenhouse and will start tracking nighttime low temps. I'll collect and clean my tools. My calendar confirms what my senses have already told me: it's time.
Tonight—a fire to mark the moment.