Michaelmas

It’s been raining for nearly three weeks straight. I’m looking out the window as I write, and the steady downpour has finally slowed to a heavy, clinging mist. Apparently, you do get what you pray for – after two months of almost constant sun, heat and withering vegetable gardens, our area has seen some of the wettest weather it can remember. Last week we saw flash flooding that washed away bridges, turned shopping malls into islands, caused dangerous mudslides and replaced pastures with lakes. Even our little river rose, churning, to her heights, and spilled out over our bottom lands.

The land certainly needed this water, and we are grateful to have it, even after spending long hours mopping up the office basement and hauling truckloads of soaked cardboard and damaged belongings to the dump. Driving though the countryside, I couldn’t help but take in and reflect on the destruction that surrounded us on all sides.

Somewhere under the chaos of it all, I felt like these kinds of unexpected crises are also an important and very necessary part of life; after being fully present for and attending to their challenges, I think we can also see a blessing within them. Our lives (at least mine, anyway) are full of unexpected upheavals and losses, and though we often suffer greatly as we move through these times, I feel that they are not in vain, nor are we victims of a cruel and unjust universe; these unexpected challenges are what help us remember what is truly worth suffering for.

In all the pictures I’ve seen of the recent flooding, I see people gathered together, pulling cars out of ditches and rivers, helping families cross flooded driveways, rescuing stranded livestock and pets, and demonstrating many other acts of compassion and courage. In small ways and large, people came together to support each other and put their own needs aside for the needs of others.

As I write this, I’m looking out the window and can see the fog-laden, deep green forest that surrounds my home becoming spotted with yellows and swaths of deep red. I see more bare branches peeking through the thinning canopies and wet leaves covering the front porch. I look inside my home and see a few pieces of firewood stacked next to the box-stove, and I can smell a hint charcoal in the air.

I’ve written previously about how these rhythms of nature and the rhythms of our lives are deeply intertwined, but nowhere does it seem as clear and significant as it does now, with the summer waning and winter’s cool breath whispering to us through the falling leaves, migrating birds, and the newfound comfort of our warm beds each morning.

And what do compassion, courage and sacrifice have to do with this time of year? These recent floodwaters coincided with a seasonal festival that celebrates these very qualities – Michaelmas. The folks here at Spikenard are deeply rooted in a spirituality that honors the turning of the seasons, and I’ve gotten to learn about and experience some of these new seasonal celebrations.

New to me, of course. Michaelmas is quite an old tradition, originating in 5th century Rome, and celebrates the archangel Michael and all the blessings that he brings (while I do not consider myself religious in the traditional sense, I do honor the teachings of many different spiritual paths and love exploring the wisdom they offer). Among the blessings that Michael gives to us, he offers us courage, inner fire, willpower, a striving toward unity, the inspiration to rise above our materialistic worldview, and, most importantly, a love of living our lives for the betterment of humanity rather than solely for ourselves.

The reason Michaelmas is celebrated at this time of the year is really quite beautiful. Here at Spikenard, we honor the summer months as times of expansion, of our minds, hearts, bodies and senses being totally enraptured with the land and its fullness. We are literally entranced by the outer world, and become much less aware and focused on our inner world. The long summer days grant us the freedom to work and play outside in equal measure. Make hay while the sun shines!

Yet we also know, deep within us, that we don’t want to keep expanding forever. We don’t want to keep living in the dreamy world of the senses. We don’t want to be forever entranced by the ever-changing beauty of the outer world. Something within us begins to crave another kind of nourishment, a nourishment rooted in our silent inner world, in clear thinking, in sincere self-reflection.

It is this kind of nourishment that winter brings to us, and the first hints of its arrival excite us, literally wake us up from our dreamy summer sleep and remind us that we have other work to do. And so it is Michael, and the Michaelmas festival, that stand at this threshold of summer and winter, this threshold of our inner and outer worlds, asking us to turn within to take a clear, honest look at ourselves and what our priorities in life actually are. Michaelmas is a celebration of this important inner work, the courage that it takes, and an opportunity to acknowledge what self-centered tendencies we need to overcome so that we may help create the most compassionate, connected, and harmonious world possible.

Before we completely leave summer’s embrace, we’ve started to take an even closer look at each hive to make sure they are going into the winter season with plenty of brood and plenty of food. This means we’ve been moving honey and/or bees around from one hive that has a surplus to another that is in need, and in some cases we’ve begun doing combinations, where we completely merge one smaller hive with a larger one, or two smaller hives to create a stronger single colony that will have a better chance of surviving the winter. Bees, being insects, have very little body heat of their own, but each bee can actually disengage their wing-muscles from their wings and rapidly vibrate them to create heat. Together, they keep the dense winter cluster warm (always above 50 degrees F.) during the long, dark, cold days of winter, and the larger the colony the easier this warming process becomes.

After the honey has been extracted from the frames of comb, we’ve been setting them outside so the bees can come and clean up whatever little bit of sweetness remains. This, my friends, quickly becomes a breathtaking sight. Bees are incredibly sensitive, and within minutes there are literally thousands upon thousands of bees swarming all over these frames, flying in the air, and making such noise that you’d think there were several swarms taking off at the same time. To step into their world a little more and have some fun, we’ve been setting the empty frames in a large circle and sitting or lying down in the middle of it. Being immersed this symphony is an experience I will never forget. All honeybees buzz at a common pitch, around the key of A in our western harmonic scale; sitting in the middle of this ecstatic, unified song touches something so deep and joyful one can’t help but sing along. And we do! Just yesterday there were three of us in the circle, and we could easily sing and tone in harmony with the song of plenty that surrounded us on all sides. The center of this circle is so thick with bees we can actually feel the air around us pulsing and vibrating as the bees weave and circle around us in every direction. Also, bees are constantly landing on us and brushing our skin with their tiny wings as they fly past; it’s wonderful to experience such intimacy with these marvelous creatures when they have no intention of stinging.

We’ve also recently built a beautiful pond in the Sanctuary, which I’ve included a picture or two of. We wanted to create a permanent and clean water source for our bees, and also bring a little bit more of the water element to the environment. Mary, our gardener and landscape designer, put in many joyful and laborious hours to bring this pond into being, and I can’t wait to see all the life that this new addition will attract over the next few years.

Our last workshop of the year happened in mid-September! It was a 3-day introduction to biodynamic principles and practices, and we had folks from all over America and even a few from Europe and Ireland. This workshop was very different than all the others, and even without working with the bees it was one of my favorite. While the bees are at the center of our work here, the foundation of this Sanctuary is built on biodynamic practices, which is we devote most of our daylight hours to. I felt like this workshop tied up several loose ends of information and understanding that I didn’t even know were hanging around, and gratefully celebrated all the other unseen work that goes on here.

I’ve enjoyed some visiting friends and family over these last few months as well…there’s something about this Sanctuary that lets people connect more deeply and share more easily than other places I’ve lived. I also made a short trip back to Chicago for a friend’s wedding, in which I had the honor of being the best man. It was great fun, and I was able to give them a bottle of some homemade mead that I’ve been crafting. For those of you who who’ve never enjoyed a glass of mead, it’s an alcoholic beverage made solely with fermented honey and water. It’s quite delicious and lightly sweet, with hints of whatever unique nectars the honey was made from.

It’s taken me a few weeks to actually get this entry out to you, and I’m now looking at only 4 more weeks here at Spikenard. I can hardly believe it. What an incredible journey! Of course there is still so much that I want to share, and so much that I could never put into words. I’ll write at least one more entry when I return to Chicago around Thanksgiving.

Thank you for sharing this experience with me.

Hiving a swarm!The pond is finished...for now!The pond is coming to life...There's always enoughSummer sweetnessJust look at that face So preciousBees building combDSCN3060Our 3-day intro to biodynamics Blessings abound