Fall harvest festivals in western Europe and North America give an impression of domesticity. It’s all about a last big feast before winter socks us in (even if the socking-in is more symbolic in these days of electric lighting, central heating, industrialized food-distribution networks, and space-age winter wear), and the dishes served, as well as the general sensibility of hearth and home, reflect that.
But one can harvest from the wild as well. Before the invention of herding and agriculture, that was where all harvest came from, and our developments in food security since then have been at the wild’s expense. Even today, certain foods are best or even only found in wild areas. (Mushroom hunters know whereof I speak, as do harvesters of certain kinds of berries and plants. And, of course, those who hunt animals for food.)
On a spiritual level, there’s another kind of wild harvest. The wilderness is conventionally defined as life that exists without relation to or regard for human interference. These days, such life is basically nonexistent. During a week in the backcountry last summer, we were regularly reminded of the existence of civilization in the form of planes from a military base some distance to the west that flew over at least once per day. Parks and hiking trails give one a taste of wilderness, but are actively stewarded by human beings, often volunteers who do it for the love of the environment they work in. The “untrammeled by man” ideal of the Wilderness Act is basically a fiction–though that doesn’t mean that the wilderness can’t touch you. Sometimes fatally.
But in such places, it’s possible to be reminded that the world isn’t really made for us. Human beings are so adaptable and so able to affect our environments that it’s trivially easy to forget that the world could get by just fine without us, and would be better off for it.
What does this have to do with spirituality?
The gods of the wilderness are both elusive and, once you manage to come to their attention, frighteningly and even violently all-consuming. The price of violating the precincts of Artemis, Pan, and Dionysus includes madness, death, or both; seeking them is not a task to be undertaken lightly. Much like the wilderness itself, getting there is a difficult and arduous journey that can kill you even before you arrive.
At our affectionately and domestically named Harvest Home ritual, we told stories of what we had harvested from the wild this year. My story was simply this: one steps off onto a path into the wilderness without full understanding of where one is going, and this is necessary to the journey. The whole point of wilderness is that it’s a place we don’t know, because we have never been there no matter how many times we enter the forest. Over the past year or so I have been seeking my Way: the practice I will develop, alone and in cooperation and community with others.
My harvest this year is this: wilderness is the way. Not knowing is the way. The act of seeking is the way. The way is not made for us, it simply is, and it is up to us to follow it or not.