Good Lammas! On the agricultural calendar, Lammas begins Fall. In the Nashville broiler, autumn may seem like a far-off fantasy, but with the dusk pushing ever earlier at the edges of the day, one can finally begin to imagine winter.
The word ‘Lammas’ is an Anglo-Saxon word meaning ‘loaf mass,’ and the holiday marks the start of the grain harvest in the tides of the Northern Hemisphere at the cusp of August. Lammas is the celebration of grain, of cereal, of corn, of the basic staffs (staves?) of human life, cultivating and agricultural, on this earth.
Celebrating the grain harvest this year becomes problematic in ways that are poignant and perplexing. Grain, despite its sacred nature, has become increasingly political, and increasingly a symbol of lack instead of plenitude. Corn is abused and corrupted at every level: socially, economically, biologically, ecologically, spiritually – and especially through its conversion to biofuel which is causing massive food shortage problems. According to the World Bank, almost all of the growth in global corn production from 2004 to 2007 was devoted to making ethanol, which escalates corn and animal feed prices. Higher consumption of animal flesh in China and India has also driven demand for grain-based feed. Meanwhile, thirty countries have seen food riots this year, mostly based on the shortage of grains. In the last year, the price of corn globally has risen 70 percent; wheat 55 percent; rice 160 percent. Even Americans, who are accustomed to food being ready at hand if we can afford it, are discovering that we can only buy so much flour or rice at Costco since we might start hoarding it. Nashville restaurateurs report that the price of a sack of flour for a restaurant has risen from $9 to $30 in a year. And when you find out that the flooding in the American Midwest has destroyed at least twenty per cent of this year’s soybean crop, your heart sinks because you can only see more shortage on the horizon.
How ever do you celebrate Lammas in that context?
I suppose by celebrating our ability to adapt, as humans have always adapted. Like Lugh, the god of this season, we are many-skilled. We can figure out ways to change both practice and policy. Much of the food shortage crisis we witness is the result of flawed or corrupted distribution practices. The Ratking of wrongheaded subsidies, mandates and tariffs that encourage the production of biofuels from crops in the United States and the EU is humanly created. Contorted distribution is not limited to the practices of rich countries: at least thirty developing countries have imposed restrictions or bans on the export of foodstuffs, stockpiling their supplies – and thus taking more food from global markets. Export barriers discourage farmers from investing in more and more diversified cultivation. This Lammas calls to us as a whole world to do away with agricultural and energy subsidies that contribute to the spread of human hunger over our earth, to deliver multifaceted aid to the poorest countries, and to stop using food crops as a source of energy altogether – to wean ourselves off of corn-based ethanol which is after all a transitional technology meant to prop up petrofuel. Such are the concerns of a world-farmer. This is a global Lammas.
Lammas has always been a time of transition, a tenuous point in the circumference of the Wheel of the Year. It is a crux, an unstable crisis point at which things could trend one way or another. The ancients knew that there is always the chance, at First Fruits, of a harvest going wrong. In August, there is still time for disaster to strike and pull the rest of the harvest down. So any sense of accomplishment we might celebrate at Lammas is tempered with an awareness of vulnerability, and an instinctive stewardship arises within us in response to that low-grade insecurity vibrating in the background. Since there are two harvest festivals left to go before we can call the year over with, we are aware that our work is not finished, and we are still challenged moment by moment as how best we can see it all through, through August and September until the end of October.
Humans have always responded at Lammas in ways both manifest and magical: with increased attention to the fields themselves and also with State Fairs, with Corn Queens and dolls made of corn shucks and competitions for who canned the most delicious preserves of the year. The celebrations of strength and life that come at this time of year, unfailingly, out of our animal responsiveness to the throb of the universe, are sympathetic and communicative, couched in a wish that somehow the fields will answer us in corresponding vigor and generosity. The animistic tendency of this season is difficult to resist, and why would you want to? Our spirits need the encouragement as well: autumnal celebrations raise our enthusiasm for that last great push needed to fill the granaries! In real time and space, we use the energy we create to oversee, protect, and tend the remaining crops so that they come to their fullest bearing.
So this Lammas, make the impulse global. Pray to the gods you know, the gods and goddesses of food and harvest, and take action both magical and material that all humans on this earth can be fed in ways that sustain them, that enable them to thrive in the earth’s abundance, so that they can fulfill their destinies and their dreams. To put you in the right mood, below is a Lammas offering of some sympathetic magic:
first, a scene from Ralph Bakshi’s _American Pop_ in which a character at the midpoint of a cross-country journey from New York City to Los Angeles sojourns in the corn with a waitress he meets along the way – this scene is a movement of archetypes, so ancient, and touchingly rendered:
and Pablo Neruda’s ‘Oda al Maiz,’ a glorious ode to the grain which has mothered so much of our American civilization.
Ode to Maize
(Oda al Maiz)
America, from a grain
of maize you grew to crown
with spacious lands
the ocean foam.
A grain of maize was your geography.
From the grain
a green lance rose,
was covered with gold,
to grace the heights
of Peru with its yellow tassels.
let history rest in its shroud;
praise with your lyre
the grain in its granaries:
sing to the simple maize in the kitchen.
First, a fine beard
fluttered in the field
above the tender teeth
of the young ear.
Then the husks parted
and fruitfulness burst its veils
of pale papyrus
that grains of laughter
might fall upon the earth.
To the stone
in your journey,
Not to the terrible stone,
the bloody triangle of Mexican death,
but to the grinding stone,
sacred stone of your kitchens.
There, milk and matter,
strength-giving, nutritious cornmeal pulp,
you were worked and patted
by the wondrous hands of dark-skinned women.
Wherever you fall, maize,
whether into the splendid pot of partridge,
or among country beans,
you light up the meal and lend it
your virginal flavor.
Oh, to bite into the steaming ear
beside the sea of distant song and deepest waltz;
to boil you as your aroma spreads
through blue sierras.
But is there no end to your treasure?
In chalky, barren lands bordered by the sea,
along the rocky Chilean coast,
at times only your radiance
reaches the empty table of the miner.
Your light, your cornmeal, your hope
pervades America’s solitudes,
and to hunger your lances are enemy legions.
Within you husks, like gentle kernels,
our sober provincial children’s hearts were nurtured
until life began
to shuck us from the ear.
(trans. MS Peden)
May these pieces, which speak of abundance, call up a sympathetic animistic response in us that awakens a corresponding feeling in the fields, and in our world, and in the hearts of men. May we live on this earth so that people have enough, so that the abundance so ripe and eager at hand is not thwarted by our own failures of generosity or imagination. May food get to those who are hungry. May next Lammas be better than this Lammas. May food, the basic staff of all life, cease to be a political tool and an instrument of coercion and return to being a reason for shared celebration and the renewal of community.
For one day, for Lammas, for magic to work, regardless of all the ways in which we have made food a problem, for one day find the space within yourself to allow yourself the pleasure of being fed and loved by the earth. And then awaken to action, charged by magic.
Blessings of Abundance to you and to all on this earth!