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Lammas, or Lughnasad, is the first and greatest of the Sabbats honoring the harvest, for it is now that in most places in the northern hemisphere life’s abundance most overflows in flowers and fruit, grain and root. In our urban and industrial times Lammas also has come to celebrate the abundance that can come from our hard work and creativity. And for each of us personally, there is hopefully a Lammas of our lives, when we make our first big harvest of our life’s work in family, career and calling.
In traditional accounts Lammas was also accompanied by sacrifice, a giving something valuable back to the powers that produced the abundance that blesses us. Lammas celebrates the gifts of the earth and of life, but at its core it also recognizes reciprocity. In recognizing reciprocity Lammas recognizes and sanctifies relationship.
But how should we relate to our personal harvests of life’s abundance? Most of us give back in our relationships with friends and family, but what about the Earth in bth its secular and sacred guises?
I am reminded of two contrasting images. When Europeans first arrived to the North Pacific coast, the salmon runs were beyond anyone’s experience or even imagination. Settlers wrote they could harvest salmon with pitchforks. And when canning was perfected salmon canneries sprung up across the area, millions of fish were caught, and incredible numbers rotted because their numbers exceeded the canneries’ capacity to use. Salmon were for taking, and nothing was ever given back. In a few decades the runs were gone, reduced to ghosts of their former magnificence, or extinguished entirely.
The harvesters worked from two deeply flawed beliefs, first that the Earth is simply a storehouse of resources and second that we human beings were somehow distinct from the Earth. We had souls and the earth did not, nor did anything else within it.
The Indians of the region had more wisdom in these matters and better ecological insight as well. Stories of what would happen when salmon were not respected were widespread, and the stories were largely the same. Without respect the salmon would leave. As they did.
In addition, harvesting salmon for these tribes was deeply enmeshed within a ritualized context. It was not just “economics” the science of rational sociopaths. It was a highly ethical and spiritual activity where day to day living was placed within a deeper context. The first salmon caught for the season was ritually distributed to the tribe as a whole, and its bones ritually returned to the water. Only certain days were allowed for fishing, and at the end of the prescribed season, the weirs were dismantled.
Those tribes harvested annually as many salmon as Americans did in all but a very few years, but they accomplished this over thousands of years. Those tribes recognized the importance of relationship in deed as well as word.
Today the world’s wild systems are being systematically dismantled by corporation greed and shortsighted overpopulation. Increasingly more than the salmon will not be coming back. The price humanity will likely pay will be a high one, but the hidden price in a poverty of spirit is already visible in this country where cruelty, arrogance, and greed, and the sociopathic pathologies of Ayn Rand, are given recognition rather than the revulsion and pity they and their practitioners merit.
In many ways I think modern NeoPaganism offers the contemporary West a final chance to reconnect with a deeper and more appropriate appreciation of “all our relations.” In my interfaith work and in that of friends, repeatedly we encounter interest by practitioners of other faiths in how they might relate better with all that surrounds us. For the most part we are the only readily reachable spiritual community that has given these questions much thought. We are influential beyond our numbers, and I think our Sabbats provide an annual meditation on how to relate with the cycles of physical existence as sacred.
We can give back in part by helping others better practice what many are seeking to do now. And in art, in our rituals, we can ask ourselves as individuals and as covens and groves and other communities, what we can do in the year to come to enter into stronger relations with the Earth.
To receive appropriately requires giving if the gift is to be truly honored. We can give to the giver, or keep the circle flowing outwards by giving to another. In this respect Lammas is an echo of the old gift economy that once sustained so many of the world’s people and has to some extent been reinvigorated with the rise of the net.
There are two problems with making taking the foundation of our approach to our earth. First it is stupid. The earth is enormously complex, and our knowledge is only a fragmentary glimpse of the whole. Taking with ignorance is a way to undermine our own well-being. As we look at the long hot summer most of our country is experiencing after its unusually snowy winter, with crops withering across entire states, we can mull over the possibility that far more than salmon may not come back.
But there is perhaps an even worse dimension to taking. A person who treats everything and everyone as a tool for their use is ultimately a person who thinks of him or herself as alone. But this solitude is of their own creation. They can be surrounded by others and still feel isolated, as in the old adage that big cities are places of loneliness. When we see masses of people we do not know and who do not know us, we can feel lonely. We do not see the networks of friendship and love that bind those “anonymous masses” into intricate social networks very much as plants and animals are invisibly bund together into ecological networks and the whole into a Spiritual network.
If we never enter into those networks cities are places of extreme loneliness. If we never enter into and value those ecological networks we ultimately harvest ashes. And if w never enter into the Spiritual networks that encompass all of these, our earth remains alien and we brief and lonely sojourners upon it.
As culture after culture has learned to its sorrow, when nothing is given in return, when the order of the day is just to take, the harvest eventually withers. The person who takes from friends ultimately is left alone, friendless. It is the same with the world, only She moves more slowly. As we enjoy nature’s abundance what can we give in return? How might we provide a kind of harvest to our world, as our world provides its harvest to us?