Just last week, we had our first hard frost. After homesteading for a number of years, you grow to be vigilant for the signs of the first frost. The air smells different somehow in the two or so weeks leading up to it. The bird and wildlife patterns change. The nights have a crisp bite to them that they didn’t even a few days before. And then, just like magic one day, the frost is there, glistening in the morning light. The garden radically changes overnight–even for those things you covered–the entire landscape lies in disarray.
I could feel it in the air, and for the last few mornings, have been going to see if it had arrived. That morning, I turned the corner and first saw it first on the strawberry patch–white and glistening. The frost is beautiful, magical, and yet, destructive. While the garden was growing powerfully the day before–with the last harvests of our remaining tomatoes, eggplant, beans, squash, and gourds all ripening and growing abundantly–this morning, frost covers all. By mid-day, the garden of yesterday is but a distant memory. The garden of the frost is a disaster zone for summer crops–the tomatoes are wily, the half-ripened crookneck squash spongy on the top where the frost hit, the eggplant fell over in sadness. By the second day, the leaves of these plants are withered and dead, former husks of what they had been less than 48 hours before. The first time you see this destruction, it’s really something to behold. It is shocking how the cold can do so much damage in such a little time period by a temperature difference of only a few degrees.
Samhain is certainly here, and already, my garden has gone through increasingly hard and bitter frosts. The temperatures continue to plummet, the leaves drop from the trees, the animals and birds fatten up, hibernate, or fly south–and winter sets in.
This year though, this Samhain, it seems a little different. Maybe it’s the general collective despair and demoralization present right now, at least here in the US, which is affecting so many (and what I was responding to in my post a few weeks ago). Maybe its the latest UN report that suggests that–if we are lucky–we have about 12 more years to stave off the worst of climate change, but only if we act now. Maybe its reading that reports and knowing that action, at least in my own country, won’t happen. And, knowing, I will have to live to see the results of inaction, results that will irrevocably harm the live and lands I hold sacred. Maybe its the growing open conversations I am having with my new college students about their own futures and their fears. I’ve been teaching college for over a decade, but it has only been in the last 1-2 years that I’ve heard my college-age students start to openly discuss these things and their impact on their futures.
This Samhain, the changes in the landscape and in my garden, seem to reflect the changes going on culturally. We’ve had more than a few hard frosts. We’ve had bitterly cold days. Some of our favorite summer plants are dying off. I think a lot of people are asking–is this a sign of things to come? Are the darkest times, at the Winter Solstice–still to come?
In my frosted garden, I turn my eyes away from the summer crops, the eggplants, squash, and tomatoes that cannot handle even a 33-degree night with cover. Instead, I look to the carrots, onions, spinach, lettuce, celery, kale, and cabbage that we had planted in late July. These plants are much more resilient, and all of them are doing fine despite the glistening of frost on their leaves. Some, in fact, had been enhanced by the frost–the cabbage leaves are more succulent, the kale sweeter. Rather than harming the plants, the frost had simply made them better versions of who they already were. This, too, seems to be a powerful lesson, both for the garden and for our larger culture.
It seems that I’m not the only one smelling frost on the air more culturally, and processing what to do about it. A few days ago, I saw a new thread on a permaculture forum written by a 22-year-old girl who was asking serious questions: “Given the state of the world, do you really think permaculture offers us what we need to save the world? If the older leaders refuse to act, an individual action save us? And if you are using permaculture this way, how do you stay focused when all of this is happening around us?” It was a good question, a reasonable question, and had a range of useful responses. One of the most powerful responses was from a man who had seen a world war, had worked industry and had retired to a little one-room cottage in the woods. He shared some of the things he had seen in his life and said, “Its the cycle of life. The reason we practice permaculture is that it gives us hope. This is a season, others will come and go. I always ask is how do I respond. And my response is to hope.” I wonder, too, if that’s why so many of us practice druidry. It gives us connection, it gives us peace, but most of all, it gives us hope.
The practice of druidry, of living by the seasons, helps me process the inevitability of the crisis of climate and culture that seem to be bearing down at present. Samhain is in the air, both for us this year, but also for us culturally. It might be that this time will pass and spring will arrive quickly. Or, it may be that the world will have to endure the difficulties of winter, for some time to come. Most of us think, or already know, that we are in for the latter, but I must remind myself of all that I learned as a druid gardener, all that I learned from celebrating the wheel of the year is present here this Samhain.
As a druid homesteader, I respond to the frost–and the incoming winter– with good planning and good design. The “problem” of winter becomes a “solution” if I simply plan accordingly. I choose my plants more carefully for the fall and winter season–knowing some are resilient and designed for the cold, and others, like the tomato, fall at the first brush with frost. I start these plants in July, when summer appears to be endless. But soon enough, the fall will come, and these plants will thrive.
Using shelter and layering, the plants can survive much more than a bit of frost. Our little greenhouse will have a third layer of protection this wee, and our spinach, lettuce, bak choi, and arugula will be able to be continually harvested till January or later. Carrots and potatoes will stay in the ground waiting to be unearthed anytime the ground is unfrozen enough for us to do so. The greenhouse itself, combined with a second inner hoop house and then a thick floating row cover offers shelter. Embedded stones and a back-covered wall allow the design of the greenhouse to be even more resilient, pulling in the warmth into the stones when the sun is out. The stones radiate that heat into the soil in cold nights. Nothing will succumb to the frost or cold in that greenhouse unless it goes considerably below freezing. And if it does, we will make our final harvests, put wood on the fire, and wait till mid-February or early March when the soil to warm enough to plant again.
Further, as a druid gardener, I think about the “problem is the solution” from the permaculture principles. With the right plants and planning, we can thrive and grow. Our world *needs* to change. The current course of our society is radically unsustainable, and every bit of communication from this wonderful earth is letting us know that with increasing frequency. Finding new ways to live, to be, to inhabit this world will require us to adapt to the harsh realities that Samhain brings. We can’t be tomatoes in the coming years to come: we must be kale, cabbage, carrots, tatsoi, arugula, spinach–all of the plants that can withstand the harsh winter and still offer abundance.
As a druid, likewise, I have many lessons that help me think about and process this difficult time. I have celebrated the turning wheel of the year and the seasons for many, many years. I know that looking to my ancestors and honoring the season in the moment brings me quietude and peace. I also look to my ancestors to re-learn how to live more sustainably and simply, in line with the living earth. I know that winter is coming, and it will be dark, and harsh, and cold. But somewhere in my bones, woven into my DNA, I know my ancestors got by with much less than I did, and they thrived–if they hadn’t, I wouldn’t be here today. I also know of the beauty of winter when it arrives; I know of the freshness of the snowfall and the cold nights where the stars glisten. And most of all, I know that spring will come once again. The maples will once again begin to run, the crocuses will once again bloom.
In the meantime, I’m going to shore up this greenhouse and plant more kale.