Friday, October 20, 2006


For many, this time of year can be among the busiest. Public school kids are back in their classrooms, various businesses near the end of the fiscal year, and people's energies are split between forging ahead and settling old accounts. The pace can be exhausting. But as the fall days shorten, the light wanes and we face the oncoming winter, it doesn't hurt to spend a few moments in remembrance.

Remembrance of what? Committments made or broken? Failed politicians? The bottom line? Those things are part of our lives, too. But I was thinking of things that aren't so easily judged and measured.

Less than a hundred years ago at this time of year, our ancestors were madly gleaning every possible bit of harvest before winter set in. It was that, or risk starving to death during the winter months. Nowadays, we grumble while we wait for spinach to be put back on the menu. We lament the risk of eating steak due to the very preventable threat of mad cow disease. But there are so many different kinds of food available from so many different sources that here in the U.S., we barely think about stocking up food for the winter anymore. Why can your own beans when you can just get more from California? No spinach for a while? Annoying, but lettuce is still available, and you can still have some kind of salad. We're spoiled. Horribly so, because for many of us, if we ever really faced the cessation of our food supply, we'd be starving in huge numbers, just like people from much poorer countries. The global market has changed so much that in our rush to get where we're going, we often forget where we've been.

A couple of days ago, my younger daughter went with her father to watch the killing of two young steers. Just two years old, the steers were grass-fed, raised without hormones, and allowed to roam happily over the land of a very forward-thinking (or perhaps it's actually backward-thinking!) man we know. My family paid for a half-share of one of those steers while it was alive, and soon we'll be bringing the meat home to sit in our freezer, as we've done every two years for most of the past ten. We don't have a big garden, but recently we harvested ten pumpkins and eight sweetmeat squash that grew in our small garden spot in the backyard over the summer. Small echoes of bygone years, but they feel right.

Also recently, we took a trip to Idaho City and visited their old historic cemetery. While there are a few more recent graves, many date from Idaho's gold rush and logging days. The cemetery stretches up a hillside, its graves dotted along the slope among the pines, reachable by dirt paths worn by generations of feet. No carefully manicured lawns here--only the quiet breeze and the falling of pinecones and needles from the branches above. Many of the graves in this cemetery are surrounded by quaint old wooden fences, often fallen or leaning, some with trees and bushes growing right out of the middle of the gravesites. Many are marked "unknown", the records of who was buried there lost forever whether or not their ghosts remain. One pioneer who went on to become a mayor in Boise buried his beloved young wife in that cemetery, and though he doesn't seem to be buried beside her, you can still read his moving words carved on a long stone slab atop her grave. In another spot, a whole family seems to have died in the same time frame, tragic victims of some illness or accident. Another small white native stone off the beaten path bears nothing but the initials J.W. and the words "at rest", its hand-carved letters a mute testimony to someone's poverty, but also a legacy of love for the person they could barely afford to bury. Another huge gravestone that practically shouts "money" belonged to a man from Ireland, buried all alone and far from the homeland he left behind.

This isn't meant to be a depressing post. Far the opposite. It's really just a reminder that in this busy season in the middle of modern concerns, maybe we should take just a moment and stop to think about how far we've come, and where we've come from. My Celtic ancestors felt that Halloween (Samhain) was a time when the veil between worlds was thinnest, when the dead could walk abroad and get a glimpse of the living. It was a time for harvest, for making domestic arrangements for the winter, for feasting and the forging of alliances, and--perhaps most of all--it was a time for remembrance.

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