It starts in August, sometimes late July. Something in the atmosphere changes and you comment to the store clerk "It felt like Fall today." It could have been a cool breeze, it might have been a particular clarity in the air. But almost everyone intuitively understands when it "feels like Fall."
The Celtic autumn began at Lughnasadh on August 1. Our autumnal season is marked by the equinox on September 23, this year at 9:04 PM PDT. Summer is drifting into memory. Time is returning us once more to ground, to the element from which we rise and upon which we fall - earth.
The elements of water, air and fire exhibit changeable qualities such as fluidity, creative inspiration and divine mediation. But the earth is substantive, it is matter. Because we too, are physically made of matter, our relationship with this element is intimate in several ways.
Of the traditional elements, earth is the most tangible and immediate. It is the soil, the planet upon which we live, where we make our homes and where we turn for resources.
Earth is also a profound symbol. It is the terrain of original divinity and it is the external arena of the psyche. It runs a seamless path through our consciousness that few notice in the day-to-day.
For the better part of history, humans lived in close relationship with the earth. From the time of early humans, the Great Mother was the living landscape. Her bones were the stones, her lifeblood the rivers, her form found in the hills and mountains. She gave and nurtured all life. In her dark aspect she guided that life to its conclusion, returning the soul safely to her underworld womb to be born again.
As tribes spread across her face, she multiplied and was known by many names. Earth goddesses are chthonic, they revel in the organic details of existence - of food, fertility, birth and death. Reflected in the waxing, full and waning moon, she was venerated by ancient societies.
By the Bronze Age and the advent of solar-worshipping peoples, the earth goddesses who had walked the earth for millennia were in decline. With the patriarchy came the ascent of divinity out of matter, from deep in the earth up into the air. Detached and transcendent gods came to live high on mountain tops. Later male deities, disposing of their physicality, rose even higher into the atmosphere, into "heaven" and the depths of the earth, once fertile and welcoming, became known as "hell."
This flight from an ensouled world brought about a split between spirit and matter. Masculine spirit became lofty, brilliant and objective, while feminine matter - the stuff of soul - became dark, subterranean and subjective. The natural balance and easy correspondence between the two was diminished. As a result, instead of an equal partner, earth - the feminine principle - was depersonalized, forced into servitude, and exploited.
In the imaginal world of the Celts, this essence of the landscape was never vanquished. In Ireland, a history of invasions and the arrival of foreign divinities did not weaken the reverence held for the soul of the place, the "anima-loci."
Divinity lives on in the many remaining Irish place-names - divinity that is emanant, residing in the stones, the hills and the rivers. Otherwordly beings still inhabit their brilliantly lit sidhe mounds deep in the earth. In a living landscape humans can find their nature - both within and without.
As an element, earth is enduring and stable, unlike the others that are more mecurial. It waits to take in what air, rain and fire can bring it and transforms those nutrients into new matter. Earth is the only element that can give birth. No wonder that the modern term for nature is "Mother Earth." Unlike the more variable attitudes of the other elements, such as the sanguine nature of air, earth is melancholic, its influence settles into deep memory.
But as an untended fire can be destructive, so also can too much elemental earth be stifling. Earth and air have a native equilibrium. Air (or spirit) prevents earth from being too weighty. Earth (or soul) prevents air from flying completely off. Each needs the qualities of the other. In a person or in a society that is predisposed to flightiness, to evasion, to detachment and logic without thoughtful meaning, there is too much spirit and not enough earth.
When earth and soul lose connection with spirit, they go underground, into shadow. Earth has a tendency to pull down, to sink life into matter. But when divided from spirit, matter slips into unconsciousness - too much earth and one can no longer feel the organic details of life. We cannot feel our motives or the pain in ourselves and others - soul is buried alive.
When we are thus "stuck," instead of tending to the "matter," we often attempt escape into the experience of air - elevation and distraction from our troubles - looking outward or upward to others for the remedy. We perpetuate the split between spirit and soul by believing that we can evade matter by detaching and ascending - much like the transcendent deities of two thousand years ago.
Far from the earth goddesses are we. Much of the food we eat is industrially produced, we have test tubes when needed for conception, the profound experience of giving birth is commonly drugged and even in death we flee from earthiness - burying our dead in chemicals and boxes guaranteed not to rust for eons.
To uncover soul one must sink spirit into matter. Matter is rich in texture and breathes slowly. Feel the weightiness and stability that come from being "grounded." Like the earth, we are made of matter - matter in which we joyfully reside or from which we seek to escape. The choice is ours.
As spiritual gardeners we must cultivate the earth on which we live and from which we draw sustenance - in our hearts, our communities and beyond on this small blue planet. We must dare to sink again, to return from the clouds and reenter the landscape. Exchange wild, disconnected neediness for meaningful hope and go to ground.
It is autumn. Let restlessness be the domain of the leaves. They fly off like our best ideas unfulfilled - bright, colourful and taken by the wind. With each year we sink deeper, to lie among the detritus - the mulch of the year, the decaying leaves that bring nutrient to the living earth.