One of my favorite poems for high summer is Mary Oliver's Little Summer Poem Touching the Subject of Faith, where she says:
I listen and look
under the sun's brass and even
into the moonlight, but I can't hear
anything, I can't see anything --
not the pale roots digging down, nor the green
stalks muscling up,
nor the leaves
deepening their damp pleats,
nor the tassels making,
nor the shucks, nor the cobs.
the leafy fields
grow taller and thicker --
green gowns lofting up in the night,
showered with silk.
And so, every summer,
I fail as a witness, seeing nothing --
I am deaf too
to the tick of the leaves,
the tapping of downwardness from the banyan feet --
all of it
beyond any seeable proof, or hearable hum.
And, therefore, let the immeasurable come.
Let the unknowable touch the buckle of my spine.
Let the wind turn in the trees,
and the mystery hidden in the dirt
swing through the air.
How could I look at anything in this world
and tremble, and grip my hands over my heart?
What should I fear?
in the leafy green ocean
the honeycomb of the corn's beautiful body
is sure to be there.
Oliver's "what should I fear . . . let the unknowable touch the buckle of my spine" is all about the Eleusian Mysteries to me.
Yet I was thinking of her poem today, mere hours before Beltane, when I went outside to pick oregano from the still-not-all-planted herb bed (covering my ears not to hear the whining of the eager-to-be-transplanted rosemary) and to water the new gardenia bushes that Landscape Guy just put in. I was thinking of the line "every summer/ I fail as a witness" as I contemplated how much I'm going to have to work at my job to complete a project by Monday (and thus not be in the garden) and how I plan every February that, by Beltane, I'll have every seedling planted, every weed pulled, every bit of the garden absolutely perfect. And how, every Spring, I fail as a priestess and fall short of that worthy goal.
I was also thinking of Oliver's assurance that her failure as a witness (and, I hope, mine as a priestess!) doesn't matter because, one morning, the corn's beautiful body is sure to be there. That's Beltane's promise to us, isn't it? That if we do the best we can, and work as hard as we can, and prioritize well, one morning, come high summer, the herb bed will be full of herbs, and the cottage gardens will have been weeded, and the corn's beautiful body is sure to be there. And so, on Beltane morning, we stop working, and weeding, and worrying. We wake up, wash our faces in the dew, and spend a day with our loves, dancing, feasting, and showing the seedlings just what we want them to do.
The promise can fail, of course. One thing agriculture did for our race, one thing that gardening does for me, is to embed and embody our success or failure into the (seemingly, to us,) random whims of this complicated personality we are pleased to call Gaia or "the Earth." We are co-creating, not acting as prime movers. Hail can destroy fruit. Drought can kill gentle plants. Clouds of voracious grasshoppers can show up and consume everything in a night. And so there is a huge part of gardening that is wrapped up in a willingness to take things on faith, to be willing to fail, to, in Teasdale's words, "buy it and never count the cost," or in Kipling's, to:
make one heap of all your winnings
And risk it on one turn of pitch-and-toss,
And lose, and start again at your beginnings
And never breath a word about your loss.
That doesn't mean that Beltane's promise is false. It means that it's more complicated than we often imagine. Beltane is, of course, directly across the Wheel of the Year from Samhein, when everything is all about death, and loss, and descent. And so the promise of Beltane contains all of Samhein, just as Samhein contains all of the lust and joy and growth of Beltane.
I was thinking especially last night about Beltane's promise that, if we prioritize well, things will work out when I left my urgent project, ignored my needy garden, didn't launder the tablecloth or polish the silver, and spent the evening with G/Son. I read him a story about the powers of Earth, Air, Fire, & Water and then we went outside to spend a bit of time before the sun set. I was showing him how the maple seeds come down spinning away from their parent trees and how that's different from the way that the dandelion seeds (that we blew and made wishes on; Sorry, Son) spread by floating on the wind. And then he said, "Watch, Nonna. I'm a maple seed," and he spun around his twilit yard. And then he said, "Watch, Nonna. I'm a dandelion seed," and then he danced the float of a dandelion seed.
I am a woman who actually loves to weed, but, you know, the weeds will still be there in a few days when things settle down. And I am planting many sorts of seeds, and some of them will be growing long after my rosemary, basil, and parsley are lost to the Halls of Memory. And I will count on Beltane's promise.
Picture found here.