Design for Life: Celebrate the Seasons

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I started holding “Seasons Gatherings” a couple of years ago. It’s my enjoyable effort to bring a few lives into greater harmony with natural rhythms. Four times a year, I invite friends for a potluck with foods of the season; we all bring something that evokes our place on the year’s cycle.

Each time we gather, I’m delighted by the unpredictable mix of offerings. In the fall one friend brought rice hulls and talked about mulching his organic garden; another read a poem; one told tales of autumnal animal migrations; another brought a crimson leaf and talked about her favorite tree. In winter we shared more poems, candlelight, stories of hibernation, and a painting featuring a fire in a woodstove, a whistling teakettle, fluffy slippers, and a thick quilt. In spring we brought flowers, earthworms, straw hats, kites, and more poems and stories. In summer we rented a boat and spent an afternoon on a nearby lake, eating, drinking, skinny-dipping–being summer.

One regular attendee says the gatherings deepen and enrich her experience of the seasons. She loves the way each sharing inspires the next, how common threads emerge, and that we realize our lives are not really so isolated. She leaves feeling satisfied and calm, with a heightened awareness of her inner landscape, her senses, and her surroundings–be they warm and heady or cool and crunchy.

Whereas the early humans’ drive was to tame nature, our desire today is to reunite with it.

A primal need

Seasonal rituals have been celebrated since the dawn of humanity. When your life revolves around hunting and gathering what’s in season, or depends on planting in spring, tending the fruits of summer, harvesting in fall, and storing up for winter, you develop an intense relationship with these annual cycles. Ritualist L. Bachu believes that early rituals also grew out of a need to make the enormity of nature graspable. “Raw life is a huge event; nature’s power is beyond our comprehension,” she says. “Rituals allowed people to get their arms around it, interact with its cycles, and come to terms with its force.”

Although the seasonal cycle is constant, our efforts to conquer nature have altered our relationship with it since those early times. As University of Southern California architecture professor Ralph Knowles has observed, most urban lives follow daily cycles: going to work or school and home again. The weather may change, but we do our best to overcome it. In the United States, a combination of Judeo-Christian and secular holidays–Easter, Fourth of July, Halloween, and Christmas/Hanukkah/New Year–has roughly supplanted the pagan celebrations of the seasons. But for many people, these have become hollow, commercial activities.

Whereas the early humans’ drive was to tame nature, our desire today is increasingly to reunite with it. “Humans are programmed to be in harmony with nature; we need it,” says Denise Linn, author of Sacred Space (Ballantine Books, 1995) and Feng Shui for the Soul (Hay House, 2000). “Ancient and native people understood the importance of synchronizing their inner cycles with the cycles around them. Ceremonies create deeper bonds with our heritage, our community, and the natural world.”

How we celebrate

I asked some friends how they celebrate the seasons. Feng shui practitioner Nathalie Johnson finds that honoring the seasons helps her feel more present and in tune with the earth’s changes throughout the year. In winter, the season for reflecting, slowing down, and going within, she lights candles daily as a reminder of her own inner warmth and light. In spring, the time for rebirth and bringing to form that which has been gestating during winter, she welcomes the world by opening her windows wide and by displaying fresh-picked wildflowers and brighter accents in her home. She celebrates the fullness and bounty of summer by putting a bowl of fruit on her table to acknowledge abundance. And in the autumnal time of letting go, colorful leaves, gourds, and dried corn mark the harvest and express her gratitude for what has been.

For Bachu, the pagan New Year (Samhain, October 31) is a quiet, sacred time. She loves to create a “feast for the dead” by setting a table with candles and pictures of loved ones who have died, then laying out a meal for them of chocolate, apples, whole-grain bread, and wine.

“Around the winter solstice,” says Canadian architect David Rousseau, author of Healthy by Design (Hartley & Marks, 1997), “we do a lot with fires here in the wild woods. One favorite of mine is when we gather around a fire and write anything we consider to be bad news–in our lives or in the world–on little pieces of paper. We take turns reading our bad news and then tossing it into the fire as everyone chants ‘BAD NEWS.’ This cleanses us of bad feelings, and we can greet the return of the light afresh.”

University of Oregon architecture professor John Reynolds has a simple spring ritual: “For several weeks each spring, while walking our dog, we search a small hillside that I’ve planted with iris, looking for and counting the ‘flags’ that emerge from the iris clumps. I get a thrill out of this, totally out of proportion to the final result–pretty purple stalks of flowers.”

Just after the summer solstice, as the sun’s energy begins to wane, Denise Linn begins a shedding process. She fasts to increase her receptivity, asks what she wants to let go of, and goes to the ocean alone. There, with every outgoing wave, she releases what no longer serves her into the purifying saltwater.

“When I lived in the country,” says architect Marcia Mikesh, “I marked each solstice and equinox by eating only foods I’d grown on our land. Now that I live in town, I try to go to the same spot for each solstice and equinox, where I can see the sun rise and set over the horizon; it helps me orient myself in relation to the earth and the sun. I also stay away from the car for the day to give my body a rest from the vibration and frantic pace of driving. It’s all about getting in resonance with the place.”

“People get this stuff in their cells by doing it over and over again,” reflects eco-builder Seth Melchert. “The seasonal ritual calls upon nuances and wisdom buried deep in our bones, and we usually don’t recognize what it is completely about. But we do it because somewhere inside we know it is important to understanding who we are and why we are here.”

Carol Venolia is the author of Healing Environments: Your Guide to Indoor Well-Being (Celestial Arts, 1988), and former publisher of Building with Nature Newsletter.