By John Pierce, Community Fellow
The end of winter is finally visible on the mountain. After nearly three full weeks of 10-20 inches of snow on the ground, pulling groceries uphill in a sled, and lighting wood stove fires every night, we have made it through the darkest days of winter with only a few embarrassing ice slips. Like many in horticulture, farm manager Teddy refers to the darkest days of the year as the Persephone period - the time of year with less than ten hours of daylight. At our latitude, this timespan begins and ends about 35 days before and after the winter solstice - roughly mid-November to late January. During this time, nearly all cellular growth stops, even in the coldest hardy crops. In the Persephone period, frost damage is a fact of life, and there is little chance for recovery.
In Greek mythology, Persephone was the daughter of Zeus the lightning god, and Demeter, goddess of the harvest, natural law, and the cycles of life. Hades abducted Persephone to be his queen, taking her with him to the underworld. Before she escaped, she was tricked into eating a few locally-sourced pomegranate seeds. By consuming the food of the underworld, she was bound to return there for a third of each year. Different retellings ascribe varying levels of insidiousness in Hades’ actions here (I’m inclined to believe the worst), but in all of these, Demeter’s devastation and mourning at her daughter's loss was said to bring the cold of winter to the mortal world. The Eleusinian Mysteries, the most well-known of the secret religious rites of ancient Greece, focused on the loss, search for, and return of Persephone to her mother. Persephone’s perpetual rebirth each year symbolized the sacred cycles of life, from generation to generation, and Eleusinian cultists believed their devotion to these cycles would be rewarded in the afterlife.
Persephone’s symbols - the cornucopia, the pomegranate, and her mother’s wheat sheaf staff - all tell of her associations with harvest and natural bounty. But Persephone’s role as the chthonic queen of Hades’ court meant she was also granted ultimate decision-making power in the cases of the few mortals who made it to her abode. Persephone gained a reputation for subverting her husband’s cruelty, granting clemency to visitors whose stories moved her. That the queen of the dead and the earthly embodiment of nature’s bounty should be inextricably bound into one mythological figure is no coincidence - this duality is familiar to anyone who grows plants. Here in Highland County, Persephone’s absence is felt in the bleak midwinter light, the bitter wind, the deep drifting powder all over the mountain roads, and the wildlife prints and droppings that decorate the frozen ground.
While I don't feel I have quite reached harvest-god status, we are using a number of season-extension tactics up on the mountain to increase winter productivity while Demeter is in mourning. Currently, our caterpillar tunnel is full of mustard greens, kale, collards, and mache, kept blanketed under double and even triple layers of row cover cloth for warmth. The root cellar and freezers are fully stocked with fruits, veggies, and poultry since the end of last year. We even have some canned goods leftover from the prior year, as well as the goods we canned last year for the incoming crew. Our winter squash, garlic, and onions are camped out in the office/classroom we used for lectures and discussions last year, along with the new germination shelf we’ve built for seed starting. And yet, now that we have some ten-hours-and-change of daylight on the mountain, signs of Persephone’s return are everywhere despite the frigid temperatures. You just have to know where to look.
While there is barely any overt growth, the trees along the mountainside bear the reddish fringe of new buds and twigs. Songbirds and coyotes are starting to sing and chatter amongst themselves again. The ducks and the slightly more stoic laying hens seem to be a bit more talkative these days, and they’ve been slowly laying more eggs. Lightfoot the horse steadfastly refuses to stop trying to dig up our garlic. Maple tap buckets have begun mysteriously appearing in the woods all over Highland County, ready for syrup weather - I suspect a second coming of the Mothman is responsible. Digging in the soil is starting to yield more insects and worms. Trickling water is slowly overtaking ice, and every time it snows, it seems to stick a little less and melt away a little sooner. We are spending less time inside on computers and more time out on the farm, noticing it all. Persephone returns; just below the snow, the earth is warming again, ready to bring new life to the farm. Another cycle. I am ready, excited, honored, humbled by the opportunity to share the mountain’s cornucopia of produce with the people of Highland County this year.