Lúnasa is one of the eight holidays that formed the “spokes” on the wheel of the year, four of them being the summer and winter solstices (longest and shortest days of the year) and spring and autumn equinoxes (length of daylight being the same as length of night), and four holidays that land just about between these. Lúnasa is roughly six weeks after we experience summer solstice, where long days propel heavy crop growth, and six weeks before we hit the autumn equinox, where the length of day will be so short that many overwintering plants (and animals) will be getting daylength triggers to put on weight and prepare to survive the darkness and cold.
I don’t know much about the traditions of Lúnasa, I was compelled to write something about it because I saw an interesting YouTube video discussing the many traditions different regions of Ireland had for it. It’s funny that in the study of old European pre-Christian traditions, it’s common for modern folks to try to distill an incredibly diverse historical tradition into a McPagan revivalist idea that can be consumed by the masses that ignores how many traditions varied heavily, even village by village. The video mentioned a tradition of making a cailleach, a sheaf of grain made into a human figure and put up in the house to remember the god Lugh and his role in agriculture. I’m not even sure how widespread this was but I like the idea, so I made one, but entirely out of garlic leaves and stem.
This tradition of the cailleach really appealed to me, it’s a very natural thing for a farmer to want to bring in a first or last sheaf of grain as a decoration for the home, and I can see it being ritualized and understood (from an anthropological sense) as a symbol for remembering the hard times. In an abundant year, that sheaf would proudly stay where it was set, unneeded for your daily food needs. In a bad year, I suppose the cailleach would be looked at with longing, and frequently, as a family ate through its food supply, realizing they may run out before the next harvest.
Our minds are amazingly antifragile (deliberately using Nassim Nicholas Taleb’s word at the moment in lieu of the buzzword “resilient”)- we can not only push hard times behind us, mentally, we can even absorb the lessons from it in our subconscious while healing from the trauma built around the event and being more prepared for the next one. It’s how you can know that stoves are dangerously hot but not be crippled with fear from the painful memories of burning your hand once. Somehow I see the cailleach I made as a reminder of many of the past events that have devastated my crop before. It’s possible for the mind to be immensely grateful (and a bit proud) while also knowing that but for a few changes in how things went, it could have been a bad year.
This year’s harvest was really remarkable, and I look forward to bringing it to the garlic festivals, but I have to step back and acknowledge that a large part of the success was from the vagaries of the weather. I got rain at just the right time, in the right amount, for that final boost. I believe my careful balance of fertilizers may be why I’ve got really good bulb health this year, but in the end, all I can do is read the nutrient readout of my soil sample (which is only as good as my sampling techniques and the consistency of my field), and hope to add the fertility needed to support what Mother Nature throws at me. No rain, no gain. But also, too much rain, and you get nutrient leeching, so it all comes down to luck. Anyways… that is all to say that I need the cailleach this year. A reminder to myself that bounty is fleeting, famine (or the more likely modern American equivalent of being broke) can just be around the corner. Thankful for what I’ve got and the remembrance that it can all go away.
Speaking of antifragility earlier, I should first say I’m just starting reading “Antifragile: Things That Gain From Disorder” by Nassim Nicholas Taleb and have found it to be an interesting read, from a personal and professional level. A basic summary is that we, as humans, especially lately (last few thousand years), have come to overfocus on resilience and robustness in our systems designs (like in our businesses, political organizing, etc). However, resilience is just the measurement of “will it break under strain?” and our basic design goal is to make things that simply don’t break. However, we intuitively know of a second truth, that some of us exploit and others don’t as much, and that’s that systems which actively benefit from disorder are better. Taleb came up with the term antifragile for these things- things which actively get better under conditions of disorder or chaos.
Within the realm of garlic I find it intriguing that if it is overfertilized, it exhibits brooming, where the central bulb tends to be very tight and sometimes a single round, but forms a huge multitude of cloves off of this central bulb, unfortunately not within the protection of the skin of the garlic. It may be that the garlic we know and love, of cloves carefully protected within a multi skin layer, is a feature that is dependent on a lack of nutrients, or at least a lack of abundance. It’s very possible that other domesticated crops are in a similar way, counting on a certain amount of disorder- “imperfectly” delivered nutrients, and the like. Maybe even consistent watering is bad...maybe part of garlic’s formation is dependent on ebbs and flows of rainwater and irrigation?
Taleb’s earlier book, Black Swan, looks at how we attempt to create post-op 20/20 narratives around fairly random, unpredictable events, and it explains much of the blindness of economists, politicians, and even ordinary people, in understanding the past, in addition to predicting the future. There are Black Swans- singular, unlikely events, that are so game-changing that the predictability of the future is heavily limited because of them. For example, if you were an 1850’s wheelwright, who fixed wagon wheels, and were asked to predict what wheels would look like in 100 years, you’d simply be wrong, 99% of the time. You would not necessarily predict the gasoline engine (a Black Swan event that changed even some basic assumptions of physics, since we’ve temporarily been able to harvest many millennia’s worth of solar energy with the turn of a key). Even if you had a sense of the gasoline engine coming, the technical demands of the automobile, and its evolution, would all be hard to extrapolate, and you simply wouldn’t see rubber pneumatic tires in your mind, however hard you tried.
What similar blindspots do we face today? How utterly wrong are we about to be, about big-game things like AI, computing technology...food yields, genetic engineering, and the like? Remember, smart, confident people of the 1900’s were all kinds of wrong about where we’d be now. In some ways we’ve disappointed, and in some ways surpassed.
Simply put, we cannot possibly predict very far, because singular breakthroughs will cause such massive changes that all other considerations are moot.
Anyways, back to agriculture, I read something interesting in Jared Diamond’s book The World Until Yesterday, about the farming practices of some Peruvian subsistence farmers. Like many traditional farmers throughout the world, they owned many small plots “inefficiently” scattered around the surrounding territory. Hilltop plots, hillside plots, valley plots, et cetera. Inevitably, when 1st World NGO types would come and try to fix the inefficient native agriculture, they’d suggest the consolidation of holdings so that farmers didn’t spend so much of their time travelling between tiny plots. Something like half of their average working day was spent in transit between plots. However, someone built a computer model of 10 years’ worth of harvest data, and realized that if they’d followed that model, a large percentage of the subsistence farmers would have had a famine year at least once within a 10 year period, either dying or becoming economic refugees. Under the careful spreading of their plots (through many generations of, presumably, selling excess valley acreage to a hill farmer, or selling excess hillside to a valley farmer), the local economic system had developed a way to spread risk throughout the population. Under that model, no one suffered a famine year. They suffered reduced “economic output” due to all plots being less productive than they could have been, at maximum gain, but they prevented the floor of the system from ever dipping below subsistence levels. By spreading their holdings, they made it so that a storm that wiped out one field in floods, may be the same storm that adequately watered a hillside terrace in need of water. A cool spring that delayed your hilltop plantings may be just the break needed to let you get your valley crops in without as much heat stress.
It’s funny that I read these two books separately and I’m only recently connecting the earlier-read Diamond book to these ideas of antifragility. Diamond is exploring the roots of humanity- the common hunter-gatherer/subsistence background we all come from, and how it can inform how we behave today (taking the good ideas, pitching the bad), and in some ways it’s an argument for the prehistoric antifragility of the human mind and human society. Things that can actively grow or benefit from the chaos and disorder- even if it’s just a bit of cognitive pruning, or losses of the fragile elements of systems. Our indigenous systems of living are what shaped the vast majority of our evolution, and we’ve just been playing a different game only “recently.” Many answers to our current issues already exist, somewhere in our past, in antifragile systems.
Anyways...happy Lúnasa, everyone! The harvest is almost all in, just mopping up the remnants. Porcelains, Artichokes, Marbled Purple Stripes, and Glazed Purple Stripes are looking amazing. Rocamboles look good. Creoles even had a better than average year. Silverskins and Purple Stripes aren’t quite where I want them to be but still pretty good. Most importantly, looks like an amazing bulb-health year for all. Cheers and see you all at the garlic festivals!