The ancients were more in touch with the rhythms of nature than we in modern industrialized societies are today. They didn't know as much as we do about the details—we get better predictions and control from chemistry and physics than they did from analyzing matter into earth, air, fire and water—but they knew more about the effects of the natural world on the psyche, the interiority, of the human being.
Take the solstices and equinoxes. We still recognize that there is something special about the longest and shortest days of the year and about the times when day and night are equal, or at least we know enough to use them as excuses for parties and festivals. But we have let abstract thought override our plain experience. Why else would we call the longest day the beginning of summer, when in fact it is approximately in the middle of the hot time of year?
I would like to call your attention to the cross-quarters, the times in between the solstices and equinoxes. They fall, astronomically, when the earth is exactly half-way between a solstice and equinox in its orbit around the sun: February 3, May 5, August 7 and November 7.(1) The Celts had names for them: Imbolc was the beginning of spring, when ewes began to show their pregnancy, soon to give birth to the spring lambs. Beltane was the beginning of summer, when the herds of livestock were driven out to the open pastures and mountain grazing lands. Lughnasadh was the beginning of the harvest season, when grain and fruit were ripe. Samhain (pronounced "sowan") was the end of the harvest season and beginning of winter, when the herders brought their animals home to keep inside during the cold. For our agricultural ancestors, knowing such seasonal durations and transitions was vital to success in husbanding their animals and planting and harvesting their crops.
Perceptually, the solstices and equinoxes are obvious: the day is very long or the same as the night or very short. But the cross-quarters are more subtle. They are the times when the gradual change in the amount of daylight just becomes apparent to people busy with their lives. The days are noticeably shorter or longer than they were not too long ago. The weather has turned noticeably cooler or warmer.
The change in daylight and temperature has effects on us humans, even if we live, unlike our ancestors, insulated from the weather by heating, air conditioning and electric lights. Most of us don't pay attention to the subtleties of our internal state, but the Ziraat tells us that the first place for the work of protecting the life around us is inside of us. If we take the time to slow down, turn our attention inward and observe, we find valuable insight.
The cross-quarters are excellent times for such self-reflection. Sit quietly in a natural setting and allow repetitious and unsettled thoughts to subside. Think of yourself as an element in a larger whole, a cell in a larger organism. What happens in the large affects you, and what affects you affects the whole of which you are a part. What qualities are being brought forth? What changes are in the wind? What can you align yourself with to promote vibrant peace, happiness and good health for you and the humans and non-humans around you?
“Let the heavens be reflected on the Earth, Lord, that the Earth may turn into Heaven.”
– Hazrat Inayat Khan
[Ata’allah Bill Meacham is a Ziraat initiate and an independent scholar in philosophy. Read more at http://bmeacham.com/.]
(1) Archaeoastronomy.com, URL = http://www.archaeoastronomy.com/ as of 3 November 2010. See also the Wikipedia entries, http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Imbolc, http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Beltane, http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Lughnasadh, and http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Samhain.