Cross Quarter Day

We sometimes see a mackerel sky here, flecks of high cloud that resemble the scales of the fish: it is usually a sign of unsettled weather; but last evening, we saw a salmon sky. Dark dollops of cloud, trailing driblets of their flesh across the sky - the undersides a creamy, golden salmon color, turning richer as the evening progressed and ultimately melding with the dark meat above and disappearing into the night. Then appeared the slimmest possible crescent of the new moon fading in and out of sight as the clouds moved across it. What do these spawning clouds portend? What will the August moon bring?

The first sighting of this crescent moon is the signal for the beginning of Ramadan, the lunar month of fasting in the Muslim world, where it serves as a time of spiritual rejuvenation. it is believed to be an auspicious month for revelations, for it was the time when the first verses of the Qur'an were revealed to Muhammad. It is the Wort Moon, the Wiccan celebration of the first harvest moon, one of the Great Sabbats or pagan moon festivals of the year. It is Lughnasadh or Lammas Eve, Lady Day Eve or Feast of Bread. It is the moon of the Tea House, it is the moon that will flood the upper valley in the warm nights of August - when the fluttering song of the screech owl rises above the ringing thrum of cicadas. It is the Barley moon of wisdom, logic and dreams. It is a time of mooncakes.

It is a time when connections are made to the root world, the Underworld. It is a time, it is said, when Harvest Spirits enter the earth to give their energy to the nourishment of life-giving grain. But if we pull back from the classical and pre-classical worlds, these traditions evaporate. Here, in Southern California, those ancient harvests and their moonshadows are an alien, distant, phenomenon. But there is a link.

In the Mediterranean basin and the Middle East, over-gathering and over-hunting during the beginning of the Holocene (+/- 10,000 B.C.E.) resulted in a pre-historic food crisis, driving the human population to move from hunting-gathering to herding-planting. Traditional foods once lightly gathered in meadows were subjected to intensive grazing and quickly subsumed by highly aggressive anti-pastoral species. The prime characteristic of such colonizing plants is thorniness, and a high proportion of these spiny plants developed in the Middle East where the switch to farming originated. They became common contanimants of grain crops. Similarly, alien pathogens took up residence in sedentary agricultural populations which, although more reliably fed, risked sickness from greater co-mingling and poor sanitation in villages.

In the mid 1820's, European alfafa was imported into California containing yellow star thistle (Centaurea solstitialis) seeds. Finding a favorable Mediterranean climate the thistle began its New World colonization and now commands ten to fifteen million acres of California's wildlands. It exists as both a threat to our local ecosystem and a living reminder of the ancient grain cultures of the Mediterranean basin.

Neither the local Chumash, nor their predecessors, made this switch to farming, relying instead, on an astonishing range of naturally occurring foodstuffs. The seemingly benign environment was nonetheless frighteningly unpredictable, with famine a constant threat. Stress levels in Chumash society stemmed from periodic, and often serious, droughts. Brian Fagan notes in Time Detectives, Simon & Schuster, New York, 1995,

"Instead of living a relaxed existence in paradise, the Chumash lived conservatively, well aware of the unpredictability of their environment. Canoes, fishing spears, nets, acorn-grinding technology, everything and everybody became geared to the efficient exploitation of seasonal foods. Some villages stored large acorn crops each fall. Others harvested thousands of anchovies, while a few miles away their neighbors hunted sea mammals."

This was highly organized foraging and progressively more sophisticated fish harvesting - not farming. From the earliest times of their island occupation (Hoop Dreams) native groups relied heavily on wild seeds and shellfish, moving from place to place. As island and mainland population densities rose, the Chumash ate more and more fish. When the tomol (canoe) came into use, about 2,000 years ago, allowing people to fish farther offshore, settlements became more sedentary, and the Chumash developed a complex society of fishing villages. Their trade networks extended inland as far as the Southwest and helped ease local food shortages (Fagan).

An increasing dependence on protein-rich fish did not protect the Chumash from the kind of health decline that occurs when hunter-gatherers settled down to farm. Crowding into larger settlements, living in familial groups of up to fifty in their domical grass houses (Primitive Hut) and encountering people and their diseases from many miles away, cost coastal groups the good health they had known for thousands of years as mobile hunter-gatherers.

Inland, Southern Steelhead trout (Oncorhynchus mykiss) supplemented the diet of the native peoples but did not threaten the acorn as the primary food staple. Chia (Salvia columbariae) seeds were highly favored and nutritious, but the fields of chia in Chumash territory have long been in decline, due in part, "to the introduction of new plant species by European colonists, and from the supression of Chumash grassland burning practices in the late eighteenth century" (Timbrook). Thistles would be high on the list of likely suspects in suppressing the native chia: I saw one rare stand on Shelf road a couple of years ago but have not been back recently to see if it survives (Mining Gravel). Its harvesting season began in late spring and continued through early summer. By August it was done. The Chumash periodically burnt the chia fields to increase productivity. Burning a stand of chia today would result in its extirpation - to be replaced by noxious weeds.

Does August have a purpose in the Chaparral winter (The Winter's Tale)? Many believe that it's a great time to leave the wildland to the withering heat (Cool: Very Cool). It is not a great time for weeding, but I have already eliminated the star thistle from our meadows and consigned them to land-fill where their 30,000 seeds per square meter can do no harm. Bats fill the sky in the evenings. Last night around 2 a.m. I was awakened by the shrill buzz of a lone cicada, it continued its vibrational courting song for some time then, to reference an ancient technology - it was as though the gramophone needle had been abruptly snatched off of the vinyl. A bat had struck. I went back to sleep, arose around five, made a cup of tea and drank it while noting that the pale morning light does not appear until it's almost six. The sun is heading south.

August 1, Lammas Day, now a week ago, a cross quarter day, the halfway point between summer and fall.