As I was taught it, the harvest comes in three parts each year. The first harvest, generally speaking, is gathering the early bounty of fruit and tender greens, the second harvest is the late summer/early fall reaping of the fields, and the third harvest is the butchering, done once the weather has cooled enough to keep meat through the winter.
The general associations with each harvest persist, because the *concept* of the harvest is integral to modern paganism as it's practiced, but we've moved away from the practical reality of it as we've abandoned our agricultural lifestyle. 'Harvest' has come to be synonymous, for many modern pagans, with getting what you've worked for, a reward to for the energy you've expended.
We mostly talk of how we reap what we have sown and tended, how we gather in all that we've planted. We talk of projects coming to fruition, and at most we look out over our backyard gardens, pleased with the bounty we've brought to our own table.
In that transition to metaphor, the real meaning of the darkest harvest is often lost.
The first harvest is a collection of bounty. Fruits, new shoots, tender growth the fertile earth really can't help but lavish upon us. We celebrate sweetness, what is rich and delicious and delicate. We preserve little of this first harvest, because it is meant to delight, not to sustain. Perhaps we make some jellies, flavor oil or wine or vinegar, but even what we save of this harvest serves to accentuate life, not sustain it.
My celebration of this harvest has grown out of a delighted gratitude at all the world gives me, even when I do not tend it. I take joy in beauty, in wonder, and in the general abundance of the life in the world. The sacred earth of the first harvest is freshly turned and fragrant, soft beneath my feet.
The second harvest, the grain and the root, is the workhorse. We gather what we've carefully tended, pulling in all that our own hard work has brought to fruition. We honor the seeds that we've planted, and we celebrate a world in which directed energy brings useful reward. From the second harvest, we take the daily bread, the sturdy beer, the unglamorous turnip. Most of it is saved away, preserved because we will depend upon it later -- and because unlike salad greens or strawberries, a few weeks in a dark cabinet doesn't much change a potato.
For the second harvest, I honor my own hard work and practicality. I take time to appreciate the fruits of my own labor, the work of my life. The sacred earth of the second harvest is beneath my own nails and ground into the cracks of my hands.
The third harvest is the darkest: blood, sacrifice and loss. What you brought into the world, that which you have tended, and loved, and cared for most patiently, you must kill. This is no bloodless scything; the dark harvest requires you to face that sacrifice, look it in the eye, and destroy it entirely. Take something you have loved, slit its throat and spill its blood, and then butcher it for your own survival.
The sacred earth of the third harvest is the cooling earth of oncoming winter, softened and warmed only because it is soaked in blood.
For the third harvest, I honor and acknowledge my own loss. Friends and family taken too soon, or those whose passing marked the end of suffering. Missed opportunities, friendships broken, love that failed to sustain a relationship. I sit with the empty spaces in my own heart, and I respect that as the veil has thinned and the Wild Hunt rides, Death walks among us not as a stranger, but as one of us -- and that I walk as Death as well.
That is the nature of this harvest. To honor loss and sacrifice, to respect the full cycle of the year, I can't stop short with a barrier between myself and my own identity as destroyer. I can't stand as protector only, guarding that which I love from all who would injure it (including myself). I cannot only nurture, I cannot only collect and tend the bounty of the world.
I must, for this harvest, be willing to look at my life, see what must die for me to thrive, and end it as quickly, mercifully, and completely as possible.
This year, nothing seems particularly fit for the blade. In past years, I might have offered a token sacrifice, given up some trait of personality or favored object, but my understanding of sacrifice has deepened: one must not only lose something much beloved, but that spilled blood must have *purpose* to be sacred. So I hold my blade ready, and I bide my time, and my only offering at the moment is my willingness to accept my own dark goddess.
Blessed be the light and the dark, and all those beloved.