Autumn in a Greek Orthodox Village

Nearly a year ago, I borrowed my priest’s copy of Juliet Du Boulay’s wonderful but hard-to-obtain book, Cosmos, Life, and Liturgy in a Greek Orthodox Village. 

My priest is probably reading this right now, just as he must wonder everyday with scorn why he ever let me borrow that blasted book if I’m going to take so long to read and return it–that’s, at least, what I imagine several times a week, which is about how often my eyes happen to glance at the offending book on my desktop shelf. 

I really have no excuses, Fr. Geoffrey. 

But I thought, in honor of the upcoming one-year anniversary of my having borrowed the book, and in a meagre attempt to do something with the “talents” of this loan I’ve so far squandered, I’d post a beautiful excerpt in which Du Boulay, a cultural anthropologist, outlines the season of autumn in the life of a remote Greek village (which she studied in the 1960s or 70s).

This passage captures the intermingling of liturgical and agricultural time in a way that otherwise goes unnoticed in the urbanized lifestyles that most of us lead (aside from the annual crop of pumpkin spice lattes, of course, a remaining vestige of our agrarian origins). The book also evokes the porous boundaries between work, rest, liturgy, and the senses–I’m particularly taken by the thought of the fragrance of basil pervading a whole village on the Feast of the Cross (September 14). 

Sidenote: last weekend, I fact-checked some of this with my mother-in-law who grew up in a Greek mountain village in the region of Thessalia–and she corroborated it. When I asked her if the “little summer” of St. Dimitri really happens–if the weather warms up a bit and people harvest the fruits mentioned–she shrugged blankly as though to say “What kind of moron doesn’t know what the little summer of St. Dimitri is?”

Happy fall!

The ecclesiastical year, beginning on 1 September when the sun’s heat has usually relented and the first rains have refreshed the earth, has as its first major Feast the Nativity of the Mother of God on 8 September, and this month is the time when men and women together work in the fields to clear them and burn them off. In the freshened climate herbs are redolent, and at the ‘time of the Cross’ (the feast of the Exaltation of the Cross on 14 September) when the cross is laid for veneration in a bed of basil and everyone brings a handful of basil to the church to be blessed, the whole village is filled with the scent. Ploughing begins once the fields are cleared and the earth has been well soaked with rain. All crops need the fields to be ploughed twice, once for the initial breaking of the ground and the second at the sowing; but for wheat and maize, both sown later, one extra preparatory ploughing is necessary. Thus after the breaking of the ground, everyone is occupied with the sowing, first of all of the barley, oats, hay, lentils, vetch, broad beans, garlic, and then with the sowing of the wheat. This is a time of united effort interspersed, for some families, by the olive and the honey harvest, and, for the entire village, by a few pungent, sun-lit, holiday days in the second half of October–the ‘little summer of St. Dimitri’ [feast day: October 26]–when the grapes are cut and brought in from the members of the family, and trodden–by men and boys only–on the wooden decks slotted into the open end of a tall upended barrel. . . . This is the time for ‘Dimitri’s flowers,’ chrysanthemums, which flower around St Dimitri’s day, and Dimitri’s ‘little summer’ comes with translucent days, lengthening shadows and long distances, and a last flush of harvesting as mushrooms–parasol mushrooms and saffron milk caps–are gathered, wild pears collected, and apples and bunches of grapes selected and strung from the beams for eating through the autumn. . . . 

The autumn is thus a time of consistent preparation in the fields after the harvest of the preceding season has been completed and the seeds for the coming one are gathered in. Spare days are used, by the men, to repair their houses and steadings, collect firewood from the forest, or take the last of their resin down to the market town, while the women in a quiet hour might go to the fields with their sewing or spinning to watch the household animals graze untethered. 

(From: Cosmos, Life, and Liturgy in a Greek Orthodox Village, Denise Harvey Publisher, pp. 105-07) 

I mean, with stunning passages like that, can I really be blamed for not being able to bring myself to return the book? 

 

3 comments:

  1. Learning that there is a St Dimitri’s little summer made me smile. Here in the UK our equivalent is St Luke’s little summer, beginning around 18 October.

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