SOUTHSIDE STORIES by Dakshina Gammanpila

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by Dakshina Gammanpila

October in the UK is a time I always associate with Harvest. In childhood we celebrated harvest festival giving thanks for the crops that had been sown, grown and reaped. Harvest Festival punctuated my year like birthdays, Easter or the start of the school holidays with the specific celebration of Nature and her yielded blessings. Saying thank you (and perhaps sorry) to Nature seems very much in focus at present as we feel starved of it and contemplate the havoc that we as a species have wreaked upon her over the centuries.

Having spent over 13 years outside the country in which they were born, my children are unused to Autumn. In fact they have not witnessed the change from one season to another in the West as our customary visit is in Summer or at Christmas – two very distinct seasons. Seeing Summer’s bloom in all her glory fade and then make way for the fiery foliage of Autumn, has been thrilling for them. It has warmed my heart to see this simple pleasure taken in the bounty and beauty of the Natural world. We have witnessed the hay being baled and a tractor ploughing its furrows. the field changing by the hour as birds gathered greedily in its wake. On that same field my daughter and I spied a hare, a large beautiful beastie which almost seemed to levitate balanced on its huge hind feet. We were told it was a rare sight indeed; as was the bird of prey, a goshawk we think, perched on a dry stone wall and the Highland cattle that we literally stumbled across.

“We plough the field and scatter the good seed on the land/, And it is fed and watered by god’s almighty hand / He sends the snow in winter, and warmth to swell the grain,/ the breezes and the sunshine and soft refreshing rain” I remember that from singing it at school decades ago. A Church of England school and me a Buddhist girl – how’s that for diversity? I was the only brown little face in assembly, belting out the hymns as if my life depended on it. A good sing in the morning is a tonic. At harvest my family would put together a festival hamper, a mix of fresh and preserved eatables, to distribute to the elderly and alone. It was England and senior citizens can sometimes be treated differently.

I was reminded of Harvest festival only yesterday at my in-laws’ home. A knock on the door and someone from my Mother-in-law’s church delivered an apple pie cooked by one of the congregation with apples from the vicar’s garden, along with a card made by the local children bedecked with autumn colours of leaves, acorns and dried legumes; inside a message began ‘Thinking of you’ and ended ‘with lots of love’. How delightful to receive this on a Sunday afternoon. The timing was perfect we had just finished lunching together and heard that one of my father-in-law’s scans had come back clear, he had been prepared for the very worst news. I had to go and excuse myself as did not want to cry in front of him or the children and had not realised how anxious I had been.  My daughter noticed – ever eagle-eyed and known for her leopard and now hare spotting and we exchanged a whisper. The autumnal offering, a pie, was like manna from heaven. Something so very simple imbued with such meaning. The idea of community and togetherness writ (or is that baked?) large.We gave thanks.

This is not an article about religion, perhaps more about faith – the faith in community, the human condition and Nature. But during this unforeseeable time many have turned to religion and Nature and for some the two are inextricably linked. In the UK, as in Delhi, the season will change and the months ahead will bring colds and flu and hunkering down. However, this year it is not the weather we shelter from but something more intangible and unseen that makes its presence felt, invisible at first. Covid-19 has changed our landscape, both external land internal, and we have to negotiate that. Community seems so important when we are alone, isolated or prevented from seeing those closest to our hearts.

I first began my column in Brazil 10 years ago at this time of year and wrote about Harvest; the ex-pat community smiled in recognition of their traditions and the Brazilian readership were interested to learn of how other cultures celebrate Harvest (in Brazil it is celebrated in Summer  – with the Festas Juninas, literally June Parties which are held at the coldest time of the Brazilian calendar). We were happy to share in the tradition of Lori in our first year in Delhi, especially as the Punjab is known as the bread basket of India, producing as it does most of the country’s cereal crops. The Harvest festivals I had witnessed in England, Brazil and India all feature fire and are related to Winter, be it the preparation for Winter or heralding its end, and the welcoming of the sun as it starts to kiss the cheek of the northern hemisphere.

There is a massive silver birch tree in the garden where we are currently staying and I can see one or two leaves hinting at the change ahead as they turn from green to gold. The sun has taken on a different quality in both heat and light. The verdant, vibrant colours of Summer all the lush greens and browns give way to something more muted as if Nature herself is brooding and in thought. The flowers wear a subdued hue as if storing the goodness for winter and Spring to come. Over the past months of Covid, with lockdowns and restrictions we have grown to appreciate Nature more worldwide. ‘You don’t know what you’ve got until its gone’ so the saying goes. We are at risk of treading that path if we are not careful.

The Season of mellow fruitfulness is celebrated to give thanks for the harvest, to see us through the winter when we hibernate and hope for warmer sunnier times ahead. This seems ever more essential this year. Things will grow colder, the air quality will alter, but having spent 7 years through Delhi winters it can not only be weathered but can be made into a pleasurable experience. My son has garnered some admiring looks for his mask in the UK which is a customary part of his Delhi attire. It has not been a battle for the kids to wear them and is as integral to their winter routine as applying sun lotion or mosquito repellent in other seasons. We shield as we see fit and take things in our stride (albeit with baby steps).

During lockdown we rediscovered our home in Delhi, making use of every inch as the four of us worked and played there hour after hour, day after day as so many of us did (and still do) globally. We did not venture out from mid March to mid July. Extraordinary, but necessary. Our roof terrace became a haven and spending time there was a ritual. My daughter watered the plants in the evening, my son and I pruned (with a saw) some gargantuan wayward bamboo, my husband heaved pots to take advantage of the light and shade. And we sat and watched and appreciated. The parakeets, the flame trees, the woodpeckers and butterflies. I took an almost obsessive delight in the frangipani blooming, much as I did to see the mangos and avocados on our trees in Brazil. Or the winter blossoms in our garden in London before we started our madcap ex-pat wanderings. Nature in the countryside is wild and far-reaching, but urban Nature is precious too, at this time perhaps more so, especially for those with no outside space at all.

In the UK the Prime Minister’s announcement stated that restrictions could last for 6 months – through the Autumn and Winter where the days are short and dark and cold –  the nation braces itself for the imposed hibernation. Maybe it is best to view it like that, after all bears do, they know that for survival they have to hunker down and wait out the storm that blows outside the cave. We have the luxury of not having to sleep through it to conserve our energy, but can engage with the world outside as remote and virtual as that interaction may be. Let’s be thankful of that and make the months count; get involved, focus on what you can contribute not extract, be fruitful and appreciate the power and glory of Nature and our place in it.

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