Last night was the annual Wildwood harvest party, an event I look forward to every year, and one of the two Fire Feasts Wildwood holds every year. As usual, it was a lovely time. The bonfire was exceptionally good, thanks in part to the good offices of one of the party-goers, a local businesswoman who appears to be a closet pyromaniac. That's Wildwood for you: Providing you a safe and socially-acceptable outlet for your more felonious urges. All part of the service.
The Wildwood Harvest Party is sort of their version of Beltane. It's a fire feast, and always slightly pagan in feel, as are most bonfire events. There's something atavistic about feasting around a big fire, watching the sparks spiral up against the black sky, points of fire against the cooler brilliance of the stars. It's something that reaches into you and grabs some part of you deeper than memory. And it's something that engages you physically in opposites: The fiery heat on your face opposing the chill press of October against your back; the brilliant glow of flames against the deep rich blanket of night; the tide of music and laughter against the gathering quiet of approaching winter.
There's something about fire feasts.
Wildwood, of course, has an Alaskan spin on it. This is when we have harvested our gardens, done our hunting, filled our freezers with fish and game, canned and preserved and smoked and dried the fruits of our summer labors. Our larders, if we've done well and been lucky, are full. We've got a bit laid by to get us through winter, and this is the time to celebrate the bounty. One of the traditions of this particular event is that, if you have something you've put by - berries you've gathered, meat or eggs or produce you've grown, wine or spirits or crafts you've made, or any what-have-you, you can bring it to the party. These items are arrayed temptingly on the tiers of hay bales stacked in the horse barn, and at the appointed time names are drawn out of a basket and you get your turn to go up and pick for yourself a little piece of the year's harvest. Now, if you lived in the lower 48, it might be a little different, but up here the items on offer tend to be things we've hunted, fished, picked, pickled, brewed, baked, built or grown (sometimes completely by accident). There might be hand-made crafts at such an event, but in Alaska - or at least at Wildwood - there's every chance that the jewelry will be made of the claws of the bear that is also the source of the chili you ate at dinner.
Of course, first things first: Fill your plate, fill your glass, catch up with friends you haven't seen over the busy weeks of the summer. Beg the recipe for those moose meatballs or the green chili with bear meat or the pomegranate and mint jelly (which will be recited willingly to your eager ears). Winnnow out the maker of the spectacular caribou liverwurst you had two weeks ago and pick the maker's brain so you can try it with lamb liver. Discover who's retired, who brought friends to the feast from Fairbanks or Seattle or other far points, who is changing jobs or properties or life circumstances. Play with the dogs, tell stories, sing at the bonfire (and play your instrument if you brought it), throw your paper plate into the fire, pet the horses, put your name in the basket for the drawing, relax.
Got all that done? Okay. Gather in the barn for the drawing.
This year (and I'll try to get everything in, but might miss something here or there) we had the following: Moose, caribou, lamb, kid, deer and bear (canned, frozen, and/or ground, roasts and legs-of and sausages, etc); salmon, both smoked and fresh-frozen; halibut; various preserves; berries picked and immediately frozen; eggs from happy little hens who've spent the summer eating bugs and poking around the gardens and stock pens; Grand Marnier (home-made version, which is doubtless superior); various home-made wines; assorted houseplants; three separate bouquets of peacock feathers (courtesy of the Wildwood peacock, King Strut); a live rooster (for someone's lucky hens); jewelry, including the afore-mentioned bear-claw necklace; assorted produce (apples, carrots, various squash and cruciforms); breads made with local veggies or berries (highbush cranberry, blueberry, pumpkin or zucchini); and various spreads, dips and condiments.
Myself, I had an eye on the bear meat. And lucky for me, I managed to snag a jar of it, cut and cooked to string-meat, cut-it-with-a-spoon tenderness, which will be suitable for making soup or chili or bear-meat enchiladas, or something else that will doubtless make people follow me around sniffing at my plate and asking what that is, and can they taste it?
After the drawing you're not allowed to leave - well, or not immediately. If you bail out right away, the Wildwoodians will never hold the drawing again. Or so they claim; personally I think generosity is so much the foundation of their every cell that they won't be able to help themselves. But there is another advantage to staying: Song and conversation mimic the fire. The bright, crackling energy of the earlier evening has given way to stronger, hotter coals, burning steady and warm. This is the part of the evening when you can marinate yourself in the incense of wood smoke, letting it perfume your hair and clothes so that tomorrow, as you ruminate on the conversations of the evening, the scent of the fire lingers faintly around you, reminding you of fellowship, of food, of peace.
One of my brothers, after hearing of the bear-heart and caribou-liverwurst menu of one recent Wildwood evening, asked me if he could be me when he grew up. He's a fine cook in his own right (and married to another), but I can understand his angst: Bear and caribou and moose are likely in short supply at the local A&P or Acme. One of my cousins asked if she could open a Wildwood franchise in California, where she lives. Personally, I think that's an excellent idea. If there was more of the Wildwood ethos in the world, we'd all be a hell of a lot better off (in my Extremely Humble opinion). It would mean more thoughtless, knee-jerk kindness, more generosity, more laughing and playing, more self-sufficiency, more celebration after hard work, more consideration and open-heartedness and fellowship. It would mean more harmonious mixing of people who you'd think would have nothing in common, more driving people home or putting them up for the night if they've been too merry in their celebration that night. More music and gratitude and deliberately taking the high road. More acknowledgement of the deep and inexorable rhythms of the earth, more shaping one's life to fit peacefully in with the land and the seasons and the animals. It would mean more looking up at stars undimmed by city lights, more dark, gleaming eyes and silky warm fur pressed companionably to one's leg, more gently thumping tails. It would mean more marking of the cycles of life, be it with fire or feast, with fasting or with contemplation, with companionship and music or the deep quiet of solitude. Or, like at the harvest party, with some combination of the above.
There may be better ways of welcoming Autumn, but right at the moment, I can't think of any.