It's a dark and elegant tale. The mythic Kore—a maiden—is tricked into plucking the "cosmic flower" from a field, opening a rift into which she falls. In this way, she is stolen by Hades and made Persephone, wife and Queen of the Underworld.
Her mother Demeter searches for her, accompanied by torch-bearing Hekate, and ultimately refuses to allow the Earth to fruit again until Persephone is released. Zeus, partly responsible for her abduction, agrees on the condition that Persephone, who has now tasted of Hades' special pomegranate (well, well) can stay in the green world above for but half the year and must return to her role as Queen of the Underworld for the other half.
November always reminds me of the tale, and never more than when I'm clearing out the last of my summer garden. Yes, it often takes me this long. Fall is a busy time for teachers. So I commonly find myself just before winter gets serious, outside stripping away old vines and uprooting woody stalks of basil, dessicated but still intensely fragrant. And I ask myself, what song would Persephone have sung on her way back to the Underworld?
Well, it's a myth, so let it be whatever song you please. Garden cleanup makes a song of hollow stems breaking, dry leaves rattling on bent stalks. Roots pop and the rake has its rhythms. A crow in the Ash runs through three different verses, over and over, until another across the way replies, a reluctant and lugubrious caw from the throat of the dark queen herself.
Cleanup is never quick but I find things to appreciate in the process. This fall, the warm days and drought have turned everything crisp and easy to handle—I cut the ties on the huge tomato plants and they slough away from the trellises in great sheets. I cut the French tarragon, still green and two feet tall, right to its nubs, along with the anise hyssop, and pepper-licorice spices the whole garden.
Ultimately, I get one last look at which plants thrived, and how. Of course, also, those that did not thrive, and one more guess about why. I disturb more than a few worms where I dig out the last weeds—numb with cold, blind as ever, mute about the whole situation. And I was definitely buzzed by a bee on its way to oblivion, Persephone's song.
Our kitchen window overlooks the beds, this being the quintessential Kitchen Garden. There have been winters, when I was fathering and working and coaching and working and . . . that I didn't get to the cleanup before snows got heavy. In those cases, when soft drifts rose over heaped trellises and slumped herbs, topped angled fenceposts and crowned the downcast sunflower, it was rather thrilling, especially in moonlight. But a couple days of Colorado sun later everything turned soggy and I presiding over decay for many a breakfast, witness to the necessary and natural, the many shapes of Persephone on her throne.
Myth emerges from culture—certainly, agriculture—as consensual song. It's a story we agree to tell one another, purposeful and relevant in the telling. The narrative is colored in its reds and browns and greens, with things the long dead wanted us to notice and remember.
If that song is outside our culture, or far enough outside our time, we may not know its language and may find it bewildering—in the original sense of the word, to be left in an unfamiliar forest. Persephone originates in ancient Greek culture, then phases through classical to contemporary permutations. Here in the 21st century, as the northern ice cap melts and the seas spin great storms and rainy places flood and the farmlands parch, I work to clear my garden and I think about this old tale. I wonder if Zeus will keep his deal with Demeter. I play with the metaphor while I do the work, and that animates the myth.
And this may be the point—that crucially, myth has to be made alive and made alive again. it dies when it stops developing, when it doesn't come back new. To keep such a great story alive sounds like a monumental challenge but it's actually always going on around us, and specifically within those living mythologically (in contemplation and study of myth). Men and women tell stories—many, many stories—and they build them from all the stories told before. They integrate them into their lives, their work, the celebrations of the year.
Early winter is its own kingdom, and needs a sturdy myth to justify its deprivations and chill, the harshness of bright sun on a snowfield, the pressing dark that makes days so short. Gardeners in this region have cleaned out their beds, or not, but they all agree on what's coming. That Persephone is also associated with music in her myth argues for the origin of the tale in the long winter nights where playing music was a way to celebrate the season.
And it should be celebrated, for what it brings. The inner journey of Persephone resonates with all the work we do internally, the surprises we find there. Those "insights' are crucial to our ongoing growth—fuel for being fully alive whether we're children or elders. We need epiphanies, and winter is a time to find them. We might as well use this season, since it's upon us. Persephone has definitely fled.
Here's your proof on this handsome brown hop flower, a parting gift, resinous and yellow beads of lupulin—an herbal sedative. The garden will sleep well this winter.