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Fermentations, Ruminations & Meditations

A Toast to the Trees, Wassail 2014

Jan 23, 2014

I have always loved trees; have always found them to be honorable role models and comforting neighbors.  And for 8 years now, since I did my first research on old European agricultural and orchard festival traditions, I have been inspired to Wassail the apple trees in our orchard at Finnriver each winter.

Gathering friends and neighbors together to celebrate is a strong instinct of mine.  This impulse to rally folks comes first, I think, from my basic belief that humans need each other in order to thrive; it is a form of security to circle up with people and face the world together.   I am sure there is plenty of sound scholarly research explaining why Homo sapiens are so social and it would be fascinating to chart the evolution of our interdependence with each other as a species.  For now, given how busy life is and given how easy it would be to just tuck into my own cozy shelter and conduct all of my relationships ‘virtually’, I feel a strong survival instinct at work when I plan community events on the farm. 

Of course I know it’s crazy to dress up as Lady Applesauce and run around like a madwoman all day preparing for an old English outdoor orchard party in the middle of January in Chimacum...but a voice inside tells me that I must.   It’s a loud calling…from somewhere—maybe just from inside my own loony head or maybe from millions of years of social adaptation or maybe from the ground itself.  Even though it is a bit ‘woo-woo’ to admit it, I have a strong sense that this land, the living soil, benefits from the presence of our open hearts.  That kindness and joy and good will are spiritual fertilizer for this ground. 

So there we are, Wassailing in the old apple orchard on a blessedly chilly-but-not-raining January evening.  The sun sets behind the ridge and the earth rolls us back into darkness.  The bonfire burns brightly and a small crowd of willing and adventurous folks are sipping hot cider and singing and sharing stories in the open air.   My generous and glamorous neighbors dress up in royal garb and reenact an ancient encounter between a randy King and a sweet Saxon maid; we laugh along and cheer.  Is this silliness or is this serious?  Is it possible to grow culture with laughter and a pot of cider?

The origin of the term “Wassail” comes from an old Anglo-Saxon drinking salutation, “Was Hael,” which meant “Be in good health.”  The traditional response was “Drink Hail.” And so, throughout the evening, out among the old apple trees planted by our neighbors Lige & Kay, we humans holler this toast and wish well-being to each other and to the land that sustains us.   We hang bits of bread in the tree to invoke the protection of  the robins, traditional avian guardians of the orchard, and then sing a song full of praise for fruiting trees.  The tune circles round and a wave of warm voices carries beyond the orchard into the fir forest and then on down the valley.  Flames flicker, faces illuminated in that kind of ancient light that makes everyone and everything seem mythical.

Later—when it is fully dark—the kids sneak off and hide amongst the trees and wait for a sign. We whoop and holler and make a mighty ruckus to wake the orchard from its winter slumber and scare off the troublesome spirits.  This cues the children to creep and crawl out from among the branches with light-up wands and glittering masks, and then to run circles around the bonfire…the dark forces of the “orchard mischief posse” have been brought over to the light.

Reviving old traditions and creating new ones is sometimes awkward.  Tradition is like a tree; it grows slowly and needs just the right light and liquid to survive.  And it needs a bit of grace to thrive, a willingness to reach deep and rise up.  Here at the farm, we’ll keep working at it.  Wassailing our way into a renewed sense of connection to each other, to the trees, and to the whirling, turning wonder of the earth.



Glad greetings dear friends, to this Wassail feast;

Where all souls are welcome~ plant, person and beast!

This day we gather to praise the old trees,

To greet and to honor Nature's birds, boughs and bees.


'Tis an ancient calling to love the land;

To work for the ground with heart and with hand.

An orchard sustains with nourishing fruit,

And we witness the gift of leaf, branch and root.


Let us acknowledge the Earth's gracious feat,

Of a world that feeds us, ripe and sweet,

With apples, fine apples, to press and to pie,

To sip and ferment, to bite fresh or to fry!


Make merry, make friends, make fire this fine night!

Let us celebrate together the darkness and light.

Say Hallo!  Say Hurrah! Say "WAS HAIL" as we greet!

To your health!  To your heart! To this moment we meet!


-Crystie Kisler, 1/14

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