beginning the quest

The dragon who in summer sleeps
In autumn dark now out does creep;
Though darkness comes, we will not fear,
For courage and strength are with us here.


September has begun, and a new group of children has come together at Bower Tree for a year of learning and growing. This is a time of uncertainty and excitement; we’re beginning something together, but no one knows quite what it is yet. As I watch our youngest new friends bravely step into the world of school for the very first time, as a gentle chill begins to enter the air, and as the very first yellow leaves fall from the maple trees, I am thinking about Michaelmas: the festival of courage.

Michaelmas is a festival traditionally celebrated in Waldorf schools in late September. Though in its historical Christian context it was the feast day of St. Michael the archangel, who is associated with dragon-slaying, this festival has evolved into a universal celebration of courage and strength as we collectively head toward the colder weather and inner challenges of winter. Various versions of the knight and the dragon story are often told at Waldorf schools this time of year. Michaelmas falls very near to the autumnal equinox, so this is also a celebration of the midpoint between the summer solstice and the winter solstice, when the days and nights are of equal length.

This is the time when we feel summer turning into autumn: another journey is beginning, both in the classroom and within our own hearts, as we descend  into the deep work of knowing each other and ourselves. Michaelmas marks the beginning of that quest, the movement into the demanding inwardness of winter and then back out again, stronger and wiser. Other autumn festivals celebrate related themes: the September holidays of Navaratri and Durga Puja in India celebrate the glorious victory of the forces of good, while in the Jewish tradition Rosh Hashanah celebrates the beginning of a new year as well as the re-creation of the self and the world: the pages flip back and the book begins anew.

In the classroom, we are learning our September songs and poems with their accompanying movements, which celebrate feelings of power and strength as well as the autumn harvest of root vegetables and the tail end of the Perseid meteor shower, which just ended a couple of weeks ago. The falling star is the symbol of summer departing, and the young knight rising up with their sword and golden cloak, mounted upon their flying horse, is the symbol of autumn. The children at Bower Tree are being invited to live within these symbols for the next few weeks, trying on the powerful poses of the knight as well as the rhythmic hammers of the blacksmith who forges the sword of courage. Horseback riding is a recurrent theme, linking multiple songs and poems to this month’s story, The Castle of Rosy Clouds, which is an adaptation of a Swedish fairy tale mixed with elements of the knight and the dragon story. September calls to the children to mount their horses, own their power, and believe that they are capable of taking on a great adventure. Like the hero of our story, they too can perform acts of courage in order to acquire the three keys to the castle: the sword of courage, the cloak of protection, and the flying horse.

Leading up to our Michaelmas festival, in addition to baking and decorating a dragon-shaped loaf of bread, the children will be invited to help dye silks using yellow onion skins to create beautiful golden cloaks of protection that they can take home with them and keep in preparation for the wholesome challenges of winter and life in general. At this moment in Earth’s story, as the pandemic still grinds on and we find ourselves faced with ever-mounting environmental anxieties, Michaelmas has never been more relevant. We are all called to go within ourselves to that wellspring of strength and resilience: the sanctuary, the golden place, the Castle of Rosy Clouds. We are all called to find hope and courage in the face of hardship and melancholy.

It is never too early or too late to introduce these important themes to our children. They are looking to us for stories and symbols that will give them the tools to navigate this rapidly changing world with courage and grace. Provided that we take care to portray the knight as a universal archetype rather than a gender-specific role, the old stories of confronting the dragon are just as relevant today as they ever were. We all have dragons to tame, after all; some of them we must take on alone, and some of them we can confront together. As parents, caregivers, and educators, my hope is that we tame our own dragons well enough to guide our children in taming theirs. The more we are all able to face difficulty head-on, with courage and hope, the closer we will be to creating a  society that can deal with our collective challenges. So, let us begin together. In the midst of darkness, may we sow light.



green and golden


Before the bread, the flour

Before the flour, the mill

Before the mill, the grain

The sun, the earth, the rain


Here we are, already entering harvest season. The blackberries are starting to darken, and the figs are softening on the tree. This past week we harvested wheat from our own tiny “wheat field” in the schoolyard. The children and I have been watching it grow since the spring, first the tender green shoots, then the tall grass, then the soft green seed heads. Then we watched the green start to turn to gold, until the seed heads were heavy with wheat berries and had long golden whiskers. It has been an exciting transformation, and the mixture of green and gold is certainly lovely to look at. Next week on painting day we’ll experiment with green and yellow watercolors to evoke our outdoor experience with these colors.

Watching and harvesting this wheat has brought on some unexpected feelings and reflections. For one thing, it ripened sooner than I expected, perhaps due to the record-breaking heat wave that hit Portland late last month, prompting me to consider: How do we help children celebrate nature while we ourselves may be anxious about changes occurring in the natural world? Whether or not July is actually an early time for the wheat to ripen in the Pacific Northwest (I’m not sure), these are valuable things to consider in early childhood care and parenting. My own answer to this question is a simple one, and probably a good answer to plenty of other  questions: Encourage the children to notice. Model noticing these things, with simple joy– “Ah, the wheat is turning golden! This year it is ripening in July. Do you see how fat the little seeds are, inside their golden skins? They are almost ready to harvest.” Offer language to connect to the information that the children are absorbing sensorially. It is so tempting, as adults, to editorialize– but regardless of our feelings about something, being fully present to it is almost always the best response that we can model for children. If we are to raise good stewards of the environment, the first thing we must teach is deep, non-anxious noticing. We cannot care about a plant, for instance, if we never deeply notice it: where and how it grows, its textures and colors and smells, the cycle of its life. We must teach not only how to know about the world, but how to be in relationship with it.

While young children naturally drink in everything they perceive with their senses (they need no help with that part), they are also watching us very closely to see how we interact with our surroundings. We are the ones who indicate to them whether or not it is important to notice and interact with the natural world as grown-up humans. I see the children watching me out of the corner of my eye as I brush my hand slowly through the wheat stalks and seed heads– back and forth, back and forth. Two days later, I see a child do the same thing with a soft smile on his face. He is deep in wordless conversation with the ripening wheat.

So, after all of this watching and noticing, we finally arrived at the wheat harvest.  The children helped me snip the stalks supporting the seed heads, and place them in a pale yellow ceramic bowl. Then they wanted to keep snipping the dry stems, which I encouraged them to do, saying: “Yes, let’s harvest the straw, too! You know, the quails like to make their beds in straw. You can take the pieces you harvest and poke them through into the nest box.” Which led to a lot of vigorous back-and-forth across the yard, putting new sweet-smelling straw into the quails’ beds. One child noticed that the straw was hollow, wondered aloud if they could drink through it, and then made the connection that the same word is used to describe a drinking straw and a wheat straw. As far as I am concerned, this is preschool science at its best. At this tender age, reveling in the beauty and wonder of nature is precisely the same thing as practicing the observational skills of a scientist.

The following day, we threshed and winnowed the ripe wheat. All of the children enjoyed this, the youngest and oldest alike. The more methodical older children stuck with the task of threshing the seed heads in a steel bucket until all of the wheat berries had all been loosened from the stalk, while the youngest especially enjoyed the winnowing process (sorting the grain from the chaff), delighting in the little “tink” sound of a freshly liberated wheat berry dropping into a ceramic dish. She called her friends by name, making sure that everyone heard and appreciated that little sound! As we worked, I softly sang a song I learned in a Waldorf school, about harvesting the golden grain and milling it into flour for bread. For me, this was a beautiful moment of experiencing the magic that can happen in the creative overlap of Waldorf and Montessori: Waldorf because of the reverent way in which we were celebrating the wheat (both for its role in the world at large and for its part in the rhythms of our daily life), and Montessori because of the way some of the children sank into such beautiful concentration when presented with the tasks of threshing and winnowing, once I had prepared the activities and given them a lesson on how to do it. Focus, fine-motor skills, hand-eye coordination, a gentle touch, attention to detail– all of these things were being developed in the process of threshing and winnowing. The children who were most hungry for these challenges stuck with the activity, and those who were satisfied drifted away to other play or work as we meandered comfortably toward afternoon snack time.

Next month, when I bring in some more songs about harvesting grain, the children will know exactly what I mean. They’ll understand what “threshing” means in the lyrics of Scarborough Fair, and they’ll remember harvesting fresh straw when they hear about the golden straw in the story of Rumpelstiltskin. They’ll understand the job of the millers they meet in fairy tales, and they’ll know where flour comes from. And more than this: the sensory experience of harvesting and processing wheat will be kept forever in the children’s minds-hearts-bodies like a little stash of gold, as will all of their sensory experiences before age 5 or 6. According to Montessori, preschool is about helping children build vivid and precise sensory impressions, so that when they move into a capacity for abstract thought, their foundation of sensory building blocks will enable them to develop rich capacities for imagination, spiritual experience, artistic sense, scientific inquiry, and mathematical thought.

And all of this from a small dish of wheat berries! They won’t make very much flour when we grind them to add to our bread dough next Tuesday, but that isn’t really the true harvest.