Leaves fall early in the autumn wind.
Butterflies are already yellow with August
A pair flies over the grass of the West garden.
Seeing them hurts my heart.
Li Po, Chinese poet of the 8th century, "The River Merchant's Wife: A Letter"
Summer is over. No matter the temperature, by the time we get to August it's obvious that the season is changing. It's getting dark much earlier. Everything that's green outside is beginning to look tired. A few leaves are starting to change color and some are even beginning to drop. The hummingbirds seem frantic as they swarm the feeders, devouring the sugar water as they put on weight and prepare to fly South for the winter. I wonder if, during the long winter months, they ever dream of their homes here in North America that they'll be returning to next Spring? Do hummingbirds dream to begin with? I know that they return to the same places year after year, and the ones we see at our feeders right now are likely to be back by next April.
I think of the start of seasons a little differently than most people. Here is an explanation from one of my favorite seasonal writers, Waverly Fitzgerald:
Americans are accustomed to dating the beginning of a season from the solar holidays. We say that Autumn begins on Autumn Equinox. But in medieval England, autumn actually began on Lammas (August 2).
The clearest evidence for this ancient system of dividing the year comes from the old names for Yule and the summer solstice. The Christmas feast in England was always known as the Midwinter feast. Likewise, June 23 was called Midsummer's Eve, because June 24 was Midsummer's Day. If June 24 is the middle of the summer, then the summer must begin at the start of May. This makes August 2 the first day of autumn, November 1 the first day of winter and February 2 the first day of spring. There is good evidence for these older seasonal markers as there are clusters of ancient religious and political holidays that occur around these dates.
I have been using this new understanding of the seasons for several years now and find it much more satisfying. In Seattle, buds are apparent on the trees and a few crocuses are evident by February 1. The spring equinox is the height of the flower explosion: Daffodils, tulips, azaleas, some rhododendrons, cherry trees, plum trees, quince, hyacinths, etc. Right around May 1, the hawthorn (or may) trees begin to flower, along with lilies of the valley and lilacs.
At first I thought that August 1 was too early to consider the start of Autumn. In Seattle, we often have our most glorious sunny days in August and September and the leaves don’t begin to turn (or fall) until October. But what has changed is my understanding of Autumn. I now see it as the time of harvest rather than the time of falling leaves, which seems an appropriate signal of the approach of winter, which begins with the gloomy days of November and continues through until February 1.
I like to divide each season into two parts, for instance, Early Autumn (Aug 1 to Sep 22) and Late Autumn (Sep 22 to Nov 1). Early Autumn in Seattle is a time of sunshine and abundance, although the dark falls sooner and the nights are cooler. Late Autumn has the feel of the more traditional Autumn, that sense of scurrying around trying to gather nuts before the winter begins. The leaves will all be gone from the trees by the end of Late Autumn. My mentor Helen Farias liked to use the old word “-tide” for these segments of the year. Right now, we are beginning Lammastide.
By this old way of reckoning, here at the end of August we're only 3 weeks away from Mid Autumn, the autumnal equinox. Even though it will be a few weeks yet before the heat really begins to subside in South Carolina, you can still sense a change in the air. This year I'll be especially glad to see the arrival of a new month, a new season, and a new epoch in my life. August 2020 has been full of distress and sadness in this house, and it feels like it's time to let go and start moving on. It's a wistful and bittersweet feeling.