Monday, August 31, 2020

Endings

 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.

18 comments:

  1. hopefully the schoolkids will bring you many happy moments. this damn year feels like it's NEVER going to end.

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  2. here in Australia we not only have the seasons occurring at a different time of the year but we have arbitrary dates for their beginnings: march 1, june 1, september 1 and december 1. It's only in the last few years (well maybe 10) that i realised so many people in the world think about the seasons as so much more interconnected with the solstice/equinox.
    They say that the Aboriginal people in my area talked of six seasons. I don't know how that works but i'm sure it would better reflect the patterns we see

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  3. This is very interesting. The extreme heat of summer has me thinking autumn and it can’t come too soon. February has me preparing for spring. My mind is usually one month ahead in the seasons.

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  4. Even without something as sad as the loss of your Ginger, the end of summer fills me with this bitter sweet mood every year - part of me is so ready for autumn and all that entails, while another part of me just does not want glorious summer to end, with its warmth and sunshine and easiness of choosing one's outfits and meals and so on.
    I find it difficult to pinpoint the beginning or end of each season to such an exact date. Often, the changes are so subtle, starting weeks before (or after) any "official" date.
    For me, the end of summer was announced clearly several weeks ago when I spotted the first ripe brambles (blackberries) on the hedges along the fields, and the first orange "lampion" flowers in the gardens around here.

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  5. Like Librarian, I feel my way into seasons. The dates we use are not nearly as meaningful as the way the light filters, the length of the days and nights, the blooming of certain plants, the sight of the hurricane lilies.
    I always feel quite unsettled as far comes in. I've thought of plenty of reasons but I'm not exactly sure- is it merely the reminder that the season of my life is definitely somewhere in autumn?
    And not to be trite but winter is coming...

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  6. Thanks for sharing Waverly Fitzgerald's reflections Jennifer. It's funny that here in England, modern schoolchildren think of the "summer" as being August when they are all on holiday from school but really it is the tail end of summer merging into Autumn. This year with COVID19 I think we have been a little distracted from those natural cycles.

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  7. I love the heat, and today is way to cool for me already, Im a hot house flower. I usually par take of summer activities right up till September 21st.

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  8. I enjoyed reading Fitzgerald's thoughts. I love the changing of the seasons. I know you will be glad to say goodbye to August and I understand. I am hoping that with time and your job the days will get easier. I'm happy to see August go too as it has been a difficult month for us with both of us having health issues. It's also been an extremely hot summer and I look forward to cooler days.

    I feed and enjoy the hummingbirds too and feel the same way you do about them. What do they think about? They are certainly more complicated creatures than we realize. My cat sits in a cat tower at our glass back door where we have a feeder hanging. She has made friends with the hummingbirds as strange as that may sound. She loves them and they come right up to the glass and hover looking at her. When she is not there they flutter around the glass near her cat tower as if they are looking for her.

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  9. Interesting passage from Fitzgerald (who I hadn't heard of before now, at least not that I remember). That alternate seasonal calendar DOES make more sense in some ways.

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  10. I hate it when the days are getting slowly darker. My energy levels always decline when I'm surrounded by darkness. I just want to crawl into bed and sleep. We've had a wet dreary summer as well. The seasonal pattern now seems to be spring-late spring-early autumn-autumn. I hope 2021 will be an improvement....

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  11. That was really neat! The seasons we know are off kilter time wise, and with climate change upon us, who knows what they're going to be like 10 years from now.

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  12. August has been a long month, not the least because it has 31 days. Moving school start back into mid August made a big change in the seasons for me.

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  13. It does seem that the days usually marked for the change of seasons don't quite hit the mark with reality/weather. Ready for autumn, but then, I'm not a heat lover...or humidity lover, either. Despite a ton of rain, things are definitely on the wane. Gardens look blousey; leaves are falling--turning yellow and brown. Everything needs a tidying up--including me.

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  14. Everyone thinks this August is summer but in my home it is major lizard season.

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