Circles and Doors


, ,

I recently learned that my friend Ray, a fellow librarian I’ve known almost as long as I’ve been working, is about to retire. Ray is a wistful, sweet-tempered man universally liked by those who know him, and he will be missed. His leaving recalls to mind something we talked about years ago, when I first began researching the seasons.

Many people and many cultures see the seasons as a cycle, even a circle. My first grade teacher had a chart on the wall which showed the months of the year in a big circle, with pictures of the seasons they covered in a quadrant at the center: March, April and May were spring; June, July and August were summer. Since then, almost subconsciously, I have always pictured the seasons as a great circle spinning out the years. But I got to wondering whether this is how other people see the seasons, and I started asking around. Many people did not really understand the question: they don’t really ‘see’ the seasons in any sort of graphic way, not like I do.

But Ray did. He told me that he saw the seasons as a series of doors he passed through, one after the other, as he moved through the years. I found this to be an interesting, even a compelling way to look at the passage of time. It seems to imply progress through life, rather than the endless round of repetition defined by the cycle of the seasons imagery—even if that cycle does include seasons of renewal. I also found it striking to ponder what happens when one reaches the final door. Does it open onto anything—Elysian Field or dark Underworld—or simply deny access, á la Kafka? Other things have happened in my life lately that keep me thinking about these things.

My route to work takes me every morning past the road that leads to the house where I spent most of my childhood. A few weeks ago, having a few minutes to spare, I finally gave in and turned that direction. I found that my childhood home was no more; that it has been torn down and now an empty lot sits where it once stood. I don’t know how I feel about that: as with many people there is much in my childhood about which I feel ambivalent at best.

Also, just this week, my stepson and his wife had their first child, essentially my first grandchild. My wife and I saw the baby last night. I was most fascinated by how my stepson, once a tough young rebel, nestled the tiny life against his shoulder as if he would never let go. Nowhere, perhaps, does one feel the passage of time more fully than in the addition, and the welcome acceptance, of a new generation.

I don’t know if we are in an endless cycle or we are passing through doors. I don’t know if events like the loss of my childhood home followed by the birth of a grandchild bookend my life or draw it out. And I don’t know if it is necessary for me to understand these things or to just get on with my life the best I know how. Does it matter what I call things, how I see things? Marcus Aurelius said it best almost two-thousand years ago: ‘The universe is transformation, and life is opinion.’

Even as I quote Marcus Aurelius, it draws me back to Ray: one of the few people I know who might still read and appreciate books like The Meditations. I hope he will have more time for that now, that his doors continue to open on new seasons for a long time to come.

The Boys of Spring . . . and Summer and Autumn


, ,

Let’s face it, baseball season goes on and on. It starts in April and doesn’t really end until October: nearly two-thirds of the year. For some reason, when other sports seasons go on and on–both the hockey playoffs and the basketball playoffs take forever–people find it a problem. But you hardly ever hear complaints about baseball.

For one thing, it occupies summer, its prime season, all by itself. Compared to other sports Baseball is a leisurely game. Running bases is strenuous, but being a game of failure (getting a hit three times in ten at bats is considered a high water mark), actually getting a chance to run is rare. Soccer players would run themselves to death in the heat of summer, and football players have to be very careful about the heat when they begin late summer practice in their heavy pads. Theirs is a game for a cooler season. Baseball offers just about the right amount of activity for summer.

And when it is being played in other seasons, it is at its best. In spring, there is the sense of optimism, of possibility. The team made some great trades in the off-season. That rookie who looked so good last season is coming into his own. Our starting pitching is better than ever. This is our season. In autumn, it’s the playoffs and the World Series, and you’re not going to miss that, even if you do have to flip channels between the baseball game and the football game.

But why such a long season? Its mostly economics. If you own a successful team and stadium, and want to maximize profitability, you play more games. Fill up those seats as often as you can. Major League Baseball rules say the season cannot be more that 183 days long, nor less than 178. The American League expanded from 154 to 162 games per season in 1961, followed by the National League in 1962, and most starting players on the average team play most of the games in the season, so team owners get the most bang for their salary buck.

But it’s also a lot of what the market will bear. Baseball is popular. It was once the only team sport Americans had to watch, the National Pastime, so the season expanded to fill in all of the time that the weather was nice enough to play it. Allen Guttmann, a professor at Amherst, once ascribed baseball’s popularity to ‘its place in the cycle of the seasons.’ This sentiment was clarified by Bart Giamatti, who later became baseball commissioner: ‘The game begins in spring, when everything else begins again, and it blossoms in the summer . . . and then as soon as the chill rains come, it stops and leaves you in the fall alone.’ In my hometown, where baseball has a great tradition and where the team is often featured in post-season play well into October, there are many people who resign themselves to a kind of listless funk until spring training starts up and they begin hearing reports of grapefruit league play. Thus baseball can define the seasonal year in a way that no other sport can.

John R. Sharp is a psychologist who specializes in the effects of seasons on human emotions. In his book The Emotional Calendar he talks about the depression of winter, the insomnia of spring, the nostalgia of autumn; but he also writes about seasonalities, which he defines as human events which happen traditionally within specific climatic seasons, such as the beginning of the academic year, the winter holidays, summer vacation, and yes–sports seasons–that can have profound effects on our emotions and sense of well-being.

I am not the biggest baseball fan, though I do miss being able to dial up a Cardinals game on my car radio in the colder months. But to all my friends who experience a sense of inconsolable loss between October and April, I offer my understanding that they are not alone, and that their emotions are very real. I also offer the encouraging thought that it’s late March, and we have only a few weeks to go until Opening Day.



, , ,

Yesterday was sunny and relatively mild–okay, 35° Fahrenheit, which is tolerable, given the cold we’ve seen all winter. Today we have snow, sleet and ice. It’s the kind of precipitation that could be a spring rain, except the temperature is too cold. It has been like this for weeks now, this painful birthing of spring, going on in a kind of cycle within a cycle. A few days of warmth and sunshine, birds singing, light breeze in the trees, and then BAM!–back to winter. Like an engine that hasn’t been used for too long and needs to clear the gunk out before it can get going, coughing, sputtering, revving up and dying again. One tires of writing about it, and surely people tire of reading about it. So one thinks of something different to write about, doesn’t one?

For years, as I have worked on The Varied God, I have made notes for a subject I’d like to address in the book, namely the exact origin of the word ‘season.’ Yes, I am an English major, and have a fascination with words and word origins. You may recall that my interest in the seasons began with my curiosity over the whole ‘fall’ or ‘autumn’ question, and why autumn is the only season that gets two names. As with most words in English, there are some interesting things about the word ‘season.’

It comes to English from the Old French word saison or seison, where it meant ‘a sowing,’ or ‘a planting.’ That word in turn descended from the Latin word sationem, which had a similar meaning, ‘time of sowing, seeding time.’ This time could be spring or autumn, depending on when grain crops are sown in various areas. The sense of a season being ‘seeding time’ is embedded in our language in other places.

One of the few verses of the Bible to speak of seasons comes just after Noah has found dry land. God promises that, ‘While the Earth remaineth, seedtime and harvest, and cold and heat, and summer and winter, and day and night shall not cease.’ (Genesis, 8:22) In this formulation it would seem that ‘seedtime and harvest’ are synonyms for spring and autumn, except for recalling that ‘seedtime’ may be a more general reference to seasons, and that seedtime and harvest can both come more than once a year. The areas of Mesopotamia and the Levant where flood myths such as the story of Noah first arose have never been characterized by a distinctly four-season climatic regime.

Further, this quote comes from my King James Bible, which first edified English Protestants in the early years of the 17th century. There is evidence that at that time, the word ‘season’ was not commonly used to mean specific times of the year, and that a word such as ‘seedtime’ may have had the more exact meaning. The Bible’s most famous seasonally-based verses, Ecclesiastes 3:1-8 (To everything there is a season . . .), which I have discussed at length here, use the word ‘season’ to mean units of time, not climatic designations.

One of the more important documents in American history is William Bradford’s The History of Plimoth Colony. Bradford, leader of the pilgrims on the Mayflower, wrote this meticulous journal of their expedition as it was happening, from 1620 onwards. In Chapter IX of his book, during the sea voyage here, he writes, ‘After they had injoyed faire weather and winds for a season . . .’ There are two things to note about this. One is that he uses the word ‘season’ to mean a period of time, not ‘spring,’ or ‘winter.’ The other is that his language is generally archaic. With this in mind, scholars have long issued new editions of Bradford’s History, with the language updated. Here is the same quote from a 1948 ‘translation’: ‘After they had enjoyed fair winds and weather for some time . . .’

But as the Enlightenment progressed, certain things became more scientific. In 1780 Elector Karl Theodor of Bavaria convened a group of meteorologists he charged with formalizing how weather and climate were studied. They decided that the meteorological seasons would be defined by temperature and designated as three-month periods beginning on the first day of the first month in which that season’s temperature pattern prevailed. Spring would run from March 1 to May 31, summer from June 1 to August 31. This group only met until 1795, but meteorologists still recognize these seasons, even though the run of mankind still designates the seasons by their more ancient, celestial markers of solstices and equinoxes. It seems that seasons defined by this more rigorous standard needed a term reserved just for them. While the word ‘season’ is still used occasionally to mean some unit of time other than a meteorological season, we now understand these to be exceptions.

The homonym ‘season,’ meaning to add savory ingredients to food, actually originates in the same Latin root, sationem, or a time of seeding. As it sat in Old French for several centuries, developing its various shades of meaning having to do with the passage of the natural year, the word took on an additional meaning of ‘to ripen,’ which of course includes adding flavor, and saison grew into the general term for adding flavor.

One more interesting note: the most famous musical work about the seasons, Antonio Vivaldi’s quartet of violin concerti known as The Four Seasons, is called, in Italian, Le Quattro Stagione. The term stagione, though it too means seasons, does not come from the same Latin root, but from the word meaning ‘stations,’ or divisions. It is a curiosity of language development that Italian, the language closest to Latin, would have found a different word to cover this phenomenon, while many European languages use descendants of sationem.

The freezing rain is falling as I wind up this essay. I am anxious for the engine to rev up at last and take us away from this season, to pull out of this station where we’ve been stuck for way too long now. Maybe by the next time I write I’ll have blissful things to say about spring. One hopes, doesn’t one?



Sleeping through It


, , , ,

One of the oddities of the earliest Roman calendar, which according to legend was created by Romulus, is that it was a 300-day calendar, ten months of 30 days. It followed time roughly from March to December. This oddity is still enshrined in the fact that the last four months of our year have names that mean, more or less, seventh, eighth, ninth and tenth even though they are the ninth, tenth, eleventh and twelfth months. But the greater curiosity is that the time between December and March, what we now call January and February, was a murky, undefined time, an unlucky time spent waiting for March, when Romulus could again lead his people in war raids on neighboring tribes.

People who study our earliest ancestors, all those people we generally label ‘cavemen,’ note how likely it is that they spent the worst months of winter in virtual hibernation, huddling together with family bands in caves or other rough shelters, doing as little as possible so as to require little food. With the Romans in the time of Romulus we are not talking about the Rome of the Senate, the emperors, Tacitus and Cicero and all that. This was a primitive tribe of warriors just now carving out its territory on the Italian peninsula, not far removed from the earliest human practices. Viewed this way, perhaps it’s not so strange that they didn’t mark the months of deepest winter; the remarkable fact may be that they were learning to mark time during the rest of the year.

Last week we had a terrible winter storm–lots of snow, and the coldest temperatures around here in twenty-five years. People did not take it well. For instance, I am ‘the boss’ where I work, and as early as two days before the storm staff members were approaching me with fear in their eyes, breathlessly asking what we would do tomorrow and the next day and the next. We’ll go on, like we did last time it was this cold. Life will go on.

But even as I pleaded with employees, family members, and everyone else around me to be brave and take it like a man, I also wondered if we were meant to suffer through all this. Why can’t I just curl up in bed, read good books, drink coffee, get up once in a while to make a sandwich or get cookies, and wait until March?

It’s not like I need to make war on my neighbors–they seem like nice enough people. I don’t need more territory, and there is not much I am looking to conquer. I’m only a librarian. Can’t people read the books they have for a few months while I close the library until the sun is warmer and the rivers are running free again? Is it a mistake that we have set up for ourselves a life in which we must function at full capacity even when our foremost urge is to stay warm, nap and pack on enough calories to endure the months of winter? They say that Seasonal Affective Disorder (SAD, appropriately enough) is a mental condition, chronic weariness and depression through the dark months of winter. Maybe. Maybe it’s the right attitude, and the true insanity is forcing ourselves to continue working and striving through it all.

The Roman calendar was eventually revised to include all the months, and the Romans went on to be one of the greatest civilizations in history. Could they have done so if they had continued to relax and keep to themselves through January and February? History books talk a lot about the legacy of Rome. They don’t dwell so much on the curse of Rome. Is this the price we pay for inheriting the mantle of lords of the universe? Thanks a lot. I’m really tired.

Dressing Warmly


, ,

I’ve written here already about my dislike for how young people lately refuse to dress warmly. Even on the coldest day, you’ll see kids standing at bus stops in short sleeves, no jackets. In stores and restaurants you’ll find them in short pants and flip flops, as if it were July and not January. It bothers me because I think this represents a sense of spoiled entitlement. I don’t need to dress warmly—everywhere I go should be heated to a toasty temperature, and I expect to do any traveling between said blast-heated environments in similarly cozy vehicles. If one of those vehicles breaks down, I am armed with a smart-phone to summon aid, which I believe will arrive long before I have to do anything as drastic as stepping outside for an extended period, say, more than two or three minutes.

Given this somewhat judgmental opinion, I was surprised recently to experience my own lessons in dressing warmly. Where I live now I have much more opportunity than before to get outside. Tending to our pastures and feeding the horses, sure, but I also have more time to just walk in the woods, to explore the hills and valleys and the creek beyond our front yard.

Very early on Sunday morning I was out. It was a cold morning with intermittent snow flurries and an icy mist. Ice had formed on the grasses and the smallest branches, lending everything the fleeting, magical look of a crystal palace. As I walked I gazed around me, looking for something new or surprising, listening for birds. After a while I was distracted by a cold breeze blowing down my neck and I raised up my collar and zipped my jacket higher. I was wearing boots, jeans, thick gloves and a warm knit cap. I was well dressed and I could easily focus my attention on things around me, rather than shivering and worrying about keeping warm.

That’s a lot of what I did last year, in my first winter out here. I’d go to the barn to do some chores, or out to the fields to take care of something, or just want to take a walk in the woods, and I’d find myself wishing I had worn more clothes, a hat or gloves or just a warmer coat. These things didn’t matter in the suburbs. I’d go out to take a walk, find that it was colder than I had suspected, and I’d turn around and head back inside. After all, it’s not like I was going to see or hear or experience anything new, walking from one cul-de-sac to the next. Maybe somebody would have gotten a new car, or put up a new basketball hoop. Wow! Would you look at that!

Out here, I want to be outside. I want to take the time to walk and see and hear things. So I have learned to dress warmly. Yes, it takes a minute longer, both coming and going, but it makes the experience much more worth the time spent.

In my last post I wrote about living in the moment, and how I think that in the West, our inability to do this is very much tied up with seasonal variation. One of my long-time WordPress correspondents, a friend from the UK, said this has never been a problem for her, though she allowed that seasonal variation in Britain is rarely as severe as it is in the U.S. Of course that’s right. Our seasons are severe. Winter can be terribly cold and filled with precipitation. If we want to experience it, instead of pining for it to be over, we need to learn to dress warmly and get out there and see what it’s like.

So I hope I have learned that lesson. It’s a lesson I should have learned when I was a toddler, being dressed by my mother to go out and play in the snow. She fussed over our hats and coats and mittens, not to mention our big rubber boots. But once we were outside we built snowmen, had snowball fights, sledded on steep hills and stood at the back door begging mom to make us snow cream. When we finally came in, warmed by tomato soup and grilled cheese, the last thing we wanted was for winter to be over. The last thing we did was to wish away whole seasons of our young lives.

Living in the Moment


, ,

My drive to work takes me a long way down Highway 30, and passing into St. Louis County I cross a bridge over the Meramec River. It was sunny this morning, and I looked out across the water to see the sunshine on the water and that feeling that one gets when one sees sunshine on water came over me, a summertime feeling, a warmth here in December.

People are, for the most part, pessimists. Life teaches that. I could say to myself how wonderful it is to experience this sunny morning here in December, to find that warm sense of a summer day filling me on the way to work. I could share this experience with the people I work with. But someone would say to me, as someone always does, ‘Yeah, it’s nice today, but we’ll pay for it.’ Meaning that the cold will return; that we have two and a half months at least of frigid days left to go. We’ll see more snow, more frost, more freezing rain and plenty of cloudy days with little sunshine to brighten our mood.

An essential part of Buddhist spirituality is living in the moment. Be here now: experience fully what is in front of you and don’t fret about tomorrow and tomorrow. It is a way of clearing your mind and soul. Live now. But Buddhism developed in India. Here in the West, we have trouble doing this. I think it has to do with seasonal cycles.

India is closer to the equator. Sure, it is a huge area–they call it a ‘subcontinent’– and there are different climatic regimes, including monsoons along the coasts. But it is for the most part a place without well defined seasons. Friedrich Nietzsche called it ‘the bud and the blossom at the same time.’ Its ancient mythologies, as varied as they are, include no notable tales of how seasons come about. Time, as a concept, as something ruling one’s life, is not as pervasive there as it is here.

We live in constant cycles of change. The world about us goes from one thing to the next to the next over and over in our lives. As soon as summer sets in we start thinking about September and the cool days of autumn. As soon as November brings the first frost, we long for April. Given this, it is very difficult to grasp the idea, or achieve the goal, of living in the moment. We tend to live always for a moment in the near future, which, when it arrives, will pass again. This leaves us quite literally pining our lives away waiting for something we know is transitory.

And so I pass over the Meramec, and I appreciate the sunlight gleaming across the water, but with my next breath I begin counting the number of cold days I have yet to endure this winter. So I think that when people say ‘we’ll pay for this,’ it means two things. Nature will present us with more cold days, and soon: that’s a given. But more than that, we will pay out a large portion of our hope, our optimism, our enjoyment of each simple moment in life with our constant pining for a better season.

The World’s Most Enduring Holiday Ritual


, , , , ,

For thousands of years, from Lebanon to Cyprus and around the eastern Mediterranean, women heralded the coming of spring by creating Adonis gardens. They packed earth into shallow potsherds, seeded it with wheat, barley and herbs, and effectively over-watered it, so that the seeds sprouted too quickly, shot up, and died. Then, with great wailing and lamentation they cast their small gardens into rivers–in Aqfa in Lebanon it was always the Adonis River. In this way they memorialized the life and sudden death of Aphrodite’s beautiful lover Adonis, and they also sought to encourage a fecund and beneficent springtime.

For thousands of years in Egypt, from one end of the Nile to the other, people created Corn Osirises. These were small earthen effigies of Osiris which they seeded with grain and kept moist. Osiris being the god of the underworld, these effigies symbolized life born out of death, or the return of the Nile flood and the fertile season of planting. One of the most ancient of Egyptian deities, Osiris probably originated as a fertility god, but was transmogrified over time by the priestly class into an intercessor between the dead and the judges of the afterlife. Though the priestly Osiris cult focused on this role, to the people he never lost his association with agrarian concerns. Corn Orisises are found by the thousands in Egyptian tombs and graves.

Seeding something at a significant time of the year was such a long-lived ritual that it seems only natural that we would have antecedents of the practice in our modern holidays. After all, the evergreen tree at Christmas, Jack-o-lantern at Halloween, and painted egg at Easter are all symbols taken from older, ‘pagan’ observances. And indeed, it appears that there is something which is closely associated with the Adonis garden and Corn Osiris which makes its appearance every year, just as the winter holiday season comes around.

I saw yesterday a commercial for Chia Pets, my first this year. I usually mute commercials, so I missed the voice over chanting the trademark ‘Ch-ch-ch-chia’ theme. But there on the screen I saw the various models available to slather with the tiny seeds of Salvia hispanica, keep wet for two weeks, and watch the fun begin. Or not. I was given a Chia once a long time ago, and try though I might, I couldn’t get it to sprout. I think it’s kind of like a Tamigotchi pet. You can’t just walk away; you have to pay attention. In this regard it is even more like the old Adonis garden or Corn Osiris–it takes some commitment, it is much more meaningful than other cheap holiday gifts that you can pick up at Walgreen’s on the way to see someone you didn’t remember to buy a gift for.

Recognizing this traditional, almost pious legacy of the Chia Pet gives us new perspective on the whole Chia enterprise. A few years ago, when they brought out the Chia Obama to commemorate the first African-American president’s election, some saw it as disrespectful. But no, the exact opposite is likely truer–it verges on the idolatrous! Is Obama then up there with Osiris, with Adonis? Of course, the Chia Obama does not usually get buried in tombs, or cast into a river. Yes I know, given the recent frustration over the roll-out of the Affordable Care Act, that may change, but it is not meant to be treated that way.

There are Chia Simpsons, Chia Scooby-doos, even a Chia SpongeBob SquarePants. Any of these beloved cartoon characters, in their appeal to children, may now offer parents a chance to create teachable moments: did you know, you can tell your kids, that the Chia has ancestors reaching back to the time of the pyramids? How thrilled they will be to learn of the ancient practice of casting these effigies into streams! (But a word of caution is in order: the Chia Pet is not flushable under normal conditions.)

In these times of over-commercialization of holidays, when the message of Christmas itself gets lost in the hustle to make money, it is reassuring to know that some of the most ancient traditions endure. I for one wish to extend a note of gratitude to the people at California-based Joseph Enterprises, Inc. for their good sense and dedication in working to save a little part of the world’s cultural heritage; and I wish them much continued success in the marketing the Chia Pet in all its brilliant varieties.

Living in the Seasons


, , , ,

I had time yesterday morning to take a walk in the woods surrounding my house. My woods, as it were, since it’s all property we own. I trudged out in a direction I hadn’t been before, walking down a steep rocky slope, which was further rendered hazardous by the slippery carpet of fallen leaves. It was a beautiful autumn morning, partly cloudy, slight breeze, mild temperature, very calm and quiet out.

You walk for a while and then you sit on a rock and gaze out across a valley at the trees that are still glowing in their autumn colors, and then you turn your eyes to the ground right around you, where a dozen kinds of leaves make a tangled pattern of color and shape, and you wonder whether you should concentrate your gaze above or below. Where are the answers? Where are the better questions?

So it’s autumn (or fall, to most Americans). I mean, we’re in the midst of all the things that define autumn–trees in brilliant color, leaves falling everywhere, breezy cooling days of misty sunlight and cloudiness–though the temperature was predicted to drop last night and bring the first snow. Anyone who has read this blog more than a few times knows that I have a problem with the calendar, which was developed to number days in a defined year, but doesn’t do a good job of tracking much else. Each season starts weeks after all the things that define that season have been in place.

That’s why meteorologists have meteorological seasons, which start at the beginning of the months in which those seasons predominate, and people living their lives in the real world start calling it summer when it gets summery, winter when it gets wintery. When you do, there’s always some smarty-pants standing by to remind you that technically, it’s not autumn yet, not winter yet . . . not until such and such a date.

We have this system that insists that spring begins at the vernal equinox, or summer begins at the summer solstice. These traditions go way back to ancient times, when people celebrated solar phenomena as the agency of deities who controlled them, and thereby also controlled the seasons. But the only thing that happens at the summer solstice is the summer solstice: seasonal change is incremental, and always variable.

I stepped out this morning to find that the predawn sky was as clear as a new morning sky could be, and every constellation announced itself. It was cold, down in the twenties. So is it winter now? Of course not. By later this week we’ll have temperate autumn days again, and we’ll still be watching the leaves fall and going to see our kids play football at outdoor venues.

You look up to the canopy of trees overhead, and down to the underbrush at your feet, and you realize that the answers are all around. This is not your woods, even though you’re writing a monthly check to a mortgage company somewhere: this is nature, and it will go on doing what it does independent of your occasional treks out here to check up on it. Likewise the seasons will go on changing in response to a thousand factors, very few of which we can tally and none of which we can control.

What season is it? Wake up, look outside. You tell me. Just don’t expect your calendar to clue you in, even though the page for November carries the appropriate photograph. The days will not be pinned down, and the seasons will not be tacked to the wall. You can’t define them, you can only live them.

Dominion, Or Not


, , , , ,

Yesterday I was reading an article in Midwest Living magazine about all the things we love about Fall. The author noted wryly that every year about this time she hears the same thing: people lamenting that the trees are not as pretty this year as in past years. There was a late frost in spring, or drought conditions in summer and it affected the trees. And then suddenly, one day, we drive down the street and boom! There’s a brilliant display of autumn foliage, despite everything. Okay, we get it.

Life on our planet is divided into two kingdoms, the plant kingdom and the animal kingdom, and everything living, with minimal exceptions such as fungi and bacteria, belong to one or the other. I have a friend who is a botanist and she has more than once emphasized to me the preeminence of the plant kingdom on earth. Compared to plants, the animals are johnny-come-latelies, after-thoughts. Popular mythologies like to speak of the cycles of life, the circles of being, but that is an oversimplification, and really only jollies us along in our inalienable membership in the junior kingdom.

The fact is that all of the animals could die off and plants would endure; but if plants go away, so do the animals. Sure, if there were no bees many plants would move towards extinction, but we tend to overemphasize the importance of those particular plants, since many of them are the ones we eat. And birds and grass eating mammals are responsible for spreading the seeds of various plants, but they have at best a minimal affect; some species might wane without their animal enablers, but in general, the world would continue greening and browning in tune with the seasons.

Our popular mythologies also like to talk about Man’s Dominion over the Animals. Much has been made of this in history by way of justifying hunting, meat-eating, mass slaughter of food animals and more. But the interesting thing is that, while dominion over the animals has been easy, what we have fought tooth and nail for is dominion over the plant kingdom.

What is a garden but a place where we exercise dominion over a small plot of land? And a field planted with a food crop is a larger version of that, an area where we not only sow and hope to raise a chosen plant, but in which we hope to prevent the incursion of all other plant life. It is a business fraught with headaches and setbacks, and such is the history of mankind ever since what anthropologists call the Neolithic Revolution began some 8,000 to 10,000 years ago. Our homesteads, our villages, finally even our cities are places where we have worked, with different degrees of success, to push back the relentless onslaught of the plant kingdom. Weeds are the advance troops of the conqueror, fighting back against us on every front.

And, if you think about it, the seasons are an expression of the natural cycles of the plant kingdom. It is plants that brown and die back when the days begin to cool, awaiting the sun of springtime. Demeter, she who ruled the seasons, was goddess of grain, not herds. Most seasonal deities in history have been vegetation gods. Sure, there are some seemingly instinctual, seasonal animal behaviors, such as hibernation, but these are purely learned responses to what the plant kingdom is doing: there’s nothing to eat, so we might as well sleep.

I have always thought that everything on earth exists around us and we are just along for the ride. Looked at in this light, it seems even more so. Our pride and our chest thumping over dominion of the animal kingdom is small potatoes in the end, and we are still just following along while the plant kingdom dominates everything around us. And the annual autumn display? Those glorious, defiant bursts of gold and red and copper on every hillside? They’re just a showy reminder of who’s in charge. Yeah, we get it. You don’t have to brag about it.

The End of Summer


, , , , ,

There’s this funny thing that happens to me once in a while. I’ll be out somewhere, at a store, a movie, at work, and someone will pass and for a moment I think it looks like someone I know. ‘Oh, there’s Joe!’ I’ll think to myself, or ‘There’s Donna!’ But then I realize it’s not Joe or Donna, but someone who simply looked like or called to mind those people. And then, here’s the odd part, sometime within the next few hours I will see Joe or Donna. It’s just strange, like the occurrence of deja vu.

I experienced the seasonal equivalent of this phenomenon the other day. I was walking up the driveway and I saw, in a gust of breeze, a cluster of yellow leaves flying away. It struck me that I was seeing the first notice of the end of summer, the onset of autumn. But once my eyes focused on the sight I realized it was not leaves, but a group of yellow butterflies coursing over and beyond the barn, really quite lovely, but not the harbinger of autumn. And then, an hour later, while driving down a side street toward work, I saw yellow leaves being blown across the road–actual leaves this time, cast down from a tree and scattering in front of me.

There is a heat advisory this week, with heat indices above 100 degrees. It certainly does not feel like summer is drawing to a close, except in the very cool mornings, before the sun has climbed above the horizon and begun its fierce work. In the American Midwest we usually have summerlike temperatures deep into September, so I don’t nurse any illusions about sudden breaks in the heat pattern. But the cicadas are filling the dusk with their vigorous song these days, and I know that time marches on.

I know I’m kind of new at this, but I am ready to offer one opinion about ‘country life.’ Summer is the season least accommodating to the experience of nature. Why? Too much to do. During the autumn and winter, despite household and barn chores, I found myself on many weekend afternoons dressing warmly and walking through the woods, down paths, across fields, finding out what this land holds. In summer, I spend that time on the lawn tractor, trying to keep ahead of Mother Nature, whose goal it always is to reclaim my patch of land for her own empire. It is a weekly, a daily fight. Then there’s the garden, the blackberry patch, the fruit trees and more that need attention.

Of course, to many people, tending a garden and fruit trees is experiencing nature, but I have never thought so. To me, horticulture and agriculture are applied technologies. Yes, you are on the land and getting your hands into the dirt, but gardening is a matter of controlling nature, not experiencing it. And while spring is about planting and autumn is about harvest, summer is the season most intensely involved with agriculture, not nature.

I will miss summer as it goes by, but I am also ready for the cool days and colors of autumn. Next summer I will do better. I will control the grass better, and grow more fruit, and plant more things in a larger garden. This summer was kind of an experiment. I have all autumn and winter to look back on it, to make plans, and to have a great summer next year.


Get every new post delivered to your Inbox.

Join 199 other followers