Blackberry Summer

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If you’re cultivating something like blackberries, the hope, whether you realize it or not, is that you will be so successful that at some point merely picking them all will become tedious. Picking blackberries at my house has become tedious. I was out there until just before sunset last night, and came in with a basket of berries and ten thorn-riddled, purple-stained fingers. Today it’s my wife’s turn, and she’s still out there. I peek out somewhat guiltily from time to time, but I’ve had enough of blackberries for a day or two.

I have made jelly, my wife has made jam, we have both made pies. We looked up recipes today for syrup, preserves, and various desserts, from blackberry upside-down cake to blackberry fool. We are having blackberry arguments–I prefer preparations that strain the seeds out and leave you that beautiful, delicious juice. My wife thinks this is a waste, believing there is something picayune and unmanly about my dislike for seeds stuck in my teeth. She sets aside the seedy pulp that is a by-product of my jelly making, imagining she will do something with it. What we need to do is turn on the auxiliary freezer in the basement and start storing big bags of berries.

Because the harvest is not letting up. Our luck with other things, such as fruit trees and our vegetable garden, has not been so good. Of a dozen assorted trees, only the apple tree has fruit right now, and the birds won’t leave it alone. Our tomatoes are a jumble, and the weeds are winning out over our onions and peppers. We are eating lots of tomatoes, but we are losing many more to rot and worms and other predators. There are some predators, wild turkeys mostly, who like the blackberries. But there are simply too many of them for even the extended families of those gawky birds to make significant inroads on the harvest.

You know it’s midsummer when the berries are ripe and ready to be picked. How many of us recall standing beneath a blazing sun and hazarding sharp thorns to reach that one perfect berry hiding behind leaves deep within the canes? I would guess that any dessert made with blackberries has a least a little blood in it–maybe that’s why they taste so decadent. But it’s not only midsummer that we recognize through the medium of this thorny fruit.

Blackberry Winter is one of the more common names for that point in early spring when it seems like winter has passed–the blackberries have bloomed–and then one day the temperature drops and you’re thrown right back into winter. It’s sort of the opposite of Indian Summer, that patch of uncommonly warm days in mid-to-late autumn. Together these meteorological phenomena are known as ‘singularities.’ A singularity has to happen at least fifty percent of the time for meteorologists to recognize them, and Blackberry Winter does.

Depending on where you live, and what blooms there in early spring, you may be more familiar with Dogwood Winter or Locust Winter. All the names apply to the same thing–even the oddest name, Linsey-woolsey Britches Winter. Linsey-woolsey is a coarse fabric made of linen and wool, or cotton and wool, from which warm, utilitarian garments such as long underwear used to be made. Putting away one’s linsey-woolsey britches is a testament to the belief that winter has passed, and wise people know to wait until after winter’s final blast.

My daughter has mentioned a few times this weekend that she wants to take blackberries to work with her, to share with her co-workers. She says it cautiously, as if I or her mother will say, No way! Those are our blackberries! So she went out to pick her own berries a few nights ago, and was horrified to learn that even the leaves have thorns! For my part, I will be hugely disappointed if she leaves tomorrow without at least a quart of them under her arm, regardless of who picked them. It’s like the bounty of any season: avidly anticipated, relished for a while, and then, eventually, something of a nightmare.

Naming Things

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One Sunday morning a while back I walked out early and experienced a pretty sunrise. As I stood watching I was aware of birdsong swelling around me. Our property is a large area of cleared land surrounded on most sides by woods, and it felt like being in the midst of a symphony of song. But my mind, like so many people, quickly descends to the trivial, and within moments I was pestered by an old problem of mine.

I can’t name birds by their song. I mean, crows and owls, sure, and cardinals, I think, and who doesn’t recognize the screech of a hawk? But of all the dozens of sparrows, nuthatches, chickadees, woodpeckers, robins and starlings that inhabit these woods and fields, I can identify none of them by their song. I need to look online and find a guide to birdsong, or get a recording for in my car and listen to it while I commute, committing each song to memory. That would impress family and friends, wouldn’t it? ‘Ah, there’s the black-capped chickadee,’ I would say, casting a knowing glance to the west . . .

I read a birdwatching guide years ago, and one piece of advice stood out more than any other. When you spot a bird you do not know, it said, linger on the bird. Look at it as long as the bird stays still for you, and memorize things about it. What color are its feathers? Are they uniform, or are there different colors on the breast, the head, the tail or the tips of the wings? Is its beak straight or curved? Only after observing the bird for a good while, open the book and see if you can find it. Not only is this the best way to identify the bird, but it makes the experience of viewing the bird that much richer. What you are doing is watching birds, not naming birds. Yes, you will eventually want to discover the names of the birds you view, but not to the detriment of enjoying their beauty.

Naming things is a human prejudice. We do not know something until we have named it. In Genesis, God has no sooner created all the animals than he makes Adam sit down and name them. Why this naming of the animals is so crucial at this early point in creation is mystifying, let alone why God has Adam do it: unless we acknowledge that scripture is written by humans, and this passage in the Bible is us rationalizing not only our practice, but our God-given right to name all the things in nature.

As I have researched the seasons in human life, I have found people from many disciplines–geography, meteorology, philosophy, history–who insist that the seasons as we understand them don’t really exist. Yi-Fu Tuan, a Chinese-American geographer, said it well in his excellent (though difficult) book Topophilia: A Study of Environmental Perception, Attitudes, and Values: ‘In the middle latitudes temperature changes continuously in the course of a year but it is customary for people to divide it into four or five seasons, often with festivities marking the passage from one to the other.’

In other words, there are seasons largely because we see them that way, we name them, and thereby define them. In centuries past, we prayed and sacrificed to deities whose deaths and resurrections or sojourns in the Underworld governed the seasons. In modern times, when a season does not arrive on the date expected, we pretty much just complain about it. Which is odd, given the fact that there are different theories about what constitutes a season. To meteorologists, seasons begin on the first day of the first month in which that season’s temperature pattern predominates: thus March 1 to May 31 is spring. But to most of us, the seasons begin on the solstices and equinoxes. Neither of these schemes take into account the fluctuating weather we get around the beginning of each season. March can come in like a lion or a lamb. It’s often not until the middle of any season when we get that season and no other. But it does not stop us from slapping definitive names on them.

Yi-Fu Tuan calls it segmenting reality, dividing it into nameable portions that we can digest and understand bit by bit. A mountain sloping into a valley and thence out into a plain is also a continuum, unbroken in its run, but we have these different names for each part of it. Japanese people have a system of twenty-four sekki, or climatic segments of the calendar year: February 19 begins Rain Water, June 6 Grain in Ear, and September 7 White Dew. This is an ancient system, adopted from China, and one wonders how rarely climatic reality harmonizes with these lovely names.

Everything is an admixture of experience and intellectual exercise which creates an irony and a tension. I want to experience nature and the seasons; at the same time, running through my mind are these naming conventions that only detract from my pure experience. I am aware of this, but will likely not change. I still wish I could name each player in the symphony of birdsong.

Apollo Ascending

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It seems incredible to most of us that people used to believe strange things about how the world works. For instance, the very idea that the sun was Apollo, dashing through the sky in his golden chariot, is unseemly and fantastical. I mean, does it in any way look like that? Do you see a handsome Greek god with a whip in his hand, urging his chargers on? No, I don’t either.

Then again, we are all so busy these days, how many of us would notice? We expect it to be light at certain times, dark at other times, with those times lengthening and shortening with the course of the seasons. If it’s dark when we drive home from work we turn on the car headlights. If it’s light, we don’t. That’s about the extent of our interaction with the sun.

I’ve never been good at photography, though it is an art form I very much appreciate. A while back I decided that I could practice enough to at least bring my skills up to rudimentary. So for a while I was stepping out every Sunday morning, before the rest of the family was awake, camera in hand, to find subjects longing to be immortalized in passable photos. I had noticed that sunrises over the barn and woods and pasture were picturesque, so I thought I’d capture one. This particular morning was already light, but the sun had not begun to clear the trees on the eastern horizon. I stood and waited. Then sat and waited. Then walked around the property, coming at it from different angles, waiting for the Brilliant Solar Orb, the Chariot of Apollo, to appear. It finally came up, and yes there were nice colors in the clouds, and sunbeams streaked across grasses and fence posts, but I didn’t get any good pictures. I just don’t know how to stage a photograph, how to frame the subject matter. 

But the one lesson the exercise left me with was that if we take the time, we can watch the sun move (yes, I know, watch the earth move relative to the sun). And I guess in times long ago, when people were closer to nature, when its patterns truly dictated so much of everyone’s daily lives, they could see things like a benevolent deity rolling out each morning to bring them the warmth of the sun. They saw the chariot racing through the sky. The Greek gods, like so many ‘pagan’ deities, shared this world with us, even if they did operate on a higher plane of existence. They were beside us, around us, tending to the many details of life and nature.

I can’t help but feel that something was lost when monotheism replaced the old religions. Lost was the sense of personal deities, of gods dedicated to the things that mattered most to this person or that person. Lost were all the great stories. In their place we got a simple formula: God–the one, omnipotent God–created everything and set it in motion. Done. Needless to say it was a strict, necessarily male God. So no more goddesses, sorry. We still have many holiday observances that evoke these old deities, which descend down to us through the ages from their worship, though we usually don’t acknowledge that fact. But there is still something missing in not being able to ask Persephone to arise from the Underworld and bring on the reluctant spring, to weep for Adonis and beseech his blessings on our summertime crops, or to cast a glance skyward and ask great Apollo to please becalm himself on this already too hot day.

It’s all in how we stage the shot, how we frame the subject matter. When my daughter was about seven or eight years old she began to ask me if Santa Claus was real. I answered her question with a question: Do you think Christmas would be more fun or less fun if there was no Santa Claus? Yeah, I know, a little too sophist for a second grader. But I hope you see my point. Any fool can ‘learn’ things, such as what really exists or doesn’t exist, and what are the true explanations for natural phenomena. It takes an open intelligence and a willing heart to see the universe in terms of daily wonder: and it takes a force of will, at least it does for me, to be that open and willing.

So to say that I understand and respect those who created the old myths understates what I feel about them. I envy them, I miss what they had, and I think that in a larger sense, the world may be missing it too. I may have given up on the camera, but I intend to keep watching for Apollo.

The Word ‘Constantinople’ Is Hard to Type

The most important lesson I have learned about the seasons, and perhaps the most useful for people to understand, is that seasons do not end–they become the next season. This is not a semantic quibble, but a scientific fact. Everything is a continuum, and anything that is not busy becoming the next version of itself is busy dying. This is not a semantic quibble and so much more than a scientific fact. As with most things we can glean by a practiced nearness to nature, it is a way to understand ourselves, to improve ourselves, to keep moving forward all the time. Aging is not moving closer to death, but becoming older versions of ourselves. We can choose to honor these older versions of ourselves, to add new talents, new knowledge, new experiences, accepting that our new selves are different, but no worse than the old selves. I can no longer do some of the physical things I could do when I was eighteen. But when I was eighteen I knew nothing about the history of Greek philosophy, post-war Japanese fiction, or the development of Steppe societies. Does it matter that I know these things now? That’s not really a fair question.

People have different priorities, and one of mine is to seek to know something new every day. One of the most important things I know is that concerning most people, in most situations, I have no right to judge. I don’t know them, and I don’t know what makes them tick. It may sound pithy and wise to say that people who do not learn all the time are leading wasted lives. But I’m sure there are plenty of people who think I am wasting my life. Suppose I spend the day before my death reading a book about Constantinople. In the evening I will sit over dinner telling my wife some of the things I found deeply interesting about the eastern capital of the Holy Roman Empire. She will politely not roll her eyes, though this will be the ten thousandth such impromptu lecture I’ve given on a subject she cares little about. Later I will go to sleep, and never awake. What does it matter that I died knowing about Constantinople? How many people do I know who will shake their heads that I never experienced with them the things they enjoy most: that I never peddled a bicycle 100 miles in one day with my friend Al, or hunted deer in mid-winter with my friend Curt, or sipped expensive cognac and lit up at a high-end cigar bar with my friend Mark?

So I don’t judge. I only know that being fully human is about being true to what most defines us, and carrying it ever forward. There is no season which is not complete and necessary in itself. All seasons take what is most necessary within them into the next season, where it is changed, and changed again, and carried into the season after that. We also take what is complete and necessary within us into each season we enter, but it is up to us to nourish it and help it grow so we can move on, and move on, and move on.

Still Waiting for Batman

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Remember how fast we all got tired of looking at James Holmes, sitting in the courtroom wearing a dazed look and a mop of tangled hair dyed a hideous shade of red, trying to look like he was mentally unstable? What we heard was that he was channeling the Joker, archenemy of Batman, whose movie premiere he crashed a few years back in Aurora, Colorado.

The oft-repeated line in the aftermath of atrocities like this, and the many that have followed, is that we should not politicize it; this line is used mostly by the opponents of any sort of gun control. What they mean by ‘not politicizing it’ is not to take a moment to consider whether the availability of assault rifles and other ordnance from the military arsenal to the general public should be regulated. Don’t panic. The occurrence in Aurora was an aberration, even as it took its place in a mind-numbing succession of similar horrors, perpetrated with less than aberrant regularity.

These are all aberrations, each and every one of them. Considering how many millions of people regularly attend movie premieres, or go to college classes, or grade school classes, or attend political rallies without being murdered, the continuing string of violent atrocities are aberrant and rare, in a relative sense. But it should be borne in mind that in every one of them, the aberrant perpetrator greatly increased his lethality by easy access to firearms. Case in point: a crazed student recently went on a violent rampage in a Pennsylvania high school. Nearly two dozen people were injured, but nobody was killed, because he only had a knife, no gun.

But these facts are exercised ad infinitum in digital, print and broadcast forums, and never serve to change the mind of anyone dedicated to the proposition that the 2nd Amendment to the United States Constitution is something more than a historical anachronism whose intent has been purposely misconstrued by an opportunistic gun industry led by the NRA; the people who believe, in a twist of logic I’ve never quite grasped, that gun ownership—of all things—is the cornerstone of individual liberty. These are the same people who used to grow misty-eyed when Charlton Heston intoned about America’s pioneering, frontier past, when the Family Gun was all that stood between a family and starvation. They buy into this mythology as if there were still a shortage of grocery stores and a man needs to put meat on the table on a daily basis.

But mythology is what the whole gun ownership thing is about: the necessity to own guns, the safety offered by them, the sacred right and ability of a Man to protect his Family. It is a mythology and a belief system unto itself, against which the proponents of gun control can offer nothing more than facts and statistics to support their views.

Among the myths, one of the most pervasive is the repeatedly evoked thought that ‘if only one legal gun owner had been present at (fill in the blank), the shooter wouldn’t have done so much harm.’ This thought is a great salve to the sort of avid gun owner who sits around with his buddies propounding the things he would have done if only. ‘If Id’a been there, I woulda dropped that coward.’ Yeah, except it has never happened. In not a single one of the notorious instances of gun violence in recent memory has a hero arisen from the crowd, armed and sure-sighted, to take down the perpetrator.

This has to be a sore spot for the NRA and for gun owners in general. When oh when will the fact that law-abiding citizens can license and carry firearms start to make a difference? When will the legally armed citizen finally meet up with the illegally armed crook and win the day? One almost imagines gun policy morphing to the standpoint that gun ownership is more than a right, it is a solemn obligation—and the true glory of America will not be realized until every mother’s son is armed and ready to defend the womenfolk and young’uns. Sounds extreme, but given today’s political climate, I could foresee legislation requiring me to carry a gun passing before any law limiting my right to purchase an AK47 for hunting doves.

But the problem with the individual armed savior myth is much more than the presence of legal guns. It has to do with the actual bravery of the people carrying the guns. And this is where we come to Batman, the private citizen turned vigilante. Yes, he is armed, and trained, and ready. But what makes Batman Batman is not that he has an arsenal of snazzy weapons: it’s that he has balls. He will stand up for his fellow citizen; he will station himself between innocent people and the harm that threatens them. It is this that distinguishes the hero, not what he happens to be packing.

This kind of bravery does not typify people who carry guns. These are fraidy cats, people who think they need a gun in their pocket to walk down the streets of their own town, to visit the barbershop or get a pizza. Statistics about the proliferation of accidental gun deaths will never make them give up their right to carry a loaded pistol around, because they are too insecure. These are not the kind of people one wants to count on in a stressful, violent, emergency situation. These guys are Barney Fifes, with no Andy Taylor to take the bullets away. At best they might draw and miss, at worst, add to the mayhem by firing wide and taking out additional victims.

In the end, James Holmes was no Joker. The Joker is a fictional character with huge abilities to perpetrate endless crime sprees. James Holmes was a sorry, probably mentally ill young man who caused a world of sadness to many people; but his abilities were limited to that one night, and the lethality afforded him by a popular gloss on the U.S. Constitution. And in the end, there is no Batman. A bunch of pistol-packing guys droning into their beers about the sacred right to concealed carry and what they woulda done are not going to save anybody. And the myth of the private citizen who will be ready to arise and rescue his fellow citizens from another violent gunman is only that—a myth.

Standing in the Woods

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I am standing still more these days when I visit the woods. I am standing still in these woods which I have visited a hundred times and moved through with the purpose of knowing them, of naming their trees and wildflowers, of hoping to spot their elusive wildlife. I feel I have mapped them well enough now, and I stand inside their tenuous embrace and wait, and wait.

For a year and a half I never saw a snake out here. I saw two today. The first was a speckled king snake, creeping slowly out along the blackberry canes, fat in its midsection with some luckless rodent. It made one feint at threatening me to keep my distance, but mostly it was helpless and lucky that I meant no harm. The second I saw towards dusk as I stood on the verge of the woods in front of the house, a big rat snake, black as spent motor oil, sinuously curled over a high branch above a bird house.

Two days ago I was in the woods just past the back pasture and I saw a turkey scuttle off into the brush. Though the turkeys turn out to dance in the pastures whenever it rains, this was the first time I’d seen one in the woods. I have also seen two coyotes lately, creeping through tall grass, noses to the ground and tracking things I can’t see.

For a year and a half I have trod these woods and fields, looking about, plucking leaves off trees to take back and identify, noting colorful birds to look up and identify and write down on a running list. I know in rough outline where the best paths run, where the steep declines into valleys are easiest to navigate, where the dry creek is likeliest to collect a stream after rain, where the persimmons ripen first, the hickory nuts fall, the skeletons of deer lie. I have mapped the territory and put names to things all around me.

But these encounters with the local wildlife are something new. They come because I am standing still when I visit the woods these days. I am quieter, both literally and figuratively. A snake, a coyote, a turkey. The vultures swimming the blue sky in circles above my head. I know the rat snake and the king snake are nonvenemous; I know that coyotes, though predators, will never threaten me. But there is a thrill of the wild in their nearness.

For a year and a half I trod these woods and fields with purpose, mapping and identifying them. Now I am standing still more, and entering this new phase. The woods are mapping me.

 

Circles and Doors

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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

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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? It’s 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.


‘Season’

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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

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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.

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