Silver Thaw

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Whether intentionally or not, I have taken a step back in my long-term project of producing a book on human interactions with the seasons. I am not writing much on the book, and certainly not producing interesting blog posts about my research or progress on the book. There are a few reasons for this.

One is that I have been working on–shall we say bogged down in–Chapter 3, the chapter on the mythology of the seasons, for close to three years now. Yes, three years on a single chapter. For one thing, there is so much of it! A strong case could be made that all mythology, originating as it did during humanity’s development as agricultural societies, is seasonal mythology. Even creation myths take a back seat to seasonal myths in prevalence and variety. How does one encapsulate all of that into one chapter? How does one say something meaningful or insightful about it in limited space? At what point do I leave it alone and conclude that I have said enough, I have made my point?

The other problem is that, like the seasonal myth, the seasonal reference is all about us. We live in the seasons. Fiction authors who write that ‘it was a beautiful spring morning’ or ‘the fall was cold and rainy’ are not writing about the seasons, they are writing about characters who live within the seasons. I am increasingly unsure of myself for reading too much into these references; are they important observations or just stage dressing?

Almost every non-fiction book I read has a reference to something seasonal, but the problem I find is that these things are rarely deemed important enough even to make the index of those books. In his last book, The World Until Yesterday, Jared Diamond talked about language development within certain New Guinean societies, and how he believes diversity of language is influenced by climate–particularly by seasonality. After reading the book I wanted to pull out that section for quoting, but of course I could not find it by checking the index for the word ‘season’ or ‘seasonality.’ The closest I came was the much more general term ‘climate.’

I just finished reading Encounters at the Heart of the World: A History of the Mandan People by Elizabeth Fenn. Whenever I pick up such a book I immediately check its index for whether there is any mention of the seasons. I look under the word ‘seasons’ and then under the names of individual seasons. There were no such listings in the index for the book. So imagine my surprise when, deep into the book, I found an excellent section on the work of Mandan women throughout the seasons–the planting, tending, harvesting and storage of corn and other agricultural commodities. If one important activity takes place in spring, and another activity takes place in summer, are spring and summer not worthy to be cited in the index, so we can easily find them?

Am I wrong to see the seasons themselves as a subject of study? Are they truly nothing more than a backdrop, stage dressing for real subjects? It’s like studying time instead of history, like studying canvas instead of painting, like studying the medium rather than the message–but as we all learned from Marshall McLuhan, sometimes the medium is the message. I am uncertain whether I am opening up a whole new field of study, or I am seriously misguided and just looking at the wrong things. Lacking the ability to decide, I am frozen.

But I am lately encouraged, I feel stirrings. In reading Erik Larsen’s Thunderstruck, in which he tells the story of Guglielmo Marconi working to transmit wireless signals from North America to Europe, I find mention of a phenomenon long recognized in Nova Scotia called the ‘silver thaw.’ This occurs during the interval from winter to spring, when variable weather patterns might produce a spring rain but also be met by freezing temperatures, thus coating trees, houses, power lines and all with a light coat of ice. The phenomenon is also recognized in the Pacific Northwest. It brings to mind all of the seasons which the human mind has created, like Blackberry Winter, Indian Summer, or even the Nordic Fimbulwinter–that terrible, years-long winter which, according to myth, preceded Ragnarok, but in common parlance just means a particularly cold winter.

These things re-ignite my interest in the seasons, especially as human cultural constructs, which is what makes them interesting to talk about, and takes them past the level of passing the time talking about the weather. My basic thesis in the mythology chapter is that most mythology, at its roots, is seasonal mythology, and that as societies have been washed over by changing religious regimes, nothing has been more difficult for the new regime to expunge from the popular imagination than the seasonal myth and its celebration. That’s why we celebrate Christmas on December 25th, why Easter–the most important observance in the Christian calendar–bears the name of an ancient pagan goddess.

So, okay, I am becoming interested again in the subject, but it seems to be a slow warming. I start and then find myself stopping, frozen again. Kind of a silver thaw, I’d say, but I am hopeful spring is on the way.

Spring Cleaning

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Everyone has some idiosyncrasies, and among mine is the fact that I really enjoy housework. There are few things as enjoyable to me as a rainy day off work during which I have time to clean every room in the house, top to bottom. Brew some coffee, put on some rousing music, and get to it.

Springtime is upon us, a season that has long been attended by a whole raft of cleansing and purification rituals. In the classical world, February (a warmer month throughout the Mediterranean) was a month of purification–Februaa was an ancient purification ritual. The Celtic spring festival was Beltane, a festival in which cattle returning to pasture were passed between bonfires to purify and protect them from evil spirits. Many ancient people would thoroughly clean their homes and villages, extinguish all fires, bless tinder for the lighting of new fire, and begin the year anew in springtime. Surely, after the sickness and squalor of cramped winter hibernations, spring was a time to clean and brush off the old, welcome the new, and ask for renewed blessings of home and hearth, and especially of field and pasture, from whatever deities did those things. In modern times spring cleaning is still a standard phenomenon, one to which many at least pay lip service, while some do it up with religious fervor.

A while ago I posted an essay in which I asked people what they thought they could teach primitive humans, say 15- to 20,000 years ago, that could help advance their culture. I never offered my own thought. I think the greatest contribution I could make is to teach them about cleanliness and sanitation. What a boon this would be, how simple, and how incredibly long it took humans to realize the importance of it. Even as late as the mid-19th century, when Dr. Ignatz Semmelweis suggested that doctors could save the lives of many mothers and newborn infants if they would only wash their hands before delivering babies, he was laughed at by colleagues in the medical profession. He didn’t have any proof, aside from anecdotal evidence, of what a difference it could make, and so it seemed to other doctors like simple superstition.

For many centuries, cleanliness has been a central part of much superstition. Most of the springtime rituals described above, while they would be salubrious practices just for the cleanliness they offered, were about obeisance to deities and spirits, at least to some degree. While there were many rituals undertaken by common people, quite a few of these were led by priests, witch doctors, medicine men, and shamans. A standard royal implement of many traditional tribal chiefs is the whisk, which is nothing more than a stylized broom, representing the chief’s role as sanitizer of his people. Without knowledge of microbial infection, 19th century physicians eschewed Semmelweis’ hand-washing as nothing more than a ritual practice, a reversion to superstition.

But now we know better. If I lived among primitives, I could show them to keep their dwellings clean of lice, fleas and germ-carrying vermin; to boil water to remove pathogens; to keep food at safe temperatures and throw it out when it had been stored dangerously long; to avoid contact as much as practicable with sick people; to cover their mouths when they cough and their noses when they sneeze. In an ancient hunter-gatherer camp there would be no shortage of wood ash and animal fat, and I would have plenty of time to learn how to synthesize soap from these traditional ingredients. We would be washing our hands many millennia before Dr. Semmelweis comes to his epiphany.

My tribe would grow healthy, strong and populous–the envy of all the other clans. In time they would hand me the ceremonial whisk and I would be recognized as Chief Sanitizer of my people, a role I would fill with grace and humility, waving the whisk with practiced nonchalance. In spring I would not only lead the rites, but partake fully of the tradition of spring cleaning. He may be a chief, they’d all say in their primitive tongue, but man, can he clean! I don’t know where we would find either the coffee or the music.

Samhain: Romance in the Dark

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I can already feel it. I drive home from work at exactly the time when the sun is in the process of setting during winter. A month ago, it was sinking beneath the horizon before I turned on Highway 30 for the seven mile drive to High Ridge; today it’s still up for about ten minutes after I’m home. It’s a little warm today, though I’m aware it’s just a teasing January thaw. There’s still a lot of cold weather to go in February and March, but it will be well-lighted cold weather, and I can feel spring’s approach.

I have been reading much about the Celtic festival year, particularly Samhain. The impression I have been getting is of a poorly understood, even a purposely misrepresented tradition. First let me say that I am in touch with quite a few neopagans who mostly seem to spend much time working to understand the lore and traditions of ancient beliefs. They are a valuable source of information and interpretation for me. But there is also, quite frankly, a lot hooey out there.

For instance, there are yearly ‘Druidic’ rites conducted in and around Stonehenge, when it is clear to anyone who spends more than ten minutes studying the subject that Stonehenge is not in any way a Celtic monument–and hence not a Druidic site. The Druids certainly had nothing to do with the building of Stonehenge, and most likely never conducted any kind of ceremonies there.

But I am also bothered by the proliferation of traditions that see Samhain as a dark, foreboding time full of ghosts and malevolent spirits, Druids skulking in dark robes. It’s true that the Celts began their year at Samhain, a dark time which would grow darker before building to spring. They also saw the day as beginning at dusk, much as the ancient Hebrews did. It’s also true that Samhain was regarded as a liminal time when boundaries between this world and the next grew fuzzy. But there is much in Celtic lore that sees the beauty, hope, and even the romance in the encroaching darkness.

In The Wooing of Emer, one of the great tales about the hero CuChulainn, our hero asks his beloved how he can achieve the ‘beautiful plain’–a coded reference to her breasts. ‘No one comes to this plain,’ said she, ‘who does not meet Benn Suain, the son of Roscmelc, from summer’s end to the beginning of spring, from the beginning of spring to May-day, from May-day to the beginning of winter.’ Summer’s end is of course another name for Samhain, and she is describing a love that can persevere through winter to spring and back again.

Perhaps the greatest love story in Celtic lore is The Song of Aengus. Aengus is one of the Tuatha de Danaan, a race of gods, or godlike heroes, usually portrayed as a god of love and youth. Aengus falls hard for a maiden he sees in a dream, but whenever he reaches out to touch her she disappears. He wastes away with unfulfilled love while his divine mother and father seek the dream girl. She is finally found imprisoned among 150 girls whose sad fate it is to turn into swans at Samhain and back into human form the next year. Aengus is told that if he can select his beloved from among the swans, he will win her. He visits the lake after the transformation and successfully picks out Caer, his one true love. He also becomes a swan and together they fly off, singing such beautiful music that people who hear it are lulled to sleep for three days.

This tale was the basis for William Butler Yeats’ great love poem The Song of Wandering Aengus. One of the most poignantly lovely poems in the English language, it does not speak of the swans, but it does have its hero endlessly seeking his love ‘through hollow lands and hilly lands.’ If he finds her they will spend eternity plucking ‘the silver apples of the moon, the golden apples of the sun.’ So I choose to see the romance, the optimism of Samhain. Yes, there is the mystical and the other-worldly, maidens turned to swans and all that. But within that there is romance.

The Celtic year is not divided by the solstices and equinoxes, as in the Classical World. There isn’t the great lamentation about the death of the sun and the fervid ceremonies pleading with the gods to return their favor to us. It is more about observation of the natural world–when things ripen, when the warmth returns, when the ewes are calving. Things go on, and we go on as well. Samhain may be a dark time, but the harvest is in and we have food and leisure for a while: life goes on, and love endures. I can already feel it. Spring is coming.

What Do You Know?

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It has been very cold here in the Great American Midwest, limiting the tasks I can take care of outdoors, but I had a few things I really meant to get done today. One of those jobs was to check on my beehive. Because it has been so cold I wanted to make sure the bees are doing well. I found them all dead, every last one of them. The combs are holding neither honey nor brood, but thousands of huddled dead bees.

I had told my wife that I would burn the pruned blackberry canes. We have a lot of blackberries, and she has been working to prune the dead wood out over the past few weeks. My job is to gather them all up and burn them, not an easy task because they are so wickedly thorny. Nor did I have an easy time getting the fire going.

A few years ago, when my seasonal research had taken me deep into the study of our primitive ancestors, I began to wonder something, a very basic question that I asked of many friends and colleagues. Some had no answer for me, some did, and I found most people’s answers either unsatisfactory or clearly the result of not truly understanding the question.

If you were to awake and find yourself among a band of primitive humans, perhaps 20,000 years ago, how could you help them advance their culture? I’d ask people this and they’d say well, we have modern medicine, or we know all about computers or electricity or transportation. Yeah, sure, we know all about those things. But what do you actually know how to do?

I mean, I understand that making metal drove a lot of the development of civilizations, so much so that we name different periods in human history the Bronze Age, the Iron Age. But I haven’t got a clue about how to find ore or turn it into metal. It goes without saying that I’m not going to be starting my primitive friends down the path of using electrical appliances any time soon. Examples like this abound. Even if someone is an accomplished engineer, the ability to get something meaningful done depends largely on having useful materials at hand. In the end, I think any modern human would be terribly dependent on those nature savvy experienced hunter-gatherers to stay alive, and the things we could show them would be limited indeed.

The blackberry canes wouldn’t light. I started with a pile of leaves and dried grass, put some newspaper under it and lit it with a match. It took several matches to get a fire started, which burned out before much of the pile of canes caught on fire. I started it again using more leaves and grass, even adding several logs from the wood pile to increase the heat. I was at this a long time, until I had used my last match. That’s okay, there were lots of embers, and limitless dried grass and leaves. As I worked furiously to ignite a flame, I thought how easily almost any member of a primitive tribe, given glowing embers and so much dry tinder, could have gotten a fire going. It would likely be a job for toddlers. I kept looking back towards the house, wondering if I should just march down there and get another book of matches.

When I finally got a good fire going the blackberry canes burned down in about fifteen minutes. But I still find it humiliating that even something as simple as starting a fire can give me such fits. When I came inside I found it had taken me an hour longer than I thought to do this simple job.

There are plenty of books and endless Websites detailing the steps to take in keeping a healthy beehive. I have read a lot of those, and I thought I was taking most of the steps they advise. Clearly I missed something, and my colony paid the price. It’s hard to say, in the depressing depths of winter, whether this crushes my spirit or inspires me to keep working. But for now, this is my goal: to be good enough at something–anything!–that I might be more than just a drain on resources to my tribe.

Hunger

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I was walking in the woods last Sunday and found a curious and troubling thing. It was a golf ball, lying half covered by leaves in the path, and when I picked it up I found that one side of the dimpled covering had been chewed off, revealing a pink core of what looked like rubber. Much of the rubber had been chewed into. It can only have been done by a squirrel, I thought, or some other gnawing rodent, hoping to uncover a source of nourishment. I was walking in a wood that abounds with hickory, black walnut, and oak trees, the ground strewn thickly with nuts and acorns. There are so many acorns on the ground that earlier this fall I took a bad spill while mowing the lawn–it was like walking on marbles. I felt so sorry for the little animal that had wasted its time (and perhaps made itself ill) chewing on this artifact of human design. I do not golf and do not know how the ball came to be on my property.

All animals are hungry most of the time. I have often remarked that as I age, I seem to be always hungry. I could stand up from one meal and easily devour another, were it placed before me. And of course, like most modern people, I sometimes make myself sick by eating too much. I have read that our most ancient ancestors had stomachs significantly different than ours, able to hold and digest huge quantities of meat devoured in one sitting. That’s the way it was back then: we just killed a woolly mammoth, we’d better eat it before it goes bad.

With the advent of agriculture as humanity’s basic way of life, we rounded out our year’s supply of food, at least in good years. We could eat what we wanted when we wanted–as long as what we wanted was lentil or barley porridge–and didn’t have to gorge ourselves when a meal was available.

Winter festivals like Thanksgiving and Christmas celebrate agricultural abundance, among other things. The harvest is in, and the people who labor all year to plow and plant and reap have some leisure time. Herds of animals are culled, and many slaughtered. Newly harvested barley and grapes are turned into beer and wine. Times are good. I was at a Christmas party on Saturday night where guests were treated to a wide variety of delicious food, and I confess I ate several plates of tempura shrimp, sashimi, braised short ribs, roast beef tenderloin, meatballs–and a little salad. I could have used that Neanderthal gut that evening.

But humans are among the few animals that have been this good at creating their own food supply and ensuring steady abundance. Honey bees, maybe a few others. All the others have to romp around in forest and field and the wide open sea seeking their meals. They eat what they can find, and very often, it’s each other. It’s a constant battle to survive, and I am so happy that I am among those beings who can just write a list of what I’d like to eat for the next week and go buy it (I don’t even have to have money!) at the grocery store. With regional and international shipping, there is almost nothing in our food supply which is not available throughout the year, as long as we can look the other way regarding the immensity of our own carbon footprint.

I don’t like being one of those beings who make it difficult for other animals by leaving delectable looking, but ultimately disappointing toys lying about in the woods. I do hope the little squirrel, or whatever hopeful forest friend it was who gnawed so long on the golf ball, was not made ill by the synthetic material inside. I hope it finally cast about and realized there was an abundance of nuts on the forest floor. I say this knowing that if the creature is healthy and active come spring, I will curse it for getting into my garden, eating the vegetables planned for my own abundant table.

Walking with Socrates

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There’s this game I play from time to time, which for lack of a better term I’ll call Walking with Socrates. In my imagination, the Greek philosopher has reincarnated and I am his guide through the modern world. As he notices and expresses wonder at things like automobiles, electric lights, and music on the radio, I try to explain these things to him. It bothers me that I am speaking English and he understands, even though as far as I know his only language was Attic Greek. But in a scenario that begins with the reincarnation of a man who quaffed the hemlock over two-and-a-half millennia ago, this point grows trivial.

You may wonder why Socrates? Why, of all the many great thinkers from the past, have you chosen him? If your concern is with modern technologies, Archimedes would be more interested, and understand more of what he was shown. Even Aristotle, as a philosopher, concerned himself with things in the world more than Socrates.

The fact is, when the game began a long time ago, it was all about me asking Socrates questions about truth, beauty, good and evil–the things he tried to help his students understand so many years ago in Athens. But as I walked with Socrates by my side, I continually found myself distracted by the supposed marvels of the modern world, and imagined him asking about them. In time my delight in impressing one of the world’s greatest philosophers with all of the things we have accomplished overtook my desire to learn from him, and I became the teacher, he the student.

But I do wonder whether, coming from a worldview in which the sun was driven across the sky by a god in a chariot, and the seasons were engendered by Persephone’s periodic sojourns in the Underworld, old Socrates might take modern technological improvements right in stride. More miracles wrought by the gods. The light of an airplane moving through the midnight sky is just another soul who has been deified or immortalized, taking its place in the cosmos. Finally I wonder if it was easier for Socrates (and Plato and Xeno et al) to ponder what is important in life, I mean really spend some serious brain time on it, because he had an easy way to explain natural phenomena?

It’s easy to dismiss this referral of anything unexplained to the agency of the gods as simplistic. Why would an intelligent man such as Socrates not seek further answers? In the first place, I don’t know that’s how he would act, I’m only speculating. In the second place, I have to remember that Socrates was one of the greatest minds of all time. He asked important questions of people, and when they gave what they thought were reasonable answers, he questioned and questioned until they understood that the easy answer is rarely the best answer; that if we do not constantly probe what we think, then we are not thinking. He was more concerned about getting at the root of our own thoughts and beliefs–about establishing whether indeed there were thoughts behind our beliefs–than with explaining things in the physical world. I doubt that his concern in the modern world would be how the toaster works.

So when I can clear my head of my own trivial concerns, and make way for Socrates, he asks me what I think about things, usually about existence, what we are and our place in the universe. I am a science-based thinker, I believe in the cosmic forces that shaped the world and everything in it over the vastness of time. But most humans have a need to feel they have a place in that world. I refer back to Cormac McCarthy’s great line from his book Cities of the Plain. Paraphrasing, the young hero asks an old man ‘Where do we go when we die?’–and the old man asks ‘Where are we now?’–certainly the more profound question.

Indeed. Where are we now, Socrates? As we make our transition from ancient, faith-based methods of thinking and explaining things to a scientific worldview, we still have to ponder this question. People of faith ask non-believers where is the mystery, if everything is explained by science? And non-believers turn the question on its head, asking where is the mystery if everything is explained by miracles?

We don’t get off easy just because we see the world as a place wholly explained by the intricate interplay of natural phenomena. We still have to wonder where we are and what we’re doing here. Of course Socrates knows this. One of the charges against him in his trial was atheism, of sowing disbelief among young people. It was not his mission to sow disbelief, but to get his pupils to question the nature of their beliefs. This is of course a fine distinction, and it was lost on the lesser minds who wanted to find fault and take revenge on Socrates.

So I walk with Socrates, and I tell him things. He responds by asking me if people in their cars are better off than he and I, simply walking along on a sunlit path. He asks me if I am better off at home with the television going, playing advertisements into the air, or in silence, thinking my own thoughts. He asks me if I would rather be typing these ideas into this magic box, or writing them with a pencil on a simple pad of paper, or even just sitting beneath a tree somewhere, thinking them.

I do not know, Socrates. I do not know.

The Stars in Winter

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The stars this morning are like a theater in the sky. I could just stand here and watch, as if something remarkable were happening, a plot unfolding, as if it might all resolve in the end. Of course they only shine and twinkle and turn so slowly I haven’t got enough time to wait for them. Finally one of them begins to move, and I watch it flash and fly along, and realize within seconds it’s the light from a distant airplane traveling across the black predawn sky.

One of the best verses Paul McCartney ever wrote is from the song And I Love Her:

Bright are the stars that shine
Black is the sky
I know this love of mine
Will never die
 

Why that makes sense is anybody’s guess, but in a poetic sense it couldn’t be better. Nobody with any sense or sentiment can look at a sky full of stars and not feel something, and the fact is, they are always better in the clear cold skies of winter. If the falling leaves of autumn bring to mind the changing nature of life, and the budding trees and sprouting greens of spring stand for renewal, the stars in the winter sky show us permanence, or at least the vastness of existence, both in space and time.

Winter is a time of contemplation, but also of impatience. Other seasons show us what we will be, winter shows us what we are. We are either gladdened or disheartened by the news, but inertia makes us wait until spring to make changes. Frozen winter with its festivals and merry-making and resultant let-down and gloom does not conduce to significant change. In his Fasti, Ovid asks the god Janus why the new year begins in winter, rather than in spring, when the world seems to begin anew. Janus tells him it is because winter contains both the oldest sun and the newest sun. Again, why that makes sense is anybody’s guess–but I think most of us understand.

What is oldest and what is newest, what is dead and what thrives, who we love and who we have lost, where we have failed and where we have achieved, all of these things stand still in the tipping point of winter and look us in the face. It is a tale you can read in the icy winds of January, in the snowy fields of February, or as I do, in the black starry skies of December. This news has, of course, been stated most succinctly by Joni Mitchell in her song Woodstock: ‘We are stardust . . . ‘

I often return to the poem When You Are Old by W. B. Yeats. Addressed (most likely, though he does not say) to Maud Gonne, his muse, the great unrequited love of his life, he sees her in late life reading by the fire, thinking about who has loved her ‘with love false or true,’–implying of course that his love was the most sincere and constant. And at last, he says:

                              . . . Love fled
And paced upon the mountains overhead
And hid his face amid a crowd of stars.
 

So tomorrow, with any luck, will find me again out in the early morning, running and gazing skyward, looking for a story, a plot, for something to happen, or maybe for that face, hidden amid a crowd of stars.

 

After All, There Are Only Four Seasons . . .

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This morning before dawn I was outside. Venus was on the eastern horizon, but above that the sky was clouded over and I saw no other stars. It rained last night and the night before, and finally some of the late summer heat and humidity have been washed out of the atmosphere. A thrill of anticipation ran through me.

In the past few years I have done a number of informal polls about the seasons. In one I simply asked people to name the four seasons. It’s funny (to me at least) how often people do not name them in order. I care little for which season you begin with, but it does seem like they should be named in order. Another is asking people what to call the season between summer and winter: most Americans say fall, but I very much prefer autumn.

But the one thing I like to ask people about the most is their favorite season. All four seasons have their fans, but spring and autumn have the most–and autumn is hands-down the favorite season. I get it, it’s probably my favorite too, ergo the aforementioned thrill of anticipation.

There is a certain feeling we get when autumn comes on. It’s a nostalgia, almost a deja vu, full of ill-defined longing and bittersweet reminiscence. Autumn takes us to the place where we can sense the cyclical nature of life on earth more strongly than any other season, when we can feel life drawing in to its essence. But here’s the funny thing: this feeling, as far as I can tell, is universal among human beings. We all feel it, we all share it. And yet I have had so many people try to articulate the autumn feeling to me, as if I would not understand, as if I did not feel it too. The sense that the autumn feeling is particular to an individual is almost as universal as the feeling itself.

The seasons surround us as thoroughly as the ground and sky and wind and trees. They are a part of every life. We believe, fervently in some cases, that our responses to them are personal, unique, and idiosyncratic. But it would be next to impossible to have a reaction to any season that is in any way unique. After all, there are billions of us, and only four seasons.

I don’t know if it adds to or detracts from my appreciation of autumn’s sentimental rush to know that every person around me feels the same. I do like knowing that I am part of the human pageant and share much with my fellow creatures in time and space. But I also like to consider myself uniquely sensitive. I know I won’t have figured this out before autumn gives way to winter, nor spring to summer, and then we start again.

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.

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