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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.

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