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.