If there were only four seasons. As simple as the tapestry: winter, spring, summer, apples. Each of an equal length. Not the unbalanced freezin’, followed by black flies and then mosquitoes – the latter two ranking with rattlesnakes, bears, wolves, and rats at the top of the colonial inhabitants’ pestilence list. The little black flies fierce enough to swell my goddaughter’s eyes shut after a day of outdoor play one May. It’s enough to make you wonder how anyone worked the woods, much less farmed. The freezin’ could almost be seen as relief, if only it, too, weren’t so vicious.
To observe – first-hand – the annual sequences in the place you inhabit is to question and rearrange. Winter here can be five months; summer, six weeks at its prime, plus shoulders that feel more like late spring or early autumn. To quarter the year by solstice and equinox, as tradition has done, affords an inadequate equation. More practical is to embrace eight seasons, not four – and even that is slippery. My perception of an eight-cycle year evolved after learning of the ancient concept of solar seasons, where winter begins around Halloween (Samhain); spring, around Groundhog’s Day (Candlemas or Imbolc) (and thus, the “six more weeks of winter” caution); summer, with Mayday (Beltane or May Eve as Walpurgis Night); and autumn, around the beginning of August (Lammas). Though still not precise for the changes where I live, this eight-part system does introduce more nuance. Winter, after all, can feel to begin the day after Halloween, as much as December 21 or 22, especially with our return to Eastern Standard Time from so-called Daylight Savings. More telling is to realize June 20 or 21 is also Midsummer’s Day and Midsummer’s Night, rather than its beginning.
An eight-season year acknowledges the delay between the increasing daylight and the warming of the air, earth, and waters, and then their decline. The established beginning of summer, after all, also marks the soon shrinking daylight, yet few here plunge into the ocean before the Fourth of July and many swimmers are surprised its water can be warmer in late September than it was it July – the difficulty comes in warming yourself once ashore. While July here can be insufferably hot and humid, depending, we really don’t get tomatoes or sweet corn until the already cooler days of August – a glorious time I’ve come to call High Summer, to distinguish it from the previous Full Summer. Indeed, my recognition of High Summer originated in a lament, “How can it be August already? Summer’s almost over,” transformed by a mindfulness that our summer hadn’t begun until the solstice: many of our neighbors still have their furnaces running up to June, and other members of my family find May days too chilly to eat lunch at our shaded outdoor table. Meanwhile, late August evenings are typically too cool for lingering after an evening outdoor meal, and the darkness falls markedly earlier than it had a month earlier.
As a concept, my eight-season year resembles the artist’s color wheel, with its primaries – bright yellow, red, and blue – and its secondaries – orange, purple, and green – where the primaries overlap. Likewise, there are the strong seasons where the traditional and solar seasons coincide: Full Summer, Full Autumn, Full Winter, Full Spring, and the already mentioned High Summer and three others I still need to christen, the ones where they separate. Even here, though, I realize overlap for spring is inaccurate: our Full Spring starts with the leafing of trees at the beginning of May. So my seasons would run Full Summer (late June and July), High Summer/Early Autumn (August to late September), Full Autumn (late September to Halloween), Soft Winter (November to late December), Full Winter (late December and January), Late Winter (February to late March), Tentative Spring (late March and April), Full Spring (May to late June). Perhaps we could even name them after people – Julia, for Full Summer, followed by Augusta or King Leo – the way hurricanes are, for that matter, though that runs the risk of introducing unnecessary associations.
Of central interest to me in all of this is the relationship of the changing light and seasons with emotions. It’s not just a matter of having a favorite season – although spring here is too cold and wet and insect-infested to bring the same joy it has elsewhere – or of noticing the general crankiness that follows the Daylight Savings clock changes twice a year, where everyone’s “internal clock” is thrown off kilter for the remainder of the week. It’s the matter of acknowledging that where I live, November is truly the dreariest month – the general landscape has turned brown, and most people go to work before sunrise and leave after sunset – while February, in its sparkling white purity against the occasional blue sky, has already brightened to the same level of light as October. We even have the quirky situation where our earliest sunsets hit in early December, and arrive perceptibly later by New Year’s. Somehow, though, I always seem to be running weeks behind, wherever.
Where I live, solar autumn – High Summer and Full Autumn – are more than the prime of the year. They are ingrained in the region’s very identity. The air has turned cool and bright, the insects are manageable, the Hawaiian shirts give way to sweaters, I concede, awakening on that first chilly morning in August when fall’s in the air, stirring its bittersweet joy. (Noting, too, my wife will soon have me gathering golden bittersweet berries for her interior decoration.) From around the world, people begin phoning to inquire about how the foliage is shaping up, while the region’s state tourism offices respond by marching out their predictably rosy forecasts. Yet for all of this regularity, something remains tenuous. Drought can dull the color, as can blight, which seems to be increasing. The remnants of an Atlantic hurricane or an early snowfall can strip the leaves from their perch. On top of it all, global climate change is pushing back the first killing frost – the defining element of Indian summer and a catalyst for crisp color – and we seldom lose the last of our gardens in September anymore. North of the notches – that is, in the North Country, where the prime color arrives first, runs on its own pace. In contrast, we are moderated by our proximity to the ocean.
Though our small city is not a tourist destination, we are close enough to the beaches and the mountains to be aware of their traffic and to savor their attractions in the shoulder weeks free of the crowds. Already, before Labor Day, with school districts resuming, the seaside motel bookings are down, and apart from pre-kindergarten children or young couples, the beaches have been claimed by older adults, often bundled up on aluminum chairs and reading in small clusters. At home, agreeing on a walk, my wife and I choose one of the restaurants where we can sit in the afternoon sun and watch the river – either above the dam and waterfalls at the red millworks or downstream, over the tidewater marina – while sipping microbrew ales and sampling appetizers. We both know you could drive halfway across the country for a memory like this. And we both know that living year-‘round in a locale provides a context no fine-weather visitor can comprehend – the countering desolation of office workers scurrying into icy darkness, of madness and death lurking behind the curtained windows, of resort communities closed tight and abandoned.
My wife and I see this because we have moved here, each by a different pathway.