Autumn is Coming

7 Oct

smoonI believe that one of the most salient signs of the hubris of modern society is how we consider ourselves somehow “above” the cycles of nature. The march of progress has been a steady progression away from the fluctuations of natural ecology and toward controlled environments. Why worry about changes of the season when we have buildings and heating/air conditioning? Why notice the length of the day when we have internal and external lights illuminating every step of our lives? Hell I wouldn’t even know the phase of the moon if I didn’t have an app for it.

But I also think that deep in our heart-of-hearts, we miss those fluctuations and changes that allow us to connect with the passing of time. This need can sometimes result in real physical effects. For example, many paleo writers have talked about how light exposure at inopportune hours or wavelengths can throw off our circadian rhythm, leading to serious health problems in the long run. This is something so well-documented that it’s even accepted in the mainstream.

I propose that we also miss our connections to the larger, yearly cycles of seasons, even though the effects of such seasonal-disconnection might not be as severe as in circadian-disconnection (although it occurs to me now that poor exposure to the gradual shift of the changing of the seasons might possibly influence the development of seasonal affective disorder). We might not be buffeted by changes of the natural environment on a daily basis, but we yearn for that connection so much that we find and create our own artificial markers in which to surround ourselves. Instead of observing changes in the  reproductive cycles of plants and the behavior of prey animals, we fixate on fashions, holiday decorations, and flavors of lattes. For most people, their subconscious has perhaps accepted these markers as the definition of the “seasons” (which, possibly could explain why people get so infuriated by holiday decorations and products being put out way ahead of their “proper times.” It’s seasonal schizophrenia that hits us on a biological level.) By this account, we have lost all connection to the natural cycles and have to make do with artificial ones.

Or have we?

As much as modern consumer culture probably wants to have utter control over the cycles of our year, I also believe that we still find little pieces of natural cycles to connect with, even subconsciously. Over the last few years, I have slowly become more consciously aware of some of the natural triggers that indicate the shift of the seasons for me. Most of the most dramatic ones are coming up now with the shift into fall, since it is probably the most dramatic seasonal transition that Northern California gets. Even though the approach of fall means shorter periods of sunlight and the prospect of more rainy days spent inside, every time one of these signs hits me for the first time I feel a burst of joy. This indicates to me how much my body—perhaps even my soul—yearns for these natural connections.

I share with you now some of my personal natural signs of the season in the hopes that you might be inspired to identify some of your own.

1) The return of the Golden-Crowns

About a week ago, I was lying in bed after my alarm went off, blearily considering my strategy for the morning (to bacon? Or not to bacon?) when a sound outside my window shot me fully awake. It was, quite simply, this. More than anything else, this haunting little tune tells me that Fall is approaching. It is the call of the golden-crowned sparrow (Zonotrichia atricapilla) a small but well-traveled bird. They spend most of their lives up north, in Canada and Alaska, in forests and meadows untouched by human hands. Like many other birds, they travel south for the winter, but instead of going all the way to the tropics of Central and South America, they over-winter here, in the forests, scrublands, and woodlands of the Pacific Coast. Their sad song seems to echo the feel of the environment around them, sliding toward winter senescence. They disappear from my neighborhood around February to start the long journey back north, so to me, their sounds are really aligned with winter and fall. I miss them once they’ve left, and I’m always happy to hear them return.

2) The Santa Anas

“The Santa Anas” is a common name for a wind phenomenon that occurs in California during the fall and winter wherein high pressure systems over the Great Basin and other high desert regions of the American West create extremely dry—and sometimes extremely strong—winds that blow down from the mountains and out toward the Pacific. They are most notable in Southern California (where I lived for six years) but also occur in the Bay Area (where they are sometimes called Diablo winds and are responsible for San Francisco’s two months of blessed freedom from the fog). The dry air and clear visibility of these winds bring us the lonely feel of the mountains and high deserts where they were born. Layering your clothes is exceptionally necessarry during these times, since the super-dry air means a stroll or hike will take you back and forth through patches of beating-hot sunlight and icy pools of shade. My contacts and sinuses always drive me nuts during these times, but the trade-off is that my towels feel like they just came fresh from the dryer every. Single. Day.

3) Cranberries

Once upon a time, buying fruit and vegetables “in season” was simply a matter of going to the market and getting the food. Now that we can ship any produce in the world to almost anywhere else in the world within a day, pretty much any produce we could want is available to us always. Most of us are so disconnected from normal local cycles of produce that we have to go out and buy products that tell us what our local edible ecology is supposed to be. One of the major exceptions to the internationalization of food cycles, though, seems to be fall seasonal fruit. Chief among these fruits is the simple cranberry. Much like the golden-crowns, these fruits return to our markets but once a year*, and I am always thrilled when they do. Why, you ask, when packaged cranberry sauce is usually available year-round? Well over the years I have developed the unusual habit of eating them fresh and raw. Cranberry sauces and relishes are alright, but I loooooooove them this way. In general they are very tart and crunchy, but there are many subtle taste variations that make them endlessly exciting to eat. Some of them will be so tart your mouth will pucker (which I actually enjoy), but others will be deliciously, naturally sweet. My favorite ones are neither of these extremes; instead, they release an interesting bouquet of floral flavors that reminds me of the changes in foliage around me (or, as much as we get changes in foliage here in California). During the fall and winter, I go through a full pound bag or two of cranberries a week. I often joke that I am getting my full compliment of fiber and vitamin C for the year in one go. Round about the time I finally get sick of them, they disappear from the shelves, only to return again next fall when I am just starting to crave them again.

4) The constellation Orion

Orion is my favorite constellation. This is partly because, besides the Big Dipper, it was the first constellation that I was able to actually “see” the implied picture of. But to be completely honest, it’s also partially because when Men in Black came out when I was in middle school, I thought it was the second most awesome movie ever and I became obsessed with everything even tangentially related to it. Anyway, in the Northern Hemisphere**, Orion is primarily a winter constellation. He has hung unmistakably in the cold night air of the autumns and winters of my life for as long as I’ve known him. Over the last few weeks I have noticed him returning, climbing over the western hills just as I am getting home from a late evening out. I realized recently that connecting him with the change of the seasons is especially significant because observing the changes of the heavens was one of the primary ways our ancestors marked the passage of time as well. I may not be able to identify, or even see, as much of the sky’s denizens as my ancestors did, but I have no doubt that they too greeted Orion’s yearly return.

There are other smaller, more subtle signs that I also identify with, but I shall keep those to myself. 😉 Do you have your own observations, feelings, or traditions that help you connect with the shifts in the natural world? If so, I would love to hear them, please share them in the comments!

(*And yes, I do realize that here I am ragging on the globalization of produce, but the inescapable fact is that most cranberries are grown in the American North East and have to be shipped out here to California. I’m not perfect, by any means :P)

(**True story: I studied abroad in Australia during my Junior year of college. I left the US in January, which is of course mid-winter here, but knew I’d be arriving in mid-summer down there. The night I left, I vividly remembering looking up at the stars over SFO and seeing Orion hanging bright in the sky. I wished him a mental farewell, thinking I wouldn’t see him until fall, many months hence. So imagine my embarrassment when I got to Australia and discovered that in the Southern Hemisphere, Orion is a constellation practically year round. It’s like the astrological equivalent of saying a heartfelt goodbye to a friend when leaving a party, only to bump into them again on your way to your car.)

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2 Responses to “Autumn is Coming”

  1. Georganne Fisher October 7, 2013 at 6:14 pm #

    October in Northeast Penna. The fragrance and colors of Autumn. Crisp mornings for a hike. Gorgeous sunsets. And I gotta ask… If ‘Men In Black’ was the second most awesome movie ever, what was the first most awesome movie ever?

    • Colleen October 8, 2013 at 8:53 am #

      Jurassic Park. 😉 It actually had a formative influence on me going into the sciences, from 4th grade on.

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