Finally, fall is here! The pumpkins, the crisp breezes and changing leaves, the waning daylight, the opening of the veil.... Fall is by far my favorite time of the year, and it's not just a seasonal change: it's one of the integral parts of the natural cycle of things, too.
Calendars throughout the world differ on the exact beginning and ending of fall, as it depends on culture as much as the physical changes generally associated with the transition from summer to winter, such as changing leaves and cooler temperatures. Before the Julian calendar was adopted in northern Europe, there were no exact dates for any of the seasons, and societies considered there to be only two - winter and summer - with transition points between them. In Scandinavia, winter was considered to have begun sometime in what is now mid-October, while the insular Celtic societies acknowledged the end of summer and the beginning of winter with the celebration of Samhain, the origin of our modern Halloween celebrations. Over time, the seasonal cycles were quadrisected into the current four seasons of equal length, and the Gregorian civil calendar in place today begins and ends the seasons on the equinoxes and solstices. But there are still are a few outliers that maintain seasonal beginnings based on custom, such as the Irish calendar that still sees fall as consisting of the months of August, September and October, with November 1 being the beginning of winter.
For most places, however, it seems that a universal calendar neglects the subtleties of place and the personalities of differing bioregions separated by climate as well as culture. Winter may indeed begin on December 21st in Louisiana, for instance, but by then it’s been snowing in North Dakota for nearly two months. Retaining a connection with place and the seasons means honoring them in the context our specific landbases and climates, as well as local culture. For spring and fall especially, this seems easy enough. Rather than these seasons being considered seasons of equal consideration with winer and summer, winter and summer should define the cold and warm halves of the year, respectively, with spring and fall being transition periods between the two. And how long that transition period is would depend on place, and be defined by the physical changes that we think of when considering the seasons. If this is the case, then fall would begin for a particular place when the temperature becomes noticeably and consistently cooler, and the leaves of deciduous trees begin to change and fall. It would end when the leaves are gone, the trees dormant, and the temperatures on the margin of wintry cold. This is inexact, of course, and thus potentially subjective, and would differ from year to year and place to place, which is where local culture comes in to define it for their region.
Another interesting fact about fall is that the season used to be referred to as harvest in west Germanic speaking languages, and is still done so today outside of English (cf. Dutch herfst, German herbst,and Scots halrst). As urbanization took over, however, harvest lost its meaning as the time of year (and because the word to describe the activity most associated with fall), and autumn replaced the moniker for the season. This took place after much of English emigration to North America, where fall replaced harvest and autumn remained in disuse.
History lesson aside, fall is important in our lives not only because of its meteorological and ecological role, but because it represents a shift from the hot days of summer and a gradual closing in of the family as days grow shorter, nights longer, and temperatures begin to drop. It’s the changes in tree color to rustic browns, vibrant golds and dry-blood red. Fall is sweatshirts and open windows. It’s crisp air and warm cider. It’s the scratchy sound of dried and curled leaves saltating along the pavement in the wind. It’s the psitherism in the forest overhead. It’s pumpkin patches, apple picking, and apple cider doughnuts. It’s withering cornfields and hay bales, dried corn stalks and cinnamon everything. It’s joy and abundance of fruit and grain from the harvest, as well as the anxiety and melancholy over harsh weather to come.
Fall is a perfect time to celebrate life. The world is dying, not to be renewed until spring. The days grow shorter and night takes over. But the world remains beautiful, and celebrating life in the face of death is a whistle in the dark that takes power away from the darker side of life, that empowers us in the face of our own mortality. Fall reminds us of the passing of time and the finity of life. It’s a time to take stock our lives, to take stock of our own harvests, what has fruited in our lives versus what needs culling. Maybe the job we have is making us unhappy, or our endeavors thus far have been fruitless. Maybe it’s time to plant new seeds and reap something fresh. Or maybe what we’ve done has been awesome, the fruits of our labors sweet, and it’s time to celebrate the harvest, the land, and nature. To embrace the cooler temperatures and crisp air, the falling acorns, the whirling leaves in downward spiral. To catch them for good luck. To stuff hands in pockets and stroll quietly along whispering walking trails, observing life as it prepares for the cold and scarcity of winter, as life has done for countless millennia.
With snuggles and hot mugs of cider, fall is an important time to celebrate our families and communities by bringing the ones you love together and celebrating your bond with good food and drink, mirth, and merriment. Family is the most important thing in life, and the season lends itself perfectly to human connection. As we settle into this wonderful time of year, grab a good book, a comfortable blanket, and snuggle up and celebrate the love of fall that waits inside us all.