Preferring Seasons to Reasons

September 5, 2009 at 10:57 pm (By Amba) (, , , , , , )

I’m filled with remorse now for uttering on Twitter the blasphemy that I was bored with the seasons — always the same ones, in predictable order, year after year after year.  “Couldn’t the planet tilt another way for a change?” I tweeted.  In the movie, presto!  Midas gets his wish, we all go flying into space, or icecaps clang down on Ecuador, or the weather just goes bonkers — hell, we already have cause to be nostalgic for predictability (insofar as the weather ever was predictable; nostalgia lies).

Maybe I was really just lamenting how fast the seasons revolve by now (like the sun and moon in the classic George Pal/Rod Taylor movie of H.G. Wells’s The Time Machine, which we watched on TCM last night), or protesting my own sensory remove from them, indoors most of the time and bent over J or the computer.  Because no sooner had I said that stupid thing than I got all excited because for the first time all summer, cold water came out of the cold water tap. Then I had the first really crisp apple in six months.  I fell for our planet’s temperate trick all over again.

When I was in high school we did a “voice-speaking choir” performance of Stephen Vincent Benet’s John Brown’s Body. Someone had cut that wonderful book-length poem (you can get a good old copy for pennies) about the Civil War down to a spoken and sung chamber piece (there used to be a recording of it).  I still remember a lot of it, including this:

Autumn is filling his harvest bins with red and yellow grain,

The fire begins and the frost begins

and the floors are cold again.

The floors are cold again.

When you’re a child, the seasons are a huge sensory drama, so much bigger than you — like the acts of a really grand opera.  The revolving transformation of the scenery alone makes you gasp with awe.  And it’s total immersion, not just visual:  the smoke smell and fire color of leaves, the sugary burn of snow.  Seasons make synaesthetes out of everyone; each one is an inextricable complex of color, texture, sound, and smell — you can taste cold, smell color, be smothered in humidity’s sweaty-breasted embrace.  And each season is topped by a holiday, the cherry on the sundae, that concentrates it to its conscious essence:  if fall is an apple, Hallowe’en is apple brandy.  I adored holidays for the way each one summed its season up and made it consumable, a communion.

Habit, responsibility, introspection, and “development” — the razing of woods and selling of fields to build malls and suburbs — are all great estrangers from the senses.  All four may have something to do with the way time has speeded up as we’ve gotten older.  (I can’t even imagine what it’s like to be a kid now — what marks the seasons?  Corporate fruitings like the release of the new American Girl or Wii?  You don’t even wait for the floors to be cold again to go back to school.  You go back in brusque violation of the laziest, sleepiest, most mindless days of summer.  That’s symptomatic of some way the human world has spurned nature.)

The senses are roots:  they tether you to the earth and keep you turning in time with it, inexorable but unhurried.  La vida es corta, pero ancha. Life is short, but it’s wide.


  1. Ennui said,

    Couldn’t the planet tilt another way for a change?

    Good thing I wasn’t drinking anything when I read this or I would have snorted it all over the keyboard.

    Very nice post.

    BTW, I’m a total autumn junkie. Where I live (west Texas) the leaves don’t change into anything worth seeing (we don’t have the right kind of trees) but the light changes. A lot. It turns sand and dry grass into gold.

    Right now, it’s still getting hot in the afternoons but the mornings and evenings are cool. I love it, love it, love it!

  2. amba12 said,

    Yes, all the senses prick up their ears at that first plangent touch of cool . . .

    You sound as if you grew up someplace else that had more obvious seasons. True? Chicago, where I come from, has really extreme seasons; the winters were (are) beautiful but fierce, so when spring arrives it can almost make you weep. The summers are prairie lush. And when I was a kid, the streets were lined with big old elms (later killed by Dutch elm disease), and people used to burn piles of the brown, grooved leaves with abandon. We also had a Hallowe’en bonfire in the local park, burning a witch on top of a pile of orange crates (public safety would never allow such a thing now). The grand opera is very grand, there.

    Then I went to college in Massachusetts, where they have those heartbreaking, flaming maples, and cider presses out in the country. Fellow autumn junkie, here.

  3. Rod said,

    Amba: You got in touch with your Muse.

    As it happens, I was watching a PBS special on Mars the other day. (No, I wasn’t on Mars; that was the topic of the special.) They were speculating that the conditions which could give rise to life on Mars might have existed at the poles even though temperatures are always far below the melting point now. The planet used to tilt on a 45 degree angle. (Now it is close to earth’s 23 degree tilt.) The result would be more direct sunlight near the poles and a greater area with midnight sun in summers, followed by very long, dark, cold winters. I guess it would support oceans with migrating fish and hibernating creatures to feed on them during long summers.

    This got me thinking of what it would mean if we did find evidence that life had been there and was no more. It would be another minor blow to theists who depend on the specialness of earth as a planet created for us, but most people of faith are not dependent on the absence of other hospitable planets, and one could argue that other worlds were created for us to explore, if not in this life, after the Second Coming.

    But how would one divine the purpose of a creator who brought forth life on another world and allowed it to disappear a billion years before there was anyone capable of knowing that it ever existed?

    If we were to find signs that there was once intelligent life on Mars, that would give great support to the idea that the conditions giving rise to life are relatively common, and the universe is teeming with billions of planets which have harbored thinking beings. That thought is both fascinating and frightening. If billions of civilizations have arisen and none has sustained itself sufficiently to contact us, our odds of surviving are not so good.

  4. amba12 said,

    As it happens, I was watching a PBS special on Mars the other day.

    That reminds me of a time when a Romanian gentleman trying to speak German, and mixing it up with French, said with a straight face, “Die erste Medizinschule im Mond” — the first medical school on the moon. (meaning “in the world”)

  5. Charlie (Colorado) said,

    Well, come back out here. Same old seasons, but you can have them all in the span of a week.

    Rod:But how would one divine the purpose of a creator who brought forth life on another world and allowed it to disappear a billion years before there was anyone capable of knowing that it ever existed?

    If you think there is a Creator of that sort, doesn’t it follow that Someone would have known?

    Here’s my (pleasantly untestable) prediction:

    (1) Everywhere that life can exist, it will, and that Mars is one of those places.
    (2) Once life gets started, it’s very very hard to extinguish; a mere little thing like a billion year drying cycle on Mars won’t be near enough.
    (3) If we ever get a chance to ask Deity what it’s purpose is, It will say “It is so cool!”

  6. amba12 said,

    Nothing — no organism, no life form, no civilization — lasts forever. And the universe is so vast that a civilization could sustain itself for a long time and still not have the time or the brilliance to develop the technology to contact another.

    God questions aside, the problem must be that the very qualities necessary for a species and then a civilization to survive and rise to preeminence at a certain point of population size and technological savvy become liabilities, unless they can be reoriented. One can imagine that the same qualities that propelled many an intelligent being to the peak are the same ones that then threw it down. I wonder how many intelligent and technological species have managed to make that turn, either developing different characteristics or redirecting their aggression and avidity. If our nature doesn’t change fast enough, we’ll either destroy ourselves ahead of schedule, or we’ll need either a common enemy or a common adventure to soak up our expansive will to power (been reading Nietzsce again). Going into space ourselves could be it.

  7. amba12 said,

    Charlie’s God is a geek!!

  8. Donna B. said,

    I was born and grew up in southwestern Colorado. Fall was wonderful. Feeling that first chill was like starting a new chapter in a never-ending story. Since hunting season always brought a string of relatives to visit and hunt, fall memories always include putting up meat for the winter. The vegetables and fruit had already been done. (Chokecherry jelly, applesauce, pear butter, Kentucky Wonder beans…)

    The first snowfall had us polishing skis and tuning up the snowmobiles. Spring I remember as mainly messy and muddy. Somebody always got stuck on the first trip to the mountains.

    During the summer for several years we moved to the mountains and lived the life of pioneers which I think has given me a different outlook on many things. One of them is that I grew up with a strong sense of the difference between “women’s work and men’s work” and how they fit together and depended on each other. Everybody worked all day, but women were less involved in the mechanically, physically dangerous stuff.

    I think that era was much tougher on boys. Girls were allowed to be tomboys, but boys were ridiculed for being “sissies”.

  9. Donna B. said,

    I think being a god would be boring.

  10. amba12 said,

    boys were ridiculed for being “sissies”.

    And I bet just liking to read or daydream would’ve been enough to bring it on.

  11. Rod said,

    My children have grown up in the desert Southwest. The seasons are interpreted differently here, but they exist nonetheless:

    Summer: relentlessly hot, without a trace of humidity until August clouds appear. We hibernate, staying in air conditioned cocoons most of the time; venturing out to hike or jog or do something outside only at night or around sunrise, with an occasional leap into the pool. Mid-May to the end of September

    Fall: kind of like a Midwestern summer, without humidity; a time to enjoy the outdoors. Leaves begin falling from deciduous trees in late October, and Fall has eased into Winter by early December

    Winter: Cool enough to wear a sweater at night; trees budding by early February; the season is over almost before it has an opportunity to begin

    Spring: Warm and windy

    There is a continuity ti it, but it is not the continuity I once knew. We look for other signals. We need the continuity.

  12. amba12 said,

    Where in the SW? A friend of ours lives in Tucson. There you can escape into altitude in summer. Around February there is a brief, delicious spring, with cool days and rain, green grass in gullies, and wildflowers.

    I’m crazy about the landscape of northern New Mexico, though I’ve never lived there and have a spotty idea of the seasons. I know it’s a mile high, on the Colorado Plateau, and that there is occasional snow in winter.

  13. Rod said,

    I am in Las Vegas. Average temperatures are slightly below Tucson, which is slightly below Phoenix. We flirt with freezing on the coldest nights of the year, but rarely reach it. But, your observation about escaping to the mountains applies to Vegas as well. In the West, altitude is often a better predictor of climate than latitude. We also have mountains nearby. They go up to around 9,000 feet.

    I grew up in the suburbs North of Chicago. They seasons were more distinct and intense, from blasting cold blizzards to sultry heat, although the running joke was that there were only two seasons – Winter and Road Work.

    Your post on the seasons made me think of tension between tedium and change. Seasons are an expected change, and, like the World Series, the annual appearance of outdoor Christmas lights or Thanksgiving Dinners, a somewhat reassuring break in the tedium of everyday life.

    My favorite season has always been the Fall. We shake of the torpor of summer; the pace quickens. I loved the smell of burning leaves. These days I detect the fragrance of burning California.

  14. Donna B. said,

    60 miles S of Tucson is very different. My daughter was in Sierra Vista for 3 years and I loved visiting her. Their house was in the foothills, sat at approx. 4500 ft. The only bad weather they ever experienced there was a windstorm, and it was pretty scary, but we’ve had much worse in Louisiana. Just no tumbleweeds.

    During a full moon, I could sit outside and read. During a new moon, I saw so many stars, I first thought it was a cloud. When I visited, they had trouble getting me to leave.

    They’ve moved near Phoenix now, and it’s exactly like Rod describes.


    When I was 14, my family moved from SW Colorado to northern NM – Chama to be exact. You must be talking about a different part because snow there was NOT occasional in winter. It was every winter, sometimes 3 ft plus.

    But you are right that the landscape is beautiful. But… have you ever been to Zion National Park?

  15. amba12 said,

    I haven’t been to Zion but my youngest sister and I camped at Natural Bridges, in moonlight bright enough to read.

    Hey, Rod, another Chicagoan! My dad grew up in Winnetka, my brother now lives in Northbrook.

    I first fell in love with the desert in Palm Springs. where my grandparents had a little winter house right below the foothills in the ’50s when it was still kind of a small town. Of course it must have been 110 degrees in summer, but we were never there in summer. There was something about the quality of the very cool, dry, clear mornings, and then the hot sun burning down through the still-cool air, that really grabbed me. And there was that sweet dry scent of sage all the time. After we got back to Chicago my mom caught me on a chair in the spice cabinet, smelling the herbs to try to recapture that scent. We spent a couple of months there in 1952 when my mother was pregnant and recuperating from polio — my father stayed in Chicago working most of that time — and for shorter periods over the next several winters. There’s still a kind of day almost anywhere — we had one here a few days ago — when the air is cool and still and the sun is hot, that gives me that Palm Springs feeling. We’d go riding out of town into the open desert. One of the happiest days of my life was a day my sister (now the doctor) and I rode with our guide, a leathery old guy (I can’t remember his name now, only that my grandmother called him Clem Kadiddlehopper) across the desert to an oasis called Andreas Canyon, where the rest of the family drove out and met us. There was cool, dappled shade and a stream of stone-cold water which we drank out of our cupped hands. I must have been eleven or twelve.

  16. amba12 said,

    BTW Donna — as dramatically beautiful as those Utah rock formations are, it was the Rio Grande Gorge between Taos and Santa Fe that I fell in love with. It’s more subtle. And the scale distorts space in such an awesome way. It’s this sort of tawny saddle-shaped valley splotched with blue cloud shadows, with low blue mountains behind it, and then this meandering crevasse like a river of shadow down the middle and you can’t tell how big it is or how far away. I left my car by the side of the road and started walking towards the gorge, and after a while I looked back and my car had dwindled to the size of a bug, but the gorge wasn’t any closer.

    That’s where my ashes are going. J and I took my grandmother’s on the cable car up Mt. San Jacinto behind a much changed, metastasized Palm Springs.

  17. Rod said,

    Donna: Was your daughter in the military? Most folks in Sierra Vista have some connection with Fort Huachuca. I agree, the high desert, with a little chill, is great.

    Amba: I was in the Northwest suburbs, near the airport in Chicago: a town called Mt. Prospect that would have been little more than a train stop for farmers when your dad was growing up. It became a bedroom community of about 50,000, surrounded by other bedroom communities. We used to drive over to Winnetka to hang around at Tower Beach. To my stereotyping eyes at the time, Winnetka was filled with girls who drove daddy’s TBird to the hamburger stand and went to Coming Out Parties (which had nothing to do with later meanings of the phrase, “coming Out.”) There may have been boys in Winnetka, but I was 16 and did not notice.

    The area around Santa Fe and Taos is beautiful and dramatic, and the artists’ colony feel of both towns is nice. I also like Sedona and Oak Creek Canyon in Arizona. (I haven’t posted a link, but do a Google image search for Oak Creek Canyon. It is gorgeous.) The West is full of places that are good for the soul, as long as you don’t have to make a living. Years ago I attended a firm retreat at a dude ranch at the edge of a national forest outside Tucson. We took a chilly early morning trail ride among the saguaro cactus, led by a trail hand as crusty and weatherbeaten as the one you described. About 8:00 a.m., we stopped at a prearranged spot for a breakfast of steak and eggs, with sausage and strong coffee. It doesn’t get much better than that.

    Finally, Amba, I remember last year when you posted about the death of David Foster Wallace. I had read The Corrections and I thought he was a talented writer, but I didn’t follow up with any more of his work. Yesterday I ran across a Commencement speech he gave a few years ago. If you haven’t already read it, you should.

  18. amba12 said,

    Yes, I know that commencement speech!! Kenyon College, 2005, right? It’s excellent.

  19. wj said,

    Some days, I swear everybody has roots in Chicago! My Dad grew up in Skokie and went to Northwestern . . . when he wasn’t playing minor league baseball. But WW II brought him to California (and my mother), and he never felt the urge to return to snow.

    In northern California, we basically have two seasons: wet and cool, and hot and dry. Rain stops by mid-April. And, with the exception of the annual shock (people have no memory) shower in the second week of August, it doesn’t rain again until mid-October. Then it rains about half the time for six months, with maybe a half dozen nights with frost. Want snow? Drive a couple hours to the mountains. But why live in it full time???

    But I suspect that our climate may be changing. This year, we’ve had several weeks when the high never got above 85 (at least 10 degrees below normal). Including what is traditionally the hottest week of the year: the second week of September — AKA State Fair week. Global warming is likely going to do bad things in lots of places, but for us it looks like a real improvement in the summer weather. What it will do to the rainy season remains to be seen.

  20. Donna B. said,

    I have never been to Chicago, but my daughter has and I paid a tremendous fee to get her (my) car out of impound. And while she was waiting for it in the heat, she fainted, so there was an ambulance fee on top of that.

    Can’t say I want to visit there :-)

    Rod, my son-in-law is in the Army. He’s an Apache pilot and is working as Army liaison at the Boeing plant near Phoenix until next spring when he’s going to be sent to the DFW area to work with several contractors there while getting his MBA. After that, his career track will likely send him to the Pentagon. But for at least 2 years, I’ll have grandchildren within “reach”.

    Amba, as long as I lived in that area I never saw the Rio Grande Gorge, but your description of it reminds me of Black Canyon of the Gunnison river near where I was born.

    I’m just a tad homesick after reading all this, but it’s homesick in a good way. Fond and beautiful memories.

  21. Rod said,

    Donna: You might have guessed that it is not by chance I know of Fort Huachuca. My son is and Army Captain. Intel officers go through their specialty training there. My son returned from Kuwait last May, and he is currently full time with an Army Reserve unit in Las Vegas, where he grew up.

    Amba: Yes, that is the speech of which I wrote. The speech covered an amazing number of ideas on which I have ruminated over the last few years. I suddenly found I held much of my world view in common with this writer whom I had only read in a desultory way. Then, of course, I had to consider that he ultimately chose suicide.

    PS You can sure tell someone who was educated before 1970. Nobody today would write, “That is the speech of which I wrote.” I’m beginning to feel a little stilted and archaic.

  22. Donna B. said,

    Rod: My daughter was also in the Army and went through the intel school at Ft. Huachuca in 1997. She went from there to Ft. Carson and the 3rd ACR, where she met her husband.

    We all loved Sierra Vista – both sides of their family and they hosted our Thanksgivings for several years.

  23. Rod said,

    Donna: My son and daughter-in-law met at a reserve unit in L.A. There is an attitude towards the military in some parts of academia which teeters between condescension and contempt. I wouldn’t trade a single soldier for a gaggle of self appointed intellectuals.

  24. amba12 said,

    Studying a serious martial art made me appreciate the military and be grateful to have something remotely like its basic training and discipline in my own life.

    Rod, I suppose the discussion of “That is something up with which I will not put” belongs on that other blog. :) Even the Chicago Manual of Style now permits — with vehemence — ending a sentence with a preposition as well as splitting an infinitive. They both still hurt my ears.

  25. Rod said,

    Me, too. However, I actually break the rules if something sounds too stilted. The real issue is the listener. I love Shakespeare’s cadences and those evocative phases, such as “the slings and arrows of outrageous fortune.” But, I would skip Shakespearian language if I wanted to communicate with most people.

    We live in a society which, for the most part, mocks the beauty and versatility of language. I once pointed out to a judge that my opposition’s argument was based on false premises and amounted to nothing but sophistry. I got this response:

    “Sophistry? Sophistry? Speak English to me, Mr. Jean! What is sophistry?”

  26. amba12 said,

    That judge should be sentenced to a week of doing nothing but reading the site described here.

  27. amba12 said,

    the annual shock (people have no memory) shower in the second week of August,

    That’s an amazing phenomenon. I had an older friend in Florida who kept a “weather diary” in those 5-year diaries that have 5 years of the same date on the same page. Every year people would exclaim about the weird weather, and every year it would be remarkably consistent with what happened at the same time the year before.

    And those “freak” patterns that reliably contradict their season are remarkably common too. In Germany, there are, or were, a couple of days in late May called “Die Eisheiligen” (the ice saints, because so many days are associated with particular saints), because that’s how consistently those days featured unseasonable frosts.

    Climate is changing, but it’s not at all clear how or why. Chicago too had an unusually cool summer, leading a friend of mine (otherwise predictably Democratic in all ways) to tell me about a New Yorker article some time back featuring the theory that we’re on the brink of another regular ice age, which would happen very very fast, and that only global warming may be holding it back!!

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