The Autumnal Equinox is officially the first day of Fall, but such hard demarcations have little relevance in the natural world. The temperatures always lag behind the changes in angle and duration of sunlight that create the differences in season to our tilted Earth. For months the Georgia air grew more oppressively hot even though the sun has been easing southward since late June. For the past month or so, I’ve watched as the daily temperatures crept down; highs solidly in the 90s have given way to the 70s. Warm evenings, thick and heavy with moisture and the distant rumble of thunder make me feel sluggish, and ready to shelter in a climate controlled room. But tonight is pleasantly cool, and I think we are safely done with summer temperatures. A scattering of trees are showing their colors, but it will be late October or so before the wave of reds and yellows that has already begun north of the border will sweep into Georgia. The changing of the seasons, and the turning of the leaves, is more abrupt and decisive around Athens than it was in Waynesboro; mark it down to a difference of 70 miles of latitude and 400 feet of elevation. My seasons are muted and indistinct by comparison to, say, New England, with their long summer days, long winter nights, and winters as brutally cold as ours are brutally hot.
Of course, as we look towards shorter days, the inhabitants of the Southern Hemisphere have had their first official day of Spring as their days lengthen. People in their temperate zones are enjoying the warming air and breaking buds as we did 6 months previously.
Spring is nice. but Fall is my favorite season, and the promise whispered on every cool puff of air whets the anticipation.
Fires in North America, South America, Australia. Earthquakes in the Middle East. Tornado outbreaks, and a wall of wind across the Midwest. The Atlantic hurricane season that wouldn’t quit. Locusts in Africa. Final numbers aren’t in, but this may be the hottest year on record – the other contender being the previous election year.
Ah, yes, politics. The fear that if the other side wins, they’ll do unto us what we’ve been doing unto them. A UK that wants to leave Europe but keep their room. A Middle East that boils, bleeds, and literally explodes. A US where protests against violence are met with violence, a wannabe dictator rails against the rules of order when they don’t work for him, and a face mask (or lack thereof) is seen as ideological gang colors.
And the big story is the greatest pandemic in a century. Aided by a populace trained to distrust any inconvenient recommendations from scientists, this particularly virulent virus has killed over a million and a half people around the globe – including some 313,000 in the United States since February. I work with people who think the “China Virus” is a political stunt, and refuse to wear masks. I know hospital workers who have been in crisis mode for months, trying to keep the careless, the unlucky and the nonbelieving from drowning in their own fluids.
While all the humans strut and fret our hour upon the stage, fighting grand battles for the hyperbolic cause du jour, nature progresses on its own cycles. Foliage colors and falls. Frost rims the dried leaves. And the sun’s daily arc dips a little closer to the southern horizon with each pass, unregarded by most. In a couple of days, the sun’s apparent southward journey halts, as it has at this point in the planet’s revolution around the sun since before there was anything alive on this rock to notice. There’s no way to know when our ancestors first noted the daystar’s annual wander north-to-south and back again, or what significance they attached to that drifting. There are archeological clues of stone-age observances on several continents, but what it meant to the people when the sun finally stood still (solstice being the Latin term meaning “sun standing”) may never be revealed.
A natural cycles go, the winter solstice is as good a time as any to mark the turning of the year. The cultural end of the year is marked on the 31st. The 10 days (give or take, depending on the year) in-between are a liminal time – a threshold from an end to a new beginning, and not quite “normal” time. Everyone is poised for Christmas, then having Christmas; they stay buoyed until New Years’ Eve, and start coming down on the first of January. January 2nd is a time of forgetting resolutions, paying holiday bills, writing the wrong dates on documents, and looking towards a distant spring. I consider that whole ten-day span of time as the ending of the year, like a held breath before the plunge.
Take some time during this drawn out space between years. See how the natural world deals with this time of year; how do people acknowledge or work around the state of the environment at this time?
Yes, I’m one of the multitude, one of the Pilgrims of the Occultation.
I mean, I’ve seen photos and videos. I know the mechanics of it. But I decided that I would regret it if I didn’t make an effort to see it.
Total eclipse of the sun.
I experienced a partial eclipse, back in the 80s. We schoolkids watched the dappling on the ground assume crescent shapes, saw the air grow dim but the shadows stay sharp. Now, in 2017, we’d get the chance to see all but 3% of the sun obscured by the moon – directly, thanks to the safety glasses we now have available – by just stepping outside. But here was a chance to see the full monty, close enough to drive to. Even better, I could make a memory with my son: an adventure to see a rare celestial event.
So I spent some of my leave time, and cashed in a chunk of my wife’s goodwill. The young’un got permission to skip some classes. Avoiding the reportedly snarled interstates, we headed towards the line on the map which marked the center of totality. Along the way, we passed small congregations gathered at crossroads, pecan groves, and church parking lots, armed with tents, coolers, grills and the occasional telescope. We were a bit north of Saluda, SC, when the moon began easing across the solar disk, so we turned off on a side road, then again on a dirt road, parking at a woods road across from a pasture. Out came the eclipse glasses, first thing; after confirming that the event was definitely underway, we broke for lunch. That’s the thing about partial eclipses. Direct observation requires special equipment, and the event occurs at a snail’s pace. For the next hour, we watched the landscape and donned our cardboard glasses every ten or so minutes. Yes, the sky got darker, but not as much as you might expect given the waning sliver of sun. The August breeze took on a hint of late September. Off in the distance, chainsaws continued their droning, for “working can til can’t” doesn’t take eclipses into account.
The many puffy clouds that dogged us all the way north pulled back like a curtain in the final minutes leading up to totality. We both stood and watched as the sun vanished by increments. The last ragged sliver vanished, and the glasses came off.
A partial eclipse is an interesting phenomenon. A total eclipse is something altogether different. I knew it was coming and what it would look like, but like so many things, being there and merely seeing a photo are very different things. It was more than a pale circle, it was a striking ring of white fire set in a black sky. It was beautiful, it was riveting, and without the benefit of knowledge it would be utterly terrifying. I can see how the event would have been a frightful portent in ancient times. On this day, it elicited an exclamation of wonder from the jaded teen – certainly a favorable omen!
Totality was one of those hanging moments: at two-and-a-half minutes, a brief midpoint of the event; yet within the darkness everything holds its breath in an otherworldly pause (now that I think about it, it was reminiscent of Frodo putting on the ring and seeing the Eye staring back at him…).
And then the liminal moment ended. The process reversed, as the crack in the sky expanded, the air brightened, and my awareness returned. For, I realized, in the darkness all my senses narrowed to the view of the corona. I had planned to listen for songbirds ceasing their calls, or for night insects taking up theirs. Did the loggers put down their tools as the sky went black? Were the clouds on the horizon still lit? I couldn’t tell you. I have a memory of the cool air, but apart from a bit of conversation there was nothing but the blackened sun and the camera I used to record it.
Now that the key minutes of the two-plus hour event were done… I must confess, we didn’t hang around. After five minutes of appreciating the waxing crescent, I asked how long he wanted to stay. He replied “as long as you want to,” which I took to mean “take your time, but I’m good.” So, we packed up in the still-filtered light, and joined the long southward caravan of folks who came for the totality.
In the week since the eclipse, it hasn’t completely left my thoughts; I am curious how, or if, the event eventually settles into my consciousness; with it be a check on a bucket list, or will it be one of those memories I carry after many others have fallen to obscurity? I know people who scoff at all the fuss about the eclipse. One older gentleman watched the proceedings on TV, and found it to be faddish and silly. I’ll admit that, had I been immersed in the party atmosphere of many of the televised gatherings, I’d be tempted to agree. But I took a road less traveled, and stood with my son, alone and quiet and open to the world. At that place and in that brief, stretched moment, the sun and moon performed their glorious pas de deux for us alone.