The inspiration to write these posts and my book came from lockdown; with horizons suddenly limited and the chance to travel a distant dream, it became apparent that it was time to refocus to look more closely at what was nearby - the wonders just outside our doors, in our gardens and that we pass on the walk to the chemist. This lead me to observe much more closely, not just what was there but also how it changed with the unfolding of the year.
Seasons passed in lockdown, still there was a chance to observe the comings and goings that I had previously overlooked. There was a strange sense of timelessness but the seasons inched past our windows anyway. That reminded me of a question I had been chewing on - with climate change will our seasons completely reorganise and what will it mean? Has that happened before? Can wildlife cope? Can we cope? In our modern insulated lives and supermarkets full of seasonless produce, are the seasons as integral to us now as they once were so will shifts matter less?
I feel they do matter, if not as a determining factor of food supply, but as part of the richness of life's changes around us. More than ever how life survives changes matters for us.
The fifth season
A few years ago I was lucky enough to attend a talk by the late Bob Duggan, founder of the Tai Sophia Institute. At one point he referred to the five seasons and my ears pricked up. I will talk more of this later but in essence he explained that dividing the year into four or five seasons was not a given, but are determined by by an inherited cosmology. Bob was an acupuncturist and he explained to me that acupuncturists often adhered to the Eastern cosmology that favoured ‘fives’, five elements rater than four for example; this was in contrast, he claimed, to herbalists who tended to work with the Western philosophy of ‘fours’ - four elements, four body humours etc. four seasons too.
Bob in contrast argued that the summer goes through two distinct phases; by late summer, although the leaves are still on the trees, they are clearly becoming tired and drying out as water is removed to prepare for colder days. Flowers are fading, berries swelling, some birds are already leaving. Late or second summer was his fifth season. This helped me observe the world more closely and increasingly I am aware of this fifth season too.
I did some digging and research and found many wonders.
How do we know that there are four seasons? Only because we have been told so. In reality, this number of seasons is not a given and the yearly patterns are regarded differently across the world.
Even at home, through history the seasons have been seen quite differently to how we see them today. For much of UK history, the changing year was marked less by climate patterns than by key events in the agricultural cycle and by a procession of religious feasts and religious days. These sometimes had a link to climate but mostly they depended on astronomy and religious narrative to divide the year. The timing of these year markers was often determined by solar or lunar cycles rather than earthly changes. Only when printed calendars appeared, did it become possible to structure yearly events around a nominated date rather than natural phenomena.
An important question was who got to decide when these key dates were? Across Europe, since the Middle Ages, this remained in the control of powerful religious bodies, such as the Council of Tours.
Pre-Christian times were different. In Europe and through much of our history, people had less scope (and less interest?) for structured and convoluted systems; it is believed that they tended to see the year as dominated by two obvious seasons – light and dark. This two-part division of the yearly cycle is often cited as being integral to Celtic seasonal lore. The dark half of the year was said to be when the evergreen holly king ruled the winter forest and the oak king retreated until summer returned.
The recognition and naming of spring, and autumn as distinctive seasons is relatively recent in our culture, only becoming widely recognised around the 16th Century. This change was linked especially to Renaissance interest in classical teachings. As with the classical elements, it was the ancient Greek philosophers, especially Aristotle, who defined the division of the year into four seasons, each running from solstice to equinox or equinox to solstice.
This was related to the Ancient Greek belief that our body health and temperaments are controlled by four humours - yellow bile, black bile, blood, and phlegm. By corollary they also believed that nature’s body is made up of four elements - the humours of the natural world. These were of course; earth, air, fire, and water. With fours in mind, a more extensive cosmology of fours followed, including the idea that four seasons, not two, naturally reflected cosmic harmony.
Thanks to the work of scholars like Francis Bacon; these ideas became accepted throughout Medieval Europe, as can be seen in many of Shakespeare’s writings. The belief in humours survived until at least Elizabethan times after which it was replaced by scientific frameworks. Even so, the idea of four seasons remains entrenched in our cultural understanding of how the earth cycles and how the year progresses.
Different perspectives on the seasons
Away from temperate climates and cultures, other societies saw things quite differently. Even today the way that people see the seasons is as diverse as cultures and climates are. For people in the tropics the temperature is much less changeable through the year than in northern countries and fluctuations in rainfall are more significant. As a result, their year is often divided into just two seasons, wet and dry, although this may be complemented by periods of dominant climatic events, such as ‘hurricane season’ or ‘fire season’.
In some Asian philosophies and cosmologies, the idea of five elements was more typical. They in turn derived five seasons from this cosmology. In India, six seasons, linked to the religious calendar, s a long established system. Many indigenous communities in North America and Australia also see the year as divided into five or six, signalled by natural phenomena such as the timing of ice melting or animal migrations. In the floodplains of major rivers, it can be the changes in river behaviour - flood or low water - that most defines the seasonal calendar. This was true along the Nile in Ancient times.
What can we learn from this diversity?
Really the detail is not important. What is obvious is that the seasons as we describe them are a cultural construct not a fixed reality. The reality is that the year changes in a gradual cyclical way that can be divided and named however we wish. With this understanding, and particularly in times of changing climate, it may be useful to free ourselves from inherited dogma.
We are free to look beyond what we have been told. We can become natural philosophers, observing and reflecting about the reality of the changing year that we experience. We can learn from Bob's example and use our knowledge of global diversity, not as a framework to force the seasons into, but as an inspiration - permission to observe the world and to decide what patterns have most meaning to us today.
How many seasons make sense to you?
The extreme may be found in Japan where traditionally the year has been divided into as many as 72 micro seasons, each given a name to reflect a natural phenomenon, such as ‘first peach blossom’ or ‘first bamboo sprouts’. You can even get an app for your phone called ’72 seasons’ that takes you through the natural Japanese year.
How delightful it might be to have our year defined, not by convention, but by close observation, reminding us constantly to take time out of the day to observe what is happening in life’s natural patterns.
Of course such an approach stretches what we usually mean by ‘season’ almost beyond recognition, but as a way of marking the passing year it is valid. Rather than blunt, broad stretches like ‘autumn’ we would be inspired to notice the finer details of the yearly cycle, and perhaps better notice the changes that we have unleashed.
In his book ‘From What Is to What If’, Rob Hopkins, the initiator of Transition Towns, argues that addressing climate change is a ‘project of the imagination’. By this he means that if the rules of the planet have changed, and the systems and structures that got us here have been proven unfit for purpose, then our challenge is to take the opportunity to rebuild what we want to. Firstly though, we should let our ideas and spirits fly, if we have to re-imagine… everything… then let us be ambitious and imagine it all better than before. Let us take a lesson from the plants and become world weavers.
Begin today by imagining how good it could be
The naming and rituals of the seasons may seem less of a serious issue compared to finding safe energy or curing pandemics, but it still remains a test of our ability to imagine anew, to think about the implications of a changed world. The seasons as we recognise them today reflect a dance between, culture and recurrent weather patterns. As the climate around us adopts new patterns, so should our cultural response. On the list of things to re-imagine is how we mark and celebrate the turning of the year. In doing this we can be inspired by how different cultures have defined their seasons.
So in the face of changing seasons do we have sufficient imagination and daring to break with tradition and rethink how we describe our seasonal experiences?