A New Season Falls into Place

September is the ninth month of the Gregorian calendar, but the month’s name is derived from septem, Latin for “seven,” which was its position in the early Roman calendar.

September is the month of the Autumnal Equinox which occurs on the 22nd at 9:03 PM. Is it always on September 22nd? In the Northern Hemisphere, the autumnal equinox falls on September 22 or 23. In the Southern Hemisphere, the equinox occurs on March 20 or 21.

In the Northern Hemisphere, the equinox is when the Sun crosses the celestial equator going south. In the Southern Hemisphere, the equinox is when the Sun moves north across the celestial equator.

Today we move into autumn, also known as fall in North American English. Which word do you tend to use? The origin of “autumn” and “fall” for the season is interesting. Did you know that at one time (and still in some places) the season is called “Harvest?”

This transitional period from summer to winter is when (unless you’re in the tropics) daylight becomes noticeably shorter and the temperature cools considerably. This is best known as the time when the leaves of deciduous trees change colors as they prepare to shed. Early predictions for Paradelle here in the northeast is that a lack of rain this summer will mean a less-than-spectacular color foliage show.

Temperatures now seem to switch between summer heat and winter chills, but that is true only in middle and high latitudes. In equatorial regions, temperatures generally vary little during the year, and in polar regions, autumn is very short.

A Fall of Leaves

falling leaves

The words “autumn” and “fall” meaning the season that begins today in the Northern Hemisphere both originated in Britain, but one is more commonly used there while the other is more common in America. By the mid-1800s, “fall” was considered to be the  American season by lexicographers.

Autumn is the older word. It came into English in the 1300s from the Latin word autumnus.

At one time there was an intermediary season preceding our autumn that was called “harvest.” It seems that autumn came into usage to distinguish between the time when one harvests crops and the actual crop harvest itself.

Writers, especially poets, wrote about the seasonal colors of this time and the phrase “the fall of the leaves” came into more common usage. That phrase was shortened sometime in the 1600s to “fall.” This coincides with English moving across the ocean with explorers and settlers to the New World. But both words must have been used in the New World as they were in Britain because “fall” for the season doesn’t appear until 1755 when Samuel Johnson added it to his Dictionary of the English Language.

Fall is still occasionally used in countries where British English is spoken, but more likely in phrases, like “spring and fall.” American though I may be, I prefer autumn, since it is used to mark the Autumnal Equinox.


This post originally appeared on Why Name It That?

I Just Felt Autumn

I just felt autumn as the equinox just clicked over in the Northern Hemisphere at 4:02 PM. I queued this post for that time in advance so that I could stand outside and feel it.  Okay, it’s not true that you can feel or even see anything happen at that moment.  But…

The Autumnal equinox of September happens and the astronomical start of fall in the Northern Hemisphere (and spring in the Southern Hemisphere) for a brief time is “equal night” – a day of about the same length as the night.

For real, the Sun crosses the “celestial equator.” This is an imaginary line that marks the equator on Earth extending up into the sky from north to south.

It may not happen tonight or even the next few weeks, but the days and nights are somewhat cooler in Paradelle. The days are definitely getting shorter, though that is hard to observe on any daily basis. I already had to change the setting on the timer that turns on some lights in my house.

When I say that I felt autumn, it is because as I stood outside at that moment of equinox I saw the changes in the plants around me. My vegetable garden’s leaves are turning yellow. I will start pinching out some of the tomato plant’s flowers in order to send all the energy to the remaining fruits. Some of those will never turn red and I will pick them half-ripened to falsely turn red in the house. I’ll grab some green ones before the first frost (not due around here for about another month – but no one knows for sure) and make fried green tomatoes and pickle some of them.

The squirrels have increased their activity. The chipmunks seem even more frantic than usual.

The maple leaves are changing.

In the morning when I take my coffee outside to drink, I see a few insects clinging to the screens or window glass trying to grab some house heat overnight. I find a few insects in flowers that didn’t survive the night.

In Ancient Greek mythology, the equinox is associated with the story of the abduction of Persephone. She was taken from her mother, the harvest goddess Demeter, to the underworld to become the wife of Hades, the god-king of the underworld. Demeter eventually got her daughter back from Hades, but only for nine months of the year. So, every fall Persephone would return to the underworld to spend three months with Hades. During these months, Demeter refused to use her divine skills to make plants grow, explaining why we have three months of winter every year.

Mabon is a modern Neopagan celebration which takes place around the September equinox. It is one of the six Sabbats based on the cycles of the sun. The ceremonies are based on the myth of Persephone, and it celebrates the second harvest and the start of winter preparations.

Gather at Stonehenge or Castlerigg and watch the sunrise. Respect the impending darkness; give thanks to the sunlight.

All Things Being Equal


Another equinox is upon us, one of two times each year when the Sun crosses the equator and it appears, if only for a moment, that day and night are of equal length. For me, that autumn equinox moment just happened at 10:21 AM EDT (September 22).

You can be scientific and astronomical about the equinoxes, as I have usually been in writing past posts, but autumn is my favorite season and that has little to do with celestial events.

My October birthday (the 20th) always feels very autumnal. I have always thought that people may be more comfortable in the season and climate they were born into.

This is the first September since I was 4 years old that it doesn’t feel like a “new year” starting this month because for the all the years after that I was either a student or teacher. The new school year starting was much more of an event that the January hoopla of the calendar new year.

People in earlier times certainly paid more attention to the equinox than we do today. They knew this was a significant and regular event. Temples and structures, most famously Stonehenge, followed the Sun and Moon and it was associated with the changing seasons. They may not have marked the four seasons in the same way that we do, but they noted the two equinoxes.

For their lives, the fact that the nights began to be longer than the days was more significant than the later electric age. They eventually calculated that the next turning point would be the Winter Solstice in December when days would start to get longer again.

Today, we don’t have much ceremony associated with the equinox. Summer ended for most Americans with Labor Day. School started again. Plants and gardens have started to die back for many of us. Halloween and even Christmas items and advertisements started appearing already. We are terribly out of sync with the celestial clockwork.

As an autumn baby, this cooler weather, blazes of foliage, fireplaces and sweaters all feel very comfortable. Of course, I will miss summer when things turn cold in winter (my least favorite season), but for now I am quite happy with the seasonal climate.

The interaction of Earth and Moon ignores our human attempts to mark the seasons by fixed calendar dates. The Sun seems to move southward (of course, its Earth moving) so that it is cooler here in the Northern Hemisphere and warmer in the Southern Hemisphere.

The equinoxes mark spring and autumn, but when the Sun is at its farthest north or south and the length of time between sunrise and sunset is the shortest of the year, we have the solstices of summer and winter. The two equinoxes mark the equal points in between.

This day of balance is always a reminder to me of things I need to do in this season to prepare for the coming winter. There are always summer projects I didn’t complete that I rush to finish. As the weather cools even more, I need to bring in plants, clean up the garden, take in garden hoses and winterize the lawn mowers as I get the snowblower ready.

But for now, all things being equal, I will just enjoy my cup of tea and look at the early autumn blooms on the chrysanthemums and other plants, and watch the birds and squirrels do their equinox dance.

Balancing Day and Night – The Autumnal Equinox Arrives

“Autumn is a second spring where every leaf is a flower.” ~ Albert Camus

If you want music while reading this, try a bit of “Autumn” from Vivaldi’s The Four Seasons

On Monday, September 22 at 10:29 P.M. EDT, the autumnal equinox will click into place and fall will arrive here in Paradelle and for the rest of the Northern Hemisphere.

Even though many Americans take Labor Day weekend as the end of summer, and plenty of schoolchildren see the day before school reopens as the end, officially it will be tomorrow. The temperatures will gradually drop and the hours of daylight will lessen.

The word equinox is from the Latin words for equal + night, although we know now that it is not exactly equal with 12 hours of daylight and 12 hours of darkness. On both equinoxes, the very center of the Sun sets 12 hours after it rises. Of course, we consider the day to begin when the upper edge of the Sun peaks over the horizon a bit ahead of the Sun’s center. And, no matter what the clock says, most of us don’t think of it as night until the entire Sun disappears at that opposite horizon.

If you want to get all scientific, the Sun is still visible when it is below the horizon because our atmosphere refracts the rays and bends them in an arc over the horizon.

Not exactly equal, but pretty close.

This autumnal equinoxes and the spring equinoxes are the only days of the year in which the Sun crosses the celestial equator, in other words, the solar terminator is perpendicular to the Equator. So, if equality is what you seek on the equinox, these are the days when the Northern and Southern Hemispheres are illuminated equally.

I prefer the terms “vernal equinox” and “autumnal equinox” which also come from Latin (ver = spring and autumnus = autumn). Unfortunately, these name are seasonal and most people know that seasons of the northern hemisphere and southern hemisphere are opposites. Our autumnal event is the vernal equinox in the southern hemisphere. Have a nice Spring all of you down there!

balanced eggsCan you balance an egg on its end on an equinox? Sure, you can. But you can stand an egg on its end any day though. Nothing special about the equinox.

Still, I suspect that this is likely to be the day that the most people actually think to try and do it.

You just need patience and a steady hand. You can cheat a bit and shake up the egg first to break the yolk loose from the chalazae that keep it suspended in the center of the egg. That will lower the egg’s center of gravity.

Some people also make the false claim that you can balance a broom on the equinox. You might be able to balance your checkbook if, again, you have a steady hand.

The equinox might be a symbolically good day to balance yourself.  Maybe some easy yoga poses. How about a tai chi class? (Excellent for senior citizens.) Perhaps, a centering ceremony.

The leaves are falling, falling as from way off,
as though far gardens withered in the skies;
they are falling with denying gestures.
And in the nights the heavy earth is falling
from all the stars down into loneliness.
We all are falling. This hand falls.
And look at others: it is in them all.
And yet there is one who holds this falling
endlessly gently in his hands.

~  Ralph Waldo Emerson, “Autumn”

As hemisphere-centric as most of us can be, we are all very Earth-centric. Equinox is a phenomenon that can occur on any planet with a significant tilt to its rotational axis.

The equinox would be a much bigger deal on Saturn. That planet’s equinox occurs only once in about 15 Earth years. I’ll bet there are lots of posts about the equinox on Saturn’s version of Facebook every 15 years.

When Saturn’s equinox does occur, those majestic rings we all know pick up almost no light, so if you view it from Earth the view of the rings during equinox is extremely foreshortened and limited.

But we have eyes in the sky. Cassini-Huygens (an unmanned spacecraft) orbits Saturn and is always taking photos. The shot below is from its wide-angle camera and composed of many exposures taken over about 8 hours patched into a mosaic. It shows the rings and a few of its moons a day and a half after exact Saturn equinox, when the Sun’s disk was exactly overhead at the planet’s equator.

Saturn, its rings, and a few of its moons.jpg
Saturn, its rings, and a few of its moons” by NASA/JPL/Space Science Institute
NASA CICLOPS. Licensed under Public domain via Wikimedia Commons.