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My earlier posts here about weather lore and how we sometimes forecast the weather for the upcoming months have been getting more hits lately. A glance at the sidebar list of popular posts will probably show that this month. People are worrying about what winter has in store for them.

You can define the end of a season in several ways. I wrote earlier about seasons that you can use the “meteorological calendar” to mark changes in seasons or the meteorological which makes the four seasons into neat three-month chunks of time.

But I like to examine a third way of defining seasons which is more fluid. It is phenology – the study of periodic plant and animal life cycle events. The start of a season using this method is not based on set dates or a single event like an equinox or solstice. We look to the natural world.

You use this method, even if you never heard of phenology. You probably have watched the tree foliage changing color, the pumpkins ripening, flowers dying off, squirrels being crazier than ever and loving the falling acorns.

This is geographically specific observations. If I told you that the arrival of the first blackberry means that autumn has arrived, some would respond the blackberries appeared in July, and other people would say they ripen when the trees have lost their leaves in December.

Did you have a wet summer? Then you are likely to have a long, colorful autumn. Of course, a warm, dry spring could have prevented the sugars forming in trees which create those beloved autumn colors.

The maple trees usually turn first and then the beeches and finally the oaks give in November.

The trees know – or feel – that summer is over and stop producing the chlorophyll that gives them their green color. That lets the yellow to red pigments rule. Dry weather means more sugar which means more anthocyanins that make leaves red.

Observing nature in your area should be more accurate than any prediction about broader areas like the Northeast or very general ones about the United States.

Want to do some basic citizen science? Pay attention.

Now, it’s not strong scientific phenology but do the squirrels and raccoons have thick tails? That is supposed to mean a rough winter. Are spiders spinning larger than usual webs and trying harder to get in your house? More bad winter foreshadowing along with bees taking to the hive earlier. The popular predictors, the woolly bear caterpillars, better have narrow rather than wide middle brown bands so that winter will be less severe.

How about posting a comment on this post about your own personal sign of winter being “official” in your neighborhood?  My mom used to say it was after the third frost. It’s certainly not when Christmas decorations appear in stores or holiday lights get turned on in the neighborhood.

 

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antler

Deer antler in velvet

When I first heard the term “velvet season,” I thought it referred to that time when members of the deer  family’s antlers are in “velvet.” I was wrong, but the seasons are related in calendar time.

Each antler grows from an attachment point on the skull called a pedicle. While an antler is growing, it is covered with highly vascular skin called velvet, which supplies oxygen and nutrients to the growing bone.

Once the antler has achieved its full size, the velvet is lost and the antler’s bone dies. This dead bone structure is the mature antler.

The velvet begins to form in spring and is shed at the end of summer and early fall depending on the geographic area.

After the velvet is gone and the antler is hard bone, the deer move into their rutting season. The rut is the mating season of ruminant animals such as deer, sheep, camels, goats, pronghorns, bison and antelopes. During the rut, bucks often rub their antlers on trees or shrubs, fight with each other, and herd estrus females together.

But the other Velvet Season is a term used for one of the most comfortable parts of the year for people who live in the subtropics, particularly in Mediterranean climate conditions. Their velvet season is a time when the weather is not as hot as mid-summer but is still quite warm, even at night. In northern latitudes with a temperate climate, the analogue of “velvet season” is “Indian summer.”

September Velvet Season on the Crimean coast

Velvet Season seems to be a term that appeared in the late nineteenth or early twentieth centuries in Imperial Russia. This was a time when it was fashionable to vacation in the Crimea and “velvet season” referred to several weeks in April and May, when the court and the royal family moved from St. Petersburg to the Crimea. It wasn’t deer antlers that were being referenced, rather it was the switch for the season from fur clothes to velvet ones. The Crimea at this time was still cool. They called summer in the Crimea calico or cotton season.

So, this autumn time we are in is technically not velvet season. Set aside the royal aspect and the spring velvet season became the time to travel to the Crimean coast. It is a short season –  lasting not more than a month and usually coincides with the last week of Great Lent, Easter and St. Thomas’ Sunday.

Perhaps for those of us in the northern U.S. our comparable “season” is that short period of warm weather at the end of winter or early spring. In Paradelle, that “false spring” is often followed by a snowstorm.

It is interesting that even in Russia, at some point the velvet season switched from referring to the spring to September when the crowds left the Black Sea coast and children went back to school and the upper class could have the resorts to themselves.

There is no such season as “Indian Summer” but if you live in the U.S. you have probably heard the expression used around this time of the year.  The U.S. National Weather Service defines this as weather conditions that are sunny and clear with above normal temperatures, occurring late-September to mid-November.

Indian summer has become the way to describe a period of unseasonably warm, dry weather in autumn that feels like summer. It is especially used when we have a warm period after a killing frost when we assumed autumn was giving us a taste of winter.

But why call it Indian summer?

In the late 1800s, an American lexicographer named Albert Matthews tried to find out who coined the expression. The earliest reference he found in print was a letter from 1778, but from the context it was clear that the expression was already in widespread use.

It is supposed that the origin came from areas inhabited by Native Americans (“Indians”) and that Indians first described this weather oddity to Europeans as something that occurred most years.

The expression has traveled beyond American borders. In British English, the term is used in the same way as in North America. Originally, it referred to America but it gained wider currency in Great Britain in the 1950s. In the U.K,. this period is also associated with the autumn feast days of St. Martin and Saint Luke.

You can view Indian summer as a cruel weather tease that reminds you of the summer days that are gone, or as a happy respite from the cooler “normal”  weather of that time and the days to come. I prefer the latter, though when Indian summer ends, I tend to go with the former.

Indian Summer is a romantic notion that has inspired a number of songs. Some of the better known examples:

  • In 1969, Brewer & Shipley recorded ″Indian Summer″ for their ″Weeds″ album.
  • In 1970 The Doors recorded ″Indian Summer.″
  • In 1975, Joe Dassin recorded “Indian Summer” in French, English and Spanish and  “L’Été indien” went on to become his biggest hit, selling almost 2 million copies worldwide – but the lyrics are about a summer in India, so…
  • In 1977 Poco released the album, Indian Summer, which also contained the title track.
  • In 1978 Joe Walsh recorded “Indian Summer” for the album But Seriously, Folks… 
  • U2 included “Indian Summer Sky” on their The Unforgettable Fire album.
  • The Dream Academy recorded the song “Indian Summer” for the album Remembrance Days in 1987
  • Tori Amos released “Indian Summer” on her 2004 EP, Scarlet’s Hidden Treasures.

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.

It’s Labor day weekend. Summer is not over but many people mark an unofficial end of summer with this weekend. Schools in the northern part of the U.S. head back to school and colleges start the fall semester. Families are less likely to go on vacations or even head to the beach for a weekend.

I see from my blog stats that people are once again clicking on past posts about autumn and even those that discuss the weather lore for predicting the coming winter.

I hope you will continue to enjoy summer weather for a few months, no matter what the calendar tells you. Southern hemisphere readers can really look forward to summer.

Did you know that according to the “meteorological calendar” autumn begins today, September 1, for those of us in the northern hemisphere?  The meteorological calendar uses our Gregorian calendar and splits up the four seasons into three clean month blocks to make it easier for forecasting and comparing seasonal statistics.  That makes spring March, April, May; Summer: June, July, August; Autumn: September, October, November; Winter: December, January, February.

Most of us stick to the astronomical calendar which tells us that September 22 is the start of autumn. That is when the autumnal equinox, when night and day are roughly equal length, arrives.

One of the many signs that summer is moving into autumn is the migrations of species to warmer areas.

Monarch on rough blazing star. Photo by Debbie Koenigs/USFWS.

In mid-August, I started to see some adult monarchs who are partway through their lifecycle heading south in their autumn migration.

According to the USFWS, these monarchs are different from their parents, grandparents and great grandparents who completed their life cycle in four weeks. Those monarch migrated north, resulting in four generations this summer. The ones we are seeing are members of the generation that migrates south, often called the monarch “super generation.”

It’s about 3,000 miles to Mexico guided by the sun. They do about 50 miles a day. These delicate creatures sometimes ride thermal air currents and can be up a mile high.

What triggers their migration? They are not so different from other creatures – including people – who consciously or unconsciously look for signs around them that the seasons are changing.  The monarch butterflies sense the decreasing day length and temperatures and even the aging milkweed and other nectar sources triggers the birth of the super generation and their migration.

These super monarchs live eight times longer than their parents and grandparents. That is still only 8 months, but they will travel 10 times farther.

They will conserve energy by storing fat in both the caterpillar and butterfly life stages. They will wait to lay their 700 eggs until spring.

Monarch on swamp milkweed

Monarchs are totally dependent on milkweed. Plant some! Don’t pull out the milkweed plants! The plant is their nursery for the caterpillars who only eat this plant, and the flowers are a nectar source for adults. Their population has decreased significantly over the last 20 years.

There are projects to improve habitat for pollinators, including monarchs, like planting native milkweed and nectar plants that are local to your area. Gardening organically minimizes your impacts on pollinators and their food plants. Become a citizen scientist and monitor monarchs in your area. Educate others about pollinators, conservation, and how they can help. Learn how you can play a role in reversing the population decline and save the monarch.

Whether it feels or looks like spring or like winter outside your home today, spring is officially here. It slipped under my pillow while I was still asleep this morning at 6:28 am ET here in the Northern Hemisphere.

Our ancestors my not have understood what was happening to our planet from a celestial viewpoint, but they were more careful observers of the world around them and definitely marked today as something significant. Ancient observers built devices, buildings and places like Stonehenge to measure and mark changes in the Sun’s movements. Of course, that was what they thought was happening – that the Sun was moving closer or further from Earth. They may have been wrong on that part, but they were able to mark that today was midway between the sun’s lowest path across the sky in winter and highest path across the sky in summer.

Though we visualize an equinox as occurring on the imaginary dome of Earth’s sky, it is a very real point on Earth’s orbit that is halfway between the two extremes of the sun’s path in your sky. “Your sky” because though the equinox occurs at the same time for all of us. The seasons are based on whether you are in the Northern or Southern Hemisphere.

One thing you can observe easily at each equinox (no Stonehenge required) is that the sun rises due east and sets due west from where you live. An equinox happens when the ecliptic – or sun’s path – intersects the celestial equator, that imaginary line above Earth’s equator.

Go outside around sunset and sunrise and notice the location of the sun on the horizon with respect to local landmarks. You can then use those landmarks to find those cardinal directions in the months ahead and observe how the sunrise and sunset points move southward or northward. I showed my young sons this many years ago by crudely tracking the sunrise moving from window to window during the year from the vantage point of our East-facing family room. It was a pretty interesting lesson in science.

Today the sun is on the celestial equator. It may be springlike outside or it may still seem like winter, but the new season has arrived.

 

 

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Yes, that’s where I’m at today. Not so long ago, but it already seems far away. Makerspace action. At the opening of the NJIT Makerspace. Every end is also a beginning. First snow of the season.  Not enough to start the snowblower, but enough to start a fire.

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