Word taxonomies have shown that there was a time, at least in some cultures of northern Europe, when there was only one season worth mentioning: Winter.
Sure, there was the warmer part of the year that wasn’t winter, known early by its Germanic word “sumer,”, denoting something like “half.”
So there was the warm half of the year, summer, and the other half of the year, winter.
The spaces in between, transitional moments more ephemeral than a long and heavy blanket of snow or days and weeks of heat and sun, went by various names until quite recently.
Technically, that is to say, astronomically, the autumnal equinox denotes the point at which the day and night on Earth are approximately the same length.
Once, it was the time when the harvest took place and the lively, outdoor, active days of warmth began to turn inward, cooling off and withdrawing for a dormant season. The season itself was once referred to mainly by words denoting harvest, and this is still the case in German – the word “Herbst” has the same root as “harvest.”
These days, though, not many people are actually involved in gathering a harvest of the agricultural kind – the harvest as a season has been replaced by year-round availability of food.
I prefer the sound of the word autumn, with its sense of changing colors and a cool wind that slices through the heat of summer – but fall has the concise utility of being descriptive. The fruit falls, the temperature falls, the leaves fall, the rain starts to fall, and all that growth of summer pulls into itself until winter has passed.
The season holds a different promise from spring, that giddy season of birdsong and budding forth. Fall speaks of reflection, it’s the coppery flip side of spring’s exuberant coin, a time to prepare, a time to take time. It starts softly and ends quietly, almost before it’s even announced its presence.
So today, I offer a gentle salute to the Autumnal Equinox, a marker on the vague road that leads from one half the year to the next.