High Autumn

Posted Sept. 22, 2010, at 5:44 p.m.

If there is one season Maine does well, it is autumn. Today is the autumnal equinox, the day when fall officially begins. The sun’s direct rays are exactly halfway between their slow descent from the summer solstice in late June and the winter solstice in late December.

But forget all that. Autumn began Sept. 1 and it ends on Halloween. Because the truth is that Maine has six, not four seasons.

This better way to understand the rhythm of our Maine seasons was suggested by the late novelist Kurt Vonnegut during a speaking engagement at the Maine Center for the Arts several years ago. Forget the traditional notion of the four seasons, Mr. Vonnegut said, and think about six instead.

Under what we’ll call the Vonnegut Variation, each season holds sway for two months. January and February are winter. Cold, snow and ice, expect to wear your warmest coat every day and to incur the highest heating bills of the year. March and April are “unlocking,” as Mr. Vonnegut called it, or the “opening” season. We’ve learned not to expect flowers, but the frost begins leaving the ground, buds form on trees and the sap flows.

May and June bring us spring. Ice has left the lakes, the grass greens up, and black flies return. July and August, coinciding with the school break, are summer.

And of course, glorious fall reigns in September and October — warm days, cool nights, bright colors. The weather is crisp and invigorating, inspiring more walks and drives through the countryside. Many Mainers attest to it being their favorite season.

In November and December, the “locking” or “closing” season ends the year. The leaves fall, the ground begins freezing and the sky darkens.

One advantage to this arrangement is that the seasons start on the first day of a month and end on the last day of the next month. Easier than all that confusion over equinox and solstice, on the 21st, 22nd, or is it the 20th this year?

Another advantage is the brevity. Not a fan of “locking”? Surely you can endure it for two months.

But most importantly, the Vonnegut Variation helps us understand the weather and the effect it has on the Earth. Twenty-first century life has weaned us from these natural cycles. The six-season view would sharpen our focus. And, as Mr. Vonnegut told the MCA audience, “This is going to improve your attitude so much, particularly in this god-awful climate.”

So when the autumnal equinox occurs today, think of Kurt Vonnegut. And get out and enjoy this midpoint of high autumn.

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