Here is the U.S. and in many other temperate places around the globe we have four designated seasons — spring and fall, marked by equinoxes, and winter and summer, marked by solstices. Both equinoxes and solstices refers to a relationship between the earth and the sun.
But other places mark time differently. The Cree (or Nehiyawak) people, mainly in Canada, have not only spring, summer, autumn, and winter but also late spring and ice freeze-up (those latter two apply really well to northern New England also). In Australia, speakers of the Laragiya (or Gulumoerrgin) language live with seven seasons: balnba (rainy season), dalay (monsoon season), mayilema (speargrass, magpie goose egg, and knock ‘em down season), damibila (barramundi and bush fruit time), dinidjanggama (heavy dew time), gurrulwa (big wind time), and dalirrgang (build-up).
One feature that these novel (to me) seasonal names share is that they describe what’s observed in the natural world at that time of year: rain (or lots of rain), wind, dew, ice freezing, or the appearance or harvest-time of plants, eggs, or fish. These season designations are born of close connections with the rhythms of nature, of noticing what’s happening when.
If you want a really detailed observation guide to the natural world, look no further than Japan’s 72 microseasons — a microseason almost every five days. These fall within 24 larger divisions, which include Rainwater, Insects Awaken, Grain Beards and Seeds, Manageable Heat, and White Dew.
Some of the names of the 72 microseasons are
- Mists Start to Linger
- Hibernating Insects Surface
- First Peach Blossoms
- Distant Thunder
- Frogs Start Singing
- Silkworms Start Feasting on Mulberry Leaves
- Rotten Grass Becomes Fireflies
- Hawks Learn to Fly
- Crickets Chirp Around the Doors
- Land Starts to Freeze
- Deer Shed Antlers
- Parsley Flourishes
- Ice Thickens on Streams
“There’s a lot more out there than anyone sees, and you can’t see without looking . . . look, look again, look better.“
Menka Sanghvi, in a lovely newsletter called Just Looking, wrote about microseasons in January 2022 (Just Looking is a project she began to help herself and others “slow down and experience more wonder in the everyday,” “more magic in the mundane.”)
She points to a new book, “Light Rains Sometimes Fall,” written by British conductor Lev Parikian. The title is the name of a Japanese microseason, “and the book attempts a British equivalent. Across 72 short chapters, there are descriptions of bramble, woodlouse, and urban fox, hawthorn, dragonfly, and peregrine.”
Parikan writes in the introduction to the book that the Japanse microseasons are “rooted in the rhythms of the land, but they also reflect what we intuitively know: the little changes of an ever- evolving cycle require finer definition than the broad sweep of spring, summer, autumn, winter. … Big rhythms encompass small, and the simple act of acknowledging them leads to a greater connection with the natural world.”
As he notes, though, nature doesn’t necessarily refer to our calendars, no matter how detailed they are (“Nature doesn’t roll up its sleeves on 20 June and say, Right, naff off, spring — it’s summertime.”) So he wondered whether
“this detailed dissection of the seasons was in fact valid and useful. Would it be helpful to look at nature through this lens? Yes, it turns out. For one thing, paying attention to the natural world for at least one day out of every five ensured I didn’t inadvertently lose my connection with it. … And limiting my observations to a small area I already knew … made me look again and more closely at the familiar, the everyday, the easily overlooked.”
Sanghvi, at Just Looking, offers a perfect “Looking Exercise” for noticing our own microseasons:
“Closely observe nature unfolding for the next five days. You don’t have to bundle up for an expedition, just look out of your balcony or window, or walk down your road. Is there a theme? What looks the most ephemeral, and unlikely to be around for too long. And at the end, name this microseason that has just been! If you like, make some photographs.”
She also suggests a clever noticing practice, based on a “stacking habits” strategy from James Clear’s book Atomic Habits: How can we use habit stacking — adding a desired habit to a habit we already have — “to notice more of the overlooked moments” of our lives?
Her example is that she already habitually opens her window in the morning for air; could she add another habit to that, perhaps taking a minute to look at what’s going on outside that window? When I take out the compost, could I make it a habit to spend a minute scanning the backyard? (I already do it sometimes, briefly, but not habitually and not very intentionally.) I think my version of this is to bring my camera with me whenever I go out, even to the mailbox, because knowing it’s there causes me to be automatically more attune to what I’m sensing. But I’m going to look for habit-stacking noticing opportunities now that I’m aware of the concept. And I definitely want to try to name some local microseasons!
Featured image: First G&T of the season at our house occurs when the temperature in the enclosed sunroom reaches 70F, which could be any time in March or April.