Seasons should be more seasonable

It's the sort of event you are in the middle of before you even realize it has begun.

I love autumn - particularly on a day like today, with the pale clear sky, the low sun percolating through the trees and casting long shadows, and the steamy closeness of what has been for Scotland a most unusually warm summer lifted now by a welcome influx of fresher air. What could be more exhilarating? I am uncomprehending when some people suggest that this is a sad season, a time for grieving. On the contrary, I find it consolidating, consoling - and much more sensible than high summer.

The only problem is timing. I am never quite sure when autumn begins - or ends, for that matter. It's pretty much the same with all the seasons. A season is the sort of event you are in the middle of before you know it has begun. Suddenly one morning, you think, "Ah, yes, it's definitely autumn now" (or winter, or spring, or summer).

My dad's birthday was on the first day of spring. March-the-something. But as a child, I was mystified by this knowledge, because I expected it to mean that a definite change would occur on that day, a decisive move from winter into vital beginnings - hosts of daffodils, buds jerking suddenly open (as in a time-lapse film sequence) into unbelievably juicy green leaves, birds singing, lambs dancing. I watched. But instead, that day was hardly different from the day before it - or the day after it, except that the official head of the family now had happy birthday cards on the mantelpiece, several new pairs of socks, and maybe the latest gardening tool to be advertised in Gardeners' Weekly.

Instead of spring arriving according to a timetable, precisely placed in the year like correct punctuation, it creeps up on you (here in Scotland, at least) by a procession of very small moves. Watch it intently like the hands of a clock, and it may appear stationary. Take it as it comes, and it is a series of winking, blinking, and glancing observations. I think, in fact, that spring begins in August or September. Various species of bush and tree, for instance, get their buds all ready for next year well before winter sets in.

I don't think the seasons are as categorical as clockwork, though I have one e-mailing friend who insists that each of the four (and she believes there are only four!) begins on a prescribed date.

Poets, surprisingly, also tend to be rather specific about the signs and wonders that define each season. Keats stamped autumn forever as mellow fruitfulness and mists. I wonder what he would have thought about 2003, when we had strange midsummer mists, and our plums and wild blackberries were the epitome of mellowness well before the fall was officially meant to begin. Chaucer was not much more observant of nature (being much better at humans than plants), and I was never convinced at school when we had to memorize the first lines of the prologue to his "The Canterbury Tales": "When April with its sweet showers has pierced to the root the drought of March," and so on. For a start, March seems frequently about as wet as the monsoon, and April often comes up with a week that's completely dry and sunny.

April, and then sometimes September, can be the nearest we come to a good summer. May (also officially spring) occasionally prolongs April with surprisingly cozy and lucid days, cloudless - almost balmy. And then the months supposed to actually be "summer" can defy anything that people (or poets) conventionally associate with that season by turning relentlessly wet, chilly, dull, and dreary. The "summer holidays" of childhood, in my memory, were only too frequently punctuated with long days of drenching rain, keeping us frustratingly indoors gazing out of windows too wet to gaze out of.

Every August, it seems to me that autumn has already started. Everything is going to seed. The dark nights are growing longer. Even this year, when August was, for once, exactly what summer is supposed to be, I still felt that we have the timing of our seasons all wrong. We were picking ripe blackberries in August. But surely they are early autumn fruits. They ought to be picked when a slight chill is noticeable in the dew-beady morning and grasses have gone the color of silver sand.

And when does autumn end and winter start? My e-mail friend is categorical: Winter starts on December the 20-something. November, she tells me, is quite decidedly not in winter. How could I think November is in winter? Nobody thinks November is in winter.

Well, maybe not where she lives. But where I live (and I have run a carefully controlled survey involving a cross-section of a good three people on this tricky subject), November is indubitably a winter month. I agree, so that makes four of us.

To be fair to my e-mailer, our banter about the seasons (since the solemnity of our discussion was far from definitive) led her to discover a website on the subject. She sent me the URL and since it seems to involve no dubious commercial interests, I include it here: www.badastronomy.com/bad/misc/badseasons.html. The site is run by a gentleman named Phil Plait who describes himself as "an astronomer, teacher, lecturer and all-around science junkie."

He argues that "the way we define seasons currently is not strictly bad, but I feel ... that it could be better. The definition of when the seasons begin is at the moment of solstice or equinox; that is, winter (in the north) starts on December 22nd and summer starts on June 22nd. I feel instead that the midpoint of the seasons [is] really at these times. The seasons themselves start a month and a half before then."

Take a look. The man is convincing.

All four seasons in 10 inches

Twelve miniature images, one for each month of the year, make up an enchanting series of etchings by Scottish artist Susan Norrie. (We show January, March, June, and October.) Made in 1983, they're like a 20th-century version of the "Labors of the Months" that were popular in the imagery of the Middle Ages.

These medieval calendars appeared in illuminated manuscripts, carvings, wall-paintings, tapestries, and stained-glass roundels. The labors (or occupations) depicted may have served the educational purpose of illustrating the time for certain agricultural practices, like pruning, sowing, digging, harvesting, and so on. Today, they give us a vivid picture of medieval life.

"Labors of the Months" were secular, not religious, unlike the Psalters and "Books of Hours" that contained miniatures connected with private devotions. Nevertheless, the "labors" were as likely to be part of the decoration of a church or cathedral as that of a castle or mansion.

Norrie's little prints are abstracted images of seasonal change. They do not contain figures. They alter in tone, color, and subject from one month to the next. January is dark, March lighter and greener, with some yellow appearing in a weak sun. June is sand-yellow and blue with faint purplish undertones. October is rich with purple, warm pink, and red. Each month also changes in its elements: rain or snow streaking down onto a bare tree and land; eggs in a nest; waves curling playfully onto the shore; blackberry leaves and fruit and ripened rose hips.

A happy mix of imagination and natural observation, these etchings owe some qualities to earlier 20th-century artists such as Paul Klee and the English painter and illustrator John Craxton. But they could never be mistaken for either artist. Norrie's style and printing technique, involving an incisive structure of sensitive linear work, tinged and tinted with soft diffusions of color, is distinctly her own.

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