The seasons should be more ... seasonal

I have long felt that the timetable of the seasons needs adjusting. By the end of August - not long past high summer - the kids are already headed back to school. At colleges and universities they refer to this term as the "fall" semester, although fall is still almost a month away.

In late September, when autumn officially arrives, we find that the days might still be hot and dry and the leaves barely changed. As such, one wants to continue to speak of summer, as a gesture of defiance perhaps, born of a reluctance to let go of the time of green and warmth and lake water lapping against the shore.

Spring is also a poor fit for the months we've assigned to it, at least if one lives in the North. Here in Maine, late March has as much to do with spring as the "seas" of the moon have to do with currents and tides. Year upon year it is almost certain that, in my neck of the woods, March will be snowbound, with the wind howling about the eaves like a banshee and the waterways ice-locked. In this light, the arrival date of spring is little more than a suggestion, a reason for optimism.

Of all the seasons, winter seems just about right. Late December is, indeed, high time for the first snows. The short days and rapid nightfall seem to counsel, "OK, enough waiting - let's get on with it." Besides, folks wouldn't accept Christmas occurring in any other season, so winter must begin before the holidays commence, if only to meet the needs of popular perceptions and retail commerce.

I once attended a lecture by American writer Kurt Vonnegut Jr., in which he also alluded to the inappropriateness of our seasonal timescape. As I recall, he said he felt that there were really only two seasons: winter and summer. He saw autumn as a "locking down" time, a sort of preparatory run-up to winter, too unstable to be called a season in its own right. Similarly, he designated spring an "opening up" time, when nature awakens and the life jet begins to surge anew. As with the fall, spring - in his view - was simply a preamble to summer, in the same way that the preamble to the United States Constitution is not the Constitution itself, but a warm-up for the real McCoy.

I like Vonnegut's two-season approach to the scheme of things, because I like contrasts, and summer and winter are, indeed, opposite sides of the coin. But I would not sell fall and spring short, because they have powerful constituencies. Take literature, for example. When one surveys the canon of poetry, one finds relatively few poems about summer; but there is a plethora of verse about Vonnegut's transitional times, spring and fall.

Consider Keats's "To Autumn" ("barred clouds bloom the soft-dying day/ And touch the stubble-plains with rosy hue"); Frost's "A Prayer in Spring" ("Oh, give us pleasure in the flowers today"); and John Donne's "The Autumnal," in which the poet extols autumn at the expense of two of the other seasons: "No spring, nor summer beauty hath such grace/ As I have seen in one autumnal face."

I quietly smile at all the attention paid to such uncaring things as seasons, which are, after all, there for our benefit, to be perceived and enjoyed as we wish. It is clear that any attempt to realign the seasons - extending winter past March, say, or keeping the kids out of school until summer has truly passed in late September - would divide people into countless camps in an unwinnable war of opinions. Better to leave well enough alone.

The other day I received a phone call from a friend in New Zealand. In the course of our conversation, I related my subtle dissatisfaction with the boundaries we have imposed upon the seasons, relating, as well, the exception I would make for winter.

"Can you imagine celebrating Christmas in any other season?" I asked him rhetorically.

My friend almost jumped through the phone line. "Yes! Yes, I can, mate," he asserted. "Down here, we celebrate it in summer."

As I said, when it comes to seasons, everybody has an opinion.

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