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It all depends on where you live

Bill Meredith

"One generation passeth away, and another generation cometh: but the earth abideth for ever. The sun also ariseth, and the sun goeth down, and hasteth to his place where he arose. The wind goeth toward the south, and turneth about unto the north; it whirleth about continually, and the wind returneth again according to his circuits." …" The Preacher," aka. Solomon, Ecclesiastes 3-6.

(10/2017) I am writing this on the day of the Autumnal Equinox, Friday, September 22. It is still summer here in Emmitsburg; but at 4:02 this afternoon, the sun will cross the equator, summer will end, and fall will begin. When I was in the third grade, I had my first science class, and I actually believed I understood this; but it really isn’t that simple.

The sun is moving, but it is not going around the earth; it is careening along in an orbit in the Milky Way galaxy, at about 43,000 miles per hour. The earth moves in its orbit around the sun, and for just a fraction of a second this afternoon, Earth’s equator will lie directly under the sum’s rays. At that instant, summer ends here, but in Rio de Janiero, just a bit farther from the equator than we are, summer begins.

I understand that now, sort of… at least in a non-mathematical kind of way. An ecologist has to know the basics of it, for it is the reason plants and animals live the way they do. If you are near the equator in the Tropic Zone, the days and nights are about the same length all year. The days seem a bit longer, because it takes a while for the sky to darken completely after the sun goes down (and the same in reverse when it comes up); but that stays the same all year.

Other things may change… there may be dry or rainy seasons, monsoons, El Nino years, "Dust-Bowl" droughts, and so on… but day length stays about the same. Consequently, many tropical plants and animals are active all year, without special seasons for blooming, nesting or going dormant. At the other extreme, in the Arctic and Antarctic zones, it stays light for nearly 3 months in summer, and dark for the same length of time in winter.

In the Temperate Zone, things are different. Each day grows longer in the spring and shorter in the fall, as every kid who rides a school bus knows. Day length ("Photoperiod," in eco-speak) can be detected by hormonal mechanisms in both plants and animals, and they germinate, bloom, migrate, nest, bear young, and hibernate in patterns that are repeated each year. Solomon, who according to tradition wrote Ecclesiastes, was a Temperate-Zone guy; he didn’t know all of the actual sizes, distances and mechanisms involved, but he did know the seasons happen over and over again, year after year.

Here in Emmitsburg, this summer has been about as normal as you can get, but we’re the exception. There have been earthquakes in China, Italy and Mexico; record-breaking hurricanes in Texas, the Caribbean, and Florida; drought and famine in Africa; severe flooding in Bangladesh, mudslides in Sierra Leone, Peru and California… the list could fill a page, and it goes on and on.

I went out to the garden yesterday to pick some zucchini, and I found myself just standing there with a cool breeze passing by and the sun warming my back and my mind wandering: "What a nice summer this has been! The temperature and rainfall that I dutifully recorded nearly every day stayed close to the long-term averages, and the garden outdid itself… I stayed ahead of the weeds, most of the time…the bugs weren’t too bad… that patch of flowers I planted six years ago (what was their name?)… they bloomed all summer, and we had plenty of bees, and they pollenated the tomatoes and squash, and…" And on, and on.

It was just like I remembered from childhood. I don’t know how long I stood there, dreaming. Of course, the days weren’t really like that 80 years ago… they were the Dust Bowl Days, and we didn’t have air conditioning, and… but you get the idea. If you haven’t done that yourself, you will do it when you get old enough. So after a minute or two in the present I drifted away again, and the next thing that came to mind was a verse from John Denver’s song, "Summer Suite:"

"It seems a shame to see September swallowed by the wind.

And more than that, it's oh, so sad to see the summer end.

And though the changing colors are a lovely thing to see,

If it were mine to make the change I think I'd let it be.

But I don't remember hearing anybody asking me."

I wish I could write something like that, for it captures how I feel at this time of the year, and at this time of life. Each task takes longer; I started writing yesterday when it was still summer, and I’m still writing, but it’s September 23 now, and summer is over and gone. It’s still warm and pleasant outside, but I saw an old maple tree this week that is starting to turn red. We’ve had rain, and the goldenrod is gloriously golden, as it should be. A wild turkey wandered through the yard last week, a young one but fully grown, happy and secure because it has no idea that the world won’t always be like it is just now. The warblers are migrating; winter birds haven’t arrived yet, but they will be here soon. And so will winter. Solomon had it right.

Scholars who try to figure out when things happened say that Solomon became king around 970 BC, and ruled over 30 years. They reckon that he was about 80 when he died. He must have had a great time eating, drinking and being merry with all of those wives; but he knew he was mortal, and it is said that he spent his final years in reflection.

If Ecclesiastes is the product of that reflection, then it was time well spent. We all need to spend more time doing that. Astronomers tell us that the earth may endure a few more billions of years, which might qualify as "Forever" in Solomon’s mind; but it is changing, and we are causing some of the change. We need to reflect on it. We need to appreciate it.

Read other articles by Bill Meredith