The Master Gardeners

The Five Seasons

Bill Meredith

Fall didn’t live up to expectations this year. An unusually wet summer led us to expect the leaves would be brilliant, but we got almost no rain in October, so they shriveled up and showed as much brown as red and yellow, and they gradually began drifting off the trees after the middle of that month. Then came November 8, the Day the Leaves Came Down; we got an inch of rain that evening, accompanied by high winds, and the next day the trees were bare. When I went out to get the paper that morning and saw them, my mind went back to an idea that has been bothering me for the past ten years or so. As usual, it involves some bizarre connections; bear with me.

Theodore Geisel must have known that the odds were against his name becoming a household word; it’s hard to remember, and doesn’t roll off the tongue musically. So, wisely as it turned out, he appended his academic title and his middle name to his literary works, and became known instantly and for all time as Dr. Seuss.

His genius was to write children’s books using a minimum of different words, repeated in a variety of patterns, so pre-schoolers could memorize the stories easily and begin to associate the written words with their sounds. Our kids, and I expect those of everyone who will read this, grew up on Green Eggs and Ham and Yertle the Turtle, and they learned to read more easily as a result. Most of the stories were told in rhyme, the likes of which no one had seen since Ogden Nash, and illustrated with wackily original drawings; and each ended with a moral youngsters could understand.

My favorite was Bartholomew and the Oobleck. The hero, Bartholomew, was a servant boy in the royal palace, and evidently the only person in the whole kingdom with any common sense… a ten-year-old worry-wart. The trouble began when Old King Grimulkin decided four seasons were not enough for his kingdom; winter, spring, summer, and fall, with their snow, rain, sun, and fog, were not sufficient. So he ordered his Royal Magicians to create a fifth season, when something new should come down from the sky; and as you probably recall, the result was disastrous.

I always think of Dr. Seuss and Old King Grimulkin this time of year. Autumn, it seems to me, is not a well-designed season. I’m too much of a traditionalist to want to get rid of it altogether, but I do think there is a serious need for improvement. It is supposed to be the time when crops are harvested, birds migrate south, and leaves turn color. All of those things happen in late September and October, but then around the first week of November we always get a storm and all the leaves come down. Then we still have nearly two months of autumn left until winter gets here… not a satisfactory state of affairs at all. What we really need is a new season to put in this time of the year.

The basis for having seasons in the first place was established independently by many prehistoric cultures. Even on different continents, ancient astronomers came up with surprisingly accurate determinations of the solstices and equinoxes, and more remarkable still, they did it without knowing why the seasons exist. When I first learned these things, sometime in elementary school, it gave me a sense of pleasure to contemplate a year perfectly divided into quarters on the basis of the orderly progression of the earth around the sun. I liked things that were logical and orderly; so later I was dismayed to find that the seasons really occur because the solar system is not perfectly or logically organized. The seasons actually occur because the earth’s axis of rotation is tilted over some 27 degrees; and things are further complicated because our orbit around the sun is an ellipse rather than a circle. It was disturbingly illogical for me to learn that in the Northern Hemisphere we have our summer when we are farthest from the sun, because at that time we are tilted so its rays hit us directly and are absorbed, heating us up. Likewise, in winter we are closer to the sun but tilted away from it, so the radiation comes in at an angle and reflects away, leaving us colder. I thought to myself, with the arrogance only a child can get away with, that if I had designed the solar system the earth’s axis would have been straight and the orbits circular… not realizing that under those conditions we would have no seasons at all.

It took many years, but eventually I came to accept the fact that things aren’t necessarily perfect or logical; and now I even like it that way. I have come to think it isn’t so important to have four equal and symmetrical seasons; instead, what we need is a system that reflects reality more accurately. It would make more sense to have a new season, of variable length, between fall and winter. Fall would end on The Day the Leaves Come Down; winter would begin on The Day of the First Real Snow. In some years, if we didn’t get a real snow the new season would go clear through to spring and we could skip winter… no loss there… and in other years we might skip the new season if it was a real snow that made the leaves come down. Flexibility might be good for us.

There would be some problems, of course. Leaves and snow come down at different times in different parts of the country, so the new season would not start and end at the same time everywhere; but that would add to our individual uniqueness and make each place more special. We would have to resurrect Antonio Vivaldi long enough for him to write an additional piece of music for the new season; but failing that, we could commission someone else to do it in his style. We would have to come up with a suitable name for the new season, but that could be assigned as a contest for school children, with appropriate prizes. Other problems could be assigned to a bipartisan commission and dealt with as they come up.

I would suggest that the new season be dedicated to contemplation. At least in Emmitsburg, it would usually include Thanksgiving, which doesn’t get the thought it deserves most of the time. Election Day would usually come around the beginning of it; that would give us something to ponder about, assuming the votes were counted before the season ended. We could have TV specials devoted to the art of contemplation; or, better yet, we could ban television and make people read books until the season ended. Old King Grimulkin may have been right after all; four seasons are not enough. A kingdom like ours needs at least five.

Read other articles by Bill Meredith