Smelling Winter

We’re experiencing the January thaw around here.  This isn’t a scientific thing, of course, and it doesn’t happen every year.  We had snow before Christmas, but it didn’t linger too long.  We’ve had cold days since, but none so bad that I couldn’t jog a couple miles over lunch.  The ground has started to freeze but much of the grass is still green.  The changing seasons are largely olfactory to me.  You can smell fall and spring coming.  I’m not talking about burning leaves in autumn or the first hint of magnolia in spring.  No, I mean the aroma of the earth.  Stuck indoors as we often are, we’ve been conditioned to think our sense of smell is under-developed and therefore unimportant.  Overall, however, humans don’t rate too shabbily in the nasal range.  We don’t experience the aromatic realm as much as dogs, vultures, bears, or mice, but our sense of smell is vitally important.

Not only does smell tether us to memory, it also influences moods.  Studies done on those deprived of scent by disease or accident indicate higher levels of depression.  All of us know how vital scent is to taste.  We don’t appreciate, I suspect, how the aroma of our earth can inspire us.  Yesterday as temperatures crept into the 60s, I stood outside breathing deeply. It was only in my back yard, and the clouds were low and gray.  Spring clearly came in the gusty air.  I know that the bulk of winter lies ahead.  January’s only just tuning up, and February has us in its sights.  The aroma of spring will once again be frozen to await release in more timely fashion.  I’ve been feeling chilly since October, layering up and reluctantly bidding goodbye to the scents of autumn.  Winter’s sterility has begun, but we’re being teased just now by a nature that likes to remind us who’s really in charge.

As I grow older, I’m hoping I’ll learn to smell winter.  My nose spends too much of it feeling cold, and when I wrap my face in a scarf, I have only my own breath to breathe.  What is the odor of winter?  The faint hint of smoke from a neighbor’s chimney?  The briny tang of a freshly salted roadway?  The pine of a newly cut Christmas tree?  Outdoors there’s life throbbing, pulsing slowly beneath the chill.  Even after the great ice ages, it was ready and eager to reemerge.  Today I smell spring in the air.  It’s not yet here, and won’t be for some time.  Scent is ever only temporary but today there’s yearning in the air.

Organic Experience

Holy Horror, it looks like, has been delayed until January.  That doesn’t mean that I have to wait to find some relief in the escape to film.  Over the weekend my wife surprised me by being willing to watch The Exorcist with me.  As we settled in to see it, a few things occurred to me—watching horror with someone else isn’t nearly as frightening as watching it alone.  I know this from experience, and it seems that it has something to do with the willing suspension of disbelief.  It’s harder to do when someone is with you.  Left to one’s own devices, it’s possible to believe what you’re watching, even if intellectually you know that it is merely a movie.  That tells us something about the way brains are wired.

I object to the word “wired,” really.  As organic beings, we are not computers.  What invented consciousness would watch a scary movie for pleasure?  What is the rationale for it?  It was a gray and rainy Saturday evening in late October.  In human experience that may be all that it takes.  Seeing orange and black in the stores sets a mood that computers, I strongly suspect, simply can’t feel.  They lack the human experience of childhood trick-or-treating, or throwing on another layer as the days grow chillier, or watching the leaves turn and slowly drift down from weary trees.  No, these aren’t wired experiences—they’re very organic ones, and often those that mean something even to adults as the seasons wend their way through the calendar.

The author waiting for proofs is rather like an expectant parent.  Well, that analogy’s not quite right either, but you get the point.  I know the book is coming.  It was accepted and submitted long ago.  The publication process, however, is more complex than most people might assume.  In fact, in the publishing industry it is often the main role of the editorial assistant to assure that manuscripts make it through all of the necessary hoops to move from finished manuscript to printed book.  Johannes Gutenberg likely had a simpler process worked out, although, in the early days of book-buying you could purchase the pages and have them bound by your choice of bindery.  Now cover and content are glued or stitched together in what one hopes is a seamless way.  Still, that stitching can’t help but to recall Frankenstein’s monster.  It is, however, another gray, rainy day in October.  It’s just a shame my computer can’t share the experience with me.

August Mornings

It’s August and I’m already starting to feel haunted.  While science may declare it nonsense, there’s a feeling in the air—particularly in the early morning—that tells us the seasons are changing.  While it may be different for everyone, for me it begins in the tip of my nose.  I can smell the change coming.  That doesn’t mean that we won’t have more hot days—a long string of them yet awaits—but the shift has begun.  Autumn is perhaps the season closest to the soul.  While I like all seasons for what they represent, fall has always put me in mind of melancholy rapture.  It’s a difficult concept to explain,  a kind of blissful evisceration.  A hitching of the breath in my lungs.  A sudden rush of joy followed by sadness.  The ease of summer living is ending.

Summer is the growth season when we look out and see the promise of provisions that will see us through long months of cold and chill.  The times we huddle down only to be blinded by the arctic beauty of the sun on a snow-covered day.  The indoors time.  Summer is when we can dash outside without a coat, giving no thought to whether we will be warm enough.  The scent of autumn is a slight chill.  It reminds me that while the crops have been growing, the monsters have too.  There’s a reason horror films are released in the fall.  I’m not the only one who knows they are coming.

Late summer is a liminal time.  While the calendar may tell us summer lasts until the autumnal equinox, traditional cultures marked time in a different way.  Equinoxes and solstices were closer to the middle of a season than its start.  Most years we begin to feel summer in May, or even April.  Winter cuts through November, and the thaw may begin as early as February.  When I step outside just after sunrise and breathe deeply, I can feel the monsters coming.  In a way I can’t explain, their lurking fills me with a frisson of anticipation.  Already the days are noticeably shorter.  Daylight itself seems to be fleeing before the ethereal chill that is still available in our rapidly warming world.  The seasons are all about feelings.  Emotions suffuse the changes of weather and human habits that accommodate to it.  There are shivers and then there are shivers that the creatures of autumn bring.  They’ve already begun to gather.

Sundog

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Spring has been taking its time to arrive here in the northeast. Just when things seem to have set on a course of identifiable progress, the temperature drops twenty degrees and the rain sets in again. It’s been great weather for toadstools. There are bright patches, however. I read on the bus, but one day last week as we were trundling toward New York City I glanced out the window. The sky was mostly clear and a sundog shone brightly to the north like my own personal star of Bethlehem. Sundogs feel like good omens. I’ve read enough about meteorology to know that they are merely a refraction of sunlight due to ice crystals high in the atmosphere. Depending on your angle of view, they might appear as a halo all the way around the sun, at which point they’re no longer dogs, or, at certain times of day they may appear as a solid beam coming down to earth in the form of a sun-pillar. It’s only ice and light.

Those of us who stare long at the sky know that the weather is merely a metaphor. The earth spins. It revolves. It rotates. It’s cold at the tips and warm in the middle. The laws of physics—unbreakable they tell us—state that all bodies seek equilibrium. A constant California temperature. If humans should survive long enough we might find our globe of uniform temperature, smooth as a billiard ball, and utterly lifeless. We need the variations of our weather. The chill of a spring that just won’t warm up. The heat of a summer that wilts down to the roots. Ice and light.

I’m heading into a large city. It’s a quotidian trip that some might suppose to be void of meaning. The sundog follows us for a while until it’s lost in the skyscrapers of human devising. Towers that over-reach but which the gods have to bend down to see. Nobody knows the origin of the term “sundog.” My favorite explanation is from Norse mythology where wolves pursue the sun and moon to consume them. This feels so appropriate to me as I enter the artificial canyons of hubris, glass, and concrete. As the day progresses the sundogs appear to disappear. Towers continue to grow. Beyond them, high in the sky, ice and light will continue their play, even if the dogs never do reach the sun. Refraction of light may cause things to manifest as other than they truly are.

Spring Forward

I have to admit that spring snuck up on me this year. Weather is, of course, no reliable predictor of the Vernal Equinox, and since I depend on the lightness of the sky while waiting for the bus as an indicator of seasons, turning our clocks ahead last weekend blindsided me to the nearness of the light. Holy Week in Christianity is just one of a cluster of holy days long associated with the point of equilibrium: the day when light and darkness balance perfectly, only to tip from then on in the favor of light. The crocuses have been up for weeks and the robins are ubiquitous, so I really have no excuse. Spending too much of one’s days indoors, I suspect, will inure any soul to the wonder of changing seasons. Climate control, no windows, and constant business separate a person from what nature has evolved us to be.

Easter, understandably, can’t be a national holiday in a land of religious freedom. Not everyone recognizes Easter and even those who do don’t agree on the date. Having a moveable feast is a great inconvenience to employers who want to know everyone’s going to be at their desks. Besides, even though the date changes, it’s always on a Sunday. Many people already have that sop and so, we glide past the vernal equinox with nary a thought. Business as usual. Looking at the great monuments of the past, when ancients put great effort into marking the seasonal change days, I can’t help but think that we’ve lost touch with a basic element of our humanity when we let the equinoxes pass without notice. I hadn’t even realized it was spring until it had begun.

Stopping to recognize the significant days in the passing of the year may be inherently religious. We can be as secular as we like about the equality of light and darkness, but somewhere deep inside we’ll still be thankful that the days will be growing longer until there is more light than dark. We just don’t have to say so at the office. Holidays, it seems to me, offer us hope. We don’t have to buy stuff or give presents. Just having a day to stop and reflect makes us more human. The vernal equinox came silently on a Sunday this year. I awoke early to try to catch sunrise on a cloudy morning. I look to the east, and I dare to hope.

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