Autumn Reflection

The sun passes the ecliptic today at 9:04 pm (EDT). This is the autumnal equinox. By now, those of you who tolerate my blathering know that this is not the true equinox since that day of equal length for night and day is dependent on latitude. Here where I live, we have a 12-hour day on the 25th, and the sun rises and sets exactly due east and west on the 24th. But this is the day that the sun passes that imaginary equator in the sky in its annual trek through the seasons. For those of us in the north, we’re heading into the dark half of the year. Down south, it’s time for spring.

Here where I live, we have a few more weeks of possible growing season. On average, plants need at least ten hours of daylight to photosynthesize. Think of this as their minimum daily caloric intake (because it more or less is…). Less than ten hours and the plant uses more energy in its daily activities than it can make for itself out of sunlight and CO2. So even if the weather stays warm, most plants will go dormant during the long weeks of short days. This is true for evergreens, too. Conifers may not completely stop all activity, but they do slow down substantially. They do not grow; they just maintain themselves. 

The last ten-hour day in this part of the world is November 9th. If you garden in the temperate zones, you should look up when your days are shorter than ten hours. You won’t be gardening during those weeks, not even with a greenhouse. Though there are grow lights, I’m guessing in these times of rising energy costs (and depleting energy sources), it won’t pay to plug them in. Because those things really suck up the electricity. In my old house with its 100-amp circuit, I’m pretty sure I’d have to turn off everything while the grow lights are on. (Might be exaggerating… maybe… don’t really want to try that experiment!)

In any case, today is not the end of the harvest, though it is perhaps the beginning of the end. There will be frost soon to finish off the cucurbits and nightshades. (Not that we have had much of a tomato year around here… though the eggplants are still going strong!) If you want a fall harvest of peas and greens this is about the last date you can plant them. However, it is just the beginning of garlic planting season since garlic goes in the ground just before it freezes. And you can sow over-wintering veg like kale, carrots, and beets until the first hard frost. These winter crops are not for harvesting in winter. They will send up small plants that will slow down in those low-light days, but then they kick back in when the ten-hour days return. For my part of the world, that happens around Candlemas. So over-wintered carrots will start growing again in February (with protection — I use straw and row cover), and there are carrots to harvest usually by late March, long before the spring-sown carrots are ready to eat. Here in Vermont, those “winter-season” crops do not give us a harvest in the actual months of winter, however we can have fresh veg in April or May when all the spring-planted crops are still just barely plants. And, crucially, there is fresh veg to eat when the root cellar is really starting to look bare!

So this is not really the end of the gardening season, just a slowing down and a change in the tasks. In the dark half of the year, the pace is less intense, more relaxed. There is more time for thought and planning, less rushing about bent on relentless tasks. There is more focus on careful pruning and tool maintenance and much less time spent on yanking up the weeds and drilling in seeds. Of course, if you have animals, there is still a bit of hard work ahead. This is when many of them are in their breeding season. Paradoxically, this is also the time for the annual culling of the herds. (Not a great time of year to be a male… but I suppose they get to go out happy… if they’re breeders…)

For the last century or so, the time around the autumn equinox has been called Harvest Home. It is a time of thanksgiving and gathering together. For many cultures around the world, it is a time of remembrance, a time to especially honor the ancestors, those who are quite literally the founders of the feast. Some of the peoples of northern Europe might even have started their new year at the equinox, beginning a new annual sun cycle as the old season of growth ended. It is, of course, the Jewish New Year, Rosh Hashanah. But Roman observers seemed to think that it was common in “Germania” to begin the new year around the time of the grape harvest and what was for them the Ludi Romani, two weeks of festival games dedicated to Jupiter that took place after the middle of September. (Note that for the Romans, Germania was pretty much everywhere outside the Empire. It’s none too clear who the “germans” were. And there are many things written in a Roman hand about northern peoples which are just plain nonsense… so…)

Even if it wasn’t the new year, Northern Europe certainly marked the day, unlike most of their southern cousins (who, being closer to the equator, didn’t have that much reason to note the equinox… the length of day doesn’t change that much when you live in the tropics). The time of the sun’s rise exactly due east and its set due west are both marked with ancient stones all over the north. And an interesting point is that these megalithic monuments were largely erected by pre-agricultural societies. There may have been farming — that is, they probably grew food, or at least substantially nudged along their favorite forage crops — but there was not a socio-economic system of surplus generation, that which we name “agriculture”. They were farming small plots to feed themselves, not growing crops to sell. So their huge silicate clocks were not marking planting or harvest time for society as a whole because that wasn’t part of their culture. It seems they were marking time in a more general sense, using the solar quarter days to keep track of the year.

And all these millennia later, we still mark and celebrate these inflection points in the sun’s apparent journey. We gather together to celebrate nature’s abundance. We note the cooler weather and the end of the green season. We say goodbye to migrating and hibernating species. We decorate our homes with fall foliage and flowers and all the many pumpkins and squashes, many of which serve double duty, lending bright color to the doorstep as they cure for winter storage, and then filling up our bellies with nourishing yumminess for months.

This year, there may be somewhat subdued color in New England. The drought has played havoc with pumpkin patches everywhere. But even our famed fall foliage is muted. The stressed trees are rather abruptly turning themselves off this year, forgoing autumn to conserve their resources. You see, to make beautiful color, a tree needs to slowly cut back on photosynthesis but keep leaf tissues alive and hydrated. The autumn color we see is the color of the leaf without the chloroplasts — the photosynthesizing parts of leaf cells — reflecting all the green light back at our eyes. This is the “actual” color of the leaf tissues. But to see it, the leaf has to be alive yet not photosynthesizing, which will not happen if the tree is stressed. It won’t bother keeping its leaves alive when it stops making food. It will just shed its leaves and go to sleep for the winter. Which is what is happening here in Vermont for the most part. There are some trees, here and there, turning riotous maple vermillion and birch gold, but mostly the leaves are just turning rusty brown and rattling in the wind. There may be a tree or two aglow in the morning mist, but the astonishing swathes of vibrancy that we’re accustomed to here are notably missing, much to the chagrin of the leaf-peeper tourist industry. Ah well… we’ll appreciate it all the more next year… and fewer tourists means less of a COVID surge during the holidays…

Some folks celebrate this day as Thanksgiving, and some years I do too. But I tend to save the harvest feast for Michaelmas on the 29th. Michaelmas is the actual quarter day in the English calendar. It is also the day when most Harvest Home celebrations were held. So to me it just feels more substantial, more weighted with tradition. But really, it comes down to having the time to prepare and consume a feast. One can’t do much celebrating in the middle of the work-week. Especially as the most important ingredient in the celebration is gathering friends and family together. So serve up the holiday goose — or colcannon or latkes with applesauce — when you have the time to savor it.

Whatever day you choose, be sure to set aside a few moments for reflection. Even if this isn’t the end of the harvest or the end of the year, it is the end of the season of growth. It is just on the cusp of the time of contraction and repose, the time of death for many short-lived beings. So this is a natural time to think on the cycles of life. And to remember — and thank — those who have gone before us and passed on their living spirit so that we might be here now. Remember those you have known and loved. But also remember the forgotten and the unacknowledged. Our lineage owes as much to all the beings who make our lives possible as to those in our genetic webs. This is a good time to remember all those we owe gratitude. I am not one who believes much in spirits, but I do believe in memory and respect. All those beings who led to me deserve honor from me. This is a good time of year to dig down to our roots, recognizing that nothing would exist without them… 

And so, be grateful! It is autumn! And the hard work of growth is blessedly over for another year.

From the Book Cellar

An indispensable book on gardening the short days is The Winter Harvest Handbook by Eliot Coleman (2009, Chelsea Green). Coleman, a Maine organic farmer, is about the only writer I know to grapple with the problem of producing full nutrition in a temperate climate without resorting to either high energy inputs (for heat and light and water) or the more traditional solution, storing energy and nutrients in animal flesh. (There are charts and tables… )His methods and inventive infrastructure supply his farm stand with three plus seasons of fresh garden produce with only one heated greenhouse — in Maine! If you grow food or flowers at high latitude, you need this book.

©Elizabeth Anker 2022