At 4:03 this morning, when the sun appeared to cross Earth’s equator marking the death of summer, you were probably asleep. Even if you didn’t know that a significant event occurred this morning, you may have noticed a tang in the air from the scent of wood fires, goldenrod, and autumn leaves. As happens only twice a year, the length of day and night will be approximately equal over most of the planet today.
The autumnal equinox proclaims the eminent darkness of winter in an event that has been celebrated worldwide for centuries. The autumnal equinox coincides with the last harvest of the year, a time of celebrating the harvest, hunt, and memory of the dead, demonstrating the diversity of religious belief within our common humanity.
Hal Borland wrote, “… some of the rarest days of the year come in September, days when it is comfortably cool but pulsing with life … Days when the sky is clear and clean, when the air is crisp, when the wind is free of dust and not yet full of leaves … we should all be able to go out onto the hills on such days and know that life is fundamentally good … ” (Borland, 1983).
What is so different now, from when Hal Borland wrote so vividly about the seasons in 1940? Global climate changes aside, nature is similar to that of 75 years ago. Yet, we no longer celebrate, or even notice the beauty, strength, and hospitality of the clear, crisp, sunny September days (except to note the lower electric bills in the interim between the operation of the air-conditioner and the furnace).
The autumnal equinox will come and go as any other Saturday, filled with errands and tasks geared toward success in life. While the very tilt of our planet dictates the cycles of summer and winter, we plan parties and fly to places near and far. We are unaware that Earth is orbiting the sun elliptically, spinning on an axis tilted 23.5 degrees in its orbit, leaving the hemispheres at different angles to the sun at different times of the year. Because the sun is our source of light, energy, and heat, the changing intensity and concentration of its rays give rise to the seasons of winter, spring, summer, and fall.
While the Earth spins on its tilted axis and circles the sun, rotating like a gyroscope, it points in a fixed direction continuously — towards a point in space near the North Star — daylight hours become shorter. The morning chorus of finches, wrens, and song sparrows fade. The chirps of cardinals and calls of the nuthatches dwindle, until crickets carry the squeaky melody alone. Hummingbirds make their way to the Outer Banks or Mexico for the winter.
As children prepare costumes for Halloween and parents sip hard cider, the cool nights trigger trees to withdraw vital sap into their trunk and roots, cutting off circulation to leaves. With no new chlorophyll in the leaves, photosynthesis will stop. The old chlorophyll will disintegrate and yellow pigments will color the leaves of sugar maples and birches. Sugars left in the leaves of dogwoods and oaks will oxidize in the sunlight of autumn days, coloring the trees in the reds, blues, and purples of fall.
As the Earth continues its journey around the sun, its energy will be spread over greater areas, finally dispersing into the nakedness of winter. Only the pines and cedars will wear the green of summer. The maples may still flash a few red eaves, but most of their branches will be bare. A few yellow leaves may cling to the rebellious ash and popular.
As Santa Claus visits children around the world, and snow blankets the fallen leaves on the ground, “We should … stand in the open and see bold horizons of faith, stubborn hills of strength, and horizon-wide span of enduring purposes.” (Borland, 1983)
Borland, H. (1983). Rare September Days. In B. D. Borland (Ed.), Hal Borland’s Twelve Moons of the Year. New York: Alfred A. Knoph, Inc.
Fall Equinox Celebrations: The First Day of Autumn; September 20 to 23. http://www.religioustolerance.org/fall_equinox.htm
Celebrating the Autumnal Equinox.