When you are raised in a community with a large farming population, the seasons take on a deeper meaning than a simple change in temperature. It is true that for agriculture, to everything there is a season –every vegetable has a growing season, every time of the year has beautiful moments and challenges to overcome. For most families tied to the land – much like the earliest humans – the sky is a clock and a calendar; the sun’s path across the sky, the length of each day, the location of sunrise and sunset – these things are actual signs of things to come and preparations that must be made. So, the upcoming Autumn Equinox will be a time of reflection upon the year’s successes and failures and a moment of celebration of the harvest cycle.
There are two equinoxes each year – one in March and the second in September. Technically, these are the days when the sun shines directly upon the Earth’s equator and the length of the day and the night is roughly equal. The Autumn equinox symbolically marks the beginning of autumn and the end of summer. From this moment, temperatures typically drop and the days begin to get shorter than the evenings. The sun begins its shift toward the south and the birds and butterflies follow it in their migrations. For us, September and October mean that it’s time for broccoli, greens, root vegetables, and apples. It also means that summer crops should have been stored and put up for the coming winter.
The full moon that rises closest to the date of the Autumn Equinox is known as the Harvest Moon. This is because farmers were known to lengthen their day – taking advantage of the bright light of the moon to harvest their crops into the night. The Harvest Moon often seems bigger, brighter, and more colorful than usual – but these days we know that’s not really true. Rather, it’s a trick played upon your senses by the thickness of the atmosphere upon the horizon. On this night, when the moon is near the horizon, it can appear a bright yellow or orange color.
The equinox has been observed by cultures all over the world, frequently as a way to celebrate harvest or to mark the passing of the year. In ancient Greece, this was the time of year when the goddess Persephone returned to the underworld to be with her husband, Hades. For them, it was a time to think upon how successful or unsuccessful the year had been – and to perform rituals ensuring their success and protection in the coming year. In China, the Autumn Equinox is a moon festival praising their luck and abundance from the summer harvest. Pagans celebrated Mabon, commemorating what the earth has given to us throughout the year and observing the darkness that is to come. Only very recently, our farming communities marked this change in season by celebrating with neighbors – sharing home-cooked meals, wine and cider.
Signs of fall are soon to be all around us: the vibrant reds, yellows, and oranges that we enjoy. It means leaf piles for children to play in – and the less enjoyable raking of those leaves. It means football season and homecoming parades. But, it once used to mean much more. Once we were more connected to the land, the earth, the seasons; we understood what this moment marked in the bigger picture of our lives. With any luck, the seasons will continue to change – year after year. As we grow farther apart from the land and the work that it takes to make living things grow from it, I believe that it’s important to remember what this time once meant…and what it can still mean.
A once-important part of all farming communities, a significant moment to stop and appreciate the hard work involved in sustaining life, and a beautiful celebration of the changing of the seasons – the Autumn Equinox, part of the heart and soul of Alabama Chanin.
**Photos of world maps and beautiful images of our solar system, from National Geographic Atlas of the World.