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Living and Writing in the Natural World

The rhythm of the autumn equinox

This past week saw one of the High Holy Days of a Taoist year or, indeed, the year of anyone attuned to the rhythms of the planet upon which we are privileged to reside. I celebrated the Autumnal Equinox by spending most of the mornings of September 21 and 22 bicycling along the Arkansas River which runs through my hometown of Tulsa, Oklahoma. I was visiting to celebratemy younger sister’s 60th birthday, and my sister-in-law with whom I stayed was kind enough to convince her son to loan me his ten-speed. From the bike path in the River Parkway I enjoyed blue-winged teals, various egrets, great-blue-herons, and countless joggers, strollers, and bicyclers amongst the post oaks and cottonwoods.

Balance is the theme for both of the equinoxes, the times when the duration of day equals that of night. At this autumnal one, the diminishing day length since the June 22 summer solstice has finally drawn abreast with the increasing night length, so the night is now equal in duration to the day (“equi-nox” in Latin). Similarly, on March 21-22 the increasing day length since the December 21-22 winter solstice finally catches up with the decreasing night, so we have the vernal (spring) equinox. Day and night are balanced in duration.

Of the two, of course, most of us prefer the vernal equinox, when increasing day length is bringing us into summer and its many activities. But the autumnal equinox has its charms, also. This is a time to reap the fruit of all that summer activity. To enjoy projects completed, harvests gathered, new friends and interests enriching our lives. It’s a time perhaps to slow down a bit, to gear down from the busy, hectic days of summer and enjoy what you’ve gained. Balance, which is a good idea all year, is especially appropriate now.

And when I write "reap the fruits of summer," I'm not talking metaphors here. Yesterday I picked half a dozen spears of okra and several big tomatoes from my backyard garden, battered and fried the former and sliced the latter, and ate 'em, along with smoked salmon that was swimming up the Sacramento River last week. No backyard garden or fishing friends? No one is far from a Farmer's Market these days--it won't get any fresher or more local than that.

A friend informed me this past week that September 21-22 was the beginning of autumn, and so it is in our western calendar. Not so for the Taoists in China. The autumn equinox is the middle of autumn for them, autumn having begun six weeks earlier to their more discerning eyes. Since autumn is a transitional season, it’s not as clear that the equinox is better considered its middle rather than its beginning. The timing is more clear when you think of the solstices. Is December 21-22 the beginning of winter? Clearly not; the winter solstice is the middle of winter. Is June 21-22 the beginning of summer? Clearly not; the summer solstice is the middle of summer, which began six weeks earlier. So it is that as the closely observant Chinese in the Taoist tradition realized, the year edges out of summer and begins to bend toward autumn in what we now call August, just as it edges out of fall and bends toward winter in November.

The traditional solar calendar in China depicts the year’s progression as a series of 26 “knots” or “breathes” of two week duration, with the two solstices and the two equinoxes as the primary knots. The other 22 knots are generally named for either weather or agricultural observations (insects awaken, grain in buds, small heat, white dew, great snow, for example). (I print the entire 26 knots of the traditional Chinese calendar and their placement in our western calendar in appendix 2 of my “Relax, You’re Already Home.”) In the slower-paced world of traditional China, you would tell your sister that you’ll visit her “on the tenth day of White Dew,” and stay “until the autumnal equinox, maybe a day or two into it.” In this system, just describing your itinerary reminds you of where the planet is in its yearly journey around the sun—a feature that we too often lose sight of these days with our western calendar.

So enjoy the Equinox! Notice that the night is beginning to predominate now and the heat is ebbing, and we are transitioning from summer towards winter, from hot to cool, from exuberance to thoughtfulness. We're bringing projects to fruition and enjoying the fruits of our summer activities. Here in northern California, we're looking forward to the first rains of autumn settling down all the seeds and dust that accumulated over the summer. Get outside in this time of balance and transition, and feel yourself balanced and transitioning. Feel at home.
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