Last week I found this really interesting podcast called Season by Season. I was originally drawn to this podcast because it explores the connection between the natural world and the written word. But what ended up really capturing my attention was its structure.
The podcast Season by Season is described as “an odyssey inspired by the 24 seasonal divisions of the year of the traditional Japanese calendar.” The hosts, Alexis and Kit, deliver each episode with a blend of poetry, song, and research to take the listener on a deep dive into the seasons. I just finished listening to the episode titled “Fading Heat” in it Alexis and Kit talked with author John Forti about his new book The Heirloom Gardener and shared lots of poetry about gardens.
What are these 24 seasons? And where did they come from?
For that answer, we should start back at the four seasons that most of us are familiar with.
In many parts of the world we separate the year into four seasons: spring, summer, fall, and winter. Each season is determined by the earth’s exposure to the sun and, as a result, has its own weather and temperature patterns that repeat every year. For example, winter is usually marked with shorter days and colder temperatures. Whereas summer has longer days and warmer temperatures.
These seasons last for three months. Because of the length of a season, there can be quite a bit of variation in climate between the beginning and end of that season. This is especially true for those of us who live in mid-latitudes.(2) (The mid-latitudes are the areas of the earth that are neither at the equator or near the poles.) If we take my home state of Vermont as an example, the beginning of spring is in late March. In late March there is still snow on the ground and the average day-time temperature in Vermont is 40 degrees Fahrenheit with the potential for snow. At the end of spring, which is near the end of June, the average day-time temperature is in the low 70s. That is a huge difference in temperature and expected weather patterns, and for those whose livelihoods depend on the weather, these broad categories are not so helpful when planning your activities.
The ancient Chinese recognized the need to create a more nuanced calendar that would be helpful in their agrarian based society. Thus, the Chinese created a calendar with 24 segments based on both lunar and solar events. These segments are called Solar Terms or Sekki. These sekki have names such as Pure Brightness (April 4) and Grain Rain (April 20). Each sekki lasts for about 15 days each and helps individuals become more synchronized with the changing weather and environmental patterns.
An example of how these seasons support the agricultural society can be found in the season known as Grain in Ear (June 5 – June 20). During this season the wheat crop becomes ripe and the summer planting season begins.(3) The next season is the Summer Solstice where the summer farming activities gear up in preparation for the hottest part of the year: Minor Heat and then Major Heat.
As time progressed, the 24 sekki were then further separated into three different 5-6 day segments known as Ko. This further separation created 72 different seasons that were really specific to a geographical region.
In 1685 the Chinese calendar was rewritten by the Japanese astronomer Shibukawa Shunkai and it became the version you would find today. Currently, the 72 seasons “offer a poetic journey through the Japanese year in which the land awakens and blooms with life and activity before returning to slumber.”(4) The seasons have names such as Evening Cicadas Sing (August 13-17) and Dew Glistens White on Grass (Sept. 8-12). Each micro-season is a recognition of the constant movement of the natural world. Spring isn’t just spring, but it is the time for Sparrows to Nest, and First Cherry Blossoms. It is also the time for Distant Thunder and Swallows Returning. It is so much more than just spring, it is a symphony of change.
What I truly appreciate about this way of looking at the year is that it asks us to slow down. If we think about everything in micro-seasons, the beauty of everyday life opens up. We no longer need to hold tightly to Summer as a whole because we can enjoy the moment and also look forward to noticing when the Insects go underground or Maple leaves and ivy turn yellow. Each block of time brings its own beauty, and likewise, its own poetry to the world.
If you would like to learn more about micro-seasons there is an app called 72-Seasons. I got this app for my phone and I am really enjoying it. The app “brings you photographs, illustrations, haiku poems and words based on the poetic names of the seasons, each of which depicts a subtle change in the natural world throughout the year.” It is really well done and worth a look if you want to deepen your connection to the seasons.