The Other Equinox
The autumnal equinox gets short shrift across the board. It seems like a blind spot in the American imagination.
By Bart Everson
[editor’s note: Bart Everson lives in New Orleans but many years ago he lived in Bloomington and was co-host of the groundbreaking television series, “J&B on the Rox,” which aired on BCAT from 1992-1995. This essay is adapted from his new book, Spinning in Place: A Secular Humanist Embraces the Neo-Pagan Wheel of the Year, Frowning Cat Books]
There’s an old bridge over Bayou St. John in New Orleans, made from wooden planks supported by a steel frame and now used only for foot traffic. A Vodou ceremony is performed here on St. John’s Eve, just after the summer solstice, but recently I’ve come to associate the bridge with the autumnal equinox, because of a flower, of all things.
I first noticed them a few years ago, gorgeous crimson spidery blooms which seemed to have sprung out of nowhere in mid-September, in a little planter box at the end of the bridge. A friend’s grandmother calls them “naked ladies,” because they emerge tall and proud atop leafless stalks.
It wasn’t until several years later, as I was studying up on the equinoxes, that I realized these flowers are associated with the beginning of fall. They bloom around the time of the autumnal equinox. It’s a testimony to my own alienation from natural cycles that I noticed this not from direct observation or local lore but by reading about rituals of Japanese Buddhism on the internet.
The Higan Service has been observed at both equinoxes by Japanese Buddhists for over a thousand years. It’s traditionally a time to visit graveyards and honor ancestors. The naked ladies which I see in New Orleans are called higan-bana in Japan; they are often planted in graveyards and usually bloom around the time of the autumnal equinox.
Some say the flower has over 900 names in Japanese, including poisonous flower, fox flower, the flower of the dead, samadhi flower, abandoned child flower, and the flower that looks like a phantom. The Latin designation is Lycoris radiata, which I find almost as beautiful as the flowers themselves. In the American South they are also known by a variety of evocative epithets: red spider lilies, red magic lilies, surprise lilies, resurrection lilies. They have become for me one of the signal harbingers of autumn.
The boy who didn’t believe in autumn
The flower is also called the hurricane lily, which will need no explanation for those of us who live along the Gulf Coast. The peak of hurricane season comes on the tenth of September, statistically speaking, but the season officially runs until the first of November. Hurricane formation is driven by warm water in the mid-Atlantic and the Gulf of Mexico, which lingers on through the phenomenon of seasonal lag. It’s summer’s hangover.
Many locals take a dim view of September, the ostensible beginning of the fall season. September often seems like nothing more than an extension of the month before. August, Part II: The Revenge of the Humid. September is a sticky, sultry, summery month.
Here in the subtropics, spring may be ephemeral, but autumn can be downright elusive. Most of the trees in New Orleans stay green year-round, so we don’t see much fall foliage. The Saints may be playing football, kids may be back in school, and rumors of fall may filter down from the north, but when you’re mopping sweat off your brow it can be hard to believe autumn will ever come. The equinox can seem like a false premise. However, there is one undeniable reality that can’t be missed, even at our latitude.
I start to notice it at the very beginning of September. I rise at the same time, but each day it’s a little darker. Dawn slips forward through our morning routines. We are losing light. The days are getting shorter, as night encroaches upon day. Thus, even in the subtropics, we experience a sense of loss.
The other equinox
It seems to me that the autumnal equinox gets short shrift across the board. It’s my gut feeling that most Americans, if they are familiar with the concept of an equinox at all, think of the vernal equinox first. The vernal equinox is the subject of an enduring myth: that you can stand an egg on end on that one day and no other. For some reason, this story is told only about the vernal equinox. The poor old autumnal equinox gets virtually no traction in the American mind. I wonder why that is.
My suspicion is borne out by a moment with Google’s Ngram Viewer, which indicates that for 200 years the vernal equinox has been mentioned about twice as often as its autumnal counterpart.
The chart gets more cluttered if you throw the solstices into the mix, but it seems that the autumnal equinox has been the consistent underdog since the Civil War, at least.
I can’t help wondering if it’s a global phenomenon. One imagines that, for ancient people, the vernal equinox might have held greater importance in terms of the agricultural cycle. Knowing when to plant seeds is crucial information. By contrast, knowing when to harvest can be determined simply by observing the plants themselves.
I can’t help wondering what wisdom the autumnal equinox might have to offer us, in spite of (or perhaps even because of) its obscurity.
Abstract vs. embodied
Over the years I’ve amassed a collection of music related to equinoxes and solstices, and in so doing I’ve discovered a few things.
First of all, “Equinox” is a popular title. John Coltrane’s jazz standard is the most famous, but there are many others in genres ranging from death metal to ambient electronica.
Second, most equinoctial music is instrumental. Yes, there are some precious few songs about the equinox, but the overwhelming majority of tracks have no lyrics whatsoever.
Third, it’s often impossible to determine which equinox is being referenced. Some compositions seem to have a seasonal feel, either a bouncy vernal character or a more autumnal melancholy. Some titles make the matter explicit, such as “Vernal Equinox” by John Hassell or “Vernal Equinox” by Can (same title, but entirely different compositions). There are half as many titled with some variation of “Autumnal Equinox,” further evidence of the disparity noted above.
In some cases a seasonal association can be deduced from other clues. For example, John Coltrane was born one day before the autumnal equinox in 1926, so perhaps the title of his standard was chosen to invoke autumn. “Meet Me on the Equinox” by Death Cab for Cutie was released in early September 2014, just before the autumnal equinox, and the lyrical refrain of “everything ends” seems to fit with the fall season. However, for most compositions, the reference is completely ambiguous, and this ambiguity intrigues me. Perhaps musicians are intending to reference both equinoxes at once, to reference the idea of the equinox in the abstract, rather than its embodiment at a specific time of year. Note that solstice compositions are almost never ambiguous; the reference to summer or winter is almost always quite clear. The solstices by their nature represent opposite extremes, whereas the equinoxes are identical, insofar as the celestial mechanics are concerned.
The autumnal equinox is a global moment which can be observed and celebrated by all, and it exists far beyond the scope of any government or institution.
It’s a precise moment that happens twice a year, when the equatorial plane of the earth intersects the center of the sun. For this moment only, the Earth’s axis will not be tilted one way or the other with regard to the sun. It’s easy to illustrate with a flashlight and any round object (a globe, an orange), and I’m happy to demonstrate to anyone who cares to pay attention. In fact I have demonstrated the concept on numerous occasions at a local elementary school.
Yet the thought of a non-tilted axis has probably not inspired many musical compositions. Rather, I suspect, it’s the idea of day and night in equal balance. There’s something mysterious, magical, even mystical, inherent in that notion. It’s obviously a natural phenomenon, and taking note and marking it seems deeply human as well. Furthermore, it’s a global moment, which can be observed and celebrated by all, and it exists far beyond the scope of any government or institution. And since this configuration of Earth and Sun happens twice a year, it lends itself toward abstraction.
A different kind of balance
The concept of balance, common to both equinoxes, is not static but flowing. We seek balance as the best footing for our actions. This flowing sense of balance is embedded in the seasonal continuum. In the spring, the equinox represents a transition from dark to light; in the autumn this valence is reversed. At the autumnal equinox we move from light to dark. Attendant metaphors ensue.
Perhaps that’s why this equinox seems like such a blind spot in the American imagination. Themes of loss and darkness don’t fit well with the national narrative.
Yet there is much to celebrate, if we aspire to a full and comprehensive vision of what it means to be human on this planet. The metaphors of the equinox can work for us, if are open to the possibility. These metaphors only gain power when embodied in their seasonal context.
As metaphors of new growth predominate at the vernal equinox, so harvest metaphors abound in autumn. This might be a time for drawing in, for gathering together. The equinox can be a time for reflection, for making changes and starting projects, for setting priorities and recognizing intentions. Glenys Livingstone writes of “stepping into the creative power of the abyss,”1 a wonderfully expressive and suitably mysterious phrase. Truly darkness and loss, though they present challenges, are not to be feared, if only we can gain adequate perspective.
Fear and denial are fundamental responses to loss and encroaching darkness. There’s no sense in pretending otherwise. However, there is another response which may seem surprising and counterintuitive, though just as fundamental, and that is gratitude — the reciprocal of the spirit of desire which we celebrated at springtime.
Methods of gratitude
In fact this cuts both ways. Reflecting on one’s mortality can enhance one’s sense of gratitude, and gratitude helps us cope with loss. There is now abundant evidence of the many benefits of gratitude in the emerging field of positive psychology sciences.
Most ancient wisdom traditions have also emphasized the importance of gratitude. Gratitude is like any other capacity we have: it grows when we exercise it regularly. So it’s good to be intentional about it, to set aside time for gratitude.
A fun way to do this with family and friends is to make a gratitude chain. Cut up some strips of colored paper, and on each strip write down things for which you are grateful. Join the strips together to make a chain. Add to it daily throughout the season and soon you will have visible evidence of just how much gratitude is flowing through your lives.
A craftier alternative, perhaps appropriate for a gathering, is to make a gratitude garland. Each person can bring a token to hang on the garland, representing a blessing which they wish to celebrate. As the garland is constructed, each person can share the story of their gratitude.
Another worthwhile exercise, suitable also for the solitary practitioner, is drafting a gratitude letter. This is simply a “thank you” letter to someone you’ve never adequately thanked. It’s surprisingly powerful. Try it some time.
There are other methods. Whatever you do, do something. A recent study by Robert A. Emmons and Anjali Mishra2 indicates that cultivating gratitude may help you manage stress, reduce toxic emotions and materialistic striving, improve self-esteem, enhance your ability to remember the good things in your life, build social resources, motivate moral behavior, make you more spiritual, help you reach your goals, and promote your physical health.
I heartily recommend it.
Objects of gratitude
I am riding my bike to my daughter’s school on a warm September afternoon. It’s sprinkling gently though the sun is shining. As I ride I puzzle over an issue related to this essay, a philosophical snag over which I’ve dithered for years.
We may feel immense gratitude for favors large and small done us by our fellow human beings, which is a truly wonderful thing in its own right, but what about that gratitude we feel for a beautiful day? For sunshine or rain? For the blooming of Lycoris radiata? What about the whole of existence?
Gratitude is usually constructed as having two objects. We feel grateful for something, and we also feel grateful to someone. Note that in the standard formulation, this second object is typically a person or agent of some sort. Does it have to be that way? Is it correct to speak of gratitude to impersonal forces, or is there some other word for that? Does gratitude require an object, or can it be sort of free-floating?
By the time I arrive at the school, the sprinkle has thickened into a more substantial rain. The September sun is still shining brightly, however. I’m supposed to take my daughter to aikido class. If we ride in the rain we’ll both get soaked. Fortunately a friend shows up. He’s taking his daughter to the dojo too, so he gives my daughter a ride.
I stand under the portico waiting for the weather to clear, appreciating the beauty of the raindrops sparkling in the sunshine. I wonder about the nature of this appreciation. It feels akin to gratitude, but for many years I scrupled to label it as such, because it wasn’t clear to me just who the object of this gratitude might be. I am grateful to Jameel for giving my daughter a ride. Am I grateful to the rain? To the sun? While the rest of the human race gets on with feeling grateful, some of us stop to wonder: To whom or to what am I feeling grateful? For years that question was my stopping point, my stumbling block.
Since my daughter was born, however, many things have changed. I started to experiment with some things, tentatively at first, but in time — slowly, cautiously — with greater enthusiasm. I thought to myself: Why not? Why not give it a try? Why not allow myself to feel gratitude to the rain, to the Sun, to the Earth, to the Universe? Was it possible to experience gratitude to everything for everything?
We began to say grace before dinner. “Thank you, Mother Earth, for the food that gives us life.” I started visiting a certain tree each morning for a brief meditative moment, and I found myself saying “thank you” to the tree. These practices felt good, but they had other consequences. The world around me began to seem more alive. An incipient animism was springing up in my breast. I noticed that many children seem to relate to the world this way. Was I that way once? I can’t remember.
When the rain abates, I get on my bike and head up Moss Street, along the edge of Bayou St. John. That’s when it hits me. One of the prime functions of mythical metaphors is that they allow and even encourage our expressions of cosmic gratitude. That’s kind of the whole point. Gratitude surely is a social phenomenon which has evolved over millennia as part of humanity’s web of interdependence.3 Yet that web extends well beyond humanity without any clear limit. It’s only right and natural that we’d want to extend our social feelings to the natural world. This gives an emotional validity to the hard fact of our manifold interconnectedness and conveys many benefits besides. I suspect it’s “selected for,” as evolutionary biologists might say, but I’m speculating again.
This may be a minor revelation but it comes down on me with some force, just as I arrive at the footbridge where Lycoris radiata will soon be making its annual appearance, the very place where I started this overlong rumination on the autumnal equinox. It seems a fitting place to stop, and to express my gratitude to you, Reader, for coming with me so far.