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Monthly Archives: September 2020

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by Richard Nilsen
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Why are there four seasons? In some places there are hardly any seasons at all, in others you can pretty well count only two: either the wet season and the dry season, or, as in Arizona, a long season of unbearable heat and a brief season of relief.
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But the traditional four seasons, you say, are governed by solstices and equinoxes, which divide up the year into quadrants. Yes, summer officially begins near the end of June, but for most of the U.S., it has already been summer-hot since May. Dec. 21 may be the start of winter, but for most of us, it feels more like the midpoint. Solstice and equinox may tell us where the sun is re the ecliptic, but it hardly tells us anything with the accuracy of our skin, which is either goosebumped with chill or sweaty with heat.
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What is more, where I live now, in the mountains of North Carolina, there are seasons that don’t have official names, but are as clear as can be. Early spring is “mud season,” as the frozen soil thaws into a goo that can suck your shoes right off your feet as you walk. The is midwinter spring, Indian Summer, and that brief moment when “Nature’s green is gold, its hardest hue to hold.” And there is what we are going through right now, “late summer.” It is still hot during the day — it’s been in the 80s for weeks now — but you can look out the window and see that the trees know it is only a matter of weeks before it is time to let go.
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The leaves have become leathery; there are insect holes in them; some are infected with galls. The dogwood leaves have become frilled around the edges. The effusive growth of full summer has become defensive. The green has grayed out ever so slightly and the cuticle of leaf surfaces has become a bit more stiff and inflexible, almost plasticized, like the parched skin on the back of an old woman’s hand.
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The brambles have occupied as much of the field and forest floor as they have conquered, the vines and kudzu have reached their zenith. The season is as full as it will ever be, a cup filled to the brim and just over.
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The appearance is not so changed that you pay much attention to it. It is still summer, after all. But if you do pay attention, it is obvious: The earth has circled its parent sun once again. Life is getting ready to begin hibernating for the coming months.
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What I find interesting is that the change is subtle and slow moving, and most of us never really notice it. But the older I get, the more obvious these things become. As time moves more quickly with age, the changes that took years to happen when I was a child now come and go with the rapidity of a hummingbird wing. Months go by the way weeks used to and weeks become mere hours.
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Which makes the world into a kind of time-lapse experience. And that speeded perception makes the seasons dynamic — daily changes can be noticed — rather than the static thing they were when I was young: Summer’s school vacation lasted forever. Summer was a thing, not an action.
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But beyond the sped-up time, age has conferred a lifetime of experience. I don’t mean wisdom: That is a word I hate; it implies a superiority that I don’t believe in. But the piling up of experience means that many things register with earned familiarity, even unconsciously. You recognize the way the trees look and know, without saying it, what that look means. There is much that seven decades has buried in your psyche that can be understood without having to say out loud.
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“Their eyes mid many wrinkles, their eyes,/ Their ancient, glittering eyes” see more than they speak. They have seen it all before. It has become the gesso layer of life, the one on which everything is painted.
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And it is one of life’s truths, and its regrets, that this layering of experience cannot be conferred. We have to watch our children learn the same slow lessons we learned. We cannot save them from the pain, the heartbreak, the wrong turns, the dogmatisms that we endured in ourselves. Yes, we can tell them, and they might even believe us, but it will be as mere book-learning, not as felt under the skin, in the blood.
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That lifetime of accreted experience will end when we end, a full bucket tipped over and emptied. I watch now my twin granddaughters and see them with the love and forbearance that I now understand my grandparents saw me. Every generation must relearn the lessons, just as they slowly come to see the seasons turn from day to day, even occasionally, from hour to hour.
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Those years teach us not just the seasons, but how to read the eyes of our friends, to recognize the look of illness, the body language that contradicts words, the worn spots on the trouser knees, the sound that changes ever so slightly when we start the car. These are knowledges of piled years. It is what I see when I look at the late summer leaves.
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There are a few yellow and red leaves fallen from the maple tree in the front yard. My beard is gray.
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Richard Nilsen inspired many ideas and memories at the salons he presented through the years when he was an arts critic and movie, travel, and features writer at The Arizona Republic.   A few years ago, Richard moved to North Carolina.   We want to continue our connection with Richard and have asked him to be a regular contributor to the Spirit of the Senses Journal.   We asked Richard to write short essays that were inspired by the salons.

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