Tuesday, October 28, 2008

Autumn and Early Rains

For many people, autumn is their favorite season. Autumn is defined as the intermediate season between summer and winter. Its more literal meaning is a “period of maturity verging on decline.” You might ask, “What is declining during autumn?” Well, quite a few things; mostly, though, the decline is merely a manifestation of normal, natural cycles.

Astronomically, the angle of the sun’s elevation above the horizon declines. Its noon angle is becoming lower and lower--only about 25 degrees above the horizon on December 21 in northern Illinois. With that declining angle, temperatures fall and day length diminishes. This change has already triggered cessation of leaf activity. The production of green chlorophyll, the food production catalyst, lessens, allowing the colors of other compounds to display themselves. Most deciduous plant leaves will drop before long. Fruit and grain are mature, but they will require a timely harvest. Lawn mowing is also on the wane, not at all a bad thing!

Many birds tend to flock now that spring and summer territorial jealousy associated with raising young is forgotten. In our neighborhood, for example, the cedar waxwings and robins seem actually to enjoy each others’ company, mutually feeding on cedar fruits and sharing branches. Blue jays, woodpeckers, and other birds sometimes join in the excitement, flying back and forth among our neighborhood trees in what seems like intentional, exuberant bedlam. This behavior must serve some beneficial purpose for these mixed flocks. For this observer, the benefit is measured in pure entertainment value. For the birds remaining over winter, even this “game” will diminish as the temperatures drop lower.

Let’s consider a very different, ancient historical look at autumn from ancient sacred writings. One of the Jewish feasts of Old Testament times was Sukkot, which, among other things, was an agricultural harvest celebration. Some have proposed that the New World Pilgrims may have looked back to a scriptural precedent for an autumn thanksgiving event celebrating harvest. Another feature of the Hebrew autumn was the arrival of the “early” rains in that area at about the time of harvest. It prepared the ground far in advance for another harvest in the spring when the “latter” rains arrived. Even in the decline of autumn, the Israelites anticipated renewal in the spring, continuing the ancient cycle.

There are scripture references to weather cycles connected with spiritual renewal, such as Deuteronomy 11:13-15 (NIV): “So if you faithfully obey the commands I am giving you today – to love the Lord your God and to serve him with all your soul – then I will send rain on your land in its season, both autumn and spring rains, so that you may gather in your grain, new wine and oil. I will provide grass in the fields for your cattle, and you will eat and be satisfied.”