Living in Season

It’s fall here in southern Oregon and this time of year often brings back memories of my first fall.

The first time I experienced fall was my 2nd year in college. Up until then, I had never really known what four seasons was like.

I grew up in Vietnam and moved to southern California with my dad when I was 11. In both places, there were only 2 seasons: wet and dry. My uncle used to say California is paradise because it’s always summer there. And not knowing any different, I accepted this thought. Until my first fall in northern California.

I was biking my usual route from my dorm to my class but it was taking twice as long because I kept stopping to take pictures of the glowing golden and crimson leaves all around me, trying to savor that first fall.

I now live where the trees drop their leaves every autumn and still I’m completely astounded every time. Not only by the scenery, but also the myriad of seasonal activities that change monthly. And not only the activities, but also the revelations that come with observing the cycles of birth and rebirth unfolding every moment of every day.

Rhythms of the Seasons

On our homestead, most of our activities follow the rhythms of the seasons.

  • Spring – we sow seeds and prepare soil for planting.
  • Summer – we water and fertilize plants, weed, and mulch.
  • Fall – we harvest (from our garden and in the forest), collect seeds, preserve our food, and chop wood and collect kindling.
  • Winter – we thin trees, make burn piles, bake bread, rest and read, and sort through our seeds for planting in spring again.

When we first lived here, every season was a steep learning curve. We often missed the window of timing (for example, starting tomatoes early enough so they ripen before the first frost of fall), or we get overzealous and commit ourselves to too many tasks then fall behind on watering plants or not noticing ground squirrels eating our tomatoes.

But slowly, as we observed the daylight lengthening and shortening, buds appearing on trees, and various other natural events, we began to adjust our sense of time. Being a flower lover, I tend to mark time by the flowers blooming:

  • Spring – wildflowers, daffodils, and fruit trees
  • Summer – peonies, roses, irises
  • Fall – chrysanthemums
  • Winter – hellebores and snowdrops

Linear Time

When I was living in a season-less world, I saw time as a line, drawn from point A to point B. Birth to death. And you were either in the warm light of the living world above ground or forgotten in the cold darkness of decay and death below ground. In linear time, what we fear most is the oblivion of death, of time running out. In this model of the universe, we spend a lot of our time and energy clinging on to life whilst denying and fearing death. When I think about all the things I’m most stressed about in my daily life, it inevitably goes back to lack of time, running out of time, or fear of pain and death.

In our culture, where productivity is king, linear thinking pushes us toward a goal-oriented lifestyle that can easily lead to over-extending ourselves. Most of us live in a chronic state of stress and exhaustion. This thinking permeates almost every part of our lives, without us even noticing how it effects us, how it drains us of vitality and keeps us from being present as we push harder to make it to the next finish line and the next and the next… Though our bodies beg for a breath, we assume that we simply need more energy, more stamina, more time. But what we actually need is deep, rejuvenating rest. Something that the natural world does every winter.

Pause for a moment and ask yourself this question, “If I stop, what will happen?” Just the thought of stopping fills me with panic. The feeling that overwhelms me immediately is an intense fear that everything I’ve worked hard for will unravel and fall apart. I worry that I won’t be able to get back up again. I am afraid that I’ll lose my momentum and waste precious time.

The truth is, those things I fear DO happen. My plans do unravel. Some part of me does fall apart. I do lose momentum and precious time. And that’s also what nature does. Trees lose most of their leaves. Some plants finish their cycle and die. Fall is a time to fall apart.

So let’s face the thing we fear. Let’s talk about death.

I was born from an apocalypse
and have come to tell you what I know—which is that
the apocalypse began when Columbus praised God and lowered his anchor. It
began when a continent was drawn into cutlets. It began when Kublai Khan told Marco, Begin
at the beginning. By the time the apocalypse began, the world had already
ended. It ended every day for a century or two. It ended, and another ending
world spun in its place. It ended, and we woke up and ordered Greek coffees,
drew the hot liquid through our teeth, as everywhere, the apocalypse rumbled,
the apocalypse remembered, our dear, beloved apocalypse—it drifted
slowly from the trees all around us, so loud we stopped hearing it.

Excerpt from The World Keeps Ending, and The World Goes On by Franny Choi

I wanted to share this poignant poem by Franny Choi to remind us that the world ends and begins again continuously, every day, every year, every decade, every century, every millenium… The world ends not just in devastating catastrophes, apocalypse, and extinction, but also in the minute ways, like a flower petal drifting to the ground. Death makes way for something else to come to being. And this brings me to cyclic time, the way things actually are.

Cyclic Time

My first real winter in east Washington was not the cozy, restful winter I envisioned. I thought I was suffering from seasonal depression. “Seasonal depression, also called seasonal affective disorder (SAD), is a type of depression. It’s triggered by the change of seasons and most commonly begins in late fall. Symptoms include feelings of sadness, lack of energy, loss of interest in usual activities, oversleeping and weight gain. Treatments include light therapy, talk therapy and antidepressants” (Cleveland Clinic). Looking back now, I think our obsession with “diagnosing” feelings in this clinical way and prescribing “antidepressants” to numb ourselves from who we are, is actually quite harmful and tragic.

I couldn’t really rest that first winter because our culture does not encourage us to. As evident from “SAD,” we’d rather call it a sickness than acknowledge our need to rest! And my depression stemmed from my resistance to rest, let go, and deeply grieve. I didn’t know it at the time, but I was holding tightly to my life in California and I wouldn’t let it go. I knew it was time to move on and I chose a new path, but like most of us, I focused on the goal and ran right past the grieving part, fooling myself into believing that if I run fast enough, I can just skip from one happy memory to the next.

It was a loooong winter that began some time in October and went all the way until March. But it turned out that I needed all that time. I spent most of fall and the first part of winter struggling with the intense denial of grieving. I even went back to California for a week. When I returned to Washington, I was even more desperate. I finally broke down and cried in the middle of a cold winter day, looking out at the grayness saying, “I don’t want to be here anymore. This is not home.” It felt good to just say it finally. I felt completely defeated. And then, I gave in to real rest. And boy did I rest.

I slept in late while Noel chopped wood in the morning. Then we ate breakfast very slowly and warmed ourselves by the fire, read books on the couch, and had long talks. Eventually, I made my way out of the cabin and joined Noel for a walk around the neighborhood. And that’s when I found myself SEEING the snow for the first time. It was immensely beautiful. And just like that, joy returned, sparkling white, cold, and soft. I baked bread and decorated the house for Christmas, and we began to open our hearts to the new adventures to come. As spring approached, the signs pointed us to southern Oregon.

In a seasonal world, I notice the leaves that drop every fall become part of the rich humus that nourishes the seeds of life. Yet even that is but one layer.

The darkness of the soil is a vibrant web of many living things – mycelia, insects, worms, burrowing mammals, and so on. It’s like watching a time lapse of the forest floor sped up 5 times fast. Seeds sprout up from the ground, mature, then collapse and melt into the ground. Numerous animals eat and break a part the plant, webs of mycelia grow over the remains until all that’s left is finely sifted soil from which a seed sprouts, looping over and over. There’s rhythm to it, like breathing. A breath in. A breath out. But even the pause between breaths seem indefinable and more like a soft transition.

So let’s join our breath with this rhythm. To fight it, to resist it, is futile. We may think it’s productive. I’ve spent most of my years believing it and measuring my worth by my time spent working. But in the end, will I face plant into the earth after a lifetime of over exhaustion or will I drift off to a long slumber, welcoming the long awaited rest?

When I tune into the rhythms of the natural world, I feel more deeply connected to myself as one of the many creatures belonging to this world. There’s a kind of peace and comfort that comes with sifting a compost pile in spring to plant seeds. I’m part of this cycle. I’m part of the seasons.

My spring has gone, I’m now somewhere in late summer, and one day my winter will arrive. And how amazing it will be when that season comes because that’s when my very body will feed and nourish the seeds of plants that fed and nourished me.

Carl Sagan famously said, “The cosmos is within us. We are made of star-stuff. We are a way for the universe to know itself.”

I’ve always loved this insight, but I’d like to zoom in a little closer: “The earth is within us. We are made of dirt-stuff. We are the way for the earth to know herself.”

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