Agricultural vs. Urban seasons

A wall mural of a circular abstract face beaming on the city.
Photo credit: Daquella Manera, sourced from The Art Around Us on Flickr, originally sourced from Albus Cavus’s website (currently 404)

Increasingly disconnected from the natural rhythm of the year, people huddled in cities insist the the seasons begin and end at the solar points of the year, winter and summer solstices, spring and fall equinoxes.

In practice, the seasons are all about farming. And each region of the world is unique; so are their seasons.

In temperate zones farmers are preparing their fields for crops just about midway between winter and summer solstices. It all depends on soil moisture and regional climate, but most places there is a rush to get seed sown in time to take advantage of early  moisture. Many farm animals begin birthing soon after this point, continuing on  to about mid-way toward the summer solstice.

A black and white woodcut of a a man grafting a twig onto a tree branch, with a farm in the background.
Spring Farm Work — Grafting, a wood engraving from a drawing by Winslow Homer, published in Harper’s Weekly, April 30, 1870. From Commons.Wikimedia.Org

As the temperate regions warm there is a drop in soil moisture, more of a continuum than a specific point in time but still usually tracking with somewhere between the spring equinox and summer solstice. For winter wheats, some berries, and other early crops this is the beginning of harvest, and the first cutting of hay may occur around the solstice – often called ‘midsummer’ in agrarian regions.

Most food crops, however, do their major growing during the period from summer solstice to midway to fall equinox. Very broadly speaking, soil moisture tends to be dropping throughout this period, and growth follows the moisture trend. Beyond the mid-way point the plants grown for their seeds are usually drying in the fields, their primary growth completed. Plants grown for their fruit and pods may be in their second or even third planting, as are some of the root crops. But this mid-way point is generally when the wide-scale harvesting begins, and continues to accelerate past fall equinox.

A farmer with a rake and another behind a cutter drawn by two horses in a field of vetch.
Vetch being cut by horse drawn farm equipment. From Oregon Stat University: Special Collections and Archives photostream on Flickr.

In some temperate regions it becomes a race to get the crops in after equinox as the chances of precipitation steadily increase toward the half-way point. The temperatures are dropping too, and between frost and rain or snow or both the farmers get the food in and prepared for storage and shipping. Fields are prepared for the next planting, winter crops are sown, and not long after the mid-way point between fall equinox and winter solstice the crop farmer’s year is completed.

Traditionally, the food animal farmer began the butchering season as the rains came in too. As the last animal feed crops are harvested and tallied, they calculate how many animals they can keep through the winter. The rest must go, and sooner is better than later. Modern food animals are raised with far greater certainty about winter food supplies; there is no specific ‘season’ when only the demand needs to be considered.

But all this is mostly about the average temperate climate zone, which is only a fraction of the planet. Many regions know only a wet and a dry season, or three, or five distinct yearly periods. A few know only one season type, no matter that the days grow longer or shorter, while most everything within the tropics has very little change in daylight hours.

An engraving from 1888 showing a man finding a place where the heavens and earth meet.
Engraving from Camille Flammarion, L’Atmosphère: Météorologie Populaire (Paris, 1888) via Commons.Wikimedia.Org

We should learn the rhythms of the place where we are, and avoid fighting against its annual flows. And we learn that best by watching the cycles and seasons of the local foods, whether fish or flax,  fruit or fowl. The seasons are not astronomically precise; they are contextual.

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