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Essay

Four Seasons and an Indian Summer

Four Seasons isn’t just a high-end hotel brand or an iconic piece of classical music that features in luxury car ads. The four seasons — spring, summer, autumn and winter — follow one another regularly over a year. But as Keith Lyons finds, this isn’t a universal rule, and the passing of each year is bringing new changes and challenges.

There are probably a few places on Earth that technically have no seasons, but even that is stretching the definition. The one I went to isn’t really a country, and when I was there, it was at the peak of summer, with days lasting almost 24 hours. On calm clear days, I could wander around in just a t-shirt and shorts. A high SPF sunscreen and Clinique’s Dramatically Different Moisturising Lotion were my constant companions on any outdoor adventures to cope with the sun’s rays and the dry air.

It was too cold and too dry for any trees or shrubs to grow, so I couldn’t get the visual clues about the seasons either.

Which place, you ask? Wherever you are, travel south. More. More still. Right to the bottom of the globe. Antarctica.

Actually, the southernmost continent, which is pretty much ice-covered, does have two seasons: Summer and Winter. It is not in a perpetual winter year-round. Summers are short and cold, and full of sunlight, with the sun above the horizon most of the time. Around mid-summer, it never gets dark. These endless days of summer, from November to February, can play havoc with your circadian rhythms, your ‘inner clock’, interfering with regular sleep patterns, as many scientists, support staff or military personnel discover. For the few that ‘winter over’ on the inhospitable polar region, from March to October, have to endure long, dark nights before they experience twilights.

An equally intriguing exception to the four-seasons-in-a-year rule can be found along the Equator with some places in the tropics only having two seasons: wet and dry. Regions near the Indian Ocean experience three seasons, with a short winter, then summer, and then, the monsoon. The nation of Bangladesh goes one step further in claiming to divide these three seasons into six, with summer, monsoon, autumn, late autumn, winter and spring. 

As desirable tourist destinations, once Covid-19 is contained, there are a number of places whose climate satisfies the traveller seeking blue skies, sun, and warmth, including Cape Verde in Africa, Mexico, Malta, Dubai, Thailand, the Maldives, Hawaii, Florida, Brazil and of course, India. Even countries such as Singapore and Malaysia have no distinct seasons, at least to outsiders, who just know the island for its heat and humidity and the chill of air-conditioning.

The country of my birth, New Zealand, can claim to have four seasons — four seasons in a day. Due to its remote location surrounded by the ocean and in the path of winds from the west, and a spine of mountain ranges, as well as some volcanoes, New Zealand’s temperate climate, is never too extreme, but as band Crowded House once sang, there are ‘four seasons in one day’. For example, tomorrow’s weather forecast for Christchurch is for a high temperature of 24C but dropping down to 4C with a cold southerly change with winds and rain, and possible frosts the following mornings.

In New Zealand, because the ever-changing (and at times, unpredictable) weather plays an important part in our lives, particularly agriculture and tourism, everyone watches the weather, tuning in for 6.55pm TV forecasts, or checking the MetService app with its severe weather warnings, rain radar maps, and advice. Right now, the app tells me it feels like 12C outside, two layers of clothing are recommended, and the sun which went down at 5.22pm won’t rise until 7.30am.

The weather can influence us in many ways, including our mood. One remedy for malaise is to spend more time in Nature, even if it is in a public park, garden, or in these times of Covid-19 lockdowns, hanging out with a pot plant.

Some people have a preference for a particular season. Overseas tourists often visit over Christmas-New Year and in the warmest months of summer, while others wait until the first snows have fallen in the ski fields. Spring with its daffodils blooming and newly born lambs bleating seems to be a time of promise and hope. Shoulder and off-peak season visitors, along with many retired folk, like March and April for travel, when students are back studying, and the weather can be more settled.

Many hope there will be an ‘Indian summer’. No, this isn’t a derogatory term or even a reference to the second-most populous nation. Its origin may have come from North America a couple of hundred years ago referring to a period of unseasonably warm, dry and calm weather, perhaps associated with haziness from prairie fires set by Native American Indians. The term ‘Indian summer’ may have been picked up and mistakenly associated with the Indian subcontinent during the time of the British Raj in India in the 19th century. Basically, it means a late summer. Or a pleasant early autumn.

For me, this is one of the special times of the year, as I notice the changes happening all around me. In particular, I see the leaves of trees change colour, and eventually fall to the ground. For me, even though the signs are of death and decay, there seems to be more of a link to a deeper purpose, the cycle of life, and the order of the universe, assured by the warm, orangey tones, and the golden highlights.

This time last year, at the end of March, New Zealand went into a lockdown to combat the spread of Covid-19, but while people were urged to stay at home, households were allowed to go out for exercise each day. Many residents re-discovered their neighbourhoods, venturing out to parks or walking down leafy lanes, as the late summer morphed into early autumn. Facebook posts featured landscapes, trees, leaves, and even the veins of leaves silhouetted against the sun. I recall one long walk I took, to escape doom-scrolling the bad news about Covid-19’s contagious spread. On my headphones I listened to Vivaldi’s Four Seasons, while still in my head I held the words of the accompanying sonnet for Autumn, which reminded me to pick up a bottle of Merlot for my parents:

“Celebrates the peasant, with songs and dances,
The pleasure of a bountiful harvest.
And fired up by Bacchus' liquor,
many end their revelry in sleep.
Everyone is made to forget their cares and to sing and dance
By the air which is tempered with pleasure
And the season that invites so many, many
Out of their sweetest slumber to fine enjoyment.”

In tandem with a new appreciation for life — and being alive — there was also another growing awareness of something far bigger than the pandemic sweeping around the globe. Climate change.

Whether you call it global heating, or human-induced climate breakdown, warmer, polluted air is affecting us all.

There are links between stances about climate change, and the pandemic. Covid-19 has been described as climate change in fast motion. Both have their science deniers and sceptics, who tend to be more conservative and individualist.

The words of the Greek philosopher Heraclitus have never been more relevant:

“Nothing in life is permanent, nor can it be, because the very nature of existence is change.”

The challenge for us all is to be present in the moment, acknowledging our fears and anxieties, and action the Latin phrase to ‘seize (or harvest) the day’. My friends, ‘Carpe the hell out of this Diem’.

Keith Lyons (keithlyons.net) is an award-winning writer, author and creative writing mentor, with a background in psychology and social sciences. Keith was featured as one of the top 10 travel journalists in Roy Stevenson’s ‘Rock Star Travel Writers’ (2018). He has undertaken writer residencies in Antarctica and on an isolated Australian island, and in 2020 plans to finally work out how to add posts to his site Wandering in the World (http://wanderingintheworld.com).

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