Happy fall! Lately I’m being told I’ve gotten lazy with pagan holidays. I’m focusing too much on the Celts and should expand my cultural reach.
I confess I do love the Celts. But of course the autumn equinox has associations with harvest time in many cultures in the northern hemisphere. In China the Moon Festival takes place on the full moon closest to the equinox. This year the full harvest moon was on September 20. I am visiting cousins in Gig Harbor, Washington and we celebrated by watching the glorious moon rise over Puget Sound just to the left of Mt. Rainier while on a zoom call with my brother Don. A thoroughly modern pagan celebration!I
was introduced to Chinese philosophy in a class about Chinese medicinal cooking led by West County neighbor Briahn. What an eye opener! A whole different way of looking at nature and the earth. Each of the five phases or seasons of ancient Chinese philosophy carries associations with specific things. Not only spring, summer, fall and winter, but also the cardinal directions, colors, sounds, organs in the body, fundamental elements such as wood, fire, earth, metal, and real or mythological beasts.
In Chinese tradition, the autumn season is associated with the color white, the emotions of both courage and sadness, the sound of weeping, the lung organ, the metal element, and a white tiger. Autumn is also connected in Chinese thought with the direction west, considered to be the direction of dreams and visions. To the Chinese, nature means more than just the cycling of the seasons. Nature is within and around us, in all things.
This summer I’ve been communing with nature by watching the night sky on clear nights. At the Ides of August I missed the Perseid meteor shower because smoke from fires in the Sierra mixed with fog to obscure the sky in Santa Rosa. But the clear sky has returned periodically.
I developed a bit of an obsession with the night sky and when I told neighbor Pam, she lent me a book by her husband, Jerry Waxman, who before his death in 2009 had been an astronomy professor at Santa Rosa Jr. College. It’s called Astronomical Tidbits: A Layperson’s Guide to Astronomy and it’s a perfect book for me, a layperson if there ever was one. Astronomy is explained and stories told in short short chapters, just right for my short attention span.
Jerry was forced to retire from teaching in 2003 after being diagnosed with Multiple Systems Atrophy (MSA), a disease like Parkinson’s. He worked on the book the last two years of his life and Pam got it published. Pam told me Jerry’s doctor speculated that toxins in the environment caused the disease. He was a runner who daily ran through vineyards coated with pesticides. The doctor said farmers, too, have higher evidence of this disease than the general population.
Jerry’s death is a reminder that living in a semi-rural agricultural area does not save us from industrial pollution. I’ve wondered about the effects of pesticide exposure on my own health. I grew up in Yakima Washington in the middle of an apple orchard when DDT was sprayed liberally and crop dusters flew over with regularity. My mother had what would now be called environmental illness. She died at 70 after years of suffering from COPD.
I know that those crop duster pilots showed signs of memory loss in studies. Did exposure to pesticides affect my memory? I’ve suffered from memory problems all my adult life (although as a little kid I was a whiz). At some point I was helped by seeing this as a disability, although the cause remains a mystery. One way I have coped is to learn to let things go when I can’t remember. Another is to focus on just memorizing one thing at a time.
Stargazing this summer I have focused on the summer triangle because it contains three stars that are the first to come out after dark. The triangle is an asterism, made up of stars that are part of three different constellations. Vega, the brightest star in the northern hemisphere, is the very first star I see and by now in September it is high in mid-sky. Seeing Vega blink on is comforting in this age of turmoil. The earth is still turning, my star is still there. The other two stars are Deneb and Altair, though I keep forgetting Altair. Gotta let that go. Then I will memorize it again tomorrow.
Here is another cool thing I learned from this book while reading about meteor showers. The best time to look for meteors is between 3 and 6 a.m. because we are on the side of the earth that is rushing forward in space! It’s called the leading edge. Jerry writes, “Earlier, around 9 p.m., the observer finds him or herself on the trailing edge, the backside of the Earth. Just the way your front windshield has more dead bugs than the rear windshield, so the leading edge of the Earth gathers more meteors.”
Now on a clear night when I awake at 3 or 4 or 5 a.m., I go outside, sit in a zero gravity chair and look up. Even if I don’t see any falling stars, it’s exhilarating to think that I’m on the edge of the Earth that’s rushing into space! And it’s humbling to remember that I’m just a tiny speck on a little planet in a minor solar system.
Wishing you a fabulous autumnal equinox!
Love, Molly (and Holly)