On Fourth of July weekend I’m at 6,100 feet in the North Cascades Mountains. And I’ve walked back into winter.
In retrospect, I knew enough that I shouldn’t have been surprised by the extent of the snowfield I encountered. I was working as a park ranger in these mountains, and have lived in landscapes and latitudes as diverse as Alaska and East Africa. Yet still, the ideal of American seasons is burned hard into my consciousness.
Seasons are strange things. Those like me who grew up in the United States—and mid-northern latitudes—seem to equate specific yearly seasonal and weather shifts with very specific dates and holidays. The green of St. Patrick’s Day switches to the pinks and yellows of “April flowers,” June must mean sun, fall colors on the first of September instantly changing to snow the day after Thanksgiving. Growing up in the mild, wet climate of Western Washington state, I yearned for but rarely got white Christmases and every June we’d be surprised again that summer still hadn’t seemed to arrive. My family in southern California and friends in Alaska were even more confused, I’m sure. “Cold” to my grandma who has lived near Los Angeles for all her life is anything below 65°F.
Seasons, on the surface, are not just a human construct, the way a week or a month is. Seasons exist in the real reality of the tilt of our Earth causing either the Northern or Southern Hemisphere to receive more light from the sun as we make our wide revolution around the sun every year. On the spring and fall equinoxes we’re floating at the part of our circle of the sun where everyone on Earth receives 12 hours each of sunlight and darkness. On the solstices, one hemisphere gets their longest day while the other gets the shortest. Year after year.
(If why our planet has seasons is still a little fuzzy to you, head over to this page from NASA for a quick review.)
Mountains confuse the seasons. Intrepid travelers from Illinois or Virginia who wanted to drive across the Sierra Nevada Mountains of Yosemite National Park in late June didn’t understand why the road, reaching almost 10,000 feet, was not yet open for the season. “But it’s summer,” they’d say. By the position of the Earth as related to the sun? Yes. But seasons are never that simple.
When I worked in Alaska, visitors were similarly confused by the start of fall colors and dusting of snow on the mountains by late August. And of course just because it is the middle of July doesn’t mean there can’t be a summer snow storm if you’re at enough elevation.
Likewise, spring flowers can pop up anytime in winter, spring, or summer. The peak of the blooms of cherry blossoms, for example, is famously ephemeral, just a few days, but you can also follow the budding of the cherry blossoms as they open from the south to the north from mid January to Mid May. In Japanese, the idea looking at cherry blossoms even has its own word: hanami (花見), composed of the kanji “flower” (花) and “see/watch” (見). You can spend months going on a hanami, if only you don’t mind traveling north and devoting time to simply watching flowers.
Walking up from 1,000 feet above sea level to 8,000 feet of elevation in the North Cascades is like journeying thousands of miles north or south to experience different seasons and climates. The types of plants and animals that I live among at the lower elevations of the mountains (manzanita bushes and rattlesnakes, for example) are similar to what lives in parts of Mexico, while at elevations of 7,000 and 8,000 feet you find a similar tundra as Alaska. You lose about 3.5°F for every 1,000 of feet of elevation gain. Lingering mountain snowpacks also shorten the growing season of plants at high elevations until summer is relegated to a month or less and winter stretches to half the year.
There on that single day in July, I had walked through fields of lupine that had bloomed and seeded out down near sea level back in April and May, and then past pussywillows that were just budded out along a stream at 5,000 feet.
In late August, I could escape the searing heat of the lowland ponderosa pine forests by walking up into the open spaces of the subalpine, where late-season blueberry bushes were already turning orange and red. And in a landscape of glaciers, snow and ice could be found year-round for those who could trek to the highest, deepest valleys.
Living in different climates around the United States and world, I’ve grown to appreciate what the change of seasons means to different regions.
In the desert canyons of Zion National Park in Utah, spring came in early March, with bright green leaves on the cottonwoods and spring floods in the Virgin River. Spotted fawns hid in tall grass and after a few months of spring frog chorus, squishy, translucent eggs soon turned into tadpoles sporting back legs. Summer arrived on the tail end of the cactus blossoms in early June and there was a full month of it where we wouldn’t see a single cloud before the summer monsoon rains would build up and collapse dangerous thunderclouds within the space of an afternoon. Summer lasted until early October, when finally boxelder and maple trees shone their blaze of colors in early November and the mule deer sported their large antlers. Grasses went dormant in December and the tall sandstone cliffs would occasionally get dusted in snow until it started melting even in the highest elevations and spring floods returned.
In the mountains of Yosemite National Park, water seemed the dominant turn of the seasons. Winter snows in the mountains turned into roaring waterfalls and flooded rivers in the spring. By June, waterfalls started to thin and many would disappear as the last snow melted in midsummer, only to return in with a calmer flow with fall rains. Open meadows existed because of yearly flooding, with grasses and flowers growing out of still water in May before the meadow slowly soaked up the snowmelt and turned brown by October.
I lived in New York City for two years, too, and though there is a lot of nature to be found there, in cities the change of the seasons was also marked by retailers, city government, and residents themselves. No matter where you live in the United States now, the arrival of pumpkin spiced everything or Starbucks red cups marks the abrupt change of seasons for some as much as the first ripening of a squash may have for a farmer a hundred years ago.
In New York, sometime at the end of September, the vendors at wheeled carts in the city parks started advertising roasted nuts along with ice cream and hot dogs. Must be the beginning of fall. Bryant Park declared Winterfest at the end of October and the ice skating rinks appeared. Shop windows transitioned from black winter coats to florals to the oranges, reds, and yellows of autumn. Billboards in the subway rotated between mostly health care companies and wedding planning in December to Harbor Cruises and summer festivals in June to new TV shows in September. And when the Christmas trees and menorahs went up around the city, you knew it must be the ever-extending Christmas/Hanukkah season.
I’ve also lived in tropical places—Colombia and Tanzania—where the proximity to the equator means that seasonal changes are nothing like I had thought of before. There, four seasons are divided into the short and long rains and the dry spells in between. In the tropics, seasons are even less about when the equinoxes actually occur, but they do still exist.
In coastal Colombia, a friend tried to explain his definitions of seasons to me.
“Winter comes in April for a month or two, then we will have the long winter in October, November, maybe December.”
Two winters? A short and a long?
“So when does summer begin?” I asked.
“After winter ends,” the man responded, his brow furrowing due to my lack of understanding. “Cuando termina la lluvia.” Whenever the rains stop.
Growing up in wet western Washington, I realized that was pretty much how we defined the beginning of summer too. It certainly wasn’t Memorial Day Weekend or June 21st but whenever in early July the rains stopped.
Maybe temperate and tropical seasons aren’t that different after all.
I’ve come to realize my concept of when seasons begin and end and what they look like is mostly a product of the influence of mid-Atlantic populations and history on the American consciousness. There brilliant New England falls turn into snowy winters, giving us white Christmases and green grass in March, and sunshiny beaches for three months in summer. Seasons are neatly divided into their three month segments.
But what happens when the majority of Americans now live in regions like California, Texas, and Florida? What does it mean that schoolchildren in Dallas are cutting out snowflakes while it is 70 degrees out or a mother in Miami orders tulips online to put in a vase in April even though other native flowers have been blooming outside for months?
Or for that matter what does it mean when “White Christmas” and “Let It Snow” played at Santa parade I went to in the New Zealand city of Nelson, where the December summer temperature in the mid-30s Celsius (90s Fahrenheit) led the parade commentator to remind people to drink water and put on sunscreen in between the winter tunes?
The changing of seasons can be more subtle that the Walmart decorations we put up at the change of the season on a calendar.
Even if you’re in a region without the brilliance of Vermont sugar maples, deciduous trees around the country lose their leaves every fall and regrow buds each spring. It just might happen in August or December, not around the first day of fall. No matter where you live, migratory birds pass overhead or spend extended time in your neighborhood—it might just not be a v of Canada geese flying on that postcard perfect October day. What about that white-crowned sparrow that flies between Alaska and the Lower 48 and Mexico ever year? Or the breeding colors of a merganser that transform the duck in winter and spring? Even in New York there was the return of Brant geese in the harbor every winter and the yearly changes of the plants in the parks. Even if your seasons look nothing like the four distinct Hallmark seasons, seasonal changes are still there in the changing daylight, which flowers are blooming, which fruits are ripening, how animals are acting.
Why are we so constrained by our pre-conceived notions of season? With the lives of many people increasingly focused on indoor spaces, I worry that we are missing the daily, monthly, and yearly rhythms of our planet. If you can afford it, temperatures are 68F inside year round, and you can get apples, strawberries, and fresh spinach any day of the year. This lost connection can affect not only our well-being and spirituality, but makes it easy to ignore the changes we as humans are afflicting on our planet. Fall colors are coming later. Spring birds are migrating earlier and winter snows are coming later. This is the kind of change that we’re not sure how the planet can recover from.
Walking up a mountain from Fourth of July decorations through spring flowers to bare trees and a field of snow was the reminder to me to embrace the changing of the seasons as they happen in real life on our planet. Seasons aren’t just the change in a calendar and another cliché to look forward too. They are the amazing way—and delicate way—our planet breathes and cycles.
Seasons are different everywhere. Let’s celebrate that. And realize how much that connects all of us as well.