Sunday, November 22, 2009

Autumn into Winter

Autumn in the desert is a subtle season, not as garishly over-the-top as autumn on the east coast. Back east, the fall colors explode over the landscape and in your face, literally demanding that you pay attention to them. Fall is everywhere you look, and that is not a bad thing at all. One of the most memorable autumns I ever experienced was many years ago on a vacation in Maine and eastern Canada. I flew to Boston and got a rental car, and headed up the coast. I was blessed with a week of the most perfectly clear, warm weather I could ever have asked for, and the autumn colors were at their height. Along the coast of Maine I came across countless picture-postcard scenes of white clapboard churches nestled in groves of brilliantly-colored trees, under a deep blue sky with wispy, delicate cirrus clouds. My mind became completely saturated with color and beauty, and my visit to New Brunswick, Nova Scotia and especially the serene, pastoral Prince Edward Island still provide some of the most intense and pleasurable memories of any vacation in my life.

But as I said, this time of year in the desert kind of sneaks up on you on little mouse toes. You start to notice small things, like the deep chill in the morning, and the light shining through the trees takes on a more golden or orange hue. The sun rises a little further south each day and as the solstice approaches, I have my own little version of Stonehenge in my home. For a couple of weeks before and after the winter solstice, the sun sends a strip of light shining through my kitchen and on to the closet door next to the front door, and illuminates the entry foyer with a glow that only happens during this time of year, and only for a short time. Strangely enough I've come to look forward to seeing this little display of light every winter, and the incongruous, fortuitous alignment of morning sun and windows in my home that creates this miraculous little apparition.

Up in the nighttime sky things are changing, too. Orion the Hunter has cleared the neighbor's mammoth pine tree and is slowly righting himself in the eastern sky, his arm raised, his knife hanging below his belt. Hidden in his belt is the Horsehead Nebula, a cloud of dark gas and dust which appears as the silhouette of a horse's head against the dim glow of heated hydrogen gas behind it. Running ahead of Orion is Taurus the Bull, and ahead of him are the Seven Sisters, the Pleiades. Taurus is also famous for having had one of the brightest supernovas visible to the naked eye. Back in the year 1054, Chinese astronomers were shocked and surprised to note the appearance of a brand new star in the sky, which for a couple of months shone brighter than any other star, and was actually visible in the daytime. This brilliant exploding star gradually dimmed and disappeared back into the blackness of the sky, but left behind an enormous, expanding cloud of gas and dust, which has formed a complex, dense network of streamers, filaments and debris, along with a pulsar at the center - the dead, destroyed remnant of the stellar core - spinning rapidly and sending out pulses of radiation at extremely precise, regular intervals, just like the ticking of a cosmic clock. Under Orion, Lepus the Hare is slowly, cautiously becoming visible and behind Orion is his faithful hunting dog, Canis Major. Also making an appearance low in the east is Gemini, with the twin stars Castor and Pollux making an unmistakable pairing.

Autumn here doesn't last very long and neither does winter. Half of November, December, January and part of February make up the lifespan of the two seasons, and by Valentine's Day the trees will be blooming again, the days will be noticeably longer, the weather will be warming up and hopefully the desert will be green again after a good dosing of winter rains. The fleeting nature of the desert seasons make it all the more important to savor and appreciate them while they are here, because they bring a color and a tenor and a feeling to this beautiful land which is very subtle, very lovely, and very enjoyable.

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