Autumn comes to us through the Middle English autumpne and the Old French autompne thence from the Latin autumnus, and the Latin likely derives from even older Etruscan forms. The first part of autumnus (autu) probably derives from the Etruscan autu which is related to avil, or year. There may be some connection with the old Venetic autu or autah, which means much the same thing. The second part of autumnus (mnus) comes from menos meaning loss, minus, or passing. There we have it - the calendar year passing away.
At the end of our etymological adventure is the burnished notion that autumn, both word and the season, signifies the passing of a bright and fertile interval and the waning of another calendar year in what I like to call simply, "the Great Round," the natural cycle of all days and seasons.
One can't take a walk these days without noticing that the world is changing and changing swiftly. Vibrant colors surround. Leaves rain color over streets and paths, the brilliant blue skies overhead contrasting with deliciously rustling drifts underfoot. Geese pass over in vast singing waves at sunrise and dusk, and their music fills the sky. Deer forage in farm fields, and flocks of wild turkeys stand like sentries. The heat and high sun of summer are waning; plummeting, falling temperatures and long nights are on their way. Let us enjoy these beautiful days while we can, for they are fleeting.
September days are about harvest and abundance, but they are about balance too. The Autumn Equinox in only a few days (on September 21) is one of the two times in the year when day and night are perfectly balanced in length, the other being the Vernal Equinox on March 21.
"Autumn Equinox" describes the day on which the sun passes over the equator on its long journey southward, moving away from our northern hemisphere. Of course things are actually the other way around, and it is the earth that is in motion, as the northern hemisphere tilts away from the sun at the center of our galaxy. Earth's tilting is caused by a slight wobble (or in astronomical lingo, "precess"), and our planet is actually about 23 degrees and 27 minutes off true perpendicular as it spins merrily on its own axis. The wobble determines how many hours of daylight and darkness we receive at various times of the year, and it gives rise to the four glorious seasons that constitute our calendar year.
Mindful that the old is passing away, we harvest the yield of the season, storing the abundance of summer fields with the knowledge that colder, darker, and leaner times lie ahead. For the ancients, autumn must have been a time of frantic activity, anxiety, and uncertainty about winter survival. We moderns have fewer anxieties. We have time to walk among the falling leaves and glory in the magnificent colors surrounding us, but we know we are witnessing a swan song of unparalleled brilliance, a last hurrah before the world falls asleep and gathers its energies for the year to come. Many of the activities we are engaged in at this time of year are ones in which our ancestors were engaged in their time. Across the years, we join hands and nod to each other in greeting, ancestors and moderns moving to shared and timeless rhythms in the great dance of time.
For those of you are passionate about seasonal rhythms, calendar lore and the ways of our ancestors, visit Waverly Fitzgerald online at Living in Season and Joanna Powell Colbert at Gaian Soul. I visit both places often, and I always come away feeling refreshed, renewed and a little wiser too.