How do you define the seasons?

My Earth Science classes just finished studying the Sun-Earth-Moon system this unit, which included us delving deep into understanding what causes the seasons. And while I was teaching about the equinoxes and solstices, the scientific “start” and “stop” to each season, I was forced to reflect on how I don’t actually associate the seasons with the time periods they technically occupy.

So what are the seasons if they aren’t astronomical? To me, seasons are associated with what I’m going to call “signifiers”: recurring events, feelings, or phenomenon that I associate with that season. For example, I know Spring technically doesn’t start until March 21, but in my head Spring only starts when we have a warmer day after many cold ones and I see flowers coming out. Summer astronomically starts on June 21st, but my “signifier” that it’s summer (as I’m sure it is for many people) is that the school year has officially ended.

But let us focus on the season we’re in right now: Fall. Fall has always been my favorite season. Growing up in Auburn, Alabama, Fall meant the return to school, the start of football season (or really, marching band season), and weekend ballet rehearsals for the Nutcracker. I have memories of waking up on certain weekends with a dance rehearsal and football concessions work looming ahead of me and thinking “it’s fall”. Even if it was only August!

Liza in a red and blue Nutcracker outfit.
Fun fact, I actually danced the fighting Nutcracker role (the Nutcracker that fights the mice, before he becomes the Nutcracker prince) three years in a row.

And while Fall was technically associated with cooler weather, temperature didn't become a signifier of Fall to me until I left the south and went off to college. It's hard to associate a season with temperature when the temperature is often 80ºF throughout the season.

But as I got older and left the south, my signifiers for Fall expanded, and did begin to include temperature. In college (in Ohio), it meant moving into a new dorm, seeing new faces around campus, and (finally!) that beloved cooler sweater weather. And once I moved to New York, the signifier that it was officially Fall was that first day of 50 degree weather and the fall foliage changing into beautiful yellows, oranges, and reds.

An image of a Maple tree with orange leaves surrounded by other trees with green leaves.
A Maple tree changing colors outside my house in Alabama. While Foliage changing colors does occur in Alabama, it often happened much later in the season and only really happened with particular trees (like this one), so it wasn't one of my more heavily used signifiers.

Except this year that didn’t happen until Halloween weekend! It was almost as if New York hit the end of daylight savings and then remembered, “Oh yeah… it’s supposed to be Fall!” and finally gave us some cooler weather and pretty foliage (although it still took a few days into November for all of the trees to finally turn). And to be quite honest, during this past week I got quite a few signifiers for "it's winter", making me feel like this Fall was the shortest one yet.

Some things never change: Fall will always be “school season” to me and it will always mean that the Auburn Tigers are playing football (even if I only get updates about it through social media at this point). I wonder what the signifiers would be if I had grown up in the Arctic.

What signifiers make you think “it’s fall”? When will you know that winter has officially begun?


Sarah Crowley

Hi Liza, Great journal! The signifier I have thought most about as we get into the 'depths' of winter here in Denali is light. We have had snow for a while but we lose a significant amount of light each day as we head to the solstice. Right now I think we get about 5 hours of light! I can't wait til we are back on the upswing! :)

Liza Backman

How's summer going for you now? Lots of light here in Alaska now, but it's funny that I'm working with a bunch of biologists and to my group this is still considered "Winter" or "Spring" because nothing is growing!

Kathy Ho

Heh, temperature increasingly means nothing for us... yesterday it was 74°! Love your maple tree - it's one of my bucket list items to see the fall color changing...

Liza Backman

Leaves changing is always one of the prettiest parts of fall. Probably why it's one of my favorite seasons!

Erin Towns

Love the storytelling element to your journal. It is cool to read and get to know PolarTREC teachers and what informs perspectives about life. Your photograph of the maple is stellar. Love it!!!

Carole Corsby

I love your journal, Liza. My seasonal signifier is tied to when we open, or close, all the windows and doors in the house. With no air conditioning, our house relies on window position to keep our temperatures more comfortable.

Liza Backman

Opening the windows in my college dorm was how I knew it was summer because we didn't have any air conditioning either, so I definitely understand that!