Change is in the Air

Many things undergo transformations when the seasons change. The weather shifts, umbrellas are exchanged for hats, even our moods are different. But what, exactly, are we responding to when we change our day-to-day habits, our evening activities, and our weekend plans? Simply utilizing our five senses can elucidate some of the more tangible signals that our bodies detect as the months pass by.

A snowy road on a sunny day

The two equinoxes and two solstices have long been observed by people on earth, before the establishment of many of today’s religious holidays, before the annual celebrations of independence, and certainly before the creation of bound appointment books and digitalized calendar apps. In today’s terms, the equinox and solstice are roughly determined by the relative orientations of our planet and the sun. The December solstice is the day when there is the least sunlight and the most darkness in the Northern Hemisphere, but the most sunlight and the least darkness in the Southern Hemisphere, because the South Pole is maximally tilted towards the sun. Likewise, the June solstice is the longest day in the Northern Hemisphere but the shortest in the Southern Hemisphere, because the North Pole is closest to the sun. On the other hand, the equinoxes occur when then sun is directly across from the equator, such that the length of day and night are equivalent, regardless of which hemisphere you live in.

In many cultures, the equinox and solstice are a mark of the changing seasons, and an announcement that spring, summer, autumn, or winter has arrived. The reality, however, is that the transition between one season to the next is a gradual and non-linear process, one that teases us and tricks us and tempts us to predict what the weather will bring. Sometimes, the heat of summer seems to linger for too long, making us impatient for the first cool breath of autumn as the weeks stretch past in a languorous haze. Other times, the first leaves and petals of spring unfurl almost overnight, and in a blink of an eye, the season is in full bloom, leaving us wondering when exactly that transition passed us by.

In some ways, it is peculiar that living things can sense that a season has changed. A flock of migratory cranes will set off in a synchronous flap of their bold wings, arranged in an unrehearsed yet remarkably neat formation in the skies. A canopy of leaves will transform from emerald green to warmer hues of yellow ochre and carmine red, until they create a carpet of fading browns underfoot. Later, dormant bulbs, snuggled deep underground in their dark, warm beds of soil, will send up shoots to venture into the sunlight and chilly winds above. How do they know that one season is fading and another one is emerging, even when dark and cloudy days are interrupted by full days of sun, and cooling temperatures are exchanged for one last heat wave?

The ability to sense the changing of the seasons is one that human beings still retain, despite the isolation afforded to us by the prevalence of artificial lighting, concrete roads, and thermostats, and the unrelenting procession of the very human concept of seconds, minutes, and hours each day. No matter how deep within the city you live, even an act as simple as throwing open a window can elicit nostalgia for the season of yesterday and anticipation for the season of tomorrow.  Here, we count the ways we perceive that change is in the air, with a focus on New England’s transition from winter to spring.

A path along a snow-covered park



When the temperatures outdoors are frigid, we seal off the interiors of our buildings and homes and turn up the heat to stay warm and toasty. Without the draft of an open window, the air falls still, stirred only by the rising hot air from a heat vent or radiator, creating barely perceptible currents to rustle the corner of a page or the delicate edge of an indoor leaf. In the absence of kinetic energy, the air seems to store a kind of potential energy—the type that leads to a zap of electric shock when you’ve been dragging your slippers on the carpet and then reach out to touch a metal lamp, for instance. Anyone who has lived in colder climates during the winter months will remember the rough, dry layer that forms on the skin of one’s hands, constantly thirsting for the cooling balm of a lotion or salve. Even the air outdoors feels drier and sharper, prickling the sensitive skin of your nostrils and burning your lungs when you take a deep, deep breath.

Sometimes, the temperature will warm up by five or ten degrees, and instead of snow, there will be rain. When the clouds that trapped in all of that moisture finally roll away, and the sun emerges, the skin on your cheeks is greeted not only by the kiss of the sun’s rays, but also by the damp air that gently brushes past. That little puff, temporary as it may be before the air returns to its frigid, dry state, carries that scent long buried under frozen soil and ice. It is a little reminder that the humidity of summer will return one day.

Sunlight filtering through a row of snowy trees



As the daytime hours subtly lengthen, the sun rises earlier and earlier until the day that dawn begins to seep through your curtains or blinds and pull you out of your slumber before the first ring of your alarm. This dawn is pale, almost colorless, and for a few seconds, it can be hard to determine whether the sky will be blue and clear or gray and overcast. As the weeks pass by, however, the colors will begin to saturate, taking on those rosy tones, gold and pink and orange, until they achieve that flaming brilliance associated with the bronze sunrises and scarlet sunsets of midsummer.

A snow-covered front yard



In the middle of a heavy snowfall, the silence is peculiar. The snowflakes make no sound when they join their companions on the snowdrifts, and other than the crunchy, squeaky exclamations from the snow compressing under your boots, there is a distinct absence of noise. The intermittent scrape of a snowplow, grumbling past under its heavy burden, can be startling, the sound hanging in the air long after the vehicle has passed you by. More often than not, your neighbors and acquaintances are burrowed under the snowy eaves and rooftops of their own homes, and the streets are empty and white, devoid of color and activity.

The first birdsong, then, is often a surprise. The solo may be quiet, emanating high from the tree tops over a bedroom window, but it is confident, inquiring, and distinctive, enough to rouse even a deep sleeper. Sometimes, the song is accompanied by the lively drips of melting snow, dancing in a puddle below. This little chorus has more than once been a momentary cause for annoyance, eliciting a growl from a sleepy figure snuggled deep within her blankets. Relentlessly, the sounds call her name, encouraging her to peek out into the daylight and promising more animated mornings to come.

Sunlight filtering through snow-covered branches

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