On Almanacs

And the passing of time

Hello! This is the 71st issue of Place and we are so excited to be delivering you a brand new dispatch, by place co-editor Kylee Pedersen. Do you have a strong connection to certain months of the year? If you do, why? Is it the weather, the food that comes into season, the activities that you are enabled to do? Most of us probably feel that the different seasons of the year impact the places that we inhabit or experience. In attempting to find out why, Kylee reflected on her own disassociation with the months over the past year, and one of her favourite books, A Sand County Almanac by Aldo Leopold. So here’s to September, the beginning of fall – we hope you enjoy this seasons first letter, let us know what you think in the comments below.

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“The hope of hearing quail is worth half a dozen risings-in-the-dark,” writes Aldo Leopold in his seminal account, A Sand County Almanac. By the time that Leopold wrote this line, he would have spent over ten years on his land in Sand County, Wisconsin, observing the patterns of the natural world around him. That the first section of the nature writer and conservationists' most famous work is broken down by month, would be of no surprise to those who have lived in close communion with the land, feeling that light, breathing that laden air. For in the countryside, most everything circles around the weather, and the seasons, and the subtle changes that come with each cycle of the moon. 

When reading the book (no matter the vantage point – urban or rural), one is acutely aware of the importance of such minute changes – in wildlife behaviour, in the ways the trees change, the conduct of the wind – because of the containers they are placed within. An average 30 day span in a human life may not always bring monumental changes. Yet in nature, its a time frame that encapsulates multitudes – life, movement, death. Leopold’s writing gives us a different way of picturing species – showcasing them during a time of year that they shine, that they behave in a certain way that marks the passing of time. Month to month, as Leopold’s surroundings change drastically, the creatures he narrates become something like symbols for their respective 12th of the year, zodiacs of the midwest. 

In September, Leopold writes about quails. 

By this time of year in Wisconsin, according to Leopold, the birds of summer have quieted. Many have begun their winter migration. A summer chorus gives way to early bitterness of fall, and silence falls on fields and groves once in an ensemble of song. But then, in a coven of brush, the singular sound of the quail pierces the day, precious, not only for the known secrecy of its maker, but because of the quilt of quiet it has disrupted. 

In the years that I have carried A Sand County Almanac around with me, to wherever I’ve travelled or lived, I’ve found a great solace in its pages, in its record of life in the months of a place I’ve never been to. Perhaps in this age of climate anxiety, its calmed my nerves, reassured me that certain things in the natural world still take place when they’re supposed to – or at least, that someone took the time to record them when they did. Maybe, its the comfort in simply knowing someone stayed in the same place long enough to notice, a stillness I’ve craved deeply in years past. It could also be that the text has acted as a sign-post that I return to yearly, reflecting on the quails and geese that fill its pages and noticing how I’m moving too, what I’m doing to survive, adapt, or grow. A monthly horoscope of a different kind. 

The word Almanac, according to Britannica.com, is of “uncertain medieval Arabic origin”. In modern Arabic, al-manākh means climate. The creation of Almanac’s began with the onset of astronomy, and were originally calendar-type legends or books which described the changing position of the sun and moon. Over time, into the 17th and 18th centuries, Almanacs were still based around these basic elements, but grew to include prophecies, the recording of lucky and unlucky days, advice for farmers, local folklore, weather predictions, and even medical advice. They were like recipes for living, centered around the four seasons, the rising and setting of the sun, with a bit of weather forecasting sprinkled in.

Seasons have quite obvious impacts on the way we experience the place we are in, or a place we visit. They determine how we dress, how we spend our time, and what we eat. But often, in the slippery nature of day-to-day life, it feels that our actions are happening despite the season, or time of year. We may make plans around seasonal activities, but somehow it feels as if we are in control, as if the world is changing according to our calendar. 

I wonder what would happen if we flipped the script? If we were consciously aware of the way the natural world was shifting around us daily, and made our plans according to that, or at least acutely observed it. What if we consulted a daily almanac of the natural world, the days that earthworms appeared above ground, the days that rain fell, the days when the earth was parched? What would we notice, or how would we live differently? 

Call it the veil of covid, but for the last year, I feel that I’ve barely felt the seasons. This could be circumstantial – I was in a warm place throughout the winter, and the summer in London was particularly London-y, with barely a day of hot sun. I haven't been in one place long enough in years to absorb annual patterns, to keep track of the days that I first felt the spring. I can't necessarily pinpoint how this has affected me, but overall I would say it made me feel more detached. I felt like time was an oblivion, that it was passing faster than ever – for the first time, I barely took notice of the months. The only time I realised their presence was when I opened Leopold’s book. 

I’m back home in Alberta Canada, the place where I grew up, after years of living elsewhere. And the fact that my first proper month at home falls in September, feels fitting. It's a time of transition in nature, a time when the chapter of summer begins to close and the creatures around here begin to prepare for the cold. 

The other day I was listening to the radio in my new kitchen, still trying to figure out where we should be keeping our frying pans and pots, when a biologist came on air to talk about hawks. Hawks are solitary birds, and are usually observed alone, perched on a crooked fence post or flying through a golden summer sky. But then the biologist began to talk about the way hawks at this time of year begin to gather in groups. “They do this before they fly south to Argentina for the winter,” the guest explained. In that moment, a wave of comfort washed over me as I remembered witnessing these gatherings at my farm growing up. Driving to school, beginning a new year, I would see them out the passenger window of my dad’s 4-runner. I can’t recall if I asked him about them. I’m sure I did. 

Hawks, like Leopold’s quail, are the zodiac of September where I’m from. I thought of them that day as I sat in my apartment in downtown Calgary and stared out at skyscrapers, glad that they were still gathering, after all of this time. For the first time in a long time, I felt anchored – to not only the place I was in, but perhaps, versions of my former self. 

So here then, is my own daily Almanac, a recording of September in Alberta, on this day, a lucky one I hope.

The sun at this time of year is different than any sun I’ve ever known. It’s like honey watered down with milk. In the morning, its still soft, but by noon it has hardened into the shadows on the sides of buildings, under the canopy of trees. The leaves begin to become amber, but before that, they are a pale yellow, flecked with a dying green. Those from poplar trees are in the shape of small circles, little discs speckling the earth. They flicker as they fall, or get swooped up in that cooling air, air that still holds a warmth but is cut by cold on either end of the day. Air that wraps around you, begins to penetrate the layers of clothes on your skin. Hay is rolled into bales, candy coloured balls as far as the eye can see. Ravens rest on their crests, feathers ruffling in the wind, looking at the horizon. Outside of the city, farmers will round up calves to sell at auction, and livestock will be turned out from their summer pastures. The sky clears, from the haze of wildfire smoke, and again hangs in a calm blue, one that looks like it could freeze at any moment.

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