Outdoors North: Autumnal equinox brings feeling of balance

John Pepin

“But if you could bring her back to me or take her from my memory, then time you’d be a friend of mine.” — Sue Lane

There seem to be a handful occasions during the year when the tremendous rush and hurry of life’s rolling river slows into quiet, pooling waters long enough to catch your breath and momentarily consider the passage of time.

After months of hearing the second-hand tick, tick, ticking on the big clock in the back of my head, and feeling it in my heart, it’s as though nature steps in and briefly slows the spinning blue world to a standstill.

I hesitate, before continuing back on up the dusty mountain trail, toward the shade of the pines and the beautiful view of a summer sun setting over the shimmering blue-green sea.

It’s not a deliberate pause, intentionally taken, but rather a tap on the shoulder from the universe reminding me something is happening here.

For me, one of these moments usually occurs each September with the arrival of the autumnal equinox, or what the Finnish call “syyspäiväntasaus,” known to the Germans as “Herbsttagundnachtgleiche” and in Maltese is referred to as “ekwinozju harifa.”

It’s that time of the year when the sun climbs to a point directly above the equator bringing spring to the southern hemisphere and fall to us here in the north — a day and time when night and day length are approximately equal.

That time occurs this year at 4:02 p.m. Eastern Daylight Time, today.

For me, it’s hard to fully explain. It’s not only a simple acknowledgment of the fact that night and day are equal, but I also experience a feeling of balance. Calmness sets in, like the stillness on a morning millpond.

Maybe, on some level, I’m hearing a brief melodic phrase in the music of the celestial realm, the Pythagorean “Harmony of the Spheres.”

Whatever it is, it’s a sensation like the carriage stopping at the top of a Ferris wheel. You get to take a quick look around at the sprawling countryside before realizing, “Oh, now we’re going back down again.”

Because as quickly as the equinox arrives, it’s gone.

Feelings of fall and approaching winter come rushing in like waters freed from behind an easing floodgate.

It’s a time filled with mixed emotions. The realization that the warm glow of autumn has arrived, but soon it will be followed by the cold, darkness and bleak, leafless landscape of winter.

My feelings stir and swirl like fallen leaves twirling on the surface of a woodland brook.

Thinking about it calls to mind Frank Sinatra’s version of “September Song,” the Kurt Weil/Maxwell Anderson American standard. Capitol Records released the recording on Sinatra’s mesmerizing 1962 album “Point of No Return.”

“Oh, it’s a long, long time from May to December, but the days grow short when you reach September. When the autumn weather turns the leaves to flame, one hasn’t got time for the waiting game.” Sing it, Frank. Sing it.

Listening to that album reminds me of dining in one of those restaurants of by-gone days, maybe The Chalet or The Northwoods in the Marquette area or Schloegel’s Bay View Restaurant in Menominee.

You might know places like that, even today, with the charcoal-colored anise candies at the check-out counter, maybe a Sunday smorgasbord, and quiet conversations taking place in the plush booths, with candles lit at the tables.

You could easily hear anything off Sinatra’s “Point of No Return” album or “In the Wee Small Hours” in those kind of restaurants – very nice.

“Oh, the days dwindle down to a precious few, September, November. And these few precious days, I’ll spend with you. These precious days I’ll spend with you.” Sing it, Frank. Indeed.

The dictionary defines time as “the indefinite continued progress of existence and events in the past, present, and future regarded as a whole.”

To me, it’s a quite a mysterious mechanism with so many uses in our lives.

For example:

“Time to get some more clam dip and butter mints.”

“What’s the time?”

“Time is up.”

“Time me. I’m going to eat this plate of hot dogs.”

“This time, I really mean it, baby.”

“Yeah, what about last time you said that?”

“Do you have the time?”

“Time ran out.”

“Time is on the march and waits for no man.”

“Remember the time he barfed in the backseat of your mom’s car?”

Time is all this and more, including a magazine, hands on a face and an album by the Electric Light Orchestra. Time changes from place to place all at once and I’ve heard it’s also a garden herb used in cooking delicious dishes.

In fact, Sunset (Magazine) calls it a “kitchen workhorse infinitely useful with a wide range of meats and vegetables, and also with both savory and sweet fruit dishes.”

Ironically, I think the continued Sunset description applies to life as well.

“With cooked dishes, try adding time at the beginning and then a little more at the end, just before serving, to make its flavor pop.”

According to the website holidayinsights.com, “In ancient times, the autumn equinox was cause for a variety of pagan festivals, among them the celebration of the birth of Mabon, the son of Mordon, the Goddess of the earth.”

Now there was a party.

And speaking of parties, what about that scene in the Wizard of Oz when the wicked witch smashes the hourglass filled with that red sugar we sprinkle on Christmas cookies? Dorothy was out of time.

“Going so soon,” the witch cackled. “I wouldn’t hear of it. Why, my little party’s just beginning.”

In China, the fall equinox is celebrated during the Moon Festival, one of the country’s biggest celebrations. Revelers eat special moon cakes made from bean or lotus seed paste, filled with fruit or nuts or Chinese sausage. Some of the cakes contain a salty yolk, which I understand is an acquired taste.

The decorated cakes, which are sacrificed to the moon and eaten in celebration, are round to symbolize the reunion of family members. Cool.

It’s strange. As I finish writing this, having thought about the equinox so much, I wonder if I haven’t jinxed myself. Maybe this year, I won’t get that tap on my shoulder.

Then again, maybe I will. I’ll have to wait to see.

I’ll have to give it … thyme.

EDITOR’S NOTE: John Pepin is the deputy public information officer for the Michigan Department of Natural Resources. Outdoors North is a weekly column produced by the Michigan Department of Natural Resources on a wide range of topics important to those who enjoy and appreciate Michigan’s world-class natural resources of the Upper Peninsula.