The heart of winter is passing. Despite the cold here near the end of January, a part of us notices that the days are getting longer, just as sometime in late August we suddenly notice the length of those warm languid evenings. And that part of us always seems to know what it means.
The question, one might ask, is what part?
Some of our simpler fellow creatures, like horseshoe crabs, have clumps of light sensitive cells in fairly obvious places (the crabs have them on their tails) but others, like swallows, have them embedded in the skull. That has often been the explanation used for humans: that we have a small organ, called the suprachiasmatic nucleus, which acts as a sort of master clock ordering the function of our bodies according not only to time of year but also time of day. It lies inside the skull, just above the place where the optic nerves from each eye converge. It is also called the pineal gland, or, if you are of a spiritual bent, the “third eye.”
The mechanism by which this master clock works, how such an “eye” sees this bigger picture, is the subject of much speculation and experimentation (depending on your spiritual or scientific perspective). Also, how it communicates with the organs of the body that need to regulate their daily business, not to mention the three trillion or so cells within the body which, each, have been shown experimentally to display “circadian rhythms” (circadian is from the Latin “circa,” or about, and “diem,” or day). This direct cellular sensing has been shown to be present in what are considered the oldest life forms now on Earth, the cyanobacteria. The transformation of these bacteria from single cell to multi-cell organisms about 2.3 billion years ago is linked to what astrobiologists call the Great Oxidation Event – the point at which oxygen began to build up in Earth’s atmosphere and life as we know it began.
Making all this work day to day in higher plants and animals (such as ourselves) is as much or more a ballet as it is a balancing act; the invisible choreography in what seems and mundane day of waking and working is really quite astounding if we look closely. The biological clock, it seems, has three parts: a receiver, whether specialized clumps of cells or the cells themselves; a timer, presently thought to be chemical in nature; and a transmitter that most likely works via hormones.
And this synchrony is truly a matter of life and death. Obviously, a seed needs to know better than to germinate at the wrong time of year, but there are important effects of cellular bad timing in humans as well. It seems that there are at least eight “clock genes” involved in cell proliferation and death. Both unlimited cellular proliferation of cancers and the (terribly) normal process of aging may be partially due to problems in timing, and scientists are studying how new treatments might reset, or help regulate cell processes in the same sort of way that a pacemaker calms an uppity heart.
But the recognition of astro-biological cycles and the internal communication of them is no mean feat. After all, even the most oblivious among us know that no two days are really the same length, and despite what most of us may believe, days (light and dark together) are not really 24 hours long. And of course a year is not simply 365 days long. What we call a year is around 365 ¼ days long; the lunar month is about 29 ½ days; humans are entrained to a circadian cycle averaging 24 hours and 11 minutes. All are damned by fractions.
But maybe damned is not the right word, when we consider the old aesthetic saw that “in imperfection is beauty.” The golden mean beloved by the Greeks is at 3/5’s, not the stasis of 4/4 symmetry. The senses themselves depend on imbalance to function; without it we soon “tune out” anything boringly persistent or consistent, and do this even more insistently than we turn a blind eye to our surroundings or a deaf ear to the rumbling of traffic and trains.
So not even history wholly repeats itself in this sense, at least not in our lifetimes, though the Indian and Mayan calendars, with their long sweep of time might factor in enough cycles to smooth out all the irregularity that the span of a human life brings into relief. Every farmer and gardener knows the confounds of variability in his or her gut of course, and one of the great pleasures (or challenges!) in the art of raising things is trying to recognize the patterns of growth, maturity and senescence that never happen the same way twice and finesse from the system the food and flowers we want.
The passage of the year, all those days sewn together with the thread of the ecliptic, always seems to drop a stitch or two: a freak frost in May at the full moon, a seventy degree day in late January. Nothing is as we would have it. The latest sunset is not on the longest day of the year, nor the earliest when we would expect; pay attention right now and you’ll notice that the afternoons are longer, but the days don’t really start any earlier, as we might anticipate.
Just as seed sown in March will sprout and grow faster than the same in September, there is a lag in each season, as our calendars – and our lives – readjust themselves to the reality of the heavens. Those equinoxes, spring and fall, provide the two instances of balance from which to reckon. And the green fuse begins to smolder in us, in our wild cousins, and in the plants we all depend on; the spark within the bud on the branch begins to swell, and we begin, slowly at first to dream again of abundance.
The fact is: our bodies, and thus our minds are exquisitely tuned to the landscape, the larger environment, and to the heavens. In our daily cares we may wish or choose to ignore the hints of spring, but soon enough it will be upon us. The joy of the seasons is just that they pass.
Authors note: a version of this article, as published, can be found at www.fluent-magazine.com