Standing in the middle of an early August day, I know fog season is just around the corner. My yard is at its warmest, ripest, driest, and deciduously greenest. Plants are not growing or blooming, nor are they fading or drooping. They are just there in the dirt waiting. Songbirds are few, the dawn chorus is silent, nestlings have fledged. There is an eerie stillness in which a few languid bees buzz. Something in that stillness tells me the earth is exhausted and can no longer hold onto summer. The fogs are rolling in from the Pacific over the Black Hills. Our warm landscape, clear skies, and cool nights create the possibility of patchy fog in our fields and valleys and over our lakes.
This is the feeling of the quarter point, cross quarter, or the seasonal cusp.
There are four quarter points a year. Today, August 7, is the halfway point between the summer solstice (June 21) and the autumn equinox (September 22). When I mention this to friends, they say they have noticed something, too—something in the air or in the quality of light—but they didn’t know it had name.
Most of us don't celebrate these quarter points, but ancient cultures did as these were important times to plant, to harvest, to move, to stay, to respond to the living planet. Each quarter point has a Gaelic-Celtic name: This year, February 2 is Imbolc, May 5 is Beltane, August 7 is Lughnasa, and November 11 is Samain.
You may have heard of these names if you are familiar with things Celtic, pagan, or the novels of Mary Renault. I had heard of Lughnasa (spelled in various ways, but all pronounced Loon-na-sah) only because of the 1998 movie Dancing at the Lughnasa, starring Meryl Streep and Michael Gambon. The movie, based on a 1990 play, is set in 1936 in County Donegal, Ireland, during a summer of personal "turning points" for five sisters.
Lughnasa marks the end of summer and the beginning of autumn. (Though our calendars mark September 21 or 22 as the first day of autumn, that day of equal day and night really marks the peak of autumn and the beginning of winter. (In the same odd way, when we celebrate our birthday we say we are turning 39 or we are 39. In fact, we have completed our 39th year and are beginning our 40th).
Every morning now is a noticeably darker, every night a little cooler, and there is nothing the earth can do about it. Resigned, the earth simply lets go and releases its summer into the autumn air. But not all at once. Slowly, and in a long series of sighs and exhalations.
On still, cool nights you can hear the tired earth sighing. In the morning, you can see the fog it has exhaled.