If it’s the growing season why isn’t it called “winter”?

In 2016 the Summer Olympics will be held in Rio de Janeiro, Brazil. I looked that up. Wikipedia notes that this is the second time the Summer Olympics will be in the host country’s winter. An interesting paradox that. And, of course, it got me thinking. I have a FaceBook friend in Australia who has been reporting on record heat waves as I’ve been reporting on sub-zero (that is Fahrenheit) weather. And, yes, I get that seasonal shift, and tangentially weather, is not the same around the world. But what of the power of naming things, like seasons, or geographic orientations, by one culture, to be imposed on another; to insist on a geo- or ethno-centric meaning?

I got my introduction to this living in Kenya as an eight year old. I learned that there was the Rainy Season, the Dry Season, and two Seasons of Short Rains that represent the ramping up and petering out of the Rainy Season. There was mud to contend with during the Rainy Season, and people talked of bandits “taking advantage” (although my family never encountered anything like that). There was going to bed with the sound of rain on our corrugated tin roof, and walking to school in the rain. There was watching people walk sedately to and from church services, all dressed in white, and letting the warm rain fall down without paying any attention to it. Only white people carried umbrellas and worried about getting wet. I’m afraid I didn’t have much sense of the growing season, but was vaguely aware of young plants in the garden, my mother buying her own lettuces, and watching as pineapples and bananas matured.

There were holiday-like events. We celebrated Guy Fawkes day, Independence Day (twice, once for Kenya and once for the US), Thanksgiving, religious holidays like Easter and Christmas, and Boxing Day. For me, because I was eight, the important seasonal change was a result of school. We had the months of April, August, and December off. The family, or sometimes just my parents, would head for someplace interesting and somewhat educational, the choice, I suppose, driven by the local weather. Nairobi was a December destination with dental visits and shoe shopping balanced by visiting the orphaned animals preserve and book stores.

The next time I even considered this, with a better idea of the cultural ramifications of how people designated seasons, I was in the Peace Corps serving in Morocco. I don’t even remember the reading we were doing, but somehow the idea of winter came up. I was describing skiing, comparing winter in the States to Winter in Morocco. I mentioned “feet of snow.” One student asked when we planted our crops, then, with all that snow. In the spring.

“That’s crazy!” someone said. “Spring is harvest time. If you don’t harvest in the spring, the summer drought will kill your crops.”

I explained that for us, the growing season was summer. We typically had rain, or were able to irrigate. During the winter the hard freeze, at least in the north of the States, would kill most crops. I talked about states where it was common to have two harvests, where crop rotation was a practical way of refurbishing the soil. They thought I was crazy. That I was blowing smoke. That, unfortunately, they had gotten a dud teacher who might speak English like a native, but was clueless about important things like the interaction between agriculture, weather, and seasons. I realized that I had misunderstood how certain words were translated. I had assumed that because the months, more or less, matched up with how I understood the seasons, the words for those seasons matched as well. I was twenty-three and just beginning to understand what it meant to recognize that there were time it was necessary to shift my paradigm.

The capstone of this musing is the recollection of an episode (season 2; episode 16) from West Wing. It’s the Big Block of Cheese episode in which CJ is shown the Peter’s Projection of Earth which has Africa, South America, and Australia on the top of the globe and North America, Europe, and Asia on the bottom. It reminds me that history, and apparently maps, are written by the victors. It reminds me of how home-centric we all tend to be. CJ is quite uncomfortable at the flipping of her world.

For me this map orientation discomfort came in Morocco. The country is bounded by both the Atlantic Ocean and the Mediterranean. I never had a problem going north to the Med. But, whenever I headed to Rabat, a trip that had the rising sun to my back and the setting sun blazing in my eyes, I could never shake the sense that I was really traveling eastward. I knew what the map said. I knew what the sun said. My New England bred gut, however, insisted that the Atlantic was in the east. For seven years I couldn’t shake this feeling.

How provincial are we really, at heart? I like to think we are getting a bit more global than the missionaries that dressed for a New England weather by the calendar even in Hawaii (James Michener). But then what of the Summer Olympics?

About Susacadia

I am a writer, fiber artist, and occasional raconteur. I've been around the block a time or two, but stuck to any career I ever had for at least 10 years. They have all morphed logically from one to another. But under it all I have eternally been a teacher and a learner.
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