It’s a beautiful day on the south coast of British Columbia. A strong northwesterly breeze is pushing wind driven swell down the Strait of Georgia onto the southwestern shore of Bowen Island. There is snow on the mountain tops, but down here at sea level, it’s 7 degrees. The sun is shining and everything points to a clear evening to watch the lunar eclipse.
The rest of North America is locked into a cold freeze, and next week I’ll be tasting a bit of it with a two week trip to New Brunswick, Ohio and Ontario. This is the time of year people on the west coast write to their friends and relatives in the east and show pictures of the daffodils coming up. It doesn’t feel like winter here anymore, and that’s not unusual for late January. Saying it’s winter until March 21 really has no bearing to what teh rest of the continent is going through. I’ve lived on this island for more than 17 years and I long ago decided that there needs to be a different way to talk about seasons here.
For various reason I identify much more with the Celtic calendar, which marks the year into six week blocks, like this:
- February 1 – Imbolc (“In the belly of the ewes”) which is the first day of spring and the new year.
- March 21 – Spring equinox
- May 1 – Bealtaine (“bright May Day”) marking the beginning of summer and the flourishing of life
- June 21 – Summer solstice and mid-summer day
- August 1 – Lughnasadh (“assembly to honour Lugh, the god of light”) which is the beginning of the fall harvest season
- September 21 – Fall equinox
- November 1 – Samhain (“the end of summer harvest”) which is really the beginning of winter and marked by commemorating ancestors and death.
- December 21 – Winter solstice and mid-winter day.
These markers line up much more with the feeling of seasons on Bowen Island. We mark some of these days locally, with a May Day festival, and a huge community celebration on Hallowe’en as well as its solstice celebrations. And it usually feels very much like winter is over by February 1.
Of course there is an ancient calendar in this part of the world, which from time immemorial has been known as Skwxwú7mesh temíxw. Today I spent time going through the amazing Squamish-English dictionary, reading and thinking about the seasons. The Squamish traditional calendar is focused on activities related to ceremonial and food gathering rhythms. It makes sense that the word for season is “tem” which means “the time of.” Instead of experiencing disconnection (like “it doesn’t feel like winter”), in Squamish the name of the season is based on what is happening on the land and sea, bound up in activities upon which the lives of human beings and communities depend. The season changes when life says it changes.
Traditionally Squamish seasonal names therefore aren’t generally tied to moons or the length of days. Looking at the names for seasons gives you an idea of where the attention of people is in any given time of year. The Squamish version of the European calendar uses names from seasons that roughly correspond to each month. Squamish new year begins in February, when the frogs start singing again, which signifies the end of winter. Of course this happens much earlier in the year on Bowen Island than it does up in the Cheakamus, Elaho and Squamish River valleys. Here on Bowen Island (Nexwlélexwm in Squamish), the frogs will usually start singing during late February.
The calendar is such a clumsy way of describing the rhythms in this territory. It creates arbitrary names and times for what is happening. That clumsiness is the result of the colonization that separated people from the rhythms of the lands and waters and, if you know the way things happen in the territory, you can tell reading through these names how clumsy the fit is between the Squamish times and the calendar months:
- February – tem welhxs (time of the last snow, or when the frogs come to life)
- March – tem lhawt’ (herring time)
- April – tem tsá7tskay (time when the salmonberry shoots are collected)
- May – tem yetwán (time when the salmonberries ripen)
- June – tem kw’eskw’ás (warm time, also used as a word for “summer”)
- July – tem ?w’élemexw (when the blackberries are ripe)
- August – tem t’aka7 (time when the salad berries are ripe)
- September – tem cháyilhen (salmon run time)
- October – tem p’i7tway (time when the deer mate)
- November – tem ekwáyanexw (fall time)
- December – etl’im lhkaych’ (short days month)
- January – mina lhkaych’ (small or child month)
So it makes sense to talk about seasons, especially on the south coast where lunar calendars are hard to use given how cloudy it is during much of the year. There are may other seasons that didn’t make the cut for translation to the calendar, during which the primary activity of the people is described:
- Tem mílha7 – “Winter dancing season,” when ceremonies take place in the longhouse.
- Tem t’ixw – “Winter,” meaning the time to go down, possibly from the idea that people would go down into pit houses in this time of year, or come down into the low parts of the land.
- Tem s7áynixw – “Time of the eulachon”, a small oily smelt that arrives in rivers in April, although these fish are almost completely extirpated from Squamish rivers now. This happens for a short time right after herring season in late March and early April.
- Tem kwu7s – “Spring salmon harvest time” which begins in early summer.
- Tem achcháwem – “Salmon spawning time,” from late August through to late November during which all the focus is on harvesting fish for the winter and spring. This is when the biggest runs of salmon come back to the territory, mainly chum and coho. This is also the time of the heaviest rains and storms on the coast, which fill the rivers, enabling the fish to find there way back to their home streams.
- Tem p’í7tway ta sxwi7shen – “Time when the deer are mating.”
- Tem kwáxnis – “Time when the chum salmon run.”
So living on Bowen Island in a community of settlers anchored in the rhythms of the land and sea, and the cultural traditions of newcomers, I’d say we could develop a calendar of sorts that relates to the way the we live here. We aren’t a big time ocean people, and are without a fishing fleet so our rhythms are much more dictated by what is happening in the forests around us. Inspired by the Squamish tradition of letting the frogs mark the new year, my first draft of such a calendar might look like this:
- Forest music time – in which the frogs wake up and the dawn chorus of songbirds starts to sing.
- New shoots time – when the skunk cabbage and salmon berry shoots begin to appear.
- Blossoms time – first flowers on the berry bushes and the cherry and plum trees around the island.
- Salmonberry time – Late May and into June, when the salmon berries ripen. Time to order firewood.
- Huckleberry time – Following the salmon berries, time of the first swims in the sea
- Salal berry time – the heart of summer when the salal berries are at their ripest.
- Blackberry time – August, when the blackberries are weighing down their bushes.
- Storm season – lasts about two and a half months, from the end of September to the middle of December and begins after the tourists have left and during which we hunker down and celebrate Hallowe’en, Remembrance Day, Light up the Cove and the traditional Christmas season. This time of year is dark and the predominant winds are the southeasterlies that bring rain and power outages.
- Winter – when the major wind storms are gone and we get snow at sea level and the Squamish winds are most dominant. This usually lasts from December to the end of January.
Sitting by my fire, I’m totally enchanted by the poetry of our place and time here on our little rocky island.
Note: the typeface on my blog does not render all the Skwxú7mesh characters correctly. In this post the underlined “k” and “x” characters are replaced with regular k and x’s. You can find the correct spellings for many of these words at this link.