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NATURE HAPPENINGS - October 2009

Oh, October
by Damian Fagan

October arises with the freshness of fall and wearing a subtle aroma of lingering summer. Shorter daylight hours seem to dampen a day’s outing, but the generally fine weather encourages one along the trail. To say that October is the sweetest month in Canyon Country betrays the bias of the speaker – every month here has its own signature.

So what about October, whose origin lies in the Latin word “octo” meaning “eight?” In the early Roman calendar that was defined by lunar cycles and the pursuit of agriculture, there were only 10 months in a year. The year started on March 1, and October filled the eight slot. The winter months when the fields were quiet and farming stopped, didn’t count. Those last 60 or so days just fell into a Twilight Zone type of scenario.

Of course, the 304-day long calendar had its problems. Especially when people began to celebrate the fall harvest in the middle of summer. Those early Romans were on the right track, but their timetable needed a bit of work.

The earth’s annual trip around the sun, the solar year, takes approximately 365.25 days. A lunar month or lunation – the period between one new moon and the next one – is roughly 29.5 days. So the second king of Rome, Numa Pompilius, decreed that the year would be divided into twelve lunar months and a couple more months were added to the calendar. The number of days per month was also shifted to create balance. This occurred in the 6th century BC, but still didn’t adequately synchronize the solar year with the seasons. The “bridge makers” or pontiffs who were in charge of adjusting the calendar would insert days during the year to make up the eleven-day difference between the solar and lunar year.

Of course, sometimes this happened randomly or not at all. Political pressure or vested interests or perceived omens affected the adjustments. Time marched on, but sometimes lacked the familiarity of the previous year.
It wasn’t until Julius Caesar became the ruler of ancient Rome did these problems with the calendar get tweaked. Caesar, who became the elected dictator in 46 BC, introduced a new calendar that he had learned of during his Egyptian campaigning (fighting not politics). With the help of an Alexandrian astronomer named Sosigenes, the missing days were added to the year. This ultimus annus confusionis, “the last year of confusion,” corrected those days lost to the lunar cycle.

This new Julian calendar would hold up for hundreds of years. Even a single day, today called Leap Day, was inserted every four years to make up for the quarter day difference between the solar year and the calendar year.

Caesar gained on this calendar issue, but didn’t quite solve the problem. Because the difference between the Julian four-year cycle and the corresponding solar years was about eleven minutes too long, this added an extra day every 128 years. By the mid-sixteenth century this amounted to ten days or the dismal average American paid vacation.

This would not have been a big deal, but when the Catholic Church calculated Easter based upon the first Sunday on or after the first full moon after the vernal equinox. The equinox would fall ten days ahead, and this also affected the summer solstice, as well. As the Steve Miller song goes, “Time keeps on slippin’, slippin’, slippin’ …”

The Julian calendar received an adjustment in 1582 by edict of Pope Gregory XIII. That year, our month of October corrected this discrepancy by going from October 4 to October 15 the next day. In addition to this time flux, leap days would not be included in years that ended in the hundreds, unless they were divisible by 400. This Gregorian calendar named after the 16th century Pope, put most, but not all, societies on the same page. His actions allow me to say that October is a great month and you know I’m talking about golden aspens lighting up the mountains, mornings so clear they ring like crystal, southbound V-formations of migrating geese, bears gorging on nuts and berries, the rattle of jousting deer, the lengthening of shadows, and the passing of another great summer.

 
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