Kirby Farrell Ph.D.

A Swim in Denial

Have You Read Your Body Lately?

Even the seasons are information

Posted Mar 26, 2016

Spring is in the air. Its messages are humming like the unheard electromagnetic waves full of cellphone voices around you as you read this. You can respond without realizing it. It’s genetic.  It’s the way we’re built. The starved black and white palette of winter becomes a feast of primary colors. We’re built to appreciate red sun, blue sky, and tasty greens. We find some vistas beautiful because we’re programmed to respond to fertile landscapes of the sort our prehistoric ancestors needed. Glitter and glint may fascinate us as cues to water for thirsty hominids. 

So nature is texting us about who we are, who we've been, and who's growing. Culture pumps up morale with thoughts of renewal, rebirth, awakening, hunger, curiosity, adventure, building, and kissing. It's replenishing yourself: a search for more life. But it's also a way of putting winter in a fresh context.  

After all, the cultures we invent give us ways of thinking about the meanings and limits of our own lives.

In autumn, Halloween candy makes fun of wintry death, even as Thanksgiving feasts assure us that nobody will starve in the months ahead. In the dead of winter morale puts up “evergreen” trees and colorful ornaments that mimic a plentiful harvest. Santa, the generous dad who thrives even at the deadly North Pole, brings merry gifts that turn the holiday into another feast. Just Say No to Your Inner Scrooge. Leave cookies for him.

Cultures manage morale as the seasons change. Spring quickens the search for more life. More light, less frostbite. Hormones boogie. Easter rededicates ancient pagan rites to the Christian project of rebirth. Couples go a-courting. Weddings crowd the calendar. Farmers plant seeds. Primary voters plant politicians.

Yes, even politics has a seasonal rhythm. Leaders too have a growing season. In the spring rut, candidates butt heads.  This is especially vivid when Donald Trump and Ted Cruz attack one another with macho sexual jokes and trophy wife competition. In November, as winter looms, we elect leaders who promise us survival. About the time Santa delivers the goods, the January inaugural puts the new leader to work forecasting spring.

But there’s more. Capitalism, for example, celebrates eternal spring and boundless growth. The farmers strive to make hay and alpha prestige.  Tribal societies often use up a surplus in a feast that prevents hard feelings. In capitalism, the situation's more ambiguous. In a social democracy, hands throw something into the pot so nobody goes hungry. In conservative schemes, the boss man recommends driving off immigrants and losers so the “real” hands will have a groaning board.

Conflict shouldn’t surprise us. The aroma we associate with spring is petrichor, the chemical weapon Streptomyces bacteria use against other bacteria in the soil where they live. It’s the smell of a flowerpot. [1] But let’s not forget that the flowerpot is the invention of agriculture and tames the microbes for civilization.

There’s another seasonal way to look at political economics.  The US has been turning into a rentier economy. Rather than compete, corporations lock in monopolies. The financial sector, including Wall St banks, takes a bite out of working folks in mortgages, tuition loans, and myriad fees without producing anything real. 

While rentier capitalism pretends to honor springtime, it’s more like the sharecropping system that kept ex-slaves in peonage after Emancipation. The big boss, the plantation owning 1%, takes a big cut of everybody’s harvest. It looks like prosperity, but the kids go to bed hungry.

Okay, I'm winking, but not joking.

We haven’t even begun to think what the seasons would tell us about climate change psychology. With farms run by tractors now, the seasons may be less vivid to us.  In a supermarket seasonal food comes in eternal shrinkwrap. The effect of life and death on our morale may be different too. Headlines today feature asteroids, the death of the sun, and quantum dizziness rather than the almanac’s reliable cycles and the recurrence of bluebells in the yard.

Still, the seasons—and even the raw materials of the stars—is built into us. And we’re the high-strung animals equipped to appreciate that.  All it takes is a whiff of petrichor and, in the wisdom of slang, a fertile imagination.

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1. Nicholas St. Fleur, “Recognizing Spring, Scientifically,” NY Times, March 25, 2016. 

“Even before the flowers bloom, the scent of spring fills the air. Beneath our feet, countless microbes called Streptomyces release chemicals as they awaken and warm up this season. “One of these chemicals is geosmin, which is responsible for the earthy smell of the soil in the spring,” said Susan Perkins, a microbiologist at the American Museum of Natural History.  Streptomyces bacteria spew geosmin as a weapon against other bacteria in the soil where they live. But to us, that chemical produces a distinct smell known as petrichor, which we recognize as the earthy scent following a rainstorm. “If you had a colony of Streptomyces in a petri dish and you opened the lid, you’d swear you had your nose in a flower pot,” Dr. Perkins said.”