Earth Time

August 29, 2012


Late August is a time of abundant harvest, endlessly pale blue skies, yellow flowers, tall grasses, and sultry, humidity.

To be entirely honest, I don’t really like it, though not for any of the above in particulars. I love tomatoes and corn, synonymous with the season, but that doesn’t seem to be enough. It could be a fleeting New England-summer thing, or psychological conditioning from so many years of anxiety over school starting as soon as Labor Day rolls around, but come on or about August 20th, the sun’s angle changes, the days are noticeably shorter, leaves are more yellow and no matter how many ears of corn I devour or blueberry cakes I bake, no matter how many times I squeeze in beach trips and sand castles, I can’t shake the feeling that “it” is ending. It’s funny because while I love the crisp cool days of autumn, the clean air, the clear blue skies and the red leaves, I consistently have a hard time accepting the in-between.

In Chinese medical philosophy, which is based on the notion of five elements, there is a fifth season corresponding to Earth time. Unlike summer’s high energy Fire element and autumn’s clean, organized Metal element, Earth is more soggy and heavy. It is considered the central pivot, the time of nourishing and transformation. While there is some controversy as to when this fifth season actually is, or whether it is, in fact, a season or not, it makes sense to me that in this part of the world at least, Earth corresponds to late summer.

If you’re feeling at all like I do, the Chinese concept of Earth helps to explain three of late August’s characteristic symptoms:

1) Anxiety and a tendency to overthinking

In Chinese Five Element theory, Earth is associated with a tendency toward pensiveness. While it may help us to absorb information and transform new things into a deeper understanding, it is not really so good when it comes to organization. When predominant, as it is now, our thoughts can overwhelm us, leading us in the direction of over thinking and anxiety, about both the past and future. Perhaps it is no coincidence, then, that so many people and past-lives we thought we’d left behind seem to reappear this time of year in the land of emails and Facebooks messages. Usually, these reminders only result in more rehashing and anxiety, thus exacerbating an already innate condition which was likely designed only to get us preserving food for those cold months ahead.

2) Digestive woes and Muscle Aches

Earth is correlated with the Stomach and Spleen, which really translates to the Western anatomical stomach, spleen and pancreas, and so is responsible for the initial phases of digestion- breaking food down- and absorption. I have of-late noticed a great number of people feeling a bit “off” digestive-wise, for reasons they can’t quite put their finger on. Earth is damp, and dampness can hinder proper absorption, leading to gurgling, abdominal distension and diarrhea. It can also cause us to feel heavy, lethargic and achy, especially on the more humid and rainy days.

3) Hunger pangs and sweet cravings

Late August just seems to be a hungrier time of year than early or mid summer. While the mouthwatering abundant produce and baked breads at farmers’ markets certainly helps, I think we are just coded to “stock up,” so-to-speak. I mean, have you seen the way squirrels eat this time of year? If you’re reasonably healthy and not a big sugar eater in the first place, you may find yourself wanting more sweet things come now, which is predictable, based on the Earth element’s correlation with the sweet taste (as opposed to summer’s correlation with bitter- think cucumber and arugula- and fall’s spicy cravings – think cinnamon and nutmeg). Right now, we just want black raspberry ice cream, peach pie, and blueberry cakes, crumbles, slumps, grunts, cobblers and crisps. At least, I do.

So what can be done? Balance is key, and the best way to balance Earth is, if at all possible, to face it straight on. If you’re lucky enough to have your own herb/vegetable garden, a nearby blackberry bush or a farm within driving distance, take in the harvest visuals, dig your feet into the ground and pick and eat as much wonderful fresh produce as you can. There is nothing better for strengthening Earth than directly consuming it. If your digestion is getting to you, I would begin to ween off of summer’s coldest foods (the Spleen hates cold) like watermelon, cantaloupe, ice cream, cucumber straight from the fridge, and iced lemonade. As for the sweets, there’s nothing wrong with a little of them, but all this just-picked fresh fruit is best as is, that is, fresh. A ripe juicy peach is (usually) all any of us needs to tide us over until dinner.

Still, the best advice I was ever given is to understand that all these symptoms are completely natural and expected for this time of year. They, like blueberries, corn, and truly ripe tomatoes will pass soon enough.  Accept your stress and sweets in moderation, pick some blackberries, grab a slice of pie and enjoy the warm August sunset.

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