Urban Growing

72 Seasons in Bristol

By Jane Stevenson

Jane Stevenson, former Bristol Food Network Chair and Bristol-based food activist, shares a project that she has been working on for the past two years, exploring seasonality in detail in the city. Jane has produced a beautiful online book containing imagery across the year influenced by the Japanese concept of 72 Seasons. She describes this response as a “snapshot of my little part of Bristol in the early 2020s” given the unpredictability of the changing climate that we have seen so acutely recently in Bristol.

Every grower will know that splitting the year into four seasons gives an inadequate guide as to what conditions will be like at any one moment. To give the instruction “sow in Spring” is hardly helpful when early Spring can be hostile, cold and frosty, and late Spring can be balmy, freezing, torrentially wet, stormy, hailing, or all of the above on a single April afternoon. The Japanese 72 Seasons calendar, on the other hand, splits the year into 72 microseasons, each lasting around five days rather than the Western 90. This allows for a much more subtle marking of the shifting seasons, with a calendar that seems to encourage us to pause to take-in the annual changes in the natural world which are going on around us.

The Japanese 72 Seasons are themselves taken from an ancient Chinese source. They were adapted in the 17th century by the Japanese court astronomer to better suit the local climate, but remain part of a wider Asian culture. The seasonal divisions are based on generations of observation, with seasons given such poetic names as “Hibernating creatures open their doors” and “The silk work awakes and eats the mulberry”. The calendar also makes a nod to the agricultural year and its rhythms, with seasons such as “The frost stops the rice grows” and “The chicken lays her first eggs”. I can’t help thinking that in the past, all of our lives would have been governed by such a calendar which included both landmark annual events in the natural world such as the arrival of the first swallow, and also offered a reminder of key seasonal jobs and opportunities – grain seeds are sown, the elderflowers open, blackberries ripen, wheat is harvested, apples fall and cider is made.

I first came across the Seasons thanks to the Headspace mindfulness app. Headspace uses the 72 Seasons as an illustration of an idea central to mindfulness – that of impermanence – that everything is constantly changing both around us and within us. The reason that this is central to mindfulness, is that if you find your thoughts stuck in a dark place, it can become easy to believe that things have always been that way, and always will be. The 72 Seasons remind us that everything is changing, and whatever the current difficulty, that too will pass.

Intrigued to know more, I downloaded the 72 Seasons app from Nara, Japan’s ancient capital. I loved its quirky translation and hankered after visiting its recommended restaurants, beauty spots and historic landmarks on the other side of the world. I started to wonder if it would be possible to create my own 72 Seasons – a seasonal calendar for my own world, where I could look out for – and look forward to – nature’s annual highlights. I defined my orbit as being within a half-hour cycle from my house. This gave me quite a lot of scope as it took in Southville and Bedminster, Bristol harbour, the Portway, the cycle route between the Avon and the base of Leigh Woods, Ashton Court estate, the Festival Way to Long Ashton and my allotment on Alderman Moore’s field in Ashton Vale. In the first year, I made written observations of seasonal changes. In the second year, I observed again, checked against my notes from the first year, and started taking photographs.

I limited myself to observations of plants, as they’re slightly less flighty than insects and animals when it comes to being photographed. And as most plants do not flower or fruit solely within a five-day window, my 72 Seasons observed what was most prominent on my circuit of the area during that brief period of five days – something that stood out or surprised me as being new or different, or something that seemed to dominate my local landscape. It includes foraging highlights – the arrival of wild garlic, alexanders, jack-by-the-hedge and wild fruits, and takes in the allotment at its peak – when apples swell, hidden harvests are revealed, and there is a super-abundance of produce. Ideally I would have carried on modifying my observations over many cycles of the seasons, but I don’t have the hundreds of years that have shaped the Japanese 72 Seasons, and climate change is making a modern 72 Seasons much harder to pin down. So my 72 Seasons is a snapshot of my little part of Bristol in the early 2020s.

Search for “72 Seasons Nara” on Play Store to download the app to your phone or go to online.fliphtml5.com/ojstx/xwbx/#p=80 to view the book. More of Jane’s design work can be found at www.janestevensondesign.co.uk.

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