Sunday, February 2, 2014

Some thoughts on the beginning of spring

Brigid/Tu B’Shevat Essay,
written 2004, with edits 2014.

In America, regardless of latitude or climate, we are told to think of spring as beginning in March, at the vernal equinox. It's true that Equinox marks the changes from winter to spring at their most dramatic, when the length of days crosses over the length of nights, and flowers abound. However, if we pay careful attention to more subtle details, particularly here in the mid-Atlantic, we can see that the changes that are so dramatic in March have their roots much earlier in the year.

During the six weeks or so before the spring equinox, all sorts of changes are at work in the world: the sap rises in the trees, the days grow noticeably longer, and buds swell on their branches. Trees gain a wreathy halo of pale pink or orange or white, and the first shoots of crocus and daffodil poke their tips through the ground.

In the midst of January snows, it may be difficult to imagine that spring is on its way. But just as winter solstice is also known as Midwinter, and summer solstice as Midsummer, so too can we think of the vernal equinox as "Midspring." Many different traditions begin to welcome spring in late January or early February, with festivals to encourage the return of light and warmth:

There is the Pagan cross-quarter festival of Brigid, goddess of birth, poetry, smithcraft, and the hearth; or Imbolc, celebrating returning of light and birthing of lambs. There is the Pagan/Christian festival of Candlemas, the blessing of candles for use throughout the year. There is the secular observance of Groundhog Day, by which the weather of that one day is used to predict the weather for (not coincidentally) the next six weeks.

And there is the Jewish festival of Tu B'Shevat (literally the 15th of Shevat). Like many other holidays in the Jewish calendar, it is timed to coincide with the moon in its fullest phase. In addition, Tu B'Shevat is one of the few Jewish holidays to focus solely on celebrating changes in nature, instead of also commemorating a biblical or historical event. Tu B’Shevat is celebrated as the New Year of the Trees!


(I wrote the following song to commemorate the cycle of the seasons from the point of view of the cross-quarter times, each halfway between solstice and equinox. Happy new year, trees!)

Roots deep within the earth, your sap rising high,
Your swelling buds sweep the brilliant blue sky
Casting away cares of cold winter's winds,
You reach out your branches, inviting me in.

Green as the grass growing up from the ground,
Softly you whisper a warm zephyr's sound.
Bursting with blossoms, you're dressed for the dance:
You reach out your branches and offer your hands.

Standing as shelter from summer's great heat,
Feeding with fruit all who flock to your feet.
With cool dappled light in a leafy green dome,
You reach out your branches and welcome me home.

Leaves fill with light as the evenings grow long
Rustling, you sing out a cold breeze's song.
Sinking your roots as the last colors fall
You reach up your branches and help me stand tall.

Roots deep within the earth, your sap rising high,
Your swelling buds sweep the brilliant blue sky
Waking once more from the cold winter's winds
You reach out your branches and gather me in.

Earth Song, ©2009 Jennifer Sheffield