Ah yes, Valentine’s Day. A day to express affection for loved ones with greetings and gifts. It has been around for a long time but its origin remains a bit of a mystery.

Does it date back to Lupercalia, a Roman festival to ward off evil spirits and infertility? That holiday was banned in the fifth century. Valentinus (from the Latin “valens”, meaning to be in good health) was a common name in ancient Roman times.

The origin I hear most often is that it comes from a priest named Valentine who was martyred circa 270 CE by emperor Claudius II. According to legend, the priest signed a letter “from your Valentine” to his jailer’s daughter who he had fallen in love with during his captivity.

There is also Saint Valentine of Terni, a bishop who secretly married couples to spare husbands from war. This tradition was spread by the Benedictines, the first guardians of the basilica dedicated to the saint in Terni, through their monasteries, first in Italy and then in France and England.

Photo by Jill Wellington on

The Songs of Whales and Elephants

“The ocean is really huge. When you get out on a little boat, you know it.
You’re clinging to a cork. And out there, rolling around and swimming through and perfectly at home in the waves are these enormous animals. And by golly, they’re singing. And so what that has done for me is to make me feel that what lies ahead is absolutely limitless. We are not at the pinnacle of human knowledge.
We are just beginning.”  –  Katy Payne

Photo by Silvana Palacios on

Katy Payne is an acoustic biologist who has studied whales off the wild coast of Argentina and studied elephants in the rainforests of Africa. She discovered that humpback whales compose ever-changing songs. Similarly, she found that elephants also communicate across long distances by way of sounds that, like whale songs, are beyond human hearing. They are low sounds – infrasound – below our hearing range.

She is the author of Silent Thunder: In the Presence of Elephants which tells the stories of elephants and their families that she has studied. They have names and personalities and are very social creatures. That includes their complex interactions with humans, especially those who love and protect them.

Photo by FUTURE KIIID on

I heard a rebroadcast of a radio program about her work and learned that she is a practicing Quaker. She is also a student of the spiritual philosopher Gurdjieff. Is there a spiritual side to studying nature? I believe there is and I think that might be particularly true of someone who studies nature and wildlife by listening, as opposed to capturing and dissecting a species, for example.

She studied both biology and music as an undergrad, so it seems fitting that she was one of the early group of scientists that discovered that whales communicate by song. More importantly, it was found that those songs are not something whales are born with and repeat over and over. The whales are “composers” and the songs are constantly evolving.

During the mating season, male humpbacks emit vocalizations that sound to human ears like barks, chirps, and moans. A whale’s unique song slowly evolves over a period of years, never returning to the same sequence of notes even after decades.

Joshua Smith, a doctoral student at the University of Queensland, Australia,  investigated songs of humpback whales during three seasons. “Singers are joining females with calves more often and singing for a much longer duration with them than with any other group,” Smith said, but he thinks it’s more likely that the songs are directed to females showing them the males’ fitness, based on their song qualities and allowing them to compare the males and choose the one they consider the fittest.

They are singing love songs

We’re Halfway There. Turn the Wheel of the Year

The Wheel of the Year in the Northern Hemisphere.
The Wheel of the Year in the Northern Hemisphere.

“Si sol splendescat Maria purificante,
major erit glacies post festum quam fuit ante.” *

Today is the exact halfway point between the Winter Solstice and the Spring Equinox. Yes, it is Groundhog Day and I have written about that here before. But how many different ways can you explain the origin of our tradition of expecting an animal to predict the coming weather? I can always explain to people my love of the film Groundhog Day, but I’ve done that here too.

Today I’ll just write about the winter midpoint, also known as a cross-quarter day. No matter what that groundhog (or a badger, as the original German tradition had it) or any animal does when he pokes his head out from hibernation today, be optimistic. We are halfway through winter.

The Wheel of the Year is an annual cycle of seasonal festivals, observed by many modern Pagans. It can be considered to have either four or eight festivals. Some people celebrate the four solstices and equinoxes, which are known as the “quarter days.” Some also celebrate the four midpoints between, such as today, which are known as the “cross-quarter days.”

Festivals celebrating the cycle of the seasons were far more important to people in the past. You might also hear Wiccans refer to these festivals as sabbats, a term from the Middle Ages. It was probably taken partially from the Jewish Shabbat.

Today is Imbolc on the wheel, the first cross-quarter day. It is supposed to be a time for purification and spring cleaning in anticipation of the year’s new life.

In Ancient Rome, this was a shepherd’s holiday. Among Celts, this day was associated with the onset of ewes’ lactation, prior to birthing the spring lambs. Celtic pagans dedicated this day to the goddess Brigid.

The Winter Solstice was the shortest day of the year with the fewest sunlit hours. But after that, the Sun started its return journey back toward us in the Northern Hemisphere. You didn’t notice that move back in December, but after today you can actually see and feel this gradual reappearance of the light.

Maybe you will pick up a hint of the coming of spring. Look for the first tiny buds. Some snowdrops will push their fragile blooms above the frosty soil or even through the snow.

Yes, hibernating animals are stirring in their dens and underground nests. They may even go out at night and grab a meal and then return to their winter tunnel.

If Groundhog Day seems silly, think of this as the Celtic Imbolc, or as the Chinese Li Chu’un, or the Christian Candlemas.

The Latin quote at the top of this essay is translated as a rhyme:
“If Candlemas Day be fair and bright,
winter will have another flight.
If on Candlemas Day it be shower and rain,
winter is gone and will not come again.” 
In other words, good weather today is a bad omen. Bad weather is a good sign. Reminds me of that groundhog. He sees his shadow if it is a sunny day, but that means more winter, though it would seem to indicate spring.

So, don’t be concerned with midwinter divinatory practices. Spring is six weeks away. Some of those days to come will be wintery; some will be springlike.  It’s okay to hibernate for another six weeks and feel like the universe has decided that’s the way it should be.

* That quote at the top of this post is open to greater interpretation as far as the weather ahead. It literally translates as: “If the sun shines with Mary the mother of purifying, after the feast of ice will be greater than it was before.”

The Status of Spring

This Thursday is Groundhog Day which is one of the worst examples of phenology.

Phenology is nature’s calendar. It is the recording and analysis of what happens in nature – first leaves and blooms, the appearance of certain insects, birds, or animals. If you read earlier posts about silly Groundhog Day, you find that at one time the careful observation of animals emerging from hibernation naturally (not for TV cameras) was a way of tracking the natural calendar and even making some predictions about things like planting.

Many birds time their nesting so that eggs hatch when insects are available to feed nestlings, and insect emergence is often synchronized with leaf out in host plants. Things are connected.


I’ve been tracking my little corner of the world. You can do it too. Climate change gets lots of attention and rightly so, but phenology may be altered by changes in things like precipitation. And on a very local level – like my garden in Paradelle – it can be affected by a tree being taken down, a neighbor putting up a fence or the growth of trees. Changes in phenological events like flowering and animal migration are among the most sensitive biological responses to climate change. Across the world, many spring events are occurring earlier—and fall events are happening later—than they did in the past.

The USA National Phenology Network was established in 2007 to collect, store, and share phenology data and information. I looked this weekend at the “status of spring” across the country on their website. Based on observations, as of January 23, 2023: “Spring leaf out conditions have arrived in southern states. Spring is up to three weeks earlier than average (the period of 1991-2020) in parts of Texas, Arkansas, Louisiana, Mississippi, Alabama, Georgia, and South Carolina. Austin, TX is 9 days early, Jackson, MS is 12 days early, and Charleston, SC is 10 days early.”

So far in my Paradelle, no signs of spring, even though January has been mild and snowless. But February is typically the most wintery month here.

Complicated A.A. Milne

A. A. Milne plaque, Greville Estate, Mortimer Place, Kilburn, NW6, London – via Wikimedia

I saw that this past week (January 18) was the birthday of A.A. Milne, most famously the creator of Winnie-the-Pooh. The Pooh books have been favorites of mine since childhood and have had a revival in my life since the appearance of grandchildren.

Milne was a complicated person famous for simply-written stories. His own life was more complex. Like many famous men I have admired, he was, unfortunately, a poor father.

He was born in London in 1882. H.G. Wells was once his schoolteacher. Alan Alexander Milne went to Trinity College on a mathematics scholarship, but he preferred the less practical path of writing. At that stage, he was writing light verses and plays.

He considered himself a lifelong pacifist. But he enlisted in the Royal Warwickshire Regiment and worked in the Royal Corps of Signals in WWI.

He was also solidly an atheist. He said that “The Old Testament is responsible for more atheism, agnosticism, disbelief — call it what you will — than any book ever written. It has emptied more churches than all the counter-attractions of cinema, motor bicycles, and golf courses.”

He wrote for the British humor magazine Punch. He played cricket on a team with Arthur Conan Doyle (Sherlock Holmes) and J.M. Barrie (Peter Pan).

Pooh wasn’t his first publication. He had written several plays – Mr. Pim Passes By and Toad of Toad Hall.

While on holiday with his son, Christopher Robin, he started to write some verses about Christopher’s stuffed animals. The main character was a teddy bear his son called “Edward the Bear.”

The verses grew into stories set in the Hundred Acre Wood, which was his version of the Ashdawn Forest where they went on holidays. Winnie-the-Pooh was first featured in a Christmas story, “The Wrong Side of Bees,” published in the London Evening News in December of 1925. Fans of Pooh will recognize which chapter in the book that story became.

In six years, Winnie-the-Pooh was a million-dollar business.

Milne wasn’t happy that the “bear of very little brain” overshadowed any other writing he did, particularly if he tried to be more serious. Doyle and Barrie could identify with that writer’s trap.

Christopher Robin was also not a fan of Pooh as he grew older. He blamed the characters for making his father famous and distant from him. It took most of his life to reconcile his relationship with the character and fame. He never really reconciled with his parents. (More on that here.)

Winnie-the-Pooh (1926) and The House at Pooh Corner (1928) are now considered classics of children’s literature though still read by adults. (Though Amazon lists 13 Pooh books.)

Elsewhere I have written that Pooh’s world is philosophically a good personification of wu wei and pu.  I’m sure Milne had no idea about this or intended it. Wu wei is a Taoist concept of “effortless doing” your work and life.

The homophone of pu is also Taoist and the Chinese word that means “unworked wood” or “simple.” Philosophically, this is a metaphor for the natural state of humanity. This “beginner’s mind” is open to, but unburdened by, experience.

That’s Pooh bear.

Check the Doomsday Clock

The Bulletin of Atomic Scientists was created by scientists who saw an immediate need for a public reckoning in the aftermath of the atomic bombings of Hiroshima and Nagasaki.  These scientists anticipated that the atom bomb would be “only the first of many dangerous presents from the Pandora’s Box of modern science.” They now see multiple threats: climate change, cyber-attacks, and the misuse of genetic engineering and artificial intelligence.

They also created the Doomsday Clock as a symbol of these threats. I check it out when a new year is beginning. Founded in 1945 by Albert Einstein and University of Chicago scientists who helped develop the first atomic weapons in the Manhattan Project, the Bulletin of the Atomic Scientists created the Doomsday Clock two years later, using the imagery of apocalypse (midnight) and the contemporary idiom of nuclear explosion (countdown to zero) to convey threats to humanity and the planet.

The Doomsday Clock is many things all at once: It’s a metaphor, it’s a logo, it’s a brand, and it’s one of the most recognizable symbols in the past 100 years. It has permeated not only the media landscape but also culture itself. The Doomsday Clock appears in novels by Stephen King and Piers Anthony, songs by The Who and the Clash, and comic books and graphic novels like Watchmen and Stormwatch.

They haven’t posted the 2023 version yet, but in 2022 we were “At doom’s doorstep: It is 100 seconds to midnight.”

“Leaders around the world must immediately commit themselves to renewed cooperation in the many ways and venues available for reducing existential risk. Citizens of the world can and should organize to demand that their leaders do so—and quickly. The doorstep of doom is no place to loiter.”

It has held at 100 seconds for the past three years, which I suppose could be considered to be a few ticks of optimism since in 2018 and 2019 it was at 120 seconds to a midnight apocalypse.

What do you think it will be for the start of 2023 – closer to midnight, the same or moved back a bit?

Last year’s announcement video.