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antler

Deer antler in velvet

When I first heard the term “velvet season,” I thought it referred to that time when members of the deer  family’s antlers are in “velvet.” I was wrong, but the seasons are related in calendar time.

Each antler grows from an attachment point on the skull called a pedicle. While an antler is growing, it is covered with highly vascular skin called velvet, which supplies oxygen and nutrients to the growing bone.

Once the antler has achieved its full size, the velvet is lost and the antler’s bone dies. This dead bone structure is the mature antler.

The velvet begins to form in spring and is shed at the end of summer and early fall depending on the geographic area.

After the velvet is gone and the antler is hard bone, the deer move into their rutting season. The rut is the mating season of ruminant animals such as deer, sheep, camels, goats, pronghorns, bison and antelopes. During the rut, bucks often rub their antlers on trees or shrubs, fight with each other, and herd estrus females together.

But the other Velvet Season is a term used for one of the most comfortable parts of the year for people who live in the subtropics, particularly in Mediterranean climate conditions. Their velvet season is a time when the weather is not as hot as mid-summer but is still quite warm, even at night. In northern latitudes with a temperate climate, the analogue of “velvet season” is “Indian summer.”

September Velvet Season on the Crimean coast

Velvet Season seems to be a term that appeared in the late nineteenth or early twentieth centuries in Imperial Russia. This was a time when it was fashionable to vacation in the Crimea and “velvet season” referred to several weeks in April and May, when the court and the royal family moved from St. Petersburg to the Crimea. It wasn’t deer antlers that were being referenced, rather it was the switch for the season from fur clothes to velvet ones. The Crimea at this time was still cool. They called summer in the Crimea calico or cotton season.

So, this autumn time we are in is technically not velvet season. Set aside the royal aspect and the spring velvet season became the time to travel to the Crimean coast. It is a short season –  lasting not more than a month and usually coincides with the last week of Great Lent, Easter and St. Thomas’ Sunday.

Perhaps for those of us in the northern U.S. our comparable “season” is that short period of warm weather at the end of winter or early spring. In Paradelle, that “false spring” is often followed by a snowstorm.

It is interesting that even in Russia, at some point the velvet season switched from referring to the spring to September when the crowds left the Black Sea coast and children went back to school and the upper class could have the resorts to themselves.

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Some call this May Day. Depending on where you live, it could be International Workers’ Day or Labour Day. May 1 is a national holiday in more than 80 countries and celebrated unofficially in many other countries. Not many people are celebrating Beltane, so let’s mark that festival here.

Beltane is an ancient Celtic festival which came into English from the Gaelic word bealltainn which literally means “May First.”

Traditionally large bonfires would be lit to celebrate this transition from spring to summer and the fertility of all things. Cattle were driven through the Beltane bonfires for purification and fertility.

The annual Beltane Fire Festival held in Edinburgh, Scotland is the prime modern example.

Today, the neo-pagan community, often associated with the art of fire dancing, have also embraced the Beltane festivities.

In Wales, Creiddylad was a character connected with this festival and often called the May Queen. The maypole and its dance is a remnant of these old festivities.

In Finland, May 1 was celebrated as Rowan Witch Day, a time of honoring the goddess Rauni, who was associated with the mouton ash or rowan tree. Twigs and branches of the rowan were, and still are, used as protection against evil in this part of the world.

May Day is another name often given to this day. That derives from the Greek goddess Maia, the most important of the Seven Sisters (the Pleiades) and the mother of Hermes. From her, we get the name of this month. The Romans called her Maius, goddess of Summer, and honored her during Ambarvalia.

A maypole is a tall wooden pole erected as a part of various European folk festivals, around which a maypole dance often takes place. The festivals may occur on May Day or Pentecost (Whitsun), although in some countries it is instead erected at Midsummer.

May Day celebrations were continued by early European settlers to the American continent with May baskets filled with flowers or treats left secretly at someone’s doorstep. If the receiver catches the fleeing giver, a kiss is exchanged.

 

May Day basket

May Day basket

 

Whether it feels or looks like spring or like winter outside your home today, spring is officially here. It slipped under my pillow while I was still asleep this morning at 6:28 am ET here in the Northern Hemisphere.

Our ancestors my not have understood what was happening to our planet from a celestial viewpoint, but they were more careful observers of the world around them and definitely marked today as something significant. Ancient observers built devices, buildings and places like Stonehenge to measure and mark changes in the Sun’s movements. Of course, that was what they thought was happening – that the Sun was moving closer or further from Earth. They may have been wrong on that part, but they were able to mark that today was midway between the sun’s lowest path across the sky in winter and highest path across the sky in summer.

Though we visualize an equinox as occurring on the imaginary dome of Earth’s sky, it is a very real point on Earth’s orbit that is halfway between the two extremes of the sun’s path in your sky. “Your sky” because though the equinox occurs at the same time for all of us. The seasons are based on whether you are in the Northern or Southern Hemisphere.

One thing you can observe easily at each equinox (no Stonehenge required) is that the sun rises due east and sets due west from where you live. An equinox happens when the ecliptic – or sun’s path – intersects the celestial equator, that imaginary line above Earth’s equator.

Go outside around sunset and sunrise and notice the location of the sun on the horizon with respect to local landmarks. You can then use those landmarks to find those cardinal directions in the months ahead and observe how the sunrise and sunset points move southward or northward. I showed my young sons this many years ago by crudely tracking the sunrise moving from window to window during the year from the vantage point of our East-facing family room. It was a pretty interesting lesson in science.

Today the sun is on the celestial equator. It may be springlike outside or it may still seem like winter, but the new season has arrived.

 

 

For a few weeks in February, it sure felt like spring was very near in Paradelle – or maybe it had arrived early – even if the calendar and Earth’s tilt said otherwise. I saw crocuses and daffodils up and blooming. Tree buds seemed to be starting their bud burst.

Then the thermometer reversed itself and we had our biggest snow of the winter.

The news reported that the cherry blossoms in the nation’s capital are threatened, and the ones in New Jersey, which generally peak in early April, might also be affected. [Not So Trivial Fact: New Jersey has more cherry trees than Washington D.C. – the largest cherry blossom collection in the United States. But the Branch Brook Park cherry blossom webcam in Newark just shows bare trees and snow as I write this.]

I have written before about the study of cyclic, seasonal natural phenomena which is called phenology. The National Phenology Network tracks “Nature’s Calendar” via phenological events. But can we actually predict the seasons with any accuracy?

These nature observations include the ones we all have been observing lately, such as trees and flowers, but also ones that you may not be able to observe or just don’t pay attention to. Those signs of seasonal change include male ungulates, such as elk or deer, growing antlers at the beginning of the rut and breeding season each year, mammals that hibernate seasonally to get through the winter, and bird migration during the year.

Other than the false Groundhog Day forced observations, phenological events can be incredibly sensitive to climate change. That change can be year-to-year, but the timing of many of these events is changing globally – and not always in the same direction and magnitude.

map

Spring leaf anomaly: dark red indicates areas of early bud burst, with some areas as great as 21 days early. It should be noted, that areas around Los Angeles are conversely nearly 21 days behind schedule. Image via blogs.plos.org

According to a Public Library of Science (PLOS) blog, “From 1982 to 2012, spring budburst (when the leaves first appear) has advanced by a bit over 10 days, while the onset of autumn in the northeast US has pushed back about 4.5 days. No trends were found for other regions. This lengthening of the growing season has profound implications for the ecology of these forests and potentially their ecological evolution. A longer growing season could translate to high carbon storage for increased growth, but higher rates of decomposition and changes in moisture availability. However, these changes in phenology are primarily driven by increasing temperatures. In a warmer world, some species may simply not be able to survive where they are now, creating a dramatic change in the species composition. And this is without considering changes in precipitation.”

The National Phenology Network’s project called Nature’s Notebook collects data from more than 15,000 naturalists across the nation who, using standardized methods, provide information about plant and animal phenology.

Project BudBurst is another citizen science focused project using observations of phenological events and phases through crowd-sourcing. Project like this give you the opportunity to make your observations of nature more conscious, and to contribute to the knowledge base.

This post first appeared, in slightly different form, on my Endangered New Jersey blog

dandelion

Punxsutawney Phil the groundhog predicted another 6 weeks of winter, but on that day I saw a lone dandelion already blooming at the neighborhood park.  Maybe it was being bold, or being stupid, to bloom so early. It was covered by snow the following week. But according to estimates by the National Phenology Network, spring has already arrived in much of the Southwest and Southeast. It was about 20 days early for the Southeast. They track Extended Spring Indices which are models that scientists have developed to predict the “start of spring” at a particular location.

This weekend in Paradelle, we are enjoying temperatures in the 50s and 60s after a windy week in the 20s and 30s. Such is this time of late winter and early spring.

I have written a few times about phenology which is the study of cyclic and seasonal natural phenomena, especially in relation to climate and plant and animal life.

They use historical observations of the timing of first leaf and first bloom of certain plants (for example, cloned lilacs and honeysuckles) and daily observations from weather stations.

Many deciduous plants in temperate systems put on their leaves as temperatures warm in late winter and early spring. Using the Extended Spring Index models, scientists can look at how much the start of spring has varied from one year to the next at a particular location, and whether recent years are dramatically different from the past or not. The models can also be used to forecast when selected plants might bloom or put on leaves in future years.

I have been keeping my own bloom records for my home turf for about 20 years. Though my property is certainly its own “micro-climate” with variations due to shade, soil etc., I have seen earlier springs over the years for certain plants that are my own little “control” group.

The USA National Phenology Network developed Nature’s Notebook, a project focused on collecting standardized ground observations of phenology by researchers, students and volunteers like me.

I think their mission should be everyone’s mission, even if you don’t get as official as doing phenology: Gain a better understanding through considered observation of the plant and animals that surround you and how they relate to your environment and broader environmental change.

Spring is officially still a month away for those of us in the Northern Hemisphere, but that doesn’t mean that you aren’t already observing signs of it in your little corner of the world.

 

I like the poetry of William Carlos Williams. He is a Jersey boy like myself, born in 1883 in Rutherford. He went off to medical school at the University of Pennsylvania, but returned home and had a solid medical practice throughout his life. Simultaneously, he was publishing poems, novels, essays, and plays.

His poem “Spring and All,” begins:

By the road to the contagious hospital
under the surge of the blue
mottled clouds driven from the
northeast—a cold wind.

It was written just a short time after the publication of T. S. Eliot‘s “The Waste Land.” Both poems open with a rather unpleasant spring season. Eliot wrote that:

April is the cruellest month, breeding
Lilacs out of the dead land, mixing
Memory and desire, stirring
Dull roots with spring rain.

mt.chocorua from a distance – watercolor by e.e. cummings via eecummingsart.com

 

I am feeling more optimistic about the new season, so I am more in a mood for an E.E. Cummings kind of spring.

in Just-
spring          when the world is mud-
luscious the little

lame balloonman

whistles          far          and wee

and eddieandbill come
running from marbles and
piracies and it’s

spring

when the world is puddle-wonderful

read the full poem by E.E. Cummings

 

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Every end is also a beginning. First snow of the season.  Not enough to start the snowblower, but enough to start a fire. If you have to make shavings to start the fire, you may as well whittle something useful, then have a sip and do some #readingbravely in the snow. I’m the first human here.  Today. Sunset before a snowstorm.

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