Spring and All

Spring slips into place today. There is a good chance that where you are now doesn’t look or feel like spring. In Paradelle, it still looks like winter but for a few buds on trees or shoots poking out of the muddy ground. Of course, you might be south of me and it looks like summer, or far north where winter still reigns.

Spring 2021 in the Northern Hemisphere will begin on March 20 and ends on
June 20. By that last day of spring, it will probably look and feel like summer here.

In William Carlos Williams’ poem, “Spring and All,” the opening is rather ominous.
By the road to the contagious hospital
under the surge of the blue
mottled clouds driven from the
northeast—a cold wind.

Williams wrote the poem not long after T. S. Eliot’s “The Waste Land,” was published. Eliot’s poem also opens with a not-so-favorable view of early spring.
April is the cruellest month, breeding
Lilacs out of the dead land, mixing
Memory and desire, stirring
Dull roots with spring rain.

Eliot goes on to use an image of winter that is not typical:
Winter kept us warm, covering
Earth in forgetful snow, feeding
A little life with dried tubers.

When we brought my first son home from the hospital, it was the first day of spring and the daffodils, crocuses, and wood hyacinths were covered with snow.  Spring is a fickled season.

In literature and mythology, spring usually concerns themes of rebirth and renewal with symbols from the season. Spring also refers to love, hope, youth and growth. The seasonal symbolism for this period may also allude to religious celebrations such as Passover or Easter.

Today is that moment that is the Vernal Equinox. Vernal translates to “new” or “fresh.” The two equinoxes come from the Latin aequus (equal) and nox (night). The time of daylight between sunrise and sunset has been growing slightly longer each day since the Winter Solstice in December. Of course, we messed with the celestial plan last weekend with Daylight Saving Time.

I still try to mark the vernal equinox as it has been seen for centuries as a turning point. It is not the only turning point, but daylight does defeat darkness, and that is a reason to celebrate.

Soon, I hope the only things like snowfall here will the storm of blossoms from cherry and other spring-blooming trees.

The Season That Wasn’t

snowdrops

March 2020 was a strange month globally due to the COVID-19 virus pandemic. Most of us were indoors and might not have taken much notice of the weather and the arrival of spring. I got to know my backyard and garden better. I walked my neighborhood and some local parklands until they were closed. Many people commented that they were losing track of the days. But for me, it was like the world is just skipping spring.

The proverb says that the month of March comes “In like a lion, out like a lamb.” It’s not unusual to expect that March weather begins in typical winter fashion but leaves in spring conditions. But the weather is unpredictable and the opposite can be true.

I don’t really remember the weather for the month very well. It wasn’t great. Lots of rain and gray skies. With COVID-19 and sheltering in place, March came in like a lion and went out like an angrier lion

“April showers bring May flowers” is another proverb about the weather. April was also rainy here. And for the first time in more than 80 years, we didn’t have a single day that was 70 degrees or more.

I have been journaling since I was a teenager. My journaling has been less regular in the past years. Now I am more likely catching up on the week or the month rather than doing a daily diary kind of writing.

I started a new journal in January 2020. Unfortunately, it began with my older sister taking a fall in the care facility where she lives. She was hospitalized and then put into a rehab center for six weeks. She returned to her assisted living facility on Valentine’s Day. A week later we were told that a resident had died of COVID-19 and they were locking down the building, keeping residents in their rooms including bringing meals in instead of using the dining room. A week later, their head of nursing died of the virus. there have been 13 coronavirus deaths and this facility is actually doing much better than others in our area.

I left four blank pages in my new journal to put a timeline of the pandemic. It certainly is something I will want to review in the future. I hope four pages will be enough room.

baby fingers

The best thing about 2020 for me was the arrival of my first grandchild in April. She is the hopeful part of the month, the season, and the year.

I bought my new granddaughter, Remi, a New York Times and a local paper on the day she was born knowing that one day she might also be interested to read about this strange time in which she appeared in the world. I joked with her parents that I may need to explain newspapers to her too.

I expect the weather to improve a lot this month. In New Jersey, summer unofficially begins with Memorial Day weekend, and for many of us that means a trip “down the shore.” But now, beaches and boardwalks are closed. Our Governor Murphy has been wisely cautious and has already extended the state’s emergency order by another 30 days to June 6. No Memorial Day weekend on the beach.

Spring 2020 was the season that wasn’t. I hope that some of you were productive at home, spent quality time with family, were able to maintain your income and were untouched by the deaths from the virus. That is what I hope, but I know that for some of you some of those things are not true.

Van Gogh and Japanese Art

Vincent van Gogh: Self-portrait with Bandaged Ear, Easel and Japanese Print
Vincent van Gogh: Self-portrait with Bandaged Ear, Easel and Japanese Print

Last year, I was able to visit the Van Gogh Museum in Amsterdam and revel in the paintings of Vincent that I had seen only in books, online or as prints.

One section of the museum that fascinated me was devoted to the influence of Japanese art on Vincent’s paintings.

In the self-portrait at the top of this post, you see Vincent with his easel and a Japanese print on his wall.

cherry blossoms
Japanese painting of a cherry tree branch
almond branches blue
One of Vincent’s almond branch paintings

You can see the influence of Japanese art in places like his group of paintings of spring tree branches, such as the paintings of almond branches and blossoms he painted around 1890. This was when he was in Saint-Rémy-de-Provence, France.

He also reproduced Japanese artwork that he saw in books and as prints, such as Bridge in the Rain. a version of a famous painting by Hiroshige.

Bridge in the Rain (after Hiroshige) by Vincent, 1887

“All my work is based to some extent on Japanese art”
―Vincent van Gogh
, letter to his brother Theo, July 15, 1888

I bought a book at the museum, Japanese Prints: The Collection of Vincent van Gogh, and learned that Vincent first encountered Japanese printmaking while working in Paris and he and his brother Theo bought more than 600 Japanese prints which they lived together there. Vincent often displayed these prints in his studio as inspiration.

What he found appealing were the strong colors and use of everyday subjects. Japanese artwork used unusual spatial effects which you can see in some of his paintings that have odd angles. The details taken from nature were very delicate. This was at a time when he was just beginning to develop his own style as a painter.

The winter of 1887-88 was holding on into early spring when Vincent arrived in Arles in Provence and he painted budding almond branches that he had brought inside and put in a glass to force blooms.  He loved painting the twisted trees and branches and also used the orchards outside of town as subjects.

Blossoming Almond Branch in a Glass with Book Arles March 5 1888
Blossoming Almond Branch in a Glass with Book Arles March 5 1888

He painted the almond tree branches in bright daylight, at night and with backgrounds of bright pinks and reds.

almond blossoms night
Almond Blossoms, Night

Vincent is often looking up at the branches into the sunlight or moonlight. Up close, I could see in a painting done as a gift for his nephew (at bottom) that the branches are blue-striped with shades of green, complimenting the reds of the blossoms. Some of the petals are bare canvas, some shades of whites and grays with center pistils of yellow.

almond red
Branch of Almond Tree in Blossom Red Vincent Van Gogh
Branches of an Almond Tree in Blossom (pink)
Branches of an Almond Tree in Blossom (pink)

Besides books about Vincent’s love of Japanese art, the museum also had books that I have found in libraries since I returned. One rarer book that I haven’t found shows the influence Japanese art had on other painters of that time and after including Monet. Van Gogh. and Klimt.In February 1890 in St. Remy, Vincent painted an almond tree in blossom against a blue sky background for his newborn nephew, who Theo and his wife named Vincent. He brings the painting to Paris for them and they hang it in their living room. When Vincent leaves Paris for Auvers, he will have only six months to live and so that painting becomes very special to the family.

Perhaps symbolic of this new life, Vincent painted the branches of an almond tree. It is a variety that blossoms as early as February in the south of France and is one of those signs of spring we look for in nature. It is one of more obviously Japanese -influenced paintings there.

At the museum, I was told that the white blossoms were originally more pink than white but have faded on exposure to light. Still, it is a beautiful example of his late work.

A painting for his nephew, Vincent

Spring Weather Report

robin

The robins are back in Paradelle. Cardinals, bluejays and chickadees are very active at the feeders. Spring is here in astronomical terms and nature signs.  the temperatures are still cool most days and nights still deep into the mid/high 30s – but no frost. Not that we can’t have a late frost or even snow in April, but it feels like spring.

The only un-spring-like thing is that the coronavirus pandemic has changed our habits, holidays and outlook. I’m glad I can still work in my garden and tend my vegetable seedlings and get some sunshine when it’s available.

Back in October, we were supposed to look for signals of the winter ahead. I like to do a review for my Paradelle neighborhood, and that’s really all you can do because weather is local.

Here are some autumn 2019 signs I observed and their results.

“Much rain in October, means much wind in December.” That one held true.

“Thunder in the fall is supposed to foretell a cold winter ahead.”  No thunder here in the fall and no cold winter.

“A warm October means a cold February.” A warm October but not a particularly cold February. Very gray, cloudy month though.

“A Full Moon in October without any frost means a warmer month ahead.” No frost on that Full Moon night and November was, if not warm, mild.

Very few blooms in my garden late up until the Winter Solstice, which should have been a sure sign of a rough winter – but it wasn’t rough.

acorns
The remnants on my lawn of a bumper crop of acorns eaten by the squirrels.

The squirrels were very active in the fall – and very active during the mild winter and still this first full spring month. Acorns and squirrels have long been part of weather lore. A bumper crop of acorns and squirrels that are more active than usual is supposed to mean a severe winter.  We had both here in Paradelle but the winter was mild and almost snowless – much to the dismay of my neighbor whose landscaping company does snow removal in winter.  The weather lore rhyme “Squirrels gathering nuts in a flurry, will cause snow to gather in a hurry” was definitely not true here.

A Super Equinox Full MoonWorm

The March Full Moon is often called the Worm Moon due to the early spring appearance of worms reappearing and the robins and other birds that enjoy them.

In 2019, it occurs on March 20 for those of us in the United States, but in any location it will be less noticed for worms and more noticed for two other aspects.

It will reach fullness just ahead of the vernal/spring equinox, which is a nice coincidence. This full moon will also be the third and last last “super moon” of the year.

The rising full moon will look slightly bigger and brighter because it is near its closest approach to Earth in its monthly orbit.

Perhaps you are someone who believes there are no coincidences, and so this triple crossing of celestial events will have greater meaning.

To astronomers, it is just another full moon, though I did read that the full moon on equinox day will allow for some interesting calculations. This is something that occurs every 19 years.

If you measure the shadow cast by a perfectly vertical stick when the Sun us at its highest point (zenith) on equinox day, the angle will be your latitude.

Or you can just look up and wonder at the big, beautiful Moon of ours.

 

Spring Will Come

There is snow on the ground in Paradelle, and the Polar Vortex visited us this past week. The ground is rock-hard. Nothing is budding. But I saw my first robin today.

robin

There are a lot of things that are supposed to indicate that the spring season is near. That silly groundhog in Pennsylvania who was pulled out of his home, saw no shadow (Duh, it was cloudy) and so it is supposed to be an early spring. NOAA says Phil the Groundhog has a 40% accuracy rate over 133 years – about as good as a coin toss.

It is a sure sign of spring when I once again watch the film Groundhog Day, and whatever the weather might be, I get into the Zen of that film.

Animals pay no attention to calendars, but those that hibernate or spend more time  inside than outside (like most of us) during winter do sense a warming climate. There are also internal clocks that will signal that it is time for them to emerge.

It made a kind of sense to people at one time that if they observed an animal (bears in France, badgers in Germany, groundhogs in America) emerging but then heading back inside, it must “know” something about the weather ahead.

You can also be a sky watcher like the ancients, who paid more careful attention to things up there. The movements of the Sun and Moon were very important and today is a “cross-quarter” day in the solar calendar. Today falls exactly between a solstice and an equinox.

Though it might not feel like it, consider that winter is halfway over and spring is on the celestial horizon – whether it looks and feels like it outside. I have definitely noticed that there was a longer day(light) the past week.

Many nature and garden folks look to the plants in their neighborhood for signs of spring. But I can’t say that I have found them to be much more accurate than groundhogs. I saw some bulbs poking above ground back in December, but they stopped their progress. I have a patch of crocuses that get full sun all day in front of my home that always bloom a week or more before the others.


Take the snowdrops I have outside. When they bloom, it might be snowy and they add some white (and green) to the landscape. But Galanthus nivalis will bloom when they are ready no matter what the weather happens to be. They are early bloomers.  Mine are not poking out, but we have a warming week ahead, so they might break through.

Cultures and religions all have some type of seasonal celebrations. The Celtic holiday of Imbolc is an ancient one that honored Brigid (or Brigit), goddess of fire, poetry, healing, and childbirth. February first is Saint Brigid’s feast day.

The ancient Imbolc (from the Old Irish imbolg, meaning “in the belly”) is thought to have come from his time being when ewes became pregnant. Those would be the spring lambs. As February started, Saint Brigid was thought to bring the healing power of the sun back to the world.

Christians took the pagan holiday and repurposed February 2 as Candlemas Day (Candelora in Italy).  Though it is to mark the presentation of Jesus at the temple 40 days after his birth, the ceremony is to bring candles (and Brigid’s crosses) to church to be blessed.  So, it offers the elements of fire and birth.

May Brigid bless the house wherein you dwell
Bless every fireside every wall and door
Bless every heart that beats beneath its roof
Bless every hand that toils to bring it joy
Bless every foot that walks its portals through
May Brigid bless the house that shelters you.

What made that robin return to this cold northern place now? Birds that nest in the Northern Hemisphere tend to migrate northward in the spring to take advantage of emerging insect populations, budding plants and an abundance of nesting locations.

Though the vast majority of robins do move south in the winter, some remain and move around in northern locations. Robins migrate more in response to food than to temperature and fruit is the robin’s winter food source. I haven’t seen any robins in my area since autumn, so I assume they went south.

American Robins eat large numbers of both invertebrates and fruit. In spring and summer, they prefer earthworms, insects and some snails. they also eat a wide variety of fruits, including chokecherries, hawthorn, dogwood, sumac fruits and juniper berries. One study suggested that robins may try to round out their diet by selectively eating fruits that have bugs in them.