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Seeing Shadows

On Monday good old Punxsutawney Phil predicted six more weeks of winter.


Don’t tell me you’re surprised. After all, it’s the beginning of February, seven weeks before the spring equinox, which around here is on the early end of when you can expect anything properly called spring. It’s a wonder we ever expect him to say anything else.

Poor Groundhog Day. Such an underappreciated, misplaced little holiday.

Thanks to the Gulf Stream, early signs of spring—particularly lambing—are in fact usually underway in the milder-climed British Isles right about now, which is where the Celtic holiday known as Imbolc, of which Groundhog Day is a secularized descendent, arose.

Imbolc is celebrated by modern-day pagans all over the Western world as part of the “wheel of the year” that includes the equinoxes, solstices, and “cross-quarter days” halfway between them, of which Imbolc is one.

But outside of pagan circles and Punxsutawney, the day gets little attention. And in our particular climate, this doesn’t surprise me. Even though I’m fond of the wheel of year rubric, around here talk of buds and thaw and preparing the ground for planting on Feb. 2 can feel a bit like celebrating Christmas in Florida (or even worse, in the Southern Hemisphere), gamely decorating with snowflakes and evergreens and Santas bundled in red fur and singing about snowmen and sleighs while wearing T-shirts and enjoying a sunlit late-evening meal.

Globalized holidays leave us with some cognitive dissonance.

Still, my family celebrated Imbolc last weekend by baking bread from scratch, which is a traditional observance. I had planned to go ruffling through my poetry collection for some relevant poems to recite, since the day honors Brigid, who is goddess of, among other things, poetry.

The day snuck up on me though, and not just because everything does when you have a toddler. It was also because I rarely come to this point in the winter feeling anxious for spring, or like there’s any likelihood of it being on the horizon. Winter has become the norm, the Way It Is.

I imagine that if I hadn’t been one of the lucky few not to lose power in the ice storms (so far) this winter, or if I had a driveway or more than an itty-bitty sidewalk that it’s not usually my job to shovel anyway or a long driving commute, then I might well be more tired of this particular winter and its abundance of cold and white stuff.

But the point is, and don’t hate me for saying this, we’re only about halfway through, roughly.

So what’s to celebrate right now anyway? One way I’ve heard it phrased is that this isn’t the beginning of spring, but it’s the beginning of the end of winter. We’re now in winter-becoming-spring. This appeals to the part of me that likes to notice subtle changes.

Every year I am struck again by how suddenly birdsong reappears in the mornings in February, no matter how frigid the air. Long before we see the geese flying north, the sparrows are looking ahead, it seems. They are, presumably, responding to the lengthening days, which are now noticeable to our eyes too, easily measured in little bursts of “Hey, now it’s still light when I leave work/walk to yoga/get home/take out the garbage/whatever.”

In her book The Teeth of the Lion, which covers all you didn’t know you wanted to know about dandelions, local author and environmental educator Anita Sanchez reports that they can start to photosynthesize underneath a substantial layer of snow, absorbing the sunlight filtering through from above and getting ready to shoot off the starting block when things warm up.

Conveniently for me, on that theme, Feb. 2 is also the due date to get in on the bulk order of garden seeds through the Honest Weight Food Co-op. Even when I make it in just under the wire like I did this year (everyone who has read a seed catalog, especially Fedco’s, knows that it’s awfully hard to proceed through efficiently and without distraction), it forces me to look ahead and start thinking about plans for the spring long before it remotely feels like gardening season.

Put this all together, and I’m coming to think of Imbolc/Groundhog Day as a reminder about living with ever present, but sometimes background, change. New Year’s, even with all its resolutions and plans for the new year, doesn’t quite hit this note for me. Those are changes I’m initiating, that are under my control, and they mostly look backward, comparing to last year.

Spring following after weeks of winter that seemed misleadingly unchanging is dramatic change that comes in its own sweet time, one step forward, two steps back. I’ve found that changes in many things—relationships, children, bodies, minds—often come this way. They may be impatiently anticipated, ambivalently welcomed, feared and resisted, or neutrally ignored, but the choice to be made is how to prepare, whether to adapt or plow through, work with or against, live as if on a moving planet or in a climate-controlled bubble.

Reminding us of all that is a lot to put on the humble groundhog. But I’m guessing it’s still easier than predicting the weather.

—Miriam Axel-Lute

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