The First Crocus
By Doug Stevens – “The Graytrekker”
I was looking at my calendar recently, and it says that spring starts on March 19 this year. It is actually some time after sunset, 9:50 pm to be precise, so really, the first “day” of Spring is March 20. By modern definition, spring starts in the northern hemisphere on the Vernal Equinox, the instant the Sun is directly above the Earth’s Equator heading north. It will cross it again heading south at the Autumnal Equinox. The exact day of this can move around – occasionally, it is March 19, but the 20th or the 21st is more common. Actually, according to the Old Farmer’s Almanac, this is the earliest Vernal Equinox we have had since 1896 – 124 years! [https://www.almanac.com/content/first-day-spring-vernal-equinox]. Apparently, it is never on March 22. The reason it is so early this year is a quirk of our calendar system. Here is an explanation if you want to dig deeper: [https://www.almanac.com/spring-2020-earliest-spring-in-over-100-years].
Similarly, the beginning of the other seasons are also set to astronomical events – equinoxes and solstices, which all can move a little from year to year. They are completely divorced from the actual weather. In Montana, how often have we had “winter” weather after the first day of spring or before the first day of winter? Also puzzling to me is that, if summer starts on the June solstice, why is it referred to as Midsummer’s Day, and Shakespeare’s “Midsummer’s Night Dream”? Although I understand the need for these definitions of seasons, I find their misalignment with reality somewhat confusing – a lack of “ground truthing,” as they say these days.
I prefer to rely on Nature to send me signals of a new season. Before actual spring, there are other days to note, such as Groundhog Day, or when I notice the first red-winged blackbirds around me – usually around February 9. However, these are just harbingers of the coming of spring, not the start itself. Where I live, at the base of the Mission Mountains in western Montana, the event that I eagerly await as the first true sign of spring is when the first crocus appear and bloom. They tend to bloom sometime around the Equinox, but not exactly. Like the Equinox, the date of their appearance can move around some from year to year. Unlike the Equinox, it is not responding to some predictable, measurable, celestial event, but rather, to the changing seasonal weather patterns. When the weather warms the ground and the amount of daylight per day increases to a certain point, they come forth and bloom. That first crocus sets off a chain of events to begin the unfoldment of spring. It is the first domino to fall, so to speak. After that comes the daffodils, grape hyacinths, poppies, etc., buds swelling on the maple trees, and then all spring explodes!
Spring is such a wonderful time of year. It usually marks the end of “cabin fever” and the return of color after a long black and white winter. It is a world reborn in front of our very eyes. The longer, sunnier days (now greater than 12 hours/day) lifts the spirits. It is a time of year of great optimism, pregnant with possibilities and potentialities. Plans developed during the winter for summer and fall to seem at once, all possible. All those summer backpacking plans researched during the winter [http://www.distinctlymontana.com/node/40745], all the photography plans made to catch the glory of the Montana fall colors, all seem eminently probable. There is no room for thoughts of rain-outs, smoke from forest fires [http://www.distinctlymontana.com/node/40298], or even future impacts of the current coronavirus pandemic at this time of year. No – it is going to be a great summer and fall, and the anticipation that these are now just around the corner begins to build.
I am not a gardener, but I know those who are. They are busy planning their spring gardens and ordering seeds. It will be a while before they can put those into the ground, as the last killing frost is still weeks away. However, they will soon be out there turning over their soil and imagining their future bountiful harvests, as their springtime anticipation builds. (and then there’s the spring cleaning to do – but I won’t talk about that here!)
So much is just about to happen, so much in place ready to be unleashed – like schools of salmon gathering at the mouth of the river waiting for the signal for their mass migration upstream, like race car drivers revving their engines at the starting line of a race – and it all starts with that first crocus!