by Mike Weilbacher
Precisely at 6:45 p.m. Friday evening, the sun will be poised directly above the equator, and a vertical shaft of sunlight will strike the equator, marking the very first moment of spring.
Congratulations: We’ve made it through another winter of great discontent.
And like the “equi” in its name, length of day will roughly equal length of night, and the solar scales finally tip – moving forward from now through June, the amount of daylight will increase a little more each day, and the sun will have returned to the Northern hemisphere, bringing light, and, happily, warmth.
But this equinox is unusual. It will also be a new moon tomorrow night – the phase of the moon we cannot see – and a new moon during perigee, that body’s closet approach to earth. This is a so-called “supermoon,” which has a stronger pull on tides (and your emotions?), but that alone is not too unusual: There will be six supermoons this year. Upping the stakes, when the sun hits equinox, the supermoon will orbit in front of it, giving high northern latitudes in Europe—think Iceland and Greenland—a total eclipse of the sun.
The last total solar eclipse on the March equinox occurred, amazingly, way back in 1662 – when the dodo went extinct during the reign of King Charles II. In this century, this eclipse-vernal equinox combination will happen again in 2034, 2053 and 2072, then not at all in the 2100s.
The vernal equinox has played a huge role in human cultures for millennia, especially in northern cultures struggling through winter. Because of the new growth in the new season – the earth seeming to awaken from the dead – many cultures began their calendars around now. In fact, the astrological year still begins on the equinox when the moon moves into Aries the Ram, the zodiac’s first sign.
The Greek God Ares is equivalent to the Roman Mars, for whom March is named, and the Roman Empire year began on the ides of March, the 15th. For 500 years until 1752, March 25th was the day the year changed in England; back then, you would go to sleep on March 24, say, 1750, and wake up on March 25, 1751.
Persians celebrate their New Year, Nowruz (literally, “new day) starting on the equinox, a 3,000-year-old Zoroastrian tradition, serving a huge feast of seven food dishes that begin with s, including garlic (in Farsi, sir) for medicinal health, and sumac berries (somaq), the color of sunrise. A goldfish in a bowl is a common centerpiece, symbolizing life and good luck.
An ancient Chinese tradition said one can balance eggs, a symbol of fertility, on their end – but only on the spring equinox, bringing good luck and prosperity. A nice story, but legend only: You can balance an egg on its end, if you are careful, any time of year.
Meanwhile, in nature, an elegant procession of events has already begun: birds returning north, animals – from the ground hog to the mourning cloak butterfly – awakening from hibernation, trees budding out, crocuses and snowdrops opening in your garden.
In wet spots in forests along the Wissahickon or at my Schuylkill Center, skunk cabbage has pushed its mottled purple hoods out of the mud, with a round flower-covered ball in the center. It’s the first wildflower of spring, soon to be joined by trout lilies, spring beauties and a host of other species.
Red maples buds will soon sprout open, their flowers dangling like little red spiders attached to the twigs, giving these trees a red blush from a distance. The flowers are dangling their male parts in the air, releasing billions of pollen grain into the sky, and – achoo! – the hay fever season begins anew.
We’ll take it.
Birders are quivering in anticipation of the return of spring warblers, and botanists are trembling at the possibilities of forests cloaked in trillium jackets. Sport fanatics are awaiting March Madness and the first pitch on opening day; honeybees are – sorry – abuzz with excitement, as they can finally leave the hive.
And all of us will smile when we pass the first crocus of the year, just opening now. Happy spring. And for our Persian readers, Happy New Year.