The Weeks of Winter

Happy Groundhog’s Day.  The news reports that the various prognosticating groundhogs cannot agree on whether winter has or has not ended.  Maybe they can’t agree on whether it’s started.  I’m not sure human-groundhog communication is all that sophisticated.

Yesterday was the Imbolc, the Celtic feast of pregnant ewes, a harbinger of spring soon to come.  There are no ewes, pregnant or otherwise, in my vicinity (no groundhogs either, for that matter), so I can’t report on their gestational progress.

I did hear a phoebe sing outside my window Tuesday and again this morning.  The phoebe’s song is one of my favorite voices of spring, but it shouldn’t arrive here for another six weeks.

The window of days likely below-zero temperatures is six weeks long; two of those weeks still remain, but we’ve only had a few days when the thermometer dipped below zero.  Yesterday afternoon was in the high forties.  There’s no snow on the ground and my snow shovels rest in a corner of the front porch, unused.

The Vermont Beekeepers Association held its winter meeting last week, weather talk dominated there, too.  A warm winter isn’t necessarily a good thing for bees, as they are more active, flying out in search of unavailable pollen, which can lead to consuming their honey stores at faster rate and shortening their life spans, which may reduce colony size in the crucial weeks before the first brood of the season hatch.  Last summer in the Champlain Valley was brutal for bees.  Many colonies (mine included) died and nucleus colonies for sale are few and expensive.

One beekeeper that has a horse-drawn sleigh reported he has yet to take it out this winter.  “I’ve never gone this late before.  I’ve had to return $3,000 worth of checks to people who’d prepaid for rides.  I had the trail all groomed last week, then this,” he said, making an upward gesture with his hand, meaning the rain that had come in the three previous days.  “I ought to just give up.”

Chickadees, sparrows and a female cardinal frequent the new feeder.  Haven’t seen the phoebe there yet.  Squirrels have learned to jump straight down on it from the porch roof in a Mission Impossible-style maneuver that succeeds in maybe one of five attempts.  I try not to dwell on that as I consider backyard squirrel obsession a sign of advancing age.

My New Year’s resolution was to pay more attention to day-to-day weather.  What a year to pick that one.  Last month, I said that I think by looking at a photo of northwestern Vermont, I could tell which week of winter it was taken.  Not this year.  It has seemed like the first week of April for the past three weeks.

There’s still the winter light for me to use to gauge the date.  It’s not exactly weather, but it changes day to day.  The time of dawn and dusk, the angle of the late afternoon sun, the particular peak of the Adirondacks behind which I see it sink, should I be fortunate enough to be walking lakeside as it sets.

Vernal equinox is still seven weeks away.  By the calendar, most of winter is still ahead of us, regardless of what groundhogs say or don’t say.  I don’t know what that means in our post-agricultural society.  It may be going the way of Imbolc.  Last autumn, I noted my neighbors lighting bonfires on the first Sunday of standard time.  Daylight time, when modern people welcome the return of the light, is five weeks away.  It might be time to plan a new ritual.

© Mark Floegel, 2012

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