Tuesday, February 8, 2011

Almanac For Moderns: The Frayed End of Winter

February Fifth

The month of February has many fine points, and not the least of them that it is soonest over. Some months had to be distinctly shorter than the others, since twelve does not divide equally into the solar year of three hundred and sixty-five days, five hours, forty-eight minutes and forty-five seconds and fifty-one hundredths of a second. The rectification of the calendar has required not only leap years but an elaborate centenarian system of skipping leap years to split this knotty fraction. The only odd thing is that men should have chosen the second month to bear the irregularities. 

The fact is, of course, that February was the last month in the English calendar until 1752, and so it took of the year what was left over. I still think the old calendar was more satisfying. New Year resolutions die notoriously young, because the frayed end of winter wears down our souls. The gods have done what they could for February by putting in Washington's and Lincoln's birthdays, and St. Valentine's day, and so many birthdays of famous naturalists that the maker of this almanac is embarrassed by the wealth of his material, for secretly the sap is rising, hard little buds are forming, and his mind will be coaxed from the past as the days lighten.

For it is in the nature of things that the lowest ebb of the living year is also the most prescient and significant; it is, for the year, the instant of conception, that moment when forces fundamentally abstract determine what it is that shall be born alive when spring is at the full.

February Sixth

Winter is a guest that stays beyond its welcome and I am not complaining merely of cold and thaw, thaw and cold. I dislike the loneliness of winter, the flowerlessness of the ground. I miss the birds.

To those who honestly prefer a titmouse or a junco to mockingbirds and mourning doves, I have nothing to answer save that it raises my spirits mightily to remember that somewhere, throbbing on summery air, there are hummingbirds. The gorgeous whistling oriole, the scarlet tanager, the indigo bird, the wood thrush and the bobolink--they are all there in the south and in the tropics, waiting the appointed hour of return or perhaps already taking off. 

Before I sleep I close my eyes and try to think of them. I see the map of the continents outspread, in a bird's eye view, snow-wrapt at the north, brown still or faintly greening in the half-sleeping Carolinas, with palm-tipped Florida reaching out into the Gulf. From the West Indies slumbering in the Carribean, from the jungles of Orinoco and the pampas of Argentine, our own will return to us. It is long and long before their coming; the skies still ache for them. Yet they are astir, upon the move, dauntless, and forgiving us our trespasses against them.

More information on our Almanac For Moderns project and the work of Donald Culross Peattie can be found here.