Over the next few days, the early candidates for the First Day of Spring line up one after the other:
Imbolc, usually celebrated on 1st February. The Gaelic season whose name is thought to derive from the pregnancy of ewes (“in-belly”), or Old Irish Imb-fholc (“to cleanse oneself”), or from even earlier roots to mean “budding”.
St. Brigid’s Day, originally the Imbolc festival celebrating the original Brigid, a pagan goddess. When the Christian saint Brigid of Kildare came along in the 6th century, the two identities we fused, and the Saint was allocated Imbolc as her feast-day.
German immigrants imported a pre-Christian tradition of early February weather prognostication, to the USA, where Groundhog Day on 2 February is reckoned to be more fun than the Candlemas it has largely replaced. Groundhog Day/Candlemas is also the global celebration of World Wetlands Day, which I also think of as San Blas Eve. The following day, on 3 February, is San Blas when, according to the Spanish saying, la cigüeña verás – you’ll see the stork. “If he don’t show, plenty more snow.” A silken (cloudless) sky on San Blas morning, means a good year for vines, while planting garlic on San Blas Day is guaranteed to yield seven times as much at harvest: Por San Blas, ajete: mete uno, saca siete.
Ecologists recognise six seasons in the temperate zone, including one that bridges winter (hibernal) and spring (vernal). The Prevernal is that time when carolling birds and nebular midges happily delude themselves that winter is over, and we happily collude in the deception. After the wettest and warmest December and January since UK records began, we still await news of winter.
For me, this year I shall be celebrating World Wetlands Day in at least two globally-important Spanish wetlands: Laguna de Medina, near Cádiz, and the Coto Doñana. Then the next day, the first day of my spring, I’ll be looking for storks. I should see a few, I’ll be going to the biggest colony in the world, and they’re already nesting, I’m told.
Thanks for checking in with The Long Spring, a series of journeys I'll be making between now and the end of May that will take me from the coast of North Africa to well above the Arctic Circle. Spring is a time of celebration and anticipation throughout the temperate world. The dramatic changes from season to season have shaped our world and our cultures.
It has been a strange winter in my home country of the UK, with the wettest and warmest December and January since records began. More than 600 species of plant were recorded in flower at the turn of the year in the UK. In a normal cold winter, botanists would expect no more than 20 to 30 species to be in flower on New Year’s Day. From my study window in Yorkshire, a gorse bush is a reliable source of winter brightness, but this year, even this far north and at 200 metres, we have red campion in flower and hawthorn bursting into leaf.
The Botanical Society of Britain and Ireland (BSBI) undertakes an annual survey on 1 January, and this year, no fewer than 612 species were recorded in flower. Many are summer flowers that simply haven’t shut down for winter; others are spring flowers already bursting forth.
So it remains to be seen what spring will be like this year, and whether we’ll get much of a winter. What we do know, is that across Africa millions of birds are starting to anticipate the new season, and have already begun to head north. A few early arrivals may be poised at the gates of Europe already, so in two days time, I’m heading out there to find out.
Laurence Rose is a conservationist, writer and composer. He has worked for the RSPB since 1983.