Perceptibly, there seem to be more than just four seasons, as we experience the gradual changes of the natural world through the cycle of the year. In Japan there’s an ancient system of 72 micro-seasons, each one shifting every 5 days, to reflect the refined gradations of both ecological and cultural change over time. That’s quite a leap forward from four, but each year I’m aware of distinctive transitional periods between the main seasons.
Although the shortest of all months, February holds one such seasonal segue: one foot firmly rooted in winter, one toe dipping into spring waters. At the time of writing, early February in Dorset, the skies are bright and clear – giving rise to frost-fettered, wintery mornings, whilst afternoons are sunny and palpably spring-like. I often wonder what to call this particular semi-season – ‘Winting’ perhaps, or ‘Sprinter’…? February’s duality of identity was poetically personified in Chambers Book of Days, published in 1866:
‘Everywhere there are now signs that the reign of Winter is nearly over: even when he dozes he can no longer enjoy his long sleep, for the snow melts as fast as it falls, and he feels the rounded buds breaking out beneath him.’
Meteorologically, February is generally considered to be the last of three winter months, due to its prevalently cold weather conditions. So the start of spring is correspondingly equated with the beginning of March; or even the spring equinox (21 March). However, the 1st of February is a full six weeks after the peak darkness of winter solstice, and as day length continues to increase through the month, the signs of spring are already unfolding in nature – returning light gives birth to new life. Croaking frogs spawn in garden ponds, whilst below ground, badgers give birth in sunken setts. Here and there are the first flutterings of coloured wings, as sunny spells conjure butterflies out of their winter hibernation – if we’re lucky, it will be the auspicious gold of a Brimstone.
Folklore and traditions follow suit with the natural world, where the beginning of February is regarded as the inception of spring. In the ancient Celtic calendar, 1st February was celebrated as the festival of Imbolc – translating as ‘in the belly or ‘in milk’. It marked the onset of lambing season, the re-starting of the farming year in pastoral communities. In Ireland, the same date is still widely celebrated as St Brigid’s Day, with the Christian saint echoing an older pagan goddess, but continuing to personify the purity and energy of early spring – her name itself means ‘vigour and virtue’.
In the Church calendar, 2nd February is known as Candlemas Day, when candles were blessed in church. Before artificial lighting, candles had strong significance as both practical light-bringers and symbols of the incipient light of spring. In medieval times, Candlemas marked the official date to bring down Christmas decorations and yuletide greenery bringing to an end midwinter festivity (much later than 6th January date we now use!). It’s also the day to foretell which seasonal weather conditions will prevail during the rest of the month:
If Candlemas Day be fair and bright,
Winter will have another fight;
If Candlemas day be cloud and rain,
Winter won’t come again.
The name February takes comes from ‘Februa’ – a Roman ritual of purification which took place around this month’s full moon – and led to our notion of spring cleaning. Birch brooms, often called besoms, are traditionally made at this time of year; excellent sweeping devices, as well as fun to fashion for yourself. Take the opportunity to put your ear to the bark of a young birch tree and listen to its rising sap bubbling up – a soft and secretive song of early spring…
This is the day birds choose their mates, and I choose you if I’m not too late!
Appealingly, the sounds of garden songbirds are increasingly heard during February, as winter wrens and resident robins are joined by a chorus of blackbirds, song thrushes and other neighbourhood carollers finding their voices again. Some say spring begins on Saint Valentine’s Day, 14th February, and in folklore it is when birds choose their mates; as popularised in verse by Chaucer’s Parliament of Fowls. In medieval times, Valentine’s Day became associated with romance and courtship, inspired by the cooing and calling of ‘love-birds’. Traditionally, it’s the day to foretell future husbands from the first bird seen that morning, for instance:
• a goldfinch indicates a rich spouse
• a sparrow means a poor man
• a robin signifies a sailor.
From its first stirrings in February, spring stretches out slowly into the most elongated of all the seasons, with many micro-seasons and magical moments along the way. A time when many of us eagerly anticipate the anniversary of flowering plants, or scan the skies for returning wings.
What are your annually anticipated signs of spring?
For me, each February, I strain my ears to hear the first two-tone tune of a Chiffchaff – resonantly proclaiming: sing-spring, sing-spring! And I daily check the hedge bank outside my house for the first flowers of Lesser Celandine, shining like miniature suns against the dark, dead leaves of the old year. Officially, 21 February is known as Celandine Day, based on the date that Gilbert White recorded them flowering in his Hampshire village of Selbourne. These days, however, they often appear considerably earlier. Recent studies suggest that many natural ‘spring events’ now happen nearly a month in advance of when they did just forty years ago. It highlights the importance of personally noticing and noting the signs of spring each year, to help calibrate shifts due to our changing climate. Witnessing such changes for ourselves, first-hand and in our own particular patch, can be the first step in caring, and sharing, about what is happening in the wider world. Furthermore, through intentionally marking the passing seasons, we allow ourselves us to regularly reconnect with the natural world and gain a sense of reciprocity. As the seasons change, so they change us.