Notes on Spring – and St. Patrick’s Day

It’s spring! Perhaps not according to the calendar, but last week I went in search of spring and found the first shoots of tulips emerging from the ground after a long winter of dormancy. The emergence was about a week and a half behind schedule but I’ll take it.

This year, spring, or more precisely, the vernal equinox, will officially happen at 5:21 p.m., MDT, on Sunday, March 20. As it happens, there is a full moon on the evening of Saturday, March 19. That explains why Easter, this year, will fall on April 24, which is just about as late as it can get.

Easter, according to centuries-long tradition, is observed the first Sunday after the first full moon after the vernal equinox.

The last time Easter fell on April 24 was in 1859 and it won’t happen again until 2095. The latest possible date is April 25, which last occurred in 1943, and will happen again in 2038. This year, Orthodox churches will observe Easter on the same date as the western churches

Other signs of spring? Unless you slept through it, we went on daylight time this past Sunday, and we’ll remain on daylight time until Sunday, November 6. If you’ve been annoyed these last few days by people wondering why you’re always an hour late for everything you may want to check your alarm clock.

For added confusion, we should note that March 1 is considered the first day of meteorological spring. Meteorological spring goes back to 1780 when an early organization for meteorology (study of weather) designated March 1 as the first day of spring, grouping each season into three calendar months. That actually goes back to the ancient Roman calendar in which the year began on March 1, which was also considered the first day of spring.

Actually, meteorological seasons make more sense than marking the seasons based on equinoxes and solstices. This way, summer begins on June 1, autumn on September 1, and winter on December 1.  In Europe, for example, the summer solstice isn’t the beginning of summer; that shortest night of the year is Mid-Summer’s Night.

Of course, tomorrow is St. Patrick’s Day, that annual celebration of Irish heritage and nonsense. Most of Montana’s colleges and universities are on spring break this week and that’s known to be a factor in raising the nonsense level in Butte’s celebration. Personally I’ve often tried to make a point to either go skiing or fishing on St. Patrick’s Day, depending on the weather. It’s safer that way.

Nevertheless, we’ll have corned beef and cabbage for dinner and maybe we’ll tell an Irish joke or two. Here’s one you might enjoy.

An Irishman, Kevin, and an American, Clint, are sitting in the bar at Cork Airport supping Guinness.

“I’ve come to meet my brother,” says Kevin. “He’s due to fly in from Chicago in an hour’s time. It’s his first trip home in 40 years.”

“Will you be able to recognize him?” asks Clint.

“I’m sure I won’t,” responds Kevin, “after all, he’s been away for a long time.”

“I wonder if he’ll recognize you?” questions Clint.

“Of course he will,” replies Kevin. “Sure, an’ I haven’t been away at all.”

A lot of Irish stories have a touch of gallows humor, likely a way Irish people tried to cope with the many hardships of life in Ireland, such as the poverty and starvation during the potato famine years. Between famine and the English, death was often close. So, I’ll close with this one.

Dermot McCann opened the morning newspaper and was dumbfounded to read in the obituary column that he had died.  He quickly phoned his best friend Reilly. “Did ye see the paper?’ asked Dermot. “They say I died.”

”Yes, I saw it,” replied Reilly. “And where did you say you’re calling from?”

Spring on the Montana Calendar

Spring happens, and it will officially happen at 11:32 a.m. (MDT) on this Saturday, March 20, marking the moment when the sun will pass over the equator, marking the equinox, when hours of daylight and darkness are approximately equal around the world.

For the next three months the hours of daylight in the northern hemisphere will continue to increase until we reach the Summer Solstice on June 21, when the process reverses and daylight hours will shorten.

The varying hours of daylight and our seasons are due to the 23.4-degree tilt in the Earth’s axis. In the coming months the northern hemisphere tilts toward the sun, receiving more direct sunshine, and after the fall equinox, we will tilt away from the sun. This, of course, gives us seasons, and makes it possible to grow gardens and crops at this latitude.

While the season officially begins on Saturday, signs of spring start much earlier, of course. At our house, I plant garlic in a vegetable plot along the south side of our house every October. Right on schedule, the first shoots popped through their cover of mulch on March 1. A few days later, tulips emerged as well. At our high elevation and cold, dry climate, it’ll be awhile before we can do much serious gardening, but some things are up and growing.

A week and a half ago, I spent a couple days in Billings, and enjoyed being able to walk around outside in a short-sleeve shirt, and noted that grass was beginning to green up in spots. That, of course, is not typical this early in the year. Returning to Butte in a snowstorm was more in line with the seasons.

Another sign of spring is birds returning north from their winter homes. According to Montana Fish, Wildlife & Parks, snow geese began showing up in north central Montana a week ago. Freezeout Lake, between Fairfield and Choteau, is a major staging point for waterfowl, especially snow geese. If there is colder weather to the north, populations in the area can build up to over 100,000 geese, typically peaking near the end of March. It’s a favorite destination for birdwatchers every spring, just as it’s a fall favorite for waterfowl hunters. The sight of tens of thousands of snow geese filling the air is memorable.

FWP does note that people taking a trip to Freezeout should be careful about muddy roads. Those signs, so common in the Rocky Mountain Front country, that say, “Impassable when wet” don’t exaggerate. People who ignore those signs will, assuredly, be both older and wiser by the time they escape.

While we talk of spring, we shouldn’t forget that this is St. Patrick’s Day, and while my ethnic background is Norwegian, I’ve always enjoyed observing, to one extent or another, St Patrick’s Day, and a dinner of corned beef and cabbage will be on our table. A sentimental memory, perhaps, that much of Ireland was a Viking colony a thousand years ago. And we’ll close with an Irish joke.

Two leprechauns went to the convent and begged an audience with the mother superior. “Well, how can I help you little people?” asked Mother Superior. The larger and more intelligent looking of the leprechauns asked, “Oh Mother Superior, would you be knowing of any midget nuns here at the convent?” “No,” says Mother Superior, “I don’t have any midget nuns here at the convent”

“All right than, Mother Superior, would you be knowing of any midget nuns in all of Ireland then?” “No, no,” replied Mother Superior, “I don’t know of any nuns who are also midgets in all of Ireland at all.” “Well then, Mother Superior, in the whole world of all the nuns, would you be knowing, then, of any midget nuns?” “No, I would not; there are, to my knowledge, no midget nuns in the whole of the world!” replied Mother Superior, “and would you please tell me what this is all about?”

The asking leprechaun turned sadly to the stupid leprechaun and said, “See, it’s as I told you all along, you’ve been dating a penguin”