February is a maligned month. For all its detractors, February has much to offer: traditional celebrations and the subtle reddening and swelling of shad buds are among the offerings. The February moniker hales from the Roman words februum and februa, relating to festivals of purification, of light, and of preparation for spring. There was a time when February was the last month of the year, marking the end of a year of seasons.
Of course, a year is not linear, it is cyclic. But, we humans have a penchant for looking at the whole in discrete units: days, weeks, months, years, decades. For a millennium, at least, our lives and social constructs have been ruled, and named, in accordance with earth’s elliptical, and tilted passage around the sun. It seems that every culture – regardless of where on earth or when through the ages – has marked time with a system that acknowledges shifts in nature’s activity related to length of day and denoted by moon phases.
It is interesting to note the similar and related origins of many old — some ancient — season-changing traditions. Candlemas is a medieval Christian celebration that falls on February 2, half way between winter solstice and vernal equinox. It is a festival of purification and preparation for the strengthening light of spring. It is not a coincidence that the relatively modern U.S. tradition of Groundhog Day (where the groundhog’s shadow, or lack thereof, predicts the coming of spring) also falls on February 2. Traditions are not as staid as one might think, they have a tendency – a necessity – to evolve and shape-shift to meet the current needs of a society.
This year (2021) February 12, will mark the Chinese New Year – the year of the Ox. The Chinese tradition is that the new year starts with the first new moon that falls between January 21 and February 20. (This year the new moon occurs on Feb. 11 at 7:06 p.m. Universal Time: on the U.S. east coast that is Feb. 11 at 2:06 p.m., and in Beijing on Feb. 12 at 3:06 a.m.)
In many cultures it is the new moon (not the full moon) that is named and recognizes nature’s prominent features. Like the Chinese, this is true for many North American indigenous nations. Here in the U.S., February’s New Moon falls on February 11. Of course, each nation will have different names for the new moon depending on the environmental conditions unique to their lands. For the Cherokee, February’s new moon will be the Hungry Month Moon.
Because of the effects of a changing and warming climate, Block Island Februarys are hard to predict. In the past, the late month January thaw would mark a lessening of winter’s grip: some old timers would say of the January thaw, the back of winter is broken. And, February would generally undulate between sloppy winter storms and the creeping in of morning bird song. However, in recent years, February has felt more like winter than a harbinger of spring.
In spite of the changing world that we live in, the island will likely have a few February indicators of the coming spring that will be worthy of Candlemas/ Groundhog Day/New Year-like celebrations.
• Watch for the reddening of shad and bayberry buds that will halo the winter gray landscape.
• Listen for the first trill of the red-winged blackbirds around February 10.
• Witch hazel will be blooming.
• The lowest clamming tide will be at 2:30 p.m. on February 28.
• Over the month of February, we will gain just over a half hour of sunlight at both sunrise and sunset.
• And, the night sky will still be full with the presence of Orion, Taurus, Sirius, the Pleiades (our winter constellations) and a conjunction of planets.
To all readers of this column, Block Island is likely a special place. An ecosystem to be honored and protected. A place where little changes can make big differences. As we use February to launch a renewed rotation of the months and seasons let us have traditions that reflect this place. On Block Island, get ready to celebrate the transitions of February with its new moon – the Red-winged Blackbird Moon.