21 March 2012

All in a Name - A Closer Look at Spring

In northern latitudes, most of us wait for spring with increasing anticipation, suffering the late storms and cheering the increasingly sunny days.  We likely pull out our rubber boots, and start thinking about gardens, walks and bike rides, and the return of migratory birds. Globally, the beginning of the season, and the word itself, involve a complex layering of cultures, calendars and word origins.
American Robin (Turdus migratorius) takes advantage of
a spring afternoon a nearby Quebec City park.  
- Photo by Jerod Merkle

For many cultures around the world, the first day of spring coincides with new year celebrations, indicating its importance in tradition and ways of life. This date varies, starting in January for some, such as Tamil, Vietnamese, and some India-based cultures. In northern climes, the arrival of spring varies depending on latitude and year-to-year weather patterns. In slightly lower latitudes, the February holiday of Candlemas sometimes marks the first day of spring, as is the case in Ireland and southern regions in the U.S.A. Yet others, including Canadians and the Persian culture, mark the date of the vernal equinox, around March 21. In contrast, for the lower regions of the Southern Hemisphere, the accepted date is September 1st.

The online Oxford English Dictionary boasts five definitions for the word as a verb, and another five as a noun.  Etymological studies suggest the word spring was first used to identify this season in the 1540s. Spring replaced an older word of Germanic origins, lent or lengten, which likely referred to the increasing day length in the Northern Hemisphere. Earlier in the 1500s, the season had been identified by descriptive phrases: ‘springing time,’ the ‘spring of the year,’ and ‘spring of the leaf.’  Similarly, the current French term, printemps, is derived from the Latin tempus primum, which translates as ‘first time’ or ‘first season.’  

Locally, our recognition of spring corresponds with phenology, the study of cyclical natural changes based on seasonal temperature and weather. The word is based on phenomenon, from Latin and Greek words meaning ‘to show’ or ‘to appear.’  These life cycle events, displayed by plants and animals, herald the end of winter, and the beginning of the growing season. For example, we may not keep track of dates, but we do notice longer days, more birdsong, and the development of leaf buds. Historically, various enthusiasts, scientists, and organizations made a practice of recording phenological activity, such as noting the first leaf appearance of maple trees, or when the first cardinal was observed each year.  

Today, several networks exist in North America, Europe, and elsewhere, which encourage citizen scientists, amateurs or non-professionals, to submit observations. The resulting databases can be used for scientific study related to ecology, botany, climatology and more.  Such activities can be very interesting for adults and children, and often lead to increased personal awareness of the local ecosystem.

Curious, or think you would like to participate?  If you are in the U.S.A., take a look at Project BudBurst. If in Canada, your best bet is NatureWatch. Both are fun, well-organized phenology programs.  NatureWatch offers four projects, FrogWatch, IceWatch, PlantWatch, and WormWatch. Project BudBurst and PlantWatch are similar - they recommend selecting a specific plant, such as a tree outside your home. You then observe it throughout the growing season and submit your records to the national online database. This enables you to keep track of subtle changes, such as when leaf buds develop, when the leaves form, when the tree flowers, and so on. Even autumnal changes, such as yellowing and leaf drop, are of interest in these projects.
Willows starting to bloom display their signature flower, more commonly known as the “pussywillow.” 
This year, spring officially began March 20th. I plan to celebrate by drafting a list of things to plant in the garden this year.  I think I might also sign up for NatureWatch - there is a maple tree in front of my house worth tracking through its cycle this year.  If you join the NatureWatch or Project BudBurst, or do something similar, tell us how it goes. And, we’re curious - what will you be doing to celebrate the coming of spring? Let us know in the comments section below, or on the fruit.root.leaf. Facebook page.


AnnOnandON said...

Very informative post.  I would love to participate in Nature Watch, more importantly I think it is something more people should know about.  Being involved brings more of a connection. 
Just the idea of seeing my first robin of the year or witnessing a budding crocus brings a smile to my face.   Happy Spring Bethann!

MB said...

 Ça alors, le printemps a débuté le 20 mars cette année, et je n'étais même pas au courant ! Pour une raison qui m'échappe, j'ai toujours cru que le printemps démarrait systématiquement le 21 mars de chaque année jusqu'à l'été le 21 juin, et ainsi de suite. Un tour sur Wikipédia m'a appris beaucoup sur les équinoxes...

Quand à trépigner d'impatience avant l'arrivée de cette saison, et bien... Comment dire ? Je crois que ça n'a jamais été aussi peu le cas que depuis notre arrivée à Québec. Pour au moins deux raisons (complémentaires d'ailleurs) : l'hiver ouvre ici tellement d'opportunités que j'ai rarement envie qu'il se finisse rapidement (contrairement à la France où l'hiver ne sert à rien, à part dans les montagnes) et le printemps est par contraste la saison que je trouve la moins intéressante ici, entre mauvais temps et fonte des neiges (alors qu'en France, après un hiver très doux, le printemps est une période vraiment agréable). Bref, vivement l'été :)


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