"First Signs of Spring"
- along a wilderness trail -
Most people who live in America probably know that today is “Groundhog Day,” a lighthearted holiday when we look to see what happens as a cute little creature, “Punxsutawney Phil,” emerges from his hole in the ground. Whether or not he sees his shadow determines how much longer winter will last or if it will it be an early spring.
Obviously most people don’t take “Groundhog Day” all that seriously and February 2nd is hardly viewed through a spiritual lens, but ancient peoples had a bit of a different take about what was going on this day, at this time of year. For agrarian people like the ancient Celts, February 2nd was actually celebrated as a deeply spiritual time in the annual cycle of life, today was the first day of Spring.
Ancient people recognized the onset of lactation in the ewes at this time of year and so they knew that the spring lambs would soon be born. Our ancient ancestors were so in tune with the earth that they sensed a stirring in the trees, the sap was about to run as the earth was waking up from its long winter’s sleep. For our ancient ancestors today was a “holy day.” Deep in their spirits they resonated with that waking-up earth, and so this was a day to celebrate new hope and new life.
In a somewhat similar fashion, the Christian church also has a sense that this day is the beginning of new life returning to earth, and so on the Christian calendar, February 2nd is celebrated as Candlemas Day - candles are blessed and lit to celebrate the return of the light after a long, dark, cold winter
In our our own popular culture, February 2nd has virtually lost any spiritual meaning, instead today we jokingly fix our gaze on a cartoon-like character who predicts how long the winter will last. And yet, when I look around me it seems like lots of people are anxious and nervous, lots of people are feeling the effects of a long cold winter- spiritually, physically, politically. So, maybe we should take “Groundhog Day” a bit more seriously. This is a good day to be more attuned to the “waking up’ of the natural world and a good day for all of us to wake up with it.
Scientist and ecologist, Thomas Berry, observed:
Ancient peoples lived in a universe, in a cosmological order.
Today we no longer live in a universe,
we live in a political world, a nation, a business world, an economic order.
We live in cities of concrete and steel, in a world of business and work,
highways and parking lots and shopping centers.
We no longer see the stars at night or the planets or the moon.
Winter and Spring are the same inside a mall.
Personally, I find great truth in this observation. Human beings belong to a world of nature, we are rooted in the natural world, but in our own times we have lost touch with those roots and instead we have created and live in an artificial world of machines and technology. In this artificial world we become desensitized to the flow of nature, unaware of the stirrings of new life happening in the earth. The earth waking up no longer resonates within our own spirits and because of this our humanity is diminished.
I am reminded of something the poet, William Kitteredge, once said:
We evolved in nature.
Isolate human beings from the natural world for too long
and we start getting nervous, unmoored,
driven to thoughtless ambitions and easy cruelties.
Yesterday as I walked on a wilderness trail outside our house, I was thrilled to come upon a desert tree that had begun to sprout the first yellow blossoms of spring – it felt so fresh and so renewing. I realize that many people live in places where the snow is still falling and the earth is cold and frozen, and yet just beneath the surface the earth is beginning to rouse from its slumber. So, regardless of where any of us live, maybe we all could make “Groundhog Day” a holy day, a day of celebrating the new life that is about to return again, a good day to let the waking earth stir within our own drooping spirits
I came across a beautiful Celtic prayer/poem for this holy day:
A sleeping world emerges to new possibilities,
weakening winters icy grip,
and birdsong and bleating lamb
announce to all the promise
that in due season
creation bursts into life.
And whilst leaves that fell in winter
lie upon the ground to feed the earth
in nature’s wondrous cycle
of death and rebirth,
within the tree is a stirring of new growth.