By Bill Lawyer

The winter days may be cloudy — not sunny. And for some of us, the new tax laws say we’re out of the money. But one thing we know is on our side is the slow but steady increase in the amount of daylight coming our way. Thank you Mother Nature!

This is due to the fact that our beloved blue planet rotates around the sun at an angle. The equinoxes, and our seasons, are caused by the earth orbiting the sun and the earth’s tilt.

Earth is tilted 23.5 degrees on its vertical axis. During spring and summer, the northern hemisphere is tilted towards the sun. How did the earth get tilted? And can it happen again?

Clark Wilson, a geophysicist at the University of Texas at Austin, says earth’s tilt came about some four and a half billion years ago.

“Back then, a lot of dust and rocks were floating around and crashing into each other. That debris eventually stuck together to form the planets,” notes Wilson.

“That process is a little messy, and in the case of the earth, probably led to some big impacts that eventually tilted the axis to what it is: 23 degrees. One of those big impacts, for example, ejected a lot of debris that eventually coalesced to form the moon.”

Wilson says it’s unlikely to happen again.

Long before geophysics came along, humans developed some theories of their own.

In Celtic folklore, a special holiday, <Imbolc>, celebrates the passage of the mid-point between the start of winter and the beginning of spring.

The word literally means “in the belly”. The holiday is symbolized by the image of a young woman “wakening beneath the surface of the ground” — also an image of fertility, as the soil warms up and planting begins.

In the Christian era, the same mid-season holiday was known as Candlemas.

According to Celtic scholar Nora Chadwick, the connection between the sun and human behavior go back to the Neolithic era. A number of Stonehenge-type monuments can be found all around Ireland. One such example is the Mound of the Hostages on the Hill of Tara, where the inner chamber is aligned with the rising sun on the dates of <Imbolc> and <Samhain>, the mid-point between fall and winter.

The simple explanation is that throughout history people have had enough of cold, dreary weather by the time they reach the halfway point.

The weather may not be any better, but at least the days are significantly longer than they were 40 days earlier — both in the morning (11 minutes in Rye) and the evening (42 minutes).

In our area, the month with the highest average snowfall is February, with 8.8 inches. The yearly average is 25.

But February has its rewards — a few native plants (witch hazel shrubs and skunk cabbage, to name two) begin flowering in February. Witch hazel has strange, twisted yellow flowers, which some people confuse with spicebush.

Skunk cabbage has distinctive wide leaves and a putrid smell (but don’t take my word for it, check for yourself). It grows in wet areas that are often covered by water when the spring rains arrive.

So cheer up and get out there and smell the skunk cabbage.


Skunk cabbage flower

Witch hazel shrub