On 20th March, Google will have a jolly design on its front page and announce that it is the vernal equinox and therefore the first day of spring in the northern hemisphere. It will slightly annoy me.
I get easily annoyed these days. Cars (drivers) messing up the grass are just a tiny part of it. All sorts of things can wind me up, and it takes an effort keep my inner VIctor Meldrew in check. Sometimes I don’t feel like making the effort.
Astronomers note the winter and summer solstices on about the 21st of December and June, when the sol is stationary in the sense that it doesn’t climb higher or lower in relation to the days either side of that date. Then there are the equinoxes in March and September, when the earth’s equator is broadside on to the sun, and everywhere on the planet gets an equal nox or night of twelve hours. Astronomically it makes sense to say that the equinox is the beginning of spring. It makes better sense to say that the equinox is the middle of spring, but no one does that.
Meteorologists divide the year into four approximate seasons, and in the UK December to February are considered winter months, March to May are spring, and so on. 1st of March is, obviously, the first day of spring, as well as being St David’s Day.
From the point of view of things that grow and emerge, which is what the word spring seems to refer to, then it varies. Some years frogs spawn mainly in February, some years in March. Catkins can be seen from January onwards, and snowdrops may be out before New Year (but I think of them as winter flowers more than spring flowers), and insects will fly whenever the temperature climbs high enough for them – about 15 degrees, usually.
It’s these annual happenings that need a name, so I prefer to think of spring as a variable, local and often fitful event.
Behind the different approach that divides Google and me, I think that there also lies a different way of thinking. I’m happy for spring to be as vague as lunchtime or childhood. Google wants to tie it to a (not, in fact, quite precisely) predictable astronomical event and to be able to tell everyone when the first day is.
Does Google represent the tidy-minded brigade, and do I represent the near-enough-for-jazz approach? Yes, but why do the tidy-minded love precision, and the casual find that slightly annoying?
I think it comes down to the fear of being wrong. None of us likes being wrong, certainly not anyone who went to school. There are two ways of avoiding being wrong. You can, like Google with spring, decide what the right answer is and make sure you know it – and everyone else too; that helps. Such an approach is slightly threatened by those, like me, who question whether the supposed right answer really is absolutely right. If you avoid being wrong by making sure you know the right answer, then you don’t want someone undermining your effort to know the right answer by questioning whether it is the right answer, or the only right answer.
The other way to avoid being wrong is to declare that there is no right and wrong. Spring is local and variable, and it might start and then leave us all in a bit more winter for a while, and that’s OK by me. This is a more radical and comprehensive way to avoid being wrong. If there is no wrong, then you can’t be wrong. It’s sticking to your guns that’s tricky. It’s the ‘that’s OK by me’ which is the weak point.
I walked the dog without my gloves on this morning. It just wasn’t that cold. I might put them away in the cupboard. ‘You fool!’ shouts Google. ‘Don’t you know it’s still four weeks before spring starts?’ And perhaps I have made a mistake, and perhaps I will feel foolish. So when Google does its thing on 20th March I will feel just a little vulnerable, and thus annoyed.
As pre-emptive self-protection I therefore do as Google does, and trumpet the start of crocus purpled spring, in the hope that saying it makes it true.
(I should point out that this post isn’t really about the seasons. It’s about God, truth, morality, politics and all that stuff.)