Puxatawney Phil, the famous western PA groundhog, came up over a month ago and let us know that it would be an early spring. He saw no shadow, which according to the lore, means we in PA would experience the warmth, growth and energy of another spring a little earlier than might be expected. Of course, Phil’s predictions are subject to question: Groundhog Day is February 2, and there are always at least 6 more weeks until the vernal equinox and the beginning of the spring season. But I love the lore of Phil; I am a big fan of many folkloric and cultural traditions, and Phil grew out of the German cultures that came to Pennsylvania in the 1700's. For me, though, Phil is in no way a real indication of spring. For me there is no more reliable and powerful indicator of spring than the wonderful changes in the morning light that surrounds us.
I am an early morning walker. I like to get up between 5 and 6 and walk either north up to Chestnut Hill, south to Germantown, or west deeper into West Mt Airy. I love the quiet of that time; the stillness and the grandeur. I am also a lover of winter’s night skies-intense and dramatic as they are. That combination of waking and walking early and the presence of the winter night sky regularly bring me quiet joy and comfort. I love watching the slow change in the locations of the constellations over the course of a winter, and I love watching the moon cycle through its phases. Both of these celestial happenings seem so much starker and definite in winter. Watching the day come into being earlier and earlier as winter goes on is also fascinating. I notice the way shadows shift, the way light is reflected off rooftops and grass, and on some mornings I get to see this wonderful eerie rolling fog move over some of the larger expanses of lawns and streams. Around the last week in February that starts to change, however, and I have to adjust. It is lighter when I arise, and the sky at 5:30 is not quite as dark and dramatic as it was a week or so ago. The constellations are not as bright, and the light of the new day is visible earlier. It is a different sky now, and we are relentlessly transitioning from one season to the next. Part of me misses the old winter night sky; I almost go through a brief mourning period. Then I notice that at around 6: 15, if I am looking southeast, I can see the sun as a bright reddish-orange disk above the housetops and the day seems to rush into being, And if I am out for a nice long walk like I was this morning, I can watch that sun gradually become more and more visible and seemingly rise above us. This, too, is a glorious way to start the day.
So while I like the story of Phil and know that its origins are with Candlemas Day and the hedgehogs in Germany during the Roman era, it is the light that most alerts me that we are entering that next phase of the cycle of seasons. It lets me know exactly where we are in the cycle. It is undeniable. And when I am out noticing the light I also get to look at the lawns and I can notice the snowdrops and pansies as they make their first appearance of the year. I also get to notice more bird activity as species that have been around all winter get more active, and some new ones are starting to be heard. And watching the different colors and aspects of sunrise is a joy to behold. Yes, I still miss the winter night sky, and I probably will for a while. But I can also welcome this new sky, the one that tells me this marvelous cycle is still in play and that it has different joys and wonders for me if I pay attention. And that is very good indeed.