At Large: Telltale signs of good old spring

I’m not worried about the mild winter and the early and heartening plunge into spring. I build my springlike disposition upon the dependability of the vernal equinox and the certainty that forces unimaginably greater than I have got things under control. At my level, things like the gas bill and when it will decline to a size no larger than the national debt worry me. Pre-equinox, I thought the moment to sand the bottom of the boat was months ahead. Now, I worry that I’ll never catch up to spring, and all the chores I had on my list of to-dos have been transferred to my list of ought-to-have-been-done-by-nows.

When spring began, shortly after 1 am Tuesday, it was really a virtual event, and most of us are just fine with that. Most of us don’t crave the scientific, astronomical, quantifiable, actual and replicable certainty that would come with knowing the precise moment that winter ended and spring began. We’re happy to rely on reports such as the one from Beldan Radcliffe, who heard spring’s first pinkletink chatter on March 7, thus dating the beginning of spring 2012.

Or, when I’m collecting one of Diesel the mastiff’s ground-shaking excrescences with the blue plastic doggie bag I take with us on our walks, and I notice a gathering of aspiring daffodils, up about six inches and leaning desperately away from the pile — I know that I’ve discovered a sure sign of spring.

And, what I’ve learned is that the informal spring signals I depend on are actually no more virtual than more highfalutin methods of calculating spring’s onset. A little research and you discover that precise astronomical science is about as precise as the varying accounts of what happened when the two cars met in the center of the intersection. Points of view matter. Spring is what you make of it and where you stand when you decide it has begun.

John Roach, writing for National Geographic News in an article entitled “First-Day-of-Spring-Myth-Busted,” throws the vernal equinox absolutely under the bus.

“But don’t be fooled by the old rumor that on the spring equinox the length of day is exactly equal to the length of night,” Mr. Roach writes. “The true days of day-night equality always fall before the vernal equinox and after the autumnal, or fall, equinox, according to Geoff Chester, a public affairs specialist with the U.S. Naval Observatory in Washington, D.C.

“‘Exactly when it happens depends on where you are located on the surface of the Earth,’ he said. By the time the center of the sun passes over the Equator — the official definition of equinox — the day will be slightly longer than the night everywhere on Earth. The difference is a matter of geometry, atmosphere, and language.

“If the sun were just a tiny point of light and Earth had no atmosphere, then day and night would each be exactly 12 hours long on a spring equinox day. But to begin with, as seen from Earth, the sun is nearly as large as a little fingertip held at arm’s length, or half a degree wide. Sunrise is defined as the moment the top edge of the sun appears to peek over the horizon. Sunset is when the very last bit of the sun appears to dip below the horizon.

“The vernal equinox, however, occurs when the center of the sun crosses the Equator. Plus, Earth’s atmosphere bends the sunlight when it’s close to the horizon, so the golden orb appears a little higher in the sky than it really is. As a result, the sun appears to be above the horizon a few minutes earlier than it really is. Therefore, on the first day of spring, the daylight hours are actually longer than the length of time between when the sun crosses the horizon at dawn and when the sun crosses the horizon at sunset. Those factors all combine to make the day of the equinox not the day when we have 12 hours of light and darkness, Chester said.”

But, if it’s 65 degrees, sunny, roughly the 20th of March, and the top of the plentiful Vineyard oaks display the subtle, but unmistakable red blush of early spring, I say, who cares about astronomical accuracy?

When the forsythia, in early, eager bloom, encourages us to believe that we don’t have long to wait. When crocuses greet you from beneath the south side of the stone wall and osprey sweep out the old summer place, pull the sheets off the furniture, and prepare for the kids to make their lives hell, it’s spring, and celestial equinoctial activity doesn’t dampen the mood.

Spring doesn’t enjoy only one, or even two, debuts each year. There’s meteorological spring, which began March 1, and there’s the vernal equinox, or astronomical spring. Then there’s the dirt road alert that spring’s arrived. When your dirt road has become pothole-ridden, littered with puddles large and small, and slippery as soap, winter’s over, and spring’s at hand.

Whether you get the news in the oak trees or from this shifty astronomical business, from the weather forecasters, from the forsythia, or even from the driveway, all signs point to spring, straight ahead, and thank goodness.