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Musings about March

Bill Meredith

For, lo, the winter is past; the rain is over and gone;
The flowers appear on the earth; the time of the singing of birds is come,
And the voice of the turtle is heard in our landÖ..The Song of Songs

March began with a warm, sunny day, and as I walked to the post office I reflected that it was coming in like a lamb. The next day the Weather Channel informed us that we were in for the biggest blizzard of the winter, and it appeared that we were facing a devious lion instead of a lamb; but most of the storm missed us. A week later, "snow and wintry conditions" were predicted for March 8, but when I went out to get the paper around 7:00 a.m. the sun was shining. The ground was still frozen and the remains of snow from the Blizzard That Wasnít still covered a good bit of the yard; but the temperature was already in the mid-30ís and headed for 50. A male cardinal was perched on the highest branch of the maple tree, singing a genuine territorial song, and a few floors below his wife was listening with new interest. A month ago, it still would have been dark at that hour, and the cardinalís vocabulary would have been limited to aggressive chirps as he chased his wife away from the feeder. Lamb or lion, spring was definitely on the way.

In the face of all this, I decided March is not really devious. Schizophrenic would be a better description; it seems pre-designed for madness. Itís part winter and part spring; it has an equinox, but wears it in the middle of the month instead of the beginning, where logically it should be. It comes in like a lion and goes out like a lamb, or vice versa, and never seems sure which itís doing at any particular time. It has a Kalendria, a Nones, and an Ides; some other months have these too, but seem to handle them more sanely. It has sun, rain, snow, sleet, thunder and hail, all accompanied by wind. It has mad hares and mad basketball tournaments. It has a long and checkered history, having endured gods, emperors, saints and the Internal Revenue Service. The only suggestion of sanity is that it also has spring training for baseball.

In ancient Rome the year began with the vernal equinox, the time when the sun stands directly over the equator. Of course no one knew that in those days; they didnít even know there was an equator. But they did know that the day and night were equal in length on that date, and the weather was notably more clement afterwards, so it made sense to start the new year then. The first month of the year was named March in honor of Mars, the Roman god of war, which seems a bit odd to me; I would have thought theyíd name it after the god-in-chief, Juno, but for reasons of their own they saved him for later in the year. Certain days in March (and in a few other months) were marked for distinction by special names: the first day was called Kalendria, obviously the source of our English word, Calendar. The 7th was Nones, which sounds more like the Latin for 9; Iíve no idea why it was singled out, but thereís no modern derivative so I guess it isnít worth pursuing. The 15th was Ides, which Shakespeare made famous by warning Julius Caesar to beware of it. Incidentally, April did not have either an Ides or a god-parent; its name simply means "second month."

The old Roman calendar was based on 28-day lunar months. Unfortunately, one solar year cannot be divided evenly into lunar months, so they had to keep adjusting the calendar to keep summer events from moving into winter, and vice versa. This annoyed Julius Caesar, so a few years before his fatal encounter with the Ides he created the Julian Calendar, from which we get our present arrangement of 30- and 31-day months. Caesar inserted two new months before March, bringing it to its present position in the year. The foreboding quality of the Ides of March carried on into our own era; taxpayers of my age will recall that the IRS originally set March 15 as the deadline for filing tax returns. It was just a few decades ago that the government took mercy on procrastinators and moved it to April.

March seems to be a suitable month in which to honor St. Patrick. As far as I know, he personally was sane enough, but the day named in his honor seems to bring out madness. Someone-- was it Will Rogers?-- said that on March 17, everybody who is anybody is a McSomebody. People who are perfectly normal the rest of the year succumb to the urge to wear green hats and clothes, paint their faces and dye their hair green, put green food coloring in their beer, and weep green tears whenever someone sings "Danny Boy." I usually draw the line at a green necktie and jacket, but at least I can claim some legitimacy; my great-great grandfather, Peter Brown, was born on a ship en route from Ireland to the U.S. in the 1840ís. My grandfather honored his heritage by always planting his potatoes on St. Patrickís Day (except when it fell on Sunday), and in his memory, I always plant at least one potato on that day. Last yearís reward for this bit of madness was a crop of 11 potatoes, as I recall.

The only hares we have in this country are the jackrabbits of the southwest and the snowshoe hares of the north; our cottontail rabbits belong to a different branch of the family. In England, where true hares do exist, the expression, "Mad as a March hare," was coined to describe their behavior this time of year. The increasing day length around the time of the equinox stimulates the hormonal systems of hares, as well as most other animals, to start reproductive activity. Of course it makes biological sense to have the young born as early in the spring as possible; but the way hares go about it defied the logic of country folk who observed them. The secretive habits they have observed the rest of the year are abandoned. The hazard of being exposed to predators is ignored, as both sexes chase each other relentlessly and noisily. Males engage in spectacular fights in which they hop about on their hind legs like miniature kangaroos, boxing with their forepaws and occasionally delivering potentially lethal kicks. Modern ethologists know these actions establish territories and individual dominance, as well as stimulating the last stages of reproductive maturity; but to observers who saw them centuries ago, insanity seemed the only explanation.

After a severe winter, March was welcome this year in spite of its vagaries. Faith and patience were rewarded; once again, the flowers came forth from the earth. Crocuses came out on schedule, and tulips and daffodils are awake and getting ready. House finches, cardinals and Carolina wrens are singing; grackles are trying to. We donít have turtle doves around here, but mourning doves are an adequate substitute; their voices are heard in our land. Spring is hereóthe best time of the year. Donít miss it.

Read other articles by Bill Meredith