Updated: Mar 6
While strolling a wooded trail in a park near my home on a warm sunny afternoon recently, a sense of peace descended, despite being isolated from and missing the usual interactions with family, colleagues, and friends that contribute to both physical and mental well-being.
I now had the time, and incentive, to really see and really feel, the wonderful rebirth of nature occurring around me. In a world seemingly turned upside down, the earth’s axis is still constant and stable, bringing spring back right on schedule.
Spring has long been my favorite season, this year more than ever. Opportunities abound to seek inspiration and reprieve from the challenges we are all facing. And this day I had my camera with me, rediscovering a longtime but recently neglected passion for nature photography.
The isolation allowed concentration on crocuses popping through the forest floor, budding trees, and birds chirping away. The chorus was interrupted by the rhythmical rat-a-tat-tat of a woodpecker. From a nearby pond came the croak of a frog and murmurs of new life. Have you noticed how much higher in the sky the sun is from just a month ago? Daylight is also increasing more rapidly than at any other time of year. As I walk, the sun's warming late afternoon rays project wavering shadows as they pass through overhead trees and onto the ground, a delight captured by both eye and camera lens.
Returning home refreshed of body and spirit, I stepped out again following sunset on this first balmy evening of the new season. There are no restrictions on use of our backyards, and tonight this will serve as my observatory. In the west, the recently set sun cast rays upward to reflect colorful pink and violet hues from lingering cirrus clouds, providing still another photographic moment.
Even in bright twilight, the gibbous moon shines in the eastern sky, and Venus has emerged high in the west. You will seldom see Venus under better circumstances. The brightest celestial object after sun and moon will brighten even more over coming weeks as it draws closer to earth.
By late in April Venus’s disk will have grown large enough to be perceptible through powerful binoculars, and certainly the smallest of telescopes. Watch it into May as its disk narrows to a thin crescent. By late in May, Venus will be setting before the end of evening twilight as it rapidly migrates into a position in its orbit between the earth and sun, becoming lost to view by month’s end.
Soon, it is dark enough to spot Sirius, the brightest true star of our night sky. Most prominent during the frosty nights of winter, Sirius is now over in the southwest during early evening, setting around midnight.
More toward the west, Orion, the signature constellation of winter, is still visible for awhile. Betelgeuse, the normally bright star marking the left shoulder of the hunter, looks like it is on its way back. In October, Betelgeuse started a slow fade that lasted into February.
While a scientifically explainable phenomenon, Betelgeuse has never faded so noticeably during modern times, so the star has been the subject of a lot of recent attention. It is likely to be back to its full ruddy luster by the time Orion reappears in the evening sky in autumn.
In the northeast, just rising over the treetops, is Arcturus, the second brightest star after Sirius. It joins us for spring and summer as Sirius departs, and is a personal favorite because it returns to our evening sky during my favorite season.
I contemplated how much tougher this challenging period would be had it descended six months later. It was about mid-March–only a month ago but a seeming eternity–that reality hit us. The battle started just before the vernal equinox, the astronomical marker for the beginning of spring.
With the sun climbing and daylight increasing so rapidly, April is the month when the average temperature in Michigan increases more rapidly than any other month. The growing influx of solar radiation, and trend toward less cloudiness initiates the wonderful transitions in nature now occurring.
I asked M-Live meteorologist Mark Toregrossa to compare the average temperature change during April to what happens in October, six months later. He found that during April, the middle month of what is defined as meteorological spring–March, April, and May–the average temperature climbs 12 degrees. During October, the middle month of meteorological autumn, it drops the same amount, 12 degrees. Also, in April, average cloudiness over most of Michigan is on the decrease, while in October it is increasing.
Think about that for a moment. Here we are, in the midst of what is for most a highly stressful situation. Still, if it had come in mid-October, autumn color would be fading, daylight would be shrinking, and average temperatures would be heading downward. Instead of looking ahead to May blossoms and balmy breezes, there would instead be November’s characteristic drabness, cloudiness, long nights, and descending temperatures looming–and the need to stay inside more.
Toregrossa noted that a typical “flu season” runs from roughly November through April, and suggests that it may be related to the colder temperatures and need for people to concentrate activities in more confined environments. “It’s easier now for us to get spaced out,” he added.
With that in mind, what would have been the affect on the coming Holiday season, had the invading virus arrived in autumn and trended as it is doing now? The toll on commercial enterprises during what is for many their busiest period is obvious. The prospect of social distancing through cancellation of parties and family gatherings at Thanksgiving and Christmas would be hard to take.
Be thankful for what awaits you outside in coming weeks, and get out there as you are able to appreciate it. Also be sure to include in your routine looking up, both figuratively and in actuality.
As you look into the vastness of the universe, considering its order and predictability, consider also how its wonders have brought inspiration to humans facing real challenges since the beginning of time. Knowing of this constancy will feed your soul at a time it needs it most.