Spring Starts a New Year

It took me years to read Walden—years to actually open the book after buying it and setting it on the shelf, and then more years to actually read it from front to back. The book starts in spring, near the end of March when Thoreau starts to clear the area for his cabin, and ends a little over a year later in early May with the trees beginning to leaf out and birds returning on their migrations.

While it took me a long time to read the entire thing, the winter season in particular dragged on. The reading was long, slow, and monotonous. In short, the reading felt a lot like winter. My favorite part of the book was the end of it—not just because I finally finished, but because the tempo changed. As winter turned to spring, the writing became faster and more upbeat. There’s more energy, more sunshine. Just like how it feels when spring really comes.

That the year starts in the spring feels right to me, more so than New Year’s Day, which falls closer to the start of winter than the end. Early calendars started the year on March 1st or the Spring Equinox or May 1st, any of which probably makes sense depending on the latitude and climate of a particular place.

Aldo Leopold starts A Sand County Almanac in January, in the quiet of winter. It’s the arrival of the geese that mark the start of spring:

One swallow does not make a summer, but one skein of geese, cleaving the murk of a March thaw, is the spring.

~Aldo Leopold, A Sand County Almanac

Passing through Aldo’s country in early March this year, I observed this. Driving south across the Wisconsin River on our way to Madison in early March, the geese were on the move, flying low across wet brown fields to land in open water.

Meanwhile, back in Upper Michigan, it’s now late March and a skein of geese has yet to be seen. The days are getting longer, but there is still snow on the ground. The maple sap runs when the days are warm enough, but it’s not spring yet.

If I had to put the first day spring on a calendar, I’d defer to centuries of traditions in northern Europe and mark it as May 1st: May Day. Perhaps part of this appeal is remembering how my friends and I left baskets on the doorsteps of quirky teachers and friends as part of our high school hijinks. But mostly this just feels right. By May 1st, I can expect that the snow will be (mostly) gone, that strings of geese will have arrived, and that the trees will be starting to bud out. That’s spring.

Late winter on the shore of Walden Pond.
Late winter on the shore of Walden Pond.
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