Kansas Snapshots by Gloria Freeland - March 17, 2023

Celebrating the "new year"

I don't remember when I first heard the term ... but husband Art does.

He was 11 and, like many times before, had tagged along with his uncle who made extra cash hauling the Sunday Milwaukee Journal to the villages northwest of their hometown. The six-hour trips were filled with talking. Sometimes Art quizzed his uncle about his experiences as a B-29 pilot in World War II.

The sun's appearance signaled the trip was nearly over when his uncle mentioned it was the day of the "vernal equinox." The comment prompted a question from Art, but the answer wasn't nearly as interesting as some of the war stories.

The vernal equinox - March 20 - is the official start of spring in the Northern Hemisphere. "Vernal" comes from the Latin word "ver" (spring) and "equinox" from the Latin words "aequus" (equal) and "nox" (night) - when day and night are equal. In the Southern Hemisphere, that same day is the autumnal equinox.

While Wisconsin springs are gray and damp, Art has fond memories of them. One reason is because it was maple-syrup time. Trips to the wooded hillside a mile north of Weyauwega were an adventure for him. His grandfather Charles - known as "Bup" to his grandchildren - rented the land from farmer Will Kneip. The trees were "tapped" with hollow metal spouts hammered into a small hole drilled in the trunk. Sap dripping from the spout was collected in a pail hung on the end. From time to time, the pails would be emptied into the nearest repurposed cattle-watering tank. Garden hoses connected the tanks so the sap then flowed to the one at the bottom of the hill.

A "fireplace" made from concrete blocks sat nearby. A stainless-steel pan sat on top over the fire. The collected sap was poured into the pan and the excess water boiled off. Every 10 gallons of sap yielded only one quart of maple syrup. The final product was transferred to milk cans and sold to the Quaker Dairy in Appleton to flavor its ice cream and pastries.

After a full day, the bottom of the pan was covered with an almost-black molasses-like substance with an intense flavor. To this day, Art can't understand why people prefer the thin golden-colored stuff that lines grocery-store shelves. Every year, we visit a commercial maple-syrup supplier to buy the dark syrup so Art can replenish his supply.

The walleye run was another reason springs were fun for Art. The spring equinox meant the ice would be leaving the rivers. Art said he wasn't sure his uncle was the best fisherman, but whatever he lacked in skill, he made up for in tenacity. They launched the boat on the Wolf River at Fremont shortly after sunrise and it didn't touch land again until dark.

This Kansas farm girl has a very different set of spring memories. Mine include planting vegetables in our big garden, searching for Easter eggs my parents had hidden in the grass and in crooks of trees for my brother Dave, sister Gaila and me to find, welcoming baby chicks hatched on our own or bought at the local co-op, hanging clothes on the line on breezy days, and enjoying the newly-blossomed crocuses, tulips, irises and peonies.

"The Farmer's Almanac" says the March full moon is called the "Worm Moon" because worms and grubs begin to emerge. That means the migrating birds will soon appear. The honking Canadian geese forming large vees in the sky and chirping robins are also scenes that come to my mind when I think of spring.

Spring planting wasn't signaled just by the calendar, but by natural events as well. According to the almanac:

*Blooming crocus are a cue to plant radishes and spinach.
*When the forsythia is in bloom, it is safe to plant peas and lettuce.
*Look for dandelion flowers before planting potatoes.
*Perennial flowers can be planted when maple trees begin to leaf out.
*By the time lilacs are in full bloom, it is safe to plant tender annual flowers.

Because the Bible does not give definite dates for events such as Jesus' birth or crucifixion, the early church had a problem of knowing when to celebrate them. A popular notion today is the church selected the dates to coincide with pagan festivals in an effort to lure people to the new religion. But there is scant evidence for this.

Christian theologians believed the creation began on the vernal equinox, so what we call March 20 today was the Bible's "Day 1." March 25 was then the sixth day - the day man was created. So it seemed reasonable to have mankind's new year begin on March 25 and from about the fifth century onward, spring-plus-five marked the beginning of the new year.

Various shortcomings of the calendar led to the introduction of the Gregorian calendar in 1582 with January 1 as the start of the year. But it wasn't until around 1752 that the British - and their colonies in the Americas - adopted it.

So although the vernal equinox - or five days later - is no longer the start of the official new year, it feels like it to me and so I�m planning on doing some landscaping. When Art and I visited his daughter Karen, who is MUCH younger at almost 59, she told us about some conservation classes she's been taking on how to landscape with native grasses and flowers. She inspired me.

But while my mind is into it, my back doesn't tolerate that bending over as it once did. Planning may be as far as it gets.

So we won't be getting out the fishing rods or the spades to enjoy the beginning of our new year. But the greening grass, the return of migratory birds, the leafing of the bright-yellow forsythia and many other harbingers of spring all underscore something the late actor and comedian Robin Williams said: "Spring is nature's way of saying, 'Let's party!'" And considering today is St. Patrick's Day, well, who can resist celebrating the new year!

Top-left: Art a few years back by an old sap-collecting sled on display at his favorite maple-syrup producer. Note the runners for use in areas where the ground was still covered by snow and ice. Top-center: a youngster sampling the sap at the source. Top-right: me planting flowers at my parents' home in Manhattan. Bottom-left: daughter Mariya helping my dad at the farm. Bottom-center: Karen has some work ahead of her. Bottom-right: a newly-emerged tulip. (sap-tasting image from nj.gov website)

Comments? [email protected].
Other columns from this year may be found at: Current year Index.
Links to previous years are on the home page: Home