Last Sunday morning, 20th March, radio presenters were cheerfully announcing the first day of spring. “It’s not the first day of spring – it’s the vernal equinox!” I grumbled once again. I do that: talk back at radio presenters, cheer on journalists grilling politicians on television, swear at the Prime Minister whenever his face appears on the screen. I need to let off steam, like everybody else, in a way that causes no damage to others.
The equinox: two dates of the year when, traditionally, day and night are the same length. As far as I can tell, naming them the official start of spring and autumn is arbitrary. I guess they’re convenient dates partly because the seasons are by then in full swing, visible, obvious. As we know, western culture is heavily evidence-based, and eyesight is arguably its most trusted tool of perception.
By the 20th or 21st of March, in the northern hemisphere, the trees are starting to blossom, the sun makes more regular appearances, and the temperatures grow warmer (though not necessarily in the British Isles, where the weather has deep-seated commitment issues).
There are some things you cannot admit publicly without going against the accepted and approved general opinion, and appearing somewhat defective or, at best, eccentric.
People do a double take when I confess that spring is my least favourite season. I won’t go as far as saying that I actively dislike it, but I’ve never looked forward to it and I’m always relieved once it’s turned fully into summer. I find spring’s mercurial, unhinged mood swings difficult to handle on both the physical and emotional front, and have done for as long as I can remember. Whenever I’ve been significantly ill or unwell, it’s always been in the spring.
Summer nourishes me, autumn encourages me, and winter fills me with a world of possibilities. Spring attacks me and doesn’t pull punches. It puts me to the test and I spend the weeks between early February and early March alternating between fighting and cowering, until I am exhausted.
That’s right, because as far as my body is concerned, it’s not around the 21st of March that spring begins: its birthing pains start in early February and, in recent years, I’ve felt it even in late January.
That sudden shift and brashness in the air, that sense of something approaching that mows down ruthlessly anything standing in its way. The sudden dizziness as though there’s been an earth tremor. The light-headedness, the queasiness, breathlessness, general weakness, disorientation, and anxiety.
When I was growing up, it was at that time of year that my mother would notice dark rings under my eyes and unusual pallor, and ask my grandmother to feed me aladushki and other, as she put it, “strengthening” – and I’d call grounding – foods, then draw up a list of vitamins and minerals for me to take for the next fortnight.
I never found a satisfactory scientific explanation to my reaction to spring, and a few other people I’ve mentioned it to have responded with the puzzled-veering-on-disapproving look. What’s wrong with this woman who doesn’t like spring?
About six years ago, I took up Qigong, which my teacher defined as “the mother of Tai Chi”. Qigong, or the cultivation of life energy, runs counter-intuitively to the western way of thinking on one crucial point: while in the West, power is about dominance and control of the elements around you, Chinese Qigong teaches you to align yourself with them in order to turn them into allies. In other words, instead of building a giant, heavy ship to withstand the wind, and a hugely energy-consuming engine to propel it, you craft a light boat, learn to read the wind, adjust your sails to it, and let it do all the work of carrying you to your chosen destination upon its breath. It’s a philosophy that inevitably leads to a deep respect for natural forces, and, by extension, the seasons. It also not only encourages you but trains you to listen to every request and slightest whisper of your body.
At one January morning class, our Qigong teacher began teaching us movements and recommending appropriate foods to prepare our bodies for the spring, which, according to traditional Chinese medicine, begins around the 6th-7th of February. It was all I could do to repress a visceral urge to jump and shout I know that! I’ve always known that! So I’m not mad! I felt relieved, vindicated, and so, so happy. I must admit that since I’ve been practising these pre-spring activities, I’ve found the change of season much easier.
According to the philosophy of Qigong, summer, autumn and winter also begin about six weeks before the accepted Western dates. I wonder if way back in history Western cultures shared that view. After all, the old midsummer and midwinter, which almost fall on the solstices, are only a couple of days after what the vast majority considers as the first days of summer and winter.Who decided to call the climax the beginning, and when?
Was there a time, long, long ago, when humans were so much more in tune with the earth that they were aware of even its most subtle shifts and changes? Equally, were they so much more attuned to their own bodies – before Christian priests told them they were sinful, and doctors that they were ticking time-bombs of disease – that they could detect the early warning signs of even the slightest physical imbalance? A time before the priests of religion and the priests of science bullied their way into being the unchallenged, unquestioned intermediaries between a person and their instinct?
Perhaps it’s this dependency on hard evidence that has led us to accept the existence of something only when it is clearly visible to us: in this case, we know that spring has sprung only once we all see flowers bloom and trees blossom, and it becomes too warm to wear coats, hats and scarves. We trust that autumn starts only once the trees begin to shed their leaves, making the ground a carpet of red and gold, not in early to mid August, when there’s a sudden shift in the colour of the light.
We only trust what we see. Seeing is believing is a well-known expression. But isn’t the point of belief that you accept the existence of something you cannot see, and for which you cannot provide irrefutable evidence? Why don’t you say instead Seeing is knowing?