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Candlemas: Day of a thousand candles

January 28, 2011

A sure sign of spring is the pussywillow

When it rises swift and cold on Wednesday, Feb. 2, the sun will mark the one day of the year exactly halfway between the past Winter Solstice and the March 20 Spring Equinox.

This day really has nothing to do with groundhogs at all, although Americans celebrate the day, if they think of it at all, as Groundhog Day.

Rather, it’s the Old World’s celebration of the return of the spring.

Candlemas, “Mass of the Candles,” the return of the light, a day once welcomed with a thousand candles, a thousand prayers and thanksgivings.

As simple as that, on Feb. 3, when the sun rises, we are closer to spring than winter.

Don’t believe it?

Take a look around you.

Wake up to the morning, the sun slanting wild and cold a full hour earlier than it hit mountain peaks on Dec. 21.

Feel the rays, slim, yes, cold, yes, but there, glinting in your eyes across Long Valley at 6:45 a.m., not the brutal morning sunrise of 7:40 just six short weeks ago. See it rise farther north than it did six weeks ago, coming up now nearer White Mountain than Sheep Mountain to the south, where it crested on Winter’s Solstice.

In the evening, after work, be amazed. The gorgeous, clean, sweet light illuminates the Mountain until almost 6 p.m. Bloody Mountain holds the last red shimmer of the setting sun until 5:30. Mammoth Creek glimmers in the twilight. A few short weeks ago, it was pitch dark by five.

The cold and snow make Mammoth feel a bit like living in a sensory deprivation tank, full of white light and odorless nothing. The layers of clothes add another level of insulation. Pretty soon, most of us, even those who love the snow, start to feel a bit crazy, the way you are supposed to feel in a sensory deprivation tank.

Then walk out your door and listen. There’s something new this week.

Birds.

They weren’t out last week. Blue jays, doing that crackling jay talk, loud and garrulous. Ravens, who are the only birds smart, or crazy, enough to stick it out with us all winter, talking up a black streak, cross and cranky and glorious to the ear.

Even a few chickadees, some juncos, doing their “cheeseburger, cheeseburger” calls, ringing clear and quiet across the snow.

Even better, head down to Crowley Lake or Paradise, or anywhere south of here, where there’s water and trees. The Red-winged blackbirds are back, their song like water on rocks, filling the cold morning air as soon as the sun hits the cottonwoods they love to roost in.

Is there anything more spring-like in the Eastern Sierra than the return of the Red-wings?

Then look down. Yes, there’s snow. A lot of it. But there’s something else.

Bugs. Little, tiny, centimeter-long black bugs, slowly crawling across the snow.

A week ago, they weren’t there.

I don’t know what they are. I call them “dragon bugs” because they have a distinctly dragon-shaped head, arched and elegant and snappy. I kind of like them actually. They are a good-looking bug, as bugs go.

I don’t know what they are doing, or where they are going, or why they show up every single January at exactly this time, tramping their way across the blinding white snow between my skis.

But they do, and that’s enough for me.

Then take a deep breath.

Deep. Smell the Jeffrey pine bark warmed by just a few more hours a day of sunlight, the juniper needles sharp and astringent, the heavenly smell of sage and willow and bitterbrush lining the road to Convict Lake.

Smell the cedar and pine from the woodpile, the dust and chaff trickling off last summer’s kindling, bringing home the warmth.

Smell the pavement warming in the sun, the metallic smell of granite steaming its winter coat of snow into the air, the bare, wet rocks gleaming in the day.

Smell the water rushing under your feet, the ice melting from the eaves, the green grass pushing up through the snow.

Yes, winter will be back.

But, not really, not really like it was.

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