What can we learn, and how can we teach, from the cycles of the Earth — both the cycles within us, and the cycles in which we find ourselves?
Given the winter we’ve just been through in North America, people are bound to be enthusiastic about the so-called “first day of spring,” the vernal equinox — myself included.
Location, Location, Location
For much of my life I lived in the Midwestern United States, an area where people recognize four distinct seasons. Winter can be long and hard, drab and dull. The natural world seems desolate, almost dead. But in fact, natural processes are wound up tight, coiled and hidden, waiting for the increase of sunlight. When it comes, life seems to burst forth from everywhere. Plants “spring up” from the soil, which is where the season of spring gets its name. One can get the sense that the whole planet is athrob with new life.
Of course, that’s not really true. It’s a big planet, and things are not the same all over. It’s been my privilege to have lived at several different latitudes, from subarctic to subtropical. Up by the arctic circle, winter is harder and spring comes later, but it’s even more intense and dramatic than in the temperate regions. The ice thaws, the snow melts, greenery erupts, the world seems to come back to life.
Here in New Orleans, where I now live, the contrast is not so great. We experience a winter, but frost is a rarity and a hard freeze is even less common. We rarely see snow, and ice is something people use to keep their whiskey cold. (This unusually harsh winter just past was an exception; we saw sleet twice, inducing the city to a virtual shutdown.) Many plants never lose their leaves, so there’s plenty of green foliage throughout the winter months. Our plentiful live oak trees shed leaves in spring, as new leaves emerge, which is confusingly similar to fall up north. They also shed plenty of pollen. I know it’s spring when my porch is covered with a thick layer of green dust.
A Lively Quickening
Say you lived in the city of Pontianak, in Indonesia, right on the equator. You would likely recognize two seasons only: wet and dry. You wouldn’t notice a change in daylight hours, because it’s less than one second from day to day, with day and night roughly equal throughout the year.
You could still detect the first day of astronomical spring, however, through careful observation of the sun’s maximum altitude. On the day of the equinox, it’s going to be as high in the sky as it ever gets, as high as it ever can get anywhere on Earth: straight up 90º — directly overhead. This is, in fact, a defining characteristic of the equinox.
Even if you don’t measure the height of the sun, it’s hard to miss the fact that the days are getting longer, for those of us outside of the tropics. Technically the days have been getting longer since the solstice, but back in late December the change was barely noticeable. As winter progresses, the rate of change from day to day gets greater and greater, reaching a peak around the time of the vernal equinox. Thus, even in the subtropics, we experience a sense of lively quickening. From this point on, day will be longer than night. After the equinox, days continue to get longer, but the rate of change from day to day recedes until the summer solstice.
At my latitude, the days in the month of March get longer by almost two minutes per day. Moving northward, in Indianapolis or Madrid, the daily gain is almost a minute more. Way up in Stockholm, the pace is a breathtaking five minutes and 19 seconds per day.
The seasons are reversed in opposite hemispheres, so the vernal equinox in one hemisphere is the autumnal equinox in the other. The solstices are also reversed. But whereas the solstices mark opposite extremes of daytime and nighttime hours, the equinoxes designate days when dark and light are (roughly) equal. In this sense, the equinoxes are the same no matter where you are on the planet. Thus, though the solstices invite celebration as global holidays, the equinoxes are even more truly global.
Perhaps this is why the Consultative Assembly of the Peoples Congress declared the March equinox as “World Citizens Day / World Unity Day.” It’s also observed as “World Storytelling Day” with celebrations around the world.
Given the poetics of the equinoctial moment, it’s a natural time to reflect on the idea of balance. Ancient cultures esteemed balance as a value of paramount importance. Above the temple of Apollo in Delphi, these words were inscribed: ΜΗΔΕΝ ΑΓΑΝ (mēdèn ágan) — “Nothing in excess.”
Our modern sensibilities might tempt us to poke at this aphorism. We might confuse excess and excellence. We might think a balanced approach to life is at odds with greatness. But in fact, moderation in the pursuit of excellence is no contradiction.
The recent Winter Games in Sochi provided an excellent reminder of this fact. Great athletes know the pursuit of excellence is a balancing act. In a paper on the philosophy of sport, Heather L. Reid writes:
Winning would be simple if it was just a matter of training volume, the runner who trained the most hours would automatically win. We know it doesn’t work that way, though, and indeed it is a delicate art for athletes to find ways of maximizing improvement without exceeding mental, physical, and emotional limits…. A winning athlete’s ability to push the envelope of achievement without bursting it open is integral to his or her success.
In the same way, ordinary mortals can pursue the excellent life through the “delicate art” of “maximizing improvement” while knowing our limits. (There’s a clear link here to another maxim carved into the stone of the temple at Delphi: ΓΝΩΘΙ ΣΕΑΥΤΟΝ (gnōthi seautón) — “Know thyself.”) This isn’t a call for some sloppy, half-assed approach to life, or to a stodgy conservatism. Moderation should not be confused with mediocrity or neutrality.
Out of Balance
Nor should balance be confused with stasis. If I say that the current American political situation is “out of balance,” some might object. They might say it’s perfectly balanced: two sides in conflict with equal power, neither able to make headway. They might say balance is the problem. But that’s not balance; it’s gridlock.
There’s an aphorism flying around the internet these days: “The saddest aspect of life right now is that science gathers knowledge faster than society gathers wisdom.” (It’s usually attributed to Isaac Asimov, but I can’t find an authoritative citation.) In fact, it’s much worse than that. While science gathers knowledge, society seems to be actively losing wisdom. This is a key example of how modern, Western, American life is out of balance. We have an abundance of cheap food, but we lack the wisdom to moderate our intake, and so obesity is a major health concern. We have an unprecedented ability to access the Earth’s resources and exploit them, but we lack the wisdom to conserve, resulting in colossal imbalances such as climate change.
We can find other imbalances if we look. We might consider the balance between male and female, youth and maturity, rich and poor. These social tensions often permeate our own psychologies, so that if we look within we may find similar unbalanced attitudes. As without, so within.
Frankly, most popular American holidays seem to celebrate excess in one aspect or another. We all enjoy a break from the routine, a chance to cut loose, a holiday when some form of excess is permitted. We need some moderation in our moderation, so to speak. There’s no denying that.
Yet it is good to have a holiday which enshrines the idea of balance.
It’s even better to have two such holidays.
Furthermore, the equinoxes represent the idea that balance is not static but flowing, especially when considered as a pair. The primary difference between the vernal and autumnal equinoxes is their valence, their charge, their spin. As the sun passes through the equatorial plane in March, the Northern Hemisphere moves into the light half of the year, while the Southern Hemisphere moves into the dark half. The equinoxes are not static dead-ends but transitional moments, tipping points.
As such, the equinoxes provide an opportunity for making changes in one’s life. Glenys Livingstone characterizes both equinoxes as a moment for “Stepping into Power.” This resonates with me on an intuitive level. From a place of balance, we act. I find I often set long term projects (half-year or full-year) for myself from equinox to equinox.
The vernal equinox in particular, associated with notions of tender new life emerging, lends itself to rites of purification and cleansing. My body and my being are the fertile soil from which I hope to cultivate the fruits of creativity. I don’t want to sterilize that soil, but I do want it to be healthy, free from toxins, conducive to growth.
Paradoxically, the best way to foster my own noetic fertility, to encourage my own intellectual fecundity, is through subtraction. Perhaps that is simply because I live in a land of abundance and relative affluence, or perhaps it’s inherent to the human condition. Whatever the case, it feels right to me to give up something during this season. There’s a parallel to Lent here, to be sure, and in this Catholic city, that’s nothing to sneeze at. (Believe me, with the pollen filtering down from our live oak trees, there’s a whole bunch of sneezing going on here in the springtime.) But to me, it’s not a matter of penance, suffering, mortification or redemption. Rather, it’s a matter of feeling good, staying strong, promoting vitality, improving focus, and nurturing inspiration.
The Body as the Ultimate Localization
Coming off the excesses of our Carnival season, it feels natural to lay off the booze awhile. Over the years, I found myself enjoying sobriety more than I’d enjoyed drinking. Imbibing had become habitual, an ingrained part of my daily life, and breaking that habit felt wonderfully liberating. Sobriety was, in fact, intoxicating. Last year, my change of habit took on a semi-permanent aspect. I’ve been more or less sober ever since.
(To clarify: I’m not totally a teetotaler, but I’ve indulged on less than a dozen occasions over the past year. I aimed to break a years-long habit of daily drinking, and I’m proud to have accomplished that.)
Alcohol isn’t the only thing I’ve been known to give up. A couple years ago I also found myself eating less as the equinox approached, cultivating my sense of hunger. That also led to more permanent changes of habit, and eventually I lost a bunch of weight. Since then I’ve made a conscious effort to eat healthier and exercise more often.
I generally do go off coffee as the weather gets warmer, and I’ve found dandelion root tea makes a delightful coffee substitute, especially combined with chicory root. Dandelion has the added benefit of detoxifying the liver, or so the herb lore says.
These are all means of cultivating a “spring in the self,” a season of renewal and rebirth within. I’ve talked about how spring and the equinox are experienced differently at different places. The body is, of course, the ultimate localization. All our dreams start here. Let’s aim to change the world, starting with ourselves. And what better time than now?
In the comments below, talk about how you cultivate balance in your own life.
In addition to writing the A Pedagogy of Gaia column here at HumanisticPaganism, Bart Everson is a writer, a photographer, a baker of bread, a husband and a father. An award-winning videographer, he is co-creator of ROX, the first TV show on the internet. As a media artist and an advocate for faculty development in higher education, he is interested in current and emerging trends in social media, blogging, podcasting, et cetera, as well as contemplative pedagogy and integrative learning. He is a founding member of the Green Party of Louisiana, past president of Friends of Lafitte Corridor, sometime contributor to Rising Tide, and a participant in New Orleans Lamplight Circle.