Turning a Page in History April 29, 2019
Groundhog Day and Setsubun(節分) February 12, 2019
It was late January 1984 when I first heard the term “Groundhog Day.” I was getting ready for the second semester of my freshman year at SUNY Oswego. “Groundhog Day” — what is “groundhog”?? Lots of things were still so unknown for someone who just came from Tokyo to pursue the college degree in meteorology and astronomy in rural Upstate New York. I don’t recall when I finally discovered the meaning of the day correctly but do remember wondering about this: this is about the same time when we celebrate the arrival of spring in Japan. Is there any relationship to that?
The question resurfaced and faded as Groundhog Day passed every year until I came across an article in the February issue of Astronomy Magazine in 2007. Yes, I did see a writing about Groundhog Day and its implication to the duration between the winter solstice and the vernal equinox. To my regret it slipped through between my busy schedules then. So, when I saw the revised version of the article on Facebook this year, I was delighted!
The idea of Groundhog Day was brought to America by German immigrants, and the animal of choice in their old country was hedgehog, according to the author, Rich Talcott. Well, it makes sense as it has been famous as a Pennsylvania Dutch tradition and that’s where Punxsutawney Phil resides. But my true interests lie in why it’s February 2nd every year, and Rich explains it as one of the four so-called cross-quarter days, which mark the midpoints between the solstices and equinoxes. Ah, that’s Setsubun (節分)!
The Lunar Calendar was predominant in the Eastern Hemisphere until modern era. To my knowledge it is still in regular use in some nations including those in the Middle East. It is based on the movement of the Moon, that completes its cycle around the Earth in 29.5 Solar days. As time goes on, a half to one and a half days difference per month will result in considerable gap between the Lunar and Solar Calendars in terms of which month or season it is at one point of time. Ancient astronomers observed the sun’s location in the sky to invent some tools for farmers to follow for their field work – farming has been always essential to mankind throughout the history. They learned when the solstices and equinoxes happened, then divided the entire year into four seasons setting a solstice or an equinox at the middle of a season. So, the point which is equivalent from a solstice and an equinox was set as a Setsubun, that is a cross-quarter day in Rich’s word. Setsu, denoted by 節, means a season, and Bun, 分, a dividing point; all together Setsubun 節分 means where it divides two seasons. Precisely speaking there are four Setsubuns per year. However, the one between winter and spring has been what we customarily indicate when we say Setsubun. As is Groundhog Day, knowing a coming spring is the significant event in our lives thus we celebrate the day. It’s been always the fascinating fact that we, in the East, denote an end of a season at Setsubun so that a solstice or an equinox is the middle of the following season to the contrary a beginning of a season is either at a solstice or an equinox in the Western Hemisphere.
When we look around the world, we notice that there is a broad notion of a “month” that consists of around 30 days, that makes me wonder if just about every culture and/or civilization once set the movement of the Moon as an indicator of time in life as well as the Sun. As we evolved, we couldn’t neglect the discord of those celestial bodies, so we had to find the way to compromise. Perhaps Old Germans, as well as other Europeans, figured out what we did in the East. Or there might have been communications between the West and the East in the past, and Groundhog Day and Setsubun might be the results of such. We, as humans, seem to share certain omnipresent senses regardless where we physically exist.
Incidentally, I was recently asked when the Chinese New Year’s would be this year. I would have never heard this question when I first came here over 30 years ago. I felt so amused that I responded by asking, “do you know when the next new moon will be?” The person who asked me the question looked startled. They are still with the Lunar Calendar, so the first of a month is always the day of new moon. Maybe it’s a handy trick for you to remember!
Note: If you are interested in knowing more of the astronomical facts concerning Groundhog Day, visit the blog or Facebook page of Astronomy Magazine.
Songbirds November 21, 2018
The very hot and very dry summer came to an end in the middle of August when we got over 5 inches of rain within a few days. The heat continued, but the rain made a comeback to my rain gauge from time to time. A hot and dry summer is good for the grapes, but when it became rather droughty, it brought a different kind of concern to the grape growers, myself included. So, it was a welcome change to see some rain every now and then. As the grapes were already well underway to early harvest due to the mid-summer heat, that also kept the disease pressure low; occasional rainy days even felt refreshing following the extremely hot period.
At the beginning of September the rain went away somehow, and it started to dry out again. I recalled the beautiful fall weather of last year – sunny and much warmer than normal temperatures – which brought us a great harvest time. After a soggy summer, it appeared as if we’d be reliving the true summer of 2017. I started to prepare for the harvest, which was for sure to come earlier this year, without much doubt to have the same sort of harvest time as last year, based on the dry summer we’d had.
The changes happened when the remnant of tropical systems dumped the moisture in the middle of September. It was not necessarily rain, but high humidity in the forms of dews, mists and fogs all the time. There were not many occasions for the grapes to dry out; the excessive moisture promotes the growth of the spoilage microorganisms, namely bunch rot, aka botrytis, and downy mildew. Now we had to forget about the low disease pressure: we’ve got to do something! Luckily the grapes were ripening quickly so we started our harvest. Diamond came in first (if you are a fan of Evening Glow and/or Fialka, this variety gives the flavor you love), and Maréchal Foch and Pinot Noir followed.
October 2018 turned out to be another memorable month, to say the least, in which we weathered two totally separate seasons in just one month. The first half was more or less like summer, while the latter half brought a sure taste of winter. Rain also prevailed throughout the month. We tried to move along as much as we could before the spread of the diseases would become a serious threat to the grapes.
One day when I walked out from the winery barn to head back to the house, I heard a clear musical whistle in the backyard. Oh, a White-throated Sparrow! I instantly stopped to look toward the brush where the voice came from. It was another gray damp day in the first week of October. The whistle was repeated a few times then quiet down. White-throated Sparrows appear in spring when we have wet weather before trees bud out around here. They always seem to be busy feeding on the leftover seeds from the previous year, and somehow move away when the sun gets higher in the blue sky as the season progresses into summer. The misty October afternoon resembled the rainy spring weather in which I’m used to seeing them. I heard their song time to time though never caught them in sight.
We finished our harvest on October 14th and were busy processing the grapes the following day. I was a little nervous as a storm was called for in the afternoon – when we crush and press the grapes, we have to leave the front door of the winery barn wide open. The winds picked up gradually, and by early afternoon stormy looking clouds filled the sky that appeared to be getting ready to come down. I heard the distant roar over the Lake. “Must be the cold front approaching,” I thought as I’d had the same experience in the past. Fortunately, it never poured here while we were working. By shortly after sunset we finished cleaning and closed the door. I felt relieved.
The cold front swapped the season from summer to winter overnight, and it remained wet and chilly the rest of the month. I started to see Northern Juncos frequently in the yard who are messengers of the coming winter. Bluebirds were often on the power wires – do you know we have year-round bluebirds here? White-throated Sparrows were still heard in the brush in the cold rain along with the familiar voices of Cardinals, House Finches and Common Flickers.
While I waited for the foliage, the winds ripped a lot of leaves from the trees this fall. My backyard was no exception as the brush turned bare gradually as I walked back and forth between the buildings everyday. One moment I came to a halt to look around the brush – I hadn’t heard the clear whistles for a few days. It was the last week of October under the gray sky that was such an accustomed scene by then. “Maybe they left,” I thought. “I don’t know where they overwinter, but they have a place to go.” It felt like the chilly mist was coming in from the Lake. “I’ll see you again in the spring rain.” It was my promise to the Songbirds for sure to return next year.
The Blue Moons of 2018 January 24, 2018
The year 2018 started out with a so-called Super Moon if you remember — it is a full (or new) moon that occurs when the Moon is near or at the closest point to the Earth on its orbit called the perigee. Since the Moon is closer to us than other times, it appears bigger thus brighter (when the lunar phase is full). This Super Moon was actually the closest Super Moon throughout 2018. So, you would think that we already had the best show of the Moon this year.
The Moon takes 29.5 days to circle around the Earth. Consequently, we will see a second full moon this month, that is called a Blue Moon. Incidentally this Blue Moon will also happen near the perigee, that makes it a Super Moon again, and will be occulted in our planet’s shadow displaying the total lunar eclipse on the 31st. Wow! That’s a rare occurrence. We will see the total lunar eclipse of the Super Blue Moon; some call the eclipsed moon a Blood Moon, so it will be the Super Blue Blood Moon. (In the East we call the color of the moon in the total eclipse “copper” – I think it sounds softer than blood.) But, oh well, in either way, this will be indeed an extraordinary month to see two full moons in this manner.
Then following February will have no full moon. Look above – the lunar cycle is 29.5 days. That is longer than the number of the days in February, isn’t it? So, we’ll see the Moon, of course, but not in the phase of full. And remember; a month without a full moon can only happen in February because of this.
We will have a repeat of January in March, that we will see a Blue Moon again. The first full moon will be on the 1st of the month, then the second full moon, the Blue Moon, will occur on the 31st. Neither of them will be a Super Moon this time (to my knowledge at this moment; forgive me if I’m wrong), but it’s still uncommon to have a Blue Moon again within two months. You know the way of saying, once in a Blue Moon, that means something that doesn’t happen frequently, don’t you? Statistically a Blue Moon occurs once in about two and a half years. So, we are now witnessing some very interesting moments in history.
I have kept my weather log ever since this winery operation was initiated. In the last December when I was preparing my book for 2018, this moon behavior caught my attention. As I filled the calendar in with the lunar phases along with other phenomena I follow every year, I realized what kind of year this 2018 would be. — I have a memory of having a year just like this in the past. Two Blue Moons and February without a full moon in between. When was it? Which year?? — It was way before this electronic era when few media would bother picking up some “little” star incidents into their news – perhaps except some astronomy-related magazines and articles. In the frigid January the Moon started its trek from waning to waxing; spent February without getting full accordingly. By the time the second Blue Moon of that year arrived, we were here getting ready to open our Tasting Room door to welcome another season in spring. And, so will we again this year.
Bush Roses November 4, 2017
This has been a rough year for the bush roses around our Tasting Room. After the balmy winter and spring, the deceptive summer followed with lots of cool rainy days. Then when the flower buds grew large enough for the blossoms any day, deer ate most of them one night. I was outraged. Mildew from the prolonged excessive rain defoliated many of them despite my fungicide sprays. “I’ve never seen them this miserable,” I thought, dispirited all summer long from the obvious certainty that I would lose them after this season.
September seemed to have turned the things around. The sunny days and comfortably warm, occasionally very summery, temperatures were back to our region. The grapes wasted no time taking advantage of the nice weather – and so did the bush roses. By the time October arrived there were a number of new clean shoots developing, and eventually the flower buds were forming on the top of them. “If they won’t get frosted, they might survive.” I started to have some hope in my mind.
Last weekend I had two young couples visiting our Tasting Room together. I learned that they were sisters and their husbands as they walked in and we started to chat. One moment I just glanced outside the picture window because something moved in my sight. One of the sisters was a little behind – she was smelling the roses that had just started to bloom a few days ago. “Beautiful!” She rushed in with a glowing smile and quickly joined our conversation. It was another mild sunny day for late October, and perhaps the best day we had for the bush roses this year.
Ospreys August 9, 2017
Last summer I learned for the first time that there were two pairs of ospreys nesting on the top of a power pole in our neighborhood. They were several miles apart, but both along the country roads surrounded by the broad orchards. Then a fierce wind storm went by later in August that took one of the nests apart; that’s my neighbor told me. We weren’t sure if the baby bird was mature enough to fly away for safety. One day I had a chance to ride out and go by the power pole. Actually the pole was damaged during the storm so it was replaced with a brand new piece. I saw some debris of the nest on the ground of the orchards along the road, then the next moment I found one osprey standing on the top of the next pole. It took off from the pole and circled around when I went by. It was a somber scene.
Bluebirds nesting in the Vineyard June 1, 2017
On the way back from the vineyard work one afternoon I saw a pair of bluebirds hopping around one of the bluebird boxes at the end of the North Vineyard. I knew they’d made a home out of it this year — the second time I can remember in the last over 20 years. I had kept seeing them flying back and forth between the box and the woods; sometimes obviously protecting it from other birds trying to sneak into it. I walked back to my house to drop my tools off on the porch while eyeing on the male bluebird perched on the vineyard post just above their sweet home. I had my camera in my hand, and quietly started walking toward him.
Maybe around 70 feet I took the first shot. Well, it was a little too far; his figure was just a small dot in the screen. I went a little closer to take the next shot. Hmmm, still a little far away. The bluebird was, of course, watching me approaching to their box. I went another 10 feet. Maybe a little more. — How close can I get? I kept inching up while shooting him every so often. Then one moment he finally took off. He flew toward the other end of the vineyard, but swirled above the grape vines and landed on the top of another post in the middle of the vineyard. We looked at each other for a moment, then I walked away to go back to my house.