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Living and Writing in the Natural World

The reign of light begins

Today and tonight mark the Spring Equinox, the most exciting of the four “backbones” of the year in the traditional Chinese solar calendar. With daylight length finally catching up to night (“equi” “nox” in Latin is “equal to night”) the planet is again at equilibrium so far as life-giving daylight is concerned. Starting tomorrow the reign of light begins, to last until the fall equinox in September. This matters--a lot--because on our planet at least, sunlight powers photosynthesis, by which plants capture the energy in solar radiation in plant molecules (mainly complex carbohydrates).

Plants use this captured energy to maintain their very life—as do the herbivores who eat the plants, and the carnivores who eat the herbivores. All of us, regardless of where we reside on the food chain, owe our very life to the energy raining down upon the planet in sunshine. Plenty of reason to celebrate the spring equinox’s advent of the reign of light, when day length is gloriously longer than night length!

How to celebrate spring? In the West, we traditionally celebrate spring on Easter day, marking the resurrection of Jesus, and the promise of bodily resurrection of all Christians at the end of time. Colored eggs, bunny rabbits, baby ducklings, and colorful hats reflect the older “pagan” nature of the spring celebration in the West. Traditionally in China, at the spring equinox the family would gather around the family altar and show reverence for the ancestors with incense and offerings. But the festive celebrations of spring occurred just before and after the day of the equinox.

The celebration before the equinox was related to the Lunar New Year. For two weeks following the Lunar New Year’s new moon kick-off (sometime in late January or early February, usually), festivities blossomed, featuring family visits, parades with stilt-walkers and lions, dragon dances, and finally the Lantern Festival on the full moon, the peak of the celebration. Today in “new” China this celebration is labeled “the Spring Festival” (to indicate how far they have come from traditional China).

The spring celebration after the equinox comes at the start of the Qing Ming period of the traditional solar calendar. Qing Ming, or “Clear and Bright,” is the occasion when families gather and trek to the ancestral grave sites around April 5, cleaning and decorating the graves and having a sumptuous picnic at the flowery site in the (usually) fine balmy weather.

You’ll note that the traditional Chinese celebrated the burgeoning life of spring, just as we do in the West, but with a difference. Spring for the Chinese marks not the defeat of death, as in the Christian resurrection tradition, but rather the organic emergence of renewal in the natural cyclical order of things. The renewed life of spring emerges from the death of winter not as life conquering death, but rather as life succeeding death in the natural order of things.

The Chinese observed that death contains the seeds of life—literally, in plants. In the traditional solar calendar, spring begins on February 5—the Chinese noticed the buds in the plants beginning to swell, and knew that spring was “in the air” even though snow may be on the apparently lifeless branches still. To the Chinese, as in the modern western scientific outlook, death is part of life, contained within life, not opposed to life. So the Chinese tracking of life and death doesn’t emphasize a one-time defeat of death by life. Rather it recognizes the natural sequence of things, whereby cold and darkness and death are dominant in the winter, but warmth and light and growth are dominant in the summer—both part of the over-all cycle of life. Both are good, and contribute to the whole, as represented in the famous yin-yang circle.

So how does our family celebrate spring? First, we spend more time outdoors, glorying in the flowers and the warmth. Just yesterday Tammy and I remarked how much more birdsong surrounded us in our walk through the park, from the twitter of white-crowned sparrows to the piercing calls of red-shouldered hawks, and all the rufous-sided towhees and red-shafted flickers and acorn woodpeckers and California quail in between. We’ve taken advantage of the (relatively) balmy evenings by sitting outside around a fire in our firepit on the back patio several nights already, either with friends or by ourselves, enjoying the starlight and the flames.

Today, as is our custom, we’ll set up a small table beside our family altar and honor what the Chinese call “our beloved dead” with pictures of our departed ancestors on the table, interspersed with candles and seashells and feathers. This year we’ll add the photo of Tammy’s dear grandmother Edith to the table, whom we helped bury several weeks ago. As we do on both solstices and both equinoxes, we’ll honor the ancestors by lighting candles and ringing a chime several times a day for a week or so. It’s all part of the grand cycle of things, and we glory and celebrate being part of it. Enjoy the equinox and the spring!

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