In Hancock County, Maine
February usually is when we relieve our growing winter boredom with reassuring thoughts of spring. This year, however, things were not that simple. We experienced such a weather smorgasbord in February that we were a bit distracted by competing thoughts of increasing climate instability.
Fortunately, we had a healthy share of blue skies over the fields,woods, and waters. But, we had snow, including a storm that blanketed the landscape in 11 inches of crunchiness, which turned to ice. Then, there was fog and sea smoke that made it impossible to see that landscape. And, we had rain and wind that washed the snow and ice away, including a thunder and lightning howler that attacked out of the Atlantic with tree-toppling gusts of up to 50 miles per hour.
The February precipitation turned larger streams into torrents, the moon and other factors caused extraordinarily high and low tides, and some mysterious intruder whirled Mother Nature's thermostat wildly -- our temperatures during February ranged from below zero (with winds making it feel colder) to almost 60 degrees Fahrenheit (with hiking making it feel warmer).
The Romans named this month after Februa, the bright festival for purification by water. On the other hand, before adoption of the Roman name, the Old English name for the month was Solmonath (“mud month”). It occurs to us now that these are not inconsistent concepts.
February’s calendar, itself, is season-conscious. It contains Groundhog Day, brought originally to this country by German immigrants who had the curious notion that hedgehogs could predict the end of winter weather and the more curious notion that groundhogs could do as well as hedgehogs in that regard. This year (and often), February contains Ash Wednesday, the day that begins the countdown to Easter for many Western Christians. For Saxons, that time of the year was the time to celebrate Eastra, the rejuvenating goddess of spring. At the end of February this year (and every other fourth year), there’s a Leap Day added to the month to re-synchronize our seasonal gears with our imperfect Gregorian solar calendar.
Perhaps the most popular day of February is an adaptation of the Roman spring festival of Lupercalia. According to some histories, that celebration was renamed by early Christians in honor of a saint who was martyred by the Romans for performing banned marriages. The saint was Valentinus, whom many lovers -- married and not -- now honor unconsciously with hearts and flowers.
On the coast here, February also is a time to watch the antics of Common Eiders before they soon return to the open North Atlantic. They’re the largest ducks native to North America and hundreds, sometimes thousands, of them seek winter shelter in our bays. (The simplistic, but preferred, descriptor for such congregations of these and other ducks is a “paddling.”)
The male Common Eider is rogue-like in appearance, except for one silly feature. He sports a white cape over black wings and black lower body. He also wears a hooded black mask, below which is his large bill. That bill is the silly feature -- it looks like a nose wrapped in a hot dog bun. Nonetheless, these Common Eider drakes and their handsome auburn hens are impressive flyers that can reach speeds of up to 70 miles per hour. Unfortunately, many of them need more training in the landing department. They sometimes perform Kamikaze landings when they get over their crowded paddling: they just curve their wings into air brakes and let gravity do what gravity does -- including causing crash-landings onto their wildly scattering relatives.
While in their paddling, Common Eiders dive for crustaceans and mussels, crushing and tearing the former with their powerful bills and swallowing the latter whole to be digested later with the help of unimaginable stomach juices.
Speaking of shellfish, February often is the time when some scallop fishermen choose to scuba dive for the delicious mollusks in difficult areas that cannot be dredged. Fortunately for us, one of those brave souls is neighbor Dave Tarr, who dives for these delicacies off his scalloping and lobstering boat, Tarr Baby. That’s often a 50-foot dive into coffee-black depths that sometimes are below freezing. A few hours after Dave’s icy dive, however, we also dive -- into a sizzling dinner of the freshest and sweetest sautéed scallops ever eaten. (Now that's a meal that can cause us to postpone worrying about climate change until at least after desert.)
If you want to take the whole 60-second virtual tour of moments that we'll use to remember February, click the link below. We recommend that your initial screening be a full-frame slideshow. (To make that happen, click on the Slideshow button above the featured [largest] image on the gallery page to which the link will take you.) Here's the link:
Barbara and Dick