February is far more than just cold and unforgiving

Megan Binkley, Opinions Editor

Roughly 2,700 years ago, Numa Pompilius succeeded Romulus as king of Rome, and promptly added January and February to the calendar. At the time, it was a novel idea: before this, the winter period was seen as timeless and changeless, a dark expanse between the more forgiving arms of spring and fall. Pompilius named the second new month for the Latin word februum, meaning purification, in reference to the annual cleansing rituals that occurred then in Roman culture.

Other cultures took a more poetic approach. The Finnish called February helmikuu, the month of the pearl, in tribute to the beauty of the melting and freezing snow droplets that gleamed pearlescent in the tree branches. Other northern European cultures dubbed this time luty or únor, for the hard rimes of frost and the ever-shifting river ice. Macedonians called it sechko, the month of cutting wood; reminiscent of the Danish hygge, a tradition that celebrates warmth and coziness in the dreariest days of the year.

Yet for all the appearances of a dark and unforgiving month, life blooms in February far more richly than you might imagine. As the Finns and Romans knew, this month is a strange marriage of new beginnings and unforgiving edges. Temperatures float just below freezing even as light begins returning in strength to the overcast sky. In the coming days, great horned owls will begin to build their nests in the forest borderlands, and horned larks will start returning from the south. The regulatory genes that inhibit winter growth in herbaceous perennial plants will be triggered by the longer hours of daylight—a process revealed to us only by the first tentative shoots of green nudging skyward through last year’s decay and frost.

For the foragers among us, February is a great time to begin scouting out the ideal foraging spots, in preparation for the explosion of wild crops that arrive in March. If the weather turns colder, keep an eye out for Birch and Sugar Maple trees you can tap: while the prerequisite 40 gallons of sap for 1 gallon of syrup is a tall order, a smaller batch of sap can still be boiled down to a mild, refreshing sweetener in baked goods and drinks.