While our bodies are getting used to the hour shift brought about by Daylight Saving Time, Mother Nature is working fast to counter our dark mornings, and within a month day break will come at the same time it did before we switched our clocks.
At no other point in the year do the days grow longer at a faster pace, as we gain more than three minutes of sunlight each day here in the Northern Hemisphere. Since solstice, December 21, we have gained more than an hour of sunlight in both the morning and at day’s end.
These days of fast-growing light were called The Quickening by the ancient Celts. To them, all objects of earth — not just creatures, but trees, stones and the ground itself — were alive, all sharing the same sap of life. Now, deep within the still-bare trees, the sap of life flows, birds build new nests; shoots of the earliest spring flowers pierce the once-frozen soil. All around us, the earth’s pulse is picking up its pace.
Overhead, too, the changing constellations foretell the coming of spring. The familiar shape of Leo the lion crouches over the eastern horizon, its blazing heart, Regulus, piercing the darkness.
Following the great lion is Virgo, the goddess of crops and harvest, holding in her hand an ear of wheat in the form of the brilliant star Spica. Six months of the year the constellation is absent and the land falls into stasis as the goddess mourns her daughter Persephone’s confinement in the underworld with husband Hades. Now, with Persephone’s return, the mother’s grief ends and the land again begins to bloom.
Next to rise is Boötes, the herdsman of the two bears, Ursa Major and Ursa Minor. In Greek legend, Boötes is Arcas, son of the nymph Callisto and Zeus and the first to harness a team of oxen to the plow, revolutionizing farming and ushering in the era of agriculture. Each year, Boötes returns to our evening skies to usher in the spring planting season.
The scorpion Scorpius crawls over the eastern horizon as winter’s great hunter Orion sets in the west. In Greek myth, Orion had both jilted the goddess Artemis and boasted that he was the superior hunter. Enraged, she sent the scorpion to kill him. Look for the two stinger stars, Shaula and Lesath, less than one-half degree apart. Called the Swimming Ducks, this pair returns to morning skies to signal the coming of spring. From the Arabic Al Shaulah, the sting, Shaula is the 24th-brightest star in the sky, although it often goes unnoticed, as neither duck climbs high above the horizon at our latitude.
Before dawn of Friday the 13th, the last-quarter moon shines near the head of Scorpius with ringed Saturn close by. The heart of the scorpion, the red-giant Antares, shines less than 10 degrees to the lower left of Saturn.
Venus rules the early evening, perched above the western horizon and blazing at magnitude –4. A few weeks ago Mars appeared within a few degrees of Venus, but now the red planet well below and pulling farther away night by night.
With sunset, Jupiter appears high in the east, perhaps the first “star” you see in the gathering night. as the stars come out. By 11pm it is nearly overhead, finally setting an hour before sunrise.