Curious Roots

By Heather Elvidge 

It used to be said of March that it’s the month when winter packs its bags. Yet, confounding all expectations, February surprised us with its benign weather. Buds burst and March flowers bloomed as spring arrived on warm southerly winds.

In early spring, when the new moon rides high, the old moon appears in the young moon’s arms. This happens when the part of the moon that’s in earth’s shadow is illuminated by ghostly earthlight. Look for the new moon on March 6, and on the nights following, to see the shining crescent cradling the old moon.

According to an old saying, spring is here when you can put your foot on seven daisies. But who’d want to squash those cheery heralds of better days? In March the Sun climbs higher, warming the soil, and plants are ready to go. All those gardening jobs we’ve been putting off suddenly become emergencies. However, beware spring fever. March is the month of many weathers — rain, hail, even snow —so it’s too soon for tender young plants. And don’t dig out all the daisies, or spring will never come to you.

While weeding you may come across a toad, on his journey to the breeding pond where he grew up. If he decided to stay he’d be a welcome guest, dozing during the day and searching for insects, slugs and worms at night.

In the past we weren’t too kind to toads. Folk medicine believed them to be a cure-all, effective even against plague. Men known as “toad-doctors” toured country fairs selling toad’s legs in little cloth bags, as an amulet to prevent illness. Then there was the mysterious toadstone found, it was said, in the head of a very old toad. When brought near a poisoned drink or a bewitched person, the stone would give warning by changing colour. Although toadstones were much prized and often became family heirlooms, in reality the magic stones were created artificially.

Today our common toad and common frog are far from common. The odds are against them, with habitat loss compounded by a fatal disease. So if you have the room consider a garden pond, it doesn’t have to be large. There’s plenty of advice online: just google “wildlife pond.”

 

Shrove Tuesday, the last day before Lent, falls on March 5. Folklore says it gives a snapshot of Lent’s weather, and we’ll see the same amount of sunshine every day until Easter. 

Commemorating Christ’s 40 days in the wilderness, Lent used to be a solemn time of self-denial. The period of fasting was known as a carne vale, literally “a farewell to flesh.” Some Catholic countries still have their Carnival, the days of wild abandon before Lent begins.

Here people went to church to be “shriven,” confess their sins. Then the rest of Shrove Tuesday was spent doing all the things that would soon be banned. There was food to eat up — bacon, eggs, collops of meat, cakes, waffles, and pancakes — and every kind of pastime to join in from marbles to football. 

In Victorian Scarborough they played football and other games on the beach, earning Shrove Tuesday the name, Ball Day. Today it’s known as Skipping Day. 

While other towns have pancake races, skipping on Shrove Tuesday is a unique Scarborough tradition that’s well over a century old. It used to be mostly long-rope skipping, several people jumping thick, heavy ropes that took two adults to turn. This probably began among the fishing community where long ropes were essential for hauling sails, nets and pots. 

As for running while tossing a pancake, there are no records before 1945, when the vicar of Olney, in Buckinghamshire, “revived” the custom.  But his pancake races proved a success, and in the 1960s they spread nationwide.

Flipping pancakes and failing to catch them is a genuinely old custom, dating back to the early 1600s. The signal to start frying was the ringing of a church bell, and Pancake Bells are still heard in a few places, including Scarborough. Let’s hope those sea-front skippers and pancake racers enjoy a fine, windless day.


The spring equinox is on March 20, when daylight and darkness are of more or less equal length. In old lore it’s a day for wind prediction, giving the prevailing direction for the next three months. And although nobody knows why, this is a good time to see fireballs.

Night sky watchers sometimes glimpse one as a streak of light, burning up as it enters Earth’s atmosphere. Unlike meteor showers that are predictable, fireballs are random. And oddly, these bits of rock debris, some as tiny as a grain of sand, are more numerous in the weeks before and after the equinoxes. 

On March 29 — er, let’s think of something less fraught — on March 31 the clocks will go forward one hour, making the evenings lighter. However chaotic the world may appear, spring remains our time of hope.