The Vernal Equinox and the Rush of Spring

by Guido Masé March 19, 2018

While at the solstices the day length seems to stall, at the equinox things shift fast. Depending on your latitude (we're up north in Vermont), days grow longer six minutes at a time, pulling dusk and dawn closer together across a shortening night. Also, as is often the case in transition times, we see warm, sunny days followed by late-season blizzards, the weather whipping back and forth like reeds on the edge of a wetland, blown by spring winds.

All this motion breaks up rigid things all across the landscape: we see it first in rivers, swelling with melt and rain, lifting and cracking the crust of ice that's kept them locked all winter. After flooding the lowlands, the rivers leave silt and ice boulders behind, and run free and full again. Around the same time, tree lymph begins to thaw, as branches warm during the longer days, and freezes again during the cold nights. The freeze-thaw cycle applies a ton of pressure to the lymph, which flows readily out of taps in the trees this time of year as a result (and into the swelling buds, too).

I can imagine this same process in my muscles and tendons. Perhaps that's what makes me want to stretch out my stride and push faster across the thawing trails. It's hard not to, on crisp mornings: sunrise is early now, and the birds are back and clamoring. Hundreds of crows will cross the hillside sometimes, looking to relocate from their winter roosts. And while it will still be a few months before the land turns green again, the world still conspires to bust everything loose from its moorings, stretch everything out, shorten the midday shadows.

We may have lit fires during the cold months, done our best to keep the light alive, but now there seems to be fire within the landscape itself, coursing through the trees, breaking up the clouds, giving voice to the peepers in the vernal pools, warming up the afternoons. Careening towards growth, it feels like a rush, and we want to join the conspiracy. It can feel like trying to match speeds with a moving train: if we could just get up alongside before it gets moving too fast, we might be able to go along for the ride.

Animals don't feel the push-and-pull quite as viscerally as the maple trees--after all, our blood keeps pumping through those cold months. But we have lymph, too, just like the trees, and it's here we can see some of the same patterns of torpor and stagnation that we see in rivers and roots during winter. Lymph, blood and belly - without movement, things feel less responsive, like legs heavy and frozen from a long walk. But if we mean to ride the rush of the Vernal Equinox, we too will need to stretch and swell and crack that ice.

 

Fortunately, in places around the world where this seasonal shift is strong, herbalists have found ways to loosen any thickness that has built up - or perhaps just to celebrate the return of the spring rush. We can try some of these practices, and notice how our bodies and spirits respond. We might tap into a source of creativity that allows us to breathe life into the ideas that have simmered below the surface in the darker months. And if winter still has a strong hold on us, making it seem impossible to match the speed of the shifting daylight, some of these practices can be small steps that can add up to meaningful support.  

Physical movement underlies every spring ritual. This means trying to push your body a little more than what you've been used to over the last few months - gently, little by little and mindful of the signals your body sends. Think of a movement practice that includes some gentle stretching, and also some aerobic movement that can bring your heart rate up just a little. Walking is one of the best activities available: stretch out your stride, try for some hills. As you move, your lymph pumps, your respiratory passages open, your inner landscape begins to mirror the outside world.

Perhaps your walks will take you to one of the liminal places, spots in the ecology where different biomes meet, like the edge of the forest, or the rocky outcrop in the middle of the farm field where unique plants have escaped the plow. Or maybe, as so many plant people have always done, you will wander to a stream or river bank, and witness it come alive again now that the waters are full and running free. You might find the edge of a wetland, where the first mosses and grasses and reeds come into green, enticed by the relative warmth of these moist spots. In these transition places between water and land, we often see the first signs of spring - but we can also find botanicals that, over the years, have become a part of the herbalist's rituals this time of year. It's no coincidence, I think, that free water, be it a trickle or a rush, guides us to these plants. Practically speaking, we won't find green growth where the land is still covered in snow, or locked in ice. But from the place of metaphor, the first herbs, grasses, and buds to respond to water's torrent may be best suited to help bring us up to speed, loosen any lingering "stuckness", and help us rejoice together with the land. After all, they are the first.


So we wander by the water, and watch for the first signs of green. Watery plants herbalists have used in spring include fragrant grasses and herbs: perhaps the first attraction was their sweet scent, but we still keep coming back because they are such great equinox medicine, too. In Europe, vernal rituals included the gathering and offering of sweet-scented grasses such as Hierochloe odorata, which was made into garlands, strung across doorways, and steeped into tea. Though it is a bit too chilly to consistently overwinter in Vermont, we can also find this same sweetgrass in moist meadows and on the edges of wetlands across North America, where I learned more about it from First Nations teachers. When I've received any as a gift, I have treasured its light, round, lingering fragrance: it can be burned, or brewed into tea. But one of my favorite families of plants that feature in the early-spring Vermont woods is represented by the Galium genus: herbs like cleavers (G. aparine), or the smaller rough-stemmed bedstraw (G. asprellum), or the lovely woodruff (G. odoratum) overwinter well here, and shine green in those liminal, watery places when everything else is still asleep. We gather the Galium in big basketfuls, and bring it home to juice or dry into a tangled mass that holds all the same fragrance as sweetgrass.

That fragrance, a blend of fresh-cut field along with an almost vanilla-like, round sweetness, is linked to a very specific family of compounds known as coumarins. They are widespread in the plant world, where their mildly bitter flavor is thought to help prevent over-browsing by insects. In mammals, including us humans, these compounds enter our bloodstream readily after we drink a cup of cleavers tea, and find their way into our tissues. Here, they support healthy activity from the white blood cells that are constantly circulating, sampling and cleaning the lymph between our cells. The coumarins act as haptens, binding to proteins and waste products in the lymph, and encouraging a normal immune response: white blood cells do their work, phagocytose the waste material, and remove it from tissue.  So all these fragrant, coumarin-rich springtime herbs are a way for us to experience a little of what the maple tree knows: getting the lymph to flow, crystal-clear, is one of the best ways to move in concert with the season. 

Later, as spring progresses and fields burst into full bloom, we can find other herbs rich in coumarins: red clover (Trifolium), alfalfa (Medicago), sweet clover (Melilotus). All are legumes, in contrast to the early season grasses and Galiums. Over sixty years ago, in response to a spate of cattle poisoning after livestock consumed these leguminous staples, researchers took a long, deep look into the coumarins, wondering if they were the source of the episodes of hemorrhage that led to the cows' demise. After all, farmers had been using alfalfa and clover as feed for a very long time - what happened that was different back in the 1950s? It turns out that the animals had eaten spoiled, moldy feed. If acted upon by specific types of fungi, coumarins can change structure and become strong anticoagulants (compounds that keep blood from clotting). The molding leads to the formation of dicoumarol, which is not naturally-occurring in plants, and acts in a manner similar to the drug warfarin (aka Coumadin, a brand name that just makes matters more confusing). The cows, by eating feed that was loaded with a powerful anticoagulant, bled internally and died. The results of this investigation – and how it led to the synthesis of warfarin--were published in 1959 in the journal Circulation.1

This is just to say that, if not fermented, coumarins are safe. Like with anything else, you can overdo it with these compounds, too--but the doses required far exceed anything you'd find in the herbs gathered by the waterside. Just as livestock  animals have consumed prodigious quantities of clover and alfalfa with no untoward consequences, we can drink teas made from coumarin-rich herbs in spring and know that they are helping white blood cells keep our lymph clear and flowing without any blood-thinning effects. The story from the 1950s explains this with convincing clarity. 

Still by the water, we can turn our eyes upward to the trees. Around the equinox, as the lymph swells their buds, we have an opportunity to gather another important herbal medicine. All across the temperate zones of the world, we find representatives of the genus Populus: these are the aspens, poplars, and cottonwoods of our lakesides, riverbanks, and moist woods--including moist spots in bigger urban parks. If you can make it up to a young branch tip and find one of the buds, you'll encounter a fragrant, clove-like stickiness that makes a useful springtime medicine. Gather what you can: a small basket is enough, and will leave your hands sticky with oleoresin and gummy mucilage. Herbalists have valued poplar buds (depending on the species, these may be called the "balm of Gilead") as strong aromatics, and turned to them in spring as allies for the respiratory system. Topical use is classic: you can make a good chest rub by chopping the fresh buds and infusing them in olive oil on a sunny windowsill. After a week or so, strain the remedy and apply to the chest to help keep lungs clear. Sometimes we'll rub this oil onto hands and feet to support healthy circulation. The aromatic qualities of these buds make them very welcome: breathe in a steam made by pouring boiling water over them, or drink a dilute tea to reinforce the action of the chest rub. After all, it's probably still too early to find thyme in the garden.

Aromatic plants are useful for respiratory support, to be sure, and the transition time from late winter into early spring is one when many people are looking for just this type of assistance after the long, cold season. And while the thyme and oregano (such useful respiratory herbs) aren't ready yet, we may still find some more adventurous aromatics have made it through the winter season, or are starting to peek out with new green growth in the garden. Some of the hardier mints - like bee balm or mountain mint--already have leaves ready for harvest. It's thrilling to find them, spicy and warming under the thawing snow that still lingers in patches across the garden. Sample a few of these, not for a proper harvest, but just to bring in a little hint of the pungent, minty vitality they hold. If you can't find any, try visiting a garden center, or sometimes even a grocery store: small potted mints and culinary herbs that are fragrant and delicious start to appear this time of year alongside tulips and daffodils. It's a joy to bring one home on one of the warmer days, and have it as a companion by the kitchen sink, on a bedroom windowsill, or in a sunny bathroom. A few leaves, here and there, with some hot water and a touch of lemon juice make a simple brew that is both enlivening and inspiring: these aromatic plants bring joy, and their gentle antispasmodic effects balance the levels of tension in our bellies, arteries, and spirits. Plus, getting a jump on aromatics is a lot like forcing bulbs, or bringing in stems of pussywillow and delicate apple to watch them open way before they do outside. We're definitely part of the conspiracy now! And while vanilla-scented cleavers and sweetgrass help the waters of our bodies flow clear and strong, and potent poplar buds keep our breath open and powerful like the winds of spring, it is the aromatics that speak to our emotions and creativity: they lift us up, lightening our step so we can match the pace set by the Vernal Equinox. 

There are similar types of plants everywhere in the world. Those who know, will tell you: this time of year is one of the strongest. If we can step on the springtime trail with the same joy and riot of the winds and waters, the reward is pure inspiration, and we may find spring breathing into us and filling us with the energy we'll need in coming months. This is a rhythm, a deep desire, that every animal understands as we watch the plants, co-conspirators on this biosphere, rise to meet the sun ascending from its southern resting grounds. It's not a fever, an illness to be cured: rather, it's the world around us rising and rushing all at once, and asking us to join. As animals, sometimes our biggest challenge is just opening up to listen. And as always, the plants are there to help.

 

WORKS CITED

1. Link, Karl Paul. "The discovery of dicumarol and its sequels." Circulation 19.1 (1959): 97-107. 

Guido Masé
Guido Masé


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