Lighten Up


Maybe you were too pained by NCAA basketball results to pay attention. Maybe you got faked out by our sudden blast of Arctic weather.

Take heart. We're here to help you see the light.

At precisely 1:26 p.m. yesterday, the seasonal pendulum swung. Whatever the thermometer says, summer is on its way, and the dark days of winter -- a threat of snow notwithstanding -- are officially gone.

Technically speaking, that moment yesterday afternoon was the spring equinox, the moment that ushers in the longer, lighter, more luxurious days that will last until September. Days that, after a long winter, we all crave. Or most of us, anyway.

"I'm from the North, so I was kinda hoping for one more snowfall," Jenn Lilly O'Neill said while walking her two dogs on Federal Hill.

O'Neill, a Massachusetts native, was not exactly decked out to welcome spring. She was wearing a long jacket, ski gloves, scarf and wool hat. Plus a smile that might have had something to do with the fact that the forecast called for a late-March snowstorm to sock the Midwest and dump an inch or so on Baltimore.

But let's not fret over the notion of a little spring snow. Screen-door slams and suntans and 7 o'clock-in-the-morning shadows on the garden wall are just around the corner. The cosmic wheels have been set in motion. As our mayor might put it: BELIEVE.

Remember, God said, "Let there be light." He didn't say, "Surf's up!" or "Play ball!" The change of seasons is more subtle than that.

Nonbelievers may put more credence in the big-bang theory of creation, but that's a light show of a different sort. Some 14 billion years later, astronomers are still measuring the skyglow from that primordial explosion. Thankfully, the new light of a new spring dawns on us more gradually.

Bill Blair, a research professor in the department of physics and astronomy at the Johns Hopkins University, offers this elementary explanation of the equinox:

Imagine an orange is the sun and a pingpong ball is the Earth. The pingpong ball moves around the orange in a slightly pinched, elliptical orbit that takes a year to complete.

Hmmm. This is getting complicated already ...

The pingpong ball gets closest to the orange in the months of March and September. More important, the pingpong ball is tilted 23 1/2 degrees off its vertical axis and rotates in place. Think of a little spinning top, says Blair.

We're getting a little dizzy ...

For half that orbit, the top of the pingpong ball tilts toward the orange (that would be the northern hemisphere's spring and summer). For the other half of the orbit, the top tilts away (thus, fall and winter).

OK, stop the pingpong ball. We want to get off.

It's much easier understanding Blair when he talks about the real-world effects of the spring equinox: "I like it being daylight when I leave work just like everybody else."

Indeed. Human beings are not unlike solar-powered cars. They need the energy boost from sunlight to run properly.

There's a physiological explanation: The sun's ultraviolet rays are a primary source of vitamin D, which helps build bone and muscle. Sunlight also stimulates a tiny gland in the brain that makes mood-altering, smile-producing chemicals called tryptamines.

But who really needs scientific proof?

Sure, winter's a wonderland -- in small doses. After too many months, though, it resembles an Ingmar Bergman movie that never ends: pale, morose people moving through bleak surroundings where everything -- trees, mailmen, living-room drapes -- seems to be a symbol of gloom and death.

By March, every person on the pingpong ball has had enough of winter and wants to rent a convertible, crank up "Born to Run," and keep driving west until they hit California sunshine.

The light of spring sets songbirds trilling. It gives daffodil bulbs the strength to push through soil and bloom. Light makes painters fall in love with a landscape's ever-changing colors and tones.

Frenchman Paul Cezanne spent most of his life painting within a tightly proscribed orbit of his hometown of Aix-en-Provence. He revisited on canvas the same trees and fishing village and rolling hills, capturing them in every kind of light.

"I see superb things, and I must resolve to paint only outdoors," wrote Cezanne, the subject of a retrospective now at the National Gallery in Washington.

"He's just a terrific painter," says Mark Karnes, a professor of painting and drawing at Maryland Institute College of Art. "That's somebody who is very centered on a place and, at the end, on a particular view of a mountain."

One place in Baltimore that Karnes and his painting students frequent is Federal Hill Park. Their eyes aren't drawn to the Inner Harbor. They find the view more visually dramatic looking west, toward the baseball and football stadiums, especially early and late in the day.

"It's just the way the light rakes across the roofs and the buildings," says Karnes.

If you climbed to the top of Federal Hill Park yesterday to greet the equinox, your reward was a bone-chilling wind and a runny nose. The morning sun battled gray clouds. No shadows were dancing. No tryptamine fireworks went off in anybody's brain.

Yes, spring is a celebration of light. But, under yesterday's gray skies, also one of faith.

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