Musings on Circular Time and the Vernal Equinox

The vernal equinox has just passed here in England. It doesn’t quite align with Easter, or the ‘start of spring’ (ie 1st March), or in fact my marker of Spring arriving (which is the first day I really feel the warmth of the sun on my skin- sometimes February, sometimes April). But it is a special time, to mark the turning of the planet, the light, the energy and the season.

It almost exactly lines up with the anniversary of our first lockdown in 2020 and I have vivid memories of walking everyday with my daughter, in the woodlands and fields near our home. The trees were coming into leaf, the birds singing- everything changing radically and we were watching day by day. The phrase that often entered my head was one by Stanley Spencer- ‘sometimes I feel like a walking altar of praise’.

If you want to know more about what an equinox is and when they occur, I’ll point you in the direction of this article, suffice to say they are the two days in the year when there is approximately equal day and night time, the Spring equinox being the start of the climb towards the longest day, or Summer solstice, in June. I feel it has more hope to it than the Summer solstice, which is after all the marker for the beginning of the end of the light.

Our ancient ancestors would have observed the changes minutely and automatically- it took an enforced lockdown for us to do the same. We can see why the equinoxes were so important to ancient peoples- the structures they left behind are thought to be essentially calendars for the year, marked by equinoxes and solstices.

The entire, designed, landscapes around Stonehenge and Avebury are an illustration of how ancient people integrated themselves with the landscape- literally using it as a measure of time- bringing the abstract concept into concrete reality. A mixture of high intervention (carrying massive stones long distances) and using the landscape, as is, these landscapes and structures still hold great energy for us now.

They also serve to remind us of ‘circular time’. The modern world almost completely takes it for granted, that time moves in a ‘direction’- forward. It seems more and more obvious that not all people think, and feel, in this way. The idea of circular time- no beginning or end or direction- is central it seems to those ancient belief systems. It’s testament to how engrained our idea of time is that we find it so it difficult, even uncomfortable, to think of time in this way.

However, if we feel time as circular (in fact feeling the time in this way is easier) then markers such as equinoxes and solstices become so much more important. It also takes away the idea of birth as the beginning, progress through life and death as the end. Instead, it’s all just part of the ongoing circle.

Artists have of course engaged with the vernal equinox. Most famously Paul Nash made a series of paintings of the Wittenham Clumps (hills with copses of trees on top near his home) showing both the sun and moon simultaneously. The colours are not realistic – though at this time of year they often don’t feel realistic, the bright neon of the new leaves, the bright blue and dark purple of the skies. Nash allows the equinox to imbue the landscape with mystery and magic.

An artist I recently came across is Lucy May Schofield who often creates installations of ephemeral work to mark the turning of the year. On the Spring equinox 2021 she made a paper moon, made of 40 sheets of hand made wash paper. See it here.

In other work she allows the light of solstice days to develop cyanotype ‘photographs’. Another piece in 2017 was a sleep performance, where she lay on a cyanotype coated sheet on t the Northumberland moor for the 12 hours and 38 minutes of daylight on the vernal equinox, revealing a ‘printed map of the daylight….when exposed with water’.

I wonder if we’ve lost our connection to these markers of our lives, circular time, annual time. How can we recover the connection? Perhaps with art. The art of rituals, ceremony and recording. Art that imbues the day with the ceremony it deserves.