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The Science of Why February 29 Exists and Poet Jane Hirshfield’s Ode to the Leap Day

“…the made calendar stumbling over the real as a drunk trips over a threshold too low to see.”

The Science of Why February 29 Exists and Poet Jane Hirshfield’s Ode to the Leap Day

In his Calendar of Wisdom, under the entry for February 29, Tolstoy quoted Goethe: “Perfection is of God. To wish for perfection is of man.” It’s a befitting selection, for the day itself is a testament to humanity’s abiding but ultimately unattainable quest for perfection.

Most years divisible by four are graced by the calendaric oddity of the leap day, February 29. A corrective for a clerical imperfection in the mathematics of timekeeping, February 29 attests to the artificiality of time as a human construct and reminds us that the Gregorian calendar — which was introduced months before young Galileo made the legendary observation that gave rise to modern timekeeping — is humanity’s most successful meme.

February 29 exists because a solar year — the time it takes Earth to complete a full revolution around the Sun — takes 365 days and 6 hours (or 365 days, 5 hours, 49 minutes, and 16 seconds, to be exact), but the standard year in the Gregorian calendar was rounded down to 365 days. Every four years, that spare time adds up to 24 hours, so an entire day must be added to the calendar in order for it to catch up to the Sun. Then another set of mathematical acrobatics is applied to make up for the 10 minutes and 44 seconds deficient from the rounding up to 6 hours — a deficiency that adds up to about 3 days every 400 years. To account for this, years divisible by 100 but not by 400 — so, for instance, the year 2200 but not the year 2000 — were demoted from leap status, giving back the extra minutes to the other leap years in the 400-year interval, which is the repetition cycle of the Gregorian calendar.

A 1573 painting by Portuguese artist, historian, and philosopher Francisco de Holanda, a student of Michelangelo’s, from Michael Benson’s book Cosmigraphics: Picturing Space Through Time

If the mathematics of it weren’t already disorienting enough, what happens when February 29 is granted special status of the most tragic, personal kind? That’s what beloved poet Jane Hirshfield explores in her poem “February 29,” found in her collection The Beauty (public library) and penned on the occasion of a friend’s death on February 29, 2012.

Hirshfield reflects: “I had, months before, brought her the present of a traditional bamboo-slat painted reproduction of a famous Chinese painting. She had commented, with her customary inhabitance of all things from the inside, how hard it is to paint a cow so well from the front. Her death was unexpected, and a letter from her I had not wanted to put away was still out on my kitchen table. My year’s extra day circled around it.”


An extra day —

Like the painting’s fifth cow,
who looks out directly,
straight toward you,
from inside her black and white spots.

An extra day —

Accidental, surely:
the made calendar stumbling over the real
as a drunk trips over a threshold
too low to see.

An extra day —

With a second cup of black coffee.
A friendly but businesslike phone call.
A mailed-back package.
Some extra work, but not too much —
just one day’s worth, exactly.

An extra day —

Not unlike the space
between a door and its frame
when one room is lit and another is not,
and one changes into the other
as a woman exchanges a scarf.

An extra day —

Extraordinarily like any other.
And still
there is some generosity to it,
like a letter re-readable after its writer has died.

Complement with Patti Smith on time, transformation, and how the radiance of love redeems the pain of loss, the psychology of why time slows down when you’re afraid and speeds up as you age and these nine books on the many dimensions of how we experience time. For a poetic counterpart, revisit T.S. Eliot’s exquisite ode to time.

Poem courtesy of Knopf / The Academy of American Poets

Published February 29, 2016




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