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Outdoors with Coggin Heeringa: Leap Year

Leap Year is a rather awkward solution to an astronomical conundrum. But the current solution is nowhere near as awkward as it was in the ancient Roman Empire. Back then, different regions of the empire had different calendars. For example, in Rome the calendar had a 355-day year, which really didn’t work because the Earth travels around the Sun every 365.25964 days. This meant that seasons (and holidays and planting times) tended to drift from month to month which was confusing. So the Romans added a 22-day month every other year. Really?

Luckily, Julius Caesar was so annoyed at the plethora of calendars under his rule and the awkward extra month that he sought out a famous Greek mathematician/astronomer named Sosigenes of Alexandria who devised a calendar with 365 days in a year. To deal with the extra 25 percent of a day, he added an extra day every four years. A leap year. It wasn’t a perfect solution because (those pesky decimals) the fraction of a day wasn’t quite a quarter, but the system was used until the Middle Ages when, under Pope Gregory XIII, the calendar was tweaked again.

The tradition of allowing females to propose during leap year can be traced to a dubious Irish legend. Supposedly, a Fifth Century nun (and women’s advocate) St. Brigid of Kildare begged St. Patrick to change the law giving men the exclusive privilege of doing the asking. The kind saint gave in to her radical feminist pleas, sort of, saying: fine, every seven years, a woman could propose. Not good enough for Brigid. So St. Patrick relented, making it slightly easier for girls with bashful beaus. Women could propose on one day – Feb. 29.

Curiously, in the animal world, the pattern (he makes the advances, she makes the decision) is almost always followed.

Have you ever noticed that women are attracted to, well, hunks? Same thing in nature. Female mammals and birds go gaga for the handsome males, the more colorful the better. Good singer? Good. Great physique? Yes! In some species, think frogs in spring or crickets in late summer, noisy is irresistible.

However males present themselves, the females assess and choose.

Researchers believe that the female decides because she has more to lose from a bad mating. While males have unlimited opportunities to reproduce, females have only a few chances for procreation. A mammal can carry only so many young. Birds can lay only a certain number of eggs A female must be selective if she is to find the best available male to father her offspring.

Back to that astronomical issue: If mating is in the stars for members of the female persuasion, remember that thanks to Sosigenes of Alexandria and St. Brigid of Kildare, a woman can ask on Feb. 29 and she would do well to choose wisely.

Coggin Heeringa is the Director of Crossroads at Big Creek and Instructor of Environmental Studies at the Interlochen Arts Camp.

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