Sunday, December 21, 2008

Sunrise At Five Below

So. Winter solstice. The shortest day of the year. As you might imagine, in a land where the daylight varies so dramatically throughout the year, we pay a lot of attention to the solstices and (to a somewhat lesser degree) to the equinoxes. Many of us are more observant of the winter solstice than we are of New Year's, since for us, the solstice marks a more meaningful turn of the year than anything arbitrarily designated by calendar: Solstice marks the return of the light.

After today - my father's birthday, incidentally, and happy birthday to you, Dad - the days start to lengthen. Not much at first, mind you, a mere 30-odd seconds a day at my latitude. But just knowing that the change has happened, that we are irresistibly on the up-slope of the power curve, is somehow stimulating, fortifying as a hot drink on a bitterly cold night. Somehow the nadir of winter holds within it, at its very bottom, some treasure of magic, some strange tingling anticipatory power. It is as if the darkest time of the year holds within it the gift of light.... as if, only now that the light has been drained to its dregs, can this be uncovered, released, reborn into the world.

Last night, at a Christmas party, my friend J told me that she felt that this was a particularly powerful solstice: that this one was taking a lot away with it. I was intrigued by this thought. I think it might have occurred to her to word it that way because, for no reason she could identify, she was remembering with unexpected sharpness the death of her father, who died on another solstice a few years ago. I mentioned to her that, if you have to lose a loved one, for me it's a bit comforting to do so on one of the turning days, a solstice or an equinox. I don't know why it feels that way to me; perhaps it's something cultural that I absorbed too long ago to remember. Perhaps it's something different, atavistic, somehow wired into the mammalian brain, which must recognize the power of the changing seasons, or die.

That might be it. I have a tumor in my pineal gland. Probably why I can't tell that it's still dark outside when normal sane people think it is (a mental defect which will be detailed below).

Whatever the source, the winter solstice has undeniable power up here. If it happens that you are getting the winter blahs, or are grumpy because it's been unseasonably cold for the last three weeks (hmph!), the arrival of the solstice is enough to lighten your mood. After all, it really CAN'T last forever now, because the days are getting longer.

By some quirk of nature (or possibly that pineal gland tumor), I suffer from what my colleagues all assure me is a serious mental defect that is akin to some kind of dangerous personality disorder. To wit: My brain interprets the slightest change of color away from pitch black skies as "daylight". This means that if, by squinting, I can detect even the faintest hint of navy on the horizon of an inky black sky, I think "Woot! It's daytime! Let's go do stuff!" As my color vision is very good, I am evidently capable of detecting a color difference so faint that even a computer would not be able to electronically distinguish it (or so claim some of the more sourpuss types at work.) As a consequence, I think it's daytime long before or after anyone else seems to. I also think it's spring starting in about February, and doesn't start to be winter until sometime after Thanksgiving.

Most of my friends think I'm insane, or maybe just a bit foolish; after all, to them it is obviously dark outside. But I have to ask myself: Which one of us has the longest daylight and the shortest winter? So then which one of us is really being foolish?

The date at which spring happens for me seems to get earlier every year. Two years ago, I was pretty convinced winter was over about Valentine's day. Last year it was February 10th. This year.... who knows? This morning I'm feeling like it's practically over already, although perhaps that won't last when we get to the deeper cold of January. But unmistakably by February, no matter how cold it is, the season is on the move. The light is coming on so fast that you can detect obvious changes in a few days, even if you're not paying much attention, and the temperatures are coming up significantly. Sure, the greatest snowfall of the season usually occurs in February/March, but heck: that's just snow. It's not winter. In addition to which, there's enough daylight and warmth to go out and really enjoy it. Unlike, say, today, when at sunrise (which was technically 10:14 today, with sunset scheduled at 3:41 if all goes as planned) it was, on my front deck, 5 below zero. Which means those weather people lied to us AGAIN.

At any rate, it really IS light long before the sun comes up. This morning I think pretty much any normal human being - not just me and my brain deformity -would have said it was light by no later than 9:00, more than an hour before the sun actually came up. (I personally would have marked it long before then, of course, but I don't expect everyone to take part in my personal delusions). In the evening we'll have our long, graceful twilight, with our colored skies and slowly rising dusk.

But in the meantime.... a sunny morning, a steaming mug of hot buttered rum without the rum (what do you call that? Hot buttered water?), a silky drape of black and white Border collie across my feet, keeping them toasty.

I could do worse.


Wrensong Farm said...

Happy Winter Solstice! I spent a bit of time in Alaska and got to really learn to appreciate the Solstices....boy, can they throw parties up there! :)

Other than I can't see where a tumor would be a good thing....I like what yours does...I'd much rather have more daylight than darkness. I do seem to feel cheered by the idea that it will now be getting lighter even if it is in increments.

You have so eloquently described all that I feel the winter solstice entails. Thanks for sharing your thoughts (and beautiful snowy view).

Holly said...

Those are beautiful, peaceful photos.

Just yesterday I was thinking, "it's the end of December already. January can be bitter, but February is right after that and the weather often gives us a break sometime in February". Something to look forward to.

Tonight, however, on the way back from the barn it was a balmy 14 minus wind chill and baby...that's too cold for me!

Similar to you, I went to sleep last night with a solid-pack Corgi boy at the small of my back and a Cattle dog in the crook of my knees. This morning the Corgi had moved to the pillow next to me, all snuggled in and the cattle dog was across my feet. It always surprises me how much heat one little dog can generate and how much comfort is radiated by a dog or two on the bed with me.

Della said...

Delusions?! What delusions?!? I call it putting the best possible light on the situation! lol I've started focusing on the fact that the days will now be getting longer, rather than that it is the first day of winter. It sure makes Me happier! I'm on SC and compared to growing up in MN, it barely gets cold here. It really will only be a couple months till it warms up, but those months feel so long.

Beautiful pictures! I don't miss the cold of a white winter, but I would like to just see that beautiful white landscape once in a while.

MaskedMan said...

I abide by the old Muslim tradition, in regards to dawn - When you can tell the difference between a white thread and a black one, well, that's dawn. So, for you and your superior color perception, dawn really DOES come earlier than for anyone else.

Never undersetimate the power of small psychological boosts. I can think back to the bad old days, coming off patrol, where I'd keep the Average Primary Coolant Temperature as low in the Green Band as possible - the slightly cooler water attenuated neutron flux ever-so-slightly more than slightly warmer water, which meant that you could sneak a few extra watts of power out of the reactor without actually violating any power-to-flow restrictions. We're talking mere hands-full of watts in a many-multi-megawatt system, but those few extras made a real difference. Well, at least they seemed to make a difference.

But no pups to warm our feet when we racked out.

AKDD said...

MM, based on your power-tweaking behaviors, I have become inspired. I'm going to light a buncha candles now. They might not be a lot of BTUs, but I'll take them!

I'm glad I'm not the only one who sees the beauty and magic in a long, deep winter night. Thanks, all, for coming along for the ride.

MaskedMan said...

Candles on a cold winter night are a magical thing. They really do make the room seem warmer. But you need to light at least two - One only looks lonely, and makes things seem colder. Two or more is festive, and lifts the mood (and temperature, if only by ever-so-slender a margin).

Barb said...

Hey, if I lived in Alaska I could see the sunrise for at least part of the year!! :-) Being a die hard night owl, that's a rarity for me.

You live in a magical place - I'm so happy that you DO realize how lucky you are!

Anonymous said...

So what time does the sun come up and set there - day before winter solstice.

Right now, east coast New Hampshire. Its full ight out - meaning I can do morning chores without a headlamp by 715 - I think. But by 430 I have to have it on because its too hard to see.

I agree with you that its downhill from here. Bring on spring! Especially since we have had the deep Jan cold already here and its Dec!

AKDD said...

Beth, the day before Solstice it's about 30 seconds more daylight, split between sunrise and sunset. The change is pretty slow at the nadir. But in a few weeks it'll be a minute a day, and then two, and then four, and then five and a half...