Posts Tagged winter solstice
Light has been hard to come by lately.
Perhaps the message of the longest night of the year is to stop trying to flee the darkness, instead, following the example of the great canopy trees, casting off artifice – the leaves of summer – and spending this season stretching roots into life-giving earth, taking time to deepen my connection to that which sustains me.
I need this quiet season. It brings me back to center after the frenzy of planting, weeding, harvesting, and reveling in the vibrant life that surrounds me during warmer times. Winter precipitation – frozen or liquid – pulls me into contemplation, forcing me to a slower tempo as I watch snowflakes or raindrops fall on brown leaves piled beneath bared branches.
In cold darkness, melodies emerge: the sonorous tones of a barred owl calling its mate, a staccato crash and splash as deer test ice covering the creek, distant howls of hungry coyotes. Winter rhythms slow heartbeats, deepen breathing, center souls.
On this longest night, I will pull warm blankets over my head and dream of swimming in deep oceans, flying soundlessly over frozen moonlit ground, dancing around ancient bonfires, remembering that I need darkness to see the light.
May this winter season bring us all comfort and joy.
Happy Winter Solstice.
How many times do we hear it? “I hate winter,” they all say. It starts on the morning TV newscast when the meteorologist warns of an impending cold front that will drop temperatures below freezing – or worse yet – bring frozen precipitation. Immediately, everyone but the meteorologist begins whining about ice-related inconveniences, sudden imposed constrictions on their normal routines. The morning meteorologist tries to laugh off the comments, speaking softly about the wonders of snow, but she is inevitably shouted down.
To my mind, the complainers have all lost their natural rhythm; they are no longer tied to the earth that nurtures us all. The only person in sync with the cycles of sun and moon, the turning of the earth, the waxing and waning of seasons is the meteorologist. The nature of her job is to remain aligned with the rhythmic dance of air masses and atmospheric currents of moisture and temperature. She appreciates this complex interweaving of forces responsible for what she calls weather – what I call the pulsating rhythms of Mother Earth.
Ecologists and psychologists have a name for this disconnect between humans and the blue-green orb on which we all rely: Nature Deficit Disorder. Myriad studies confirm that stress levels are measurably reduced when people step deliberately back onto green spaces, soft earth, places where traffic noise is replaced by bird songs and the sounds of moving water.
Like meteorologists, gardeners still connect with earth’s rhythms. We celebrate and honor every season by embracing it, performing the tasks designed to maximize the benefits of spring, summer, fall, and yes, winter. We know that without winter, growing seasons would be much less productive, pests and diseases would overwhelm our gardens, bulbs and many seeds would not bloom or even germinate. Seasonal transformation is the music we all dance to, whether we feel those rhythms as we pull long carrots from rich earth or ignore them as we push relentlessly through daily routines in concrete and glass edifices that prevent sunlight from touching asphalt or the weary souls scurrying on shadowy sidewalks.
I welcome the Winter Solstice. For me, it is the true onset of the new year, not January 1. That’s an artificial construct disconnected from earth’s rhythms. Today is a day to stop what you are doing, step out into chilly air, and acknowledge the essential and sacred rhythms of our planet, the music every bird and bug, spider and snake, and human being dances to, whether or not they choose to acknowledge it.
Winter Solstice occurs at 4:55 a.m. EST tomorrow, December 21. Those of us lucky enough in this world to be blessed with adequate food, shelter, and safety are mostly fixated on the holiday season that culminates (for many) with New Year’s Eve celebrations in less than two weeks. These often family-focused upcoming days can be wonderful affirmations of our connections to kin and home, and I wish all of my readers the very merriest of holidays.
But before these happy times occur, we celebrate an older tradition born from earlier centuries, when the sun’s presence – and absence – was deemed critical to the survival of everyone. On the darkest, longest night of the year, bonfires were built, prayers were chanted, and the sky was anxiously scanned for signs of dawn’s new light – the return of the sun, of life – of hope.
Light is often equated with hope, and darkness with despair. But today I invite you to consider the yin-yang of things – that dark and light are not opposites between which we must choose. Rather, they are parts of a whole, and perhaps holding too tightly to only half is contributing to the current state of our planet.
The dark can be a scary place, there’s no denying, but it is also critical to the life cycles of all living creatures. Most seeds require a dark meditation period in the embrace of earth before they germinate and reach for the light above. Roots of plants great and small embrace the darkness, drawing sustenance from it. Myriad creatures including microscopic bacteria and fungi, worm-hunting moles, root-nibbling voles, and bug-hunting salamanders all dwell happily in the darkness of earth. These darkness dwellers are essential to the survival of those of us who prefer the light. We need each other, and we need to understand each other.
I fervently wish I had an easy solution to this dark-versus-light crisis currently clutching our planet in a near stranglehold. But we humans are complex creatures, and attempts to oversimplify reality are not helpful. Thus, I have recently spent a good bit of time pondering what actions I can take myself to create more balance in my world. Of course, being a devoted lover of the Green World, I pondered ways I might be able to bring more balance – and love – to the natural world I see under assault everywhere I look.
In the new year, I hope to share some of what I’ve been reading and thinking about, but today I want to leave you with some of the many signs of hope I have recently encountered as I have been searching for ways to facilitate balance in my world.
- A local church blessed with acreage has dedicated their space to serving the homeless – humans and native plants and animals – by building spaces on their land that will serve those groups, creating a green, safe sanctuary that will shelter and heal bodies and spirits.
- A local high school has committed over the last few years to a native landscape, creating beautiful, diverse plantings around their buildings. And now they have begun planting a forest where a vast expanse of sterile Bermuda grass lawn once dominated. Row by row, native oaks are lovingly planted, and site-appropriate smaller natives are tucked around and between the young saplings. The man leading this transformation estimates it will take about 20 years for trees to become young forest, the Bermuda grass to vanish, the natives – plant and animal – to make homes in the new landscape. But the manifestation of the vision is underway – vibrant life from sterile lawn, light from darkness.
- Several groups of local citizens are beginning to tackle the enormous task of reclaiming their neighborhood greenways. Long-dominated by aggressive invasive non-native plant species, these recreational corridors are in many areas entirely dominated by a mix of non-native thugs that have outcompeted the natives that were there first, degrading essential habitats that native animals rely on for survival in an increasingly urbanized region. One stretch of greenway at a time, these groups plan to establish the light of a balanced, native landscape from the dark snarl of invasive plants that currently dominate these corridors.
That’s only a sample of what I’ve learned about activities going on in just my little corner of southeastern piedmont. But what I have also learned is that similar projects are emerging all across the United States. It seems to this lover of the Green World that many of us have reached a similar conclusion about the current state of our planet. To bring light from darkness, we must act locally. One project at time – one bonfire at a time – we are creating green light from darkness.
On the long, dark night of this Winter Solstice eve, I invite all my readers to take a few moments to reflect on what you are doing to bring light to our planet. Whether you choose to act on behalf of the Green World or perhaps one of the many other causes or disenfranchised groups in desperate need of your light and energy, I think the important thing here is to act.
Embrace the darkness; see the kernel of light always within it. Build your bonfire, and light up night’s sky.
Just before midnight tonight, the winter solstice will mark the astronomical onset of winter in my hemisphere of Earth. My region has barely experienced cold weather, much less snow, so far this “winter,” but tonight that season begins, so I welcome it with the above photo from a previous year.
For three seasons, my little corner of piedmont shelters beneath tall, leafy canopy trees that keep it cooler than surrounding open areas. But that closed green canopy also means I cannot see the sky above the treetops very clearly. Light is softened, muted by lush vegetation and thick humidity. But during the month approaching the winter solstice, and for a few months that follow it, light dominates the landscape with its presence — and its absence.
After prolonged, dark nights, pastel masterpieces usher in the sun as it reluctantly pulls itself above the horizon. But the sun seems to know this is not its season, for it soon rushes west, bringing early darkness. Prolonged winter nights dazzle us with stars, and in its changing phases, the moon. In my landscape, winter is the season of the moon, which lingers even as dawn begins to subtly brighten the sky.
Even the thinnest of crescent moons persists as dawn light appears.
And full moons transform winter nights completely. Dark nights vanish, illuminated by this bright satellite that follows me from room to room, casting shadows across the floor, negating any need for a lamp when I wander the house after midnight, made restless by its potent light. I am often wakened by winter full moons; no blind or curtain seems able to suppress their power.
This Christmas will be celebrated beneath a full moon — the first time this has happened in 38 years. I pray the power of this potent light will illuminate all the dark places in the souls of humanity, bringing hope and peace to the millions now suffering. May the moon bring you comfort during winter’s longest night, as its light promises the greater power of a summer sun.
Happy Winter Solstice, friends. Tonight the darkness is most prolonged, but then the Earth turns us slowly round to Spring light and another growing season. Personally, I love this time of year. To acknowledge this astronomical event, I’ve attempted a little poem. Apologies in advance to any real poets out there.
I Know Where the Sun Is
A pink streak outlines the eastern ridge;
bare tree trunks become black outlines.
Pink morphs to deeper mauve.
Mauve morphs to crimson and climbs the sky,
revealing the outline of every intertwining branch in the canopy.
Eastern crimson sends out pink tentacles to the southern horizon,
a thin line demarcating earth and air.
Creek water reflects red sky;
ripples of fire trail paddling wood ducks.
They know where the sun is.
As sky pales to orange, then gold,
White-throated sparrows sing a melancholy greeting.
They know where the sun is.
Advancing western clouds warm from pink to orange
before they engulf the glowing orb just rising above the ridge.
Winter gray wins the morning,
but that’s okay,
because I know where the sun is.
Every fat flower bud shelters its light.
Every green winter leaf finds its power,
even on dim days when humans growl at the clouds.
does not worry me.
I don’t need to build a solstice bonfire
to ensure the sun’s return.
Bird and bud,
Earth and air,
Spinning blue-green world
dancing in a sea of stars.
They don’t need human intervention.
I am just a speck in an infinite universe,
but I know where the sun is.
My front door faces almost due west. Our long driveway reaches the road by way of tall loblolly sentinels on both sides. Before dawn, as I walk to the end to retrieve my newspaper, I have lately been bathed in the light of the setting full moon, shining like a beacon just above the treetops.
While the moon still rules the sky, the deep hoots of Barred Owls echo through the bare forest. It is an eerily exquisite moment, when night light still dominates. Until I turn, newspaper in hand, to walk due east back to the house. Now the balance of light begins to change.
I can barely see the eastern horizon, dimly illuminated by the just-waking sun. The owls go silent as White-throated Sparrows trade plaintive calls in the dimming moonlight.
I turn back to the west to find that the moon is sinking fast, now partly hidden by the trees.
Low clouds in the east begin to catch the sun’s rising light, painting the floodplain forest in brightening pastels.
The water in the creek glows pink, reflecting sky and forest, creating bright spots on an otherwise dark forest floor.
A neighbor’s rooster announces dawn’s official arrival. Flocks of Red-winged Blackbirds gather on a towering Sweet Gum, dancing like acrobats to retrieve seeds from still dangling seed balls. A flock of two dozen Cedar Waxwings whistle to each other. I can just make out their silhouettes in the top of a Walnut tree.
The eastern sky grows brighter as more birds join the morning chorus.
I turn one last time, searching for the moon, now dimmer as the sun’s light begins to assert itself.
In a matter of five minutes, the balance of light has shifted as the moon sinks below the western horizon and the sun colors the eastern one.
Hungry does emerge from their hiding places to graze what they can before a distant hunter’s rifle shot scatters them back to the shadows.
The dance between moon and sun is never more apparent in my landscape than around the Winter Solstice. The bare trees of the deciduous forest open up sight lines, allowing both orbs to show themselves as they first emerge above the horizon.
I know some folks dislike the darkness of our winter months, but frankly, I think that’s because they’re not paying attention. Or perhaps they just don’t waken early enough to be heartened by the ever-changing, yet always constant balancing act between light and darkness. And perhaps they don’t realize that darkness only fully rules a few nights a month while the moon sleeps.
The Barred Owls know. They don’t stop their pipe organ calls during new moons. They know she’s still with us, just as they know that Winter’s cold is a necessary and welcome pause before the growing season commences in earnest.
Today marks the Winter Solstice, the point at which dark night is its most lengthy. Beginning tomorrow, the balance of light shifts back toward the sun. Before I can blink twice, green buds will be swelling, and spring vegetables will need to be planted.
For a few more weeks, I will luxuriate in Winter’s slower pace and enjoy the shifting balance of light. Soon enough, Spring’s frenzied energy will carry me into another growing season.
Happy Winter Solstice, everyone!
One of the great pleasures of gardening for me is the delicious food I grow. From seed to harvest, I control what goes into these beauties, and food I grow myself always tastes better than anyone else’s. Growing my own food almost always ensures I’ll have extras to share. It’s a good feeling to drop off a load of excess tomatoes and squash at my local food bank, or gift a foodie friend with a taste she will never otherwise enjoy.
Attracting pollinators makes sense when you’re trying to grow food requiring pollination, but I work hard to create habitat that’s inviting to a diversity of creatures. From butterflies:
and even the occasional wild turkey.
All are welcome on my five-acre patch of Piedmont.
I am not handy with a needle and thread, paintbrush, potter’s wheel, or any other artist’s tool. But I think we all share the urge to create beauty. Of course, I’m not really the creator of this magic, but I like to think of myself as a collaborator. I work hard to put the right plant in the right place, ensuring that every addition has the best chance possible to thrive and be beautiful.
For the Surprises
The little guy above was enjoying unseasonably mild temperatures yesterday, catching a few rays on the dark wall of my garage. I confess seeing a little head poking out at me from beneath the siding startled me a bit. Most of the surprises are courtesy of the creatures with whom I share my space.
Surprises bring out the child in me, the wonder of finding something new and unexpected, like a Luna Moth:
a Rainbow Scarab:
or a Snapping Turtle lumbering across the floodplain in search of a good spot to lay her eggs.
Each discovery makes me giggle like a girl, delighted to greet an unexpected wonder during my wanderings around the yard.
Plunging my hands into fragrant, loamy earth centers me. Coaxing seeds in flats in the greenhouse during chilly late winter days ties me to the coming growing season while winds howl and frozen ground crunches beneath my feet.
For Reassurance through the Constancy of Change
Staying close to the cycles of the earth, from spring’s fresh enthusiasm:
to summer’s overwhelming productivity:
to autumn’s glorious farewell displays:
to winter’s quiet, meditative landscapes.
I am immersed in Life’s cycles, making it easier for me to remember that even the most horrible acts of mankind will not stop the Earth’s turning, the green growing. Life overcomes and persists. Sunrises follow sunsets. I am comforted by the changing constancy that surrounds me.
The longest night approaches. Tomorrow’s sunrise will bring our shortest day, as the solstice ushers in Winter’s light. As a gardener, I know this dark, cold season is as necessary to the Green World as springtime.
Embrace the darkness, my friends. Tomorrow marks the return of lengthening days and the promise of spring songs and flowers. Meanwhile, enjoy the beauty that only a winter sunrise can offer.