Tag Archive 'winter solstice'

Dec 29 2022

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Reflections on Christmas

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Usually, I don’t make any public statement about the Christian holiday that rolls around this time of year, but it seems disingenuous for me as a philosopher to ignore the elephant in the living room – in this case, the Christmas tree. Yes, Judy and I have one even though we are not Christians in any traditional sense of the word. We call it a memory tree, decorated as it is with ornaments that remind us of loved ones who have passed away along with those still living. We have lights up on our house, as well, and there are other holiday decorations inside our home. We “celebrate” this time of year the best we can. But it isn’t easy.

The West, including the United States, is a predominantly Christian culture. For over a month we are immersed in a frenzied build-up to Christmas whether we like it or not. With pagan-like tolerance, I can reclaim this time of year by celebrating the Winter Solstice. But I am not a pagan so that too seems disingenuous. I am deeply religious, but not in a way that makes sense to most people. No matter. Christmas is thrust upon me regardless of what I think or believe.

Raised Catholic, my feelings about this time of year are complicated by childhood memories. Then there is my mother, who was very much a Christian and loved this time of year when she was alive. I keep a Santa Claus on my bookshelf year-round in memory of her. Santa Claus, hmm… That confuses the matter, as do all the secular icons – the Grinch, Rudolph, elves, etc. – that have little or nothing to do with the birth of Jesus of Nazareth over two thousand years ago. Jesus Christ, he is usually called, because he is the God/man who came into this world to save us from ourselves. That is what the Christmas holiday is all about, despite the huge influx of retail sales. Oh yeah, this holiday is complicated for all of us. Very complicated, indeed.

Afflicted by Seasonal Affected Disorder, I am relieved to be on the other side of the Winter Solstice, with the prospect of daylight increasing with every passing day for the next six months. That alone is reason for me to celebrate the season. I look forward to the days ahead despite frigid temps. I especially look forward to turning the page on the calendar and beginning a new year. Nature, it seems to me, is reclaiming the world.

While chatting with a store clerk right after the holiday, I asked how her Christmas went. She said she was glad it’s over. No surprise there. Then she added: “It’s too much.” I have been pondering that for days. Yes, it is too much. It’s completely over the top for reasons that have nothing to do with the birth of Christ. It’s as if the entire Western world goes a little crazy this time of year. And most of us are glad to be on the other side of it. Go figure.

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Dec 15 2022

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Keeping the Faith

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Once there is less than 9 hours daylight, day after day, I find it hard to stay upbeat. Sitting in my study, writing essays about the human condition and other philosophical matters doesn’t help. Nor does all the holiday hoopla that breaks out this time of year. I try to play along, ignoring the worst of it, but the hoopla gets to me all the same. Bah, humbug?

Reading a few inspiring passages by some of my favorite nature writers made me realize that I’m slipping into an early winter funk. Despite the cold and snow, I need to be outdoors. So that’s what I did yesterday. I drove twenty-five minutes south then went for a hike around Milton Pond.

With only a couple inches of snow on the ground, a pair of Yaktrax was all it took to gain traction. I slipped them over my boots and set forth. I carried water in a small teardrop pack and stuffed my jacket in there, as well, once my inner furnace was cranked up. I walked fast enough around the pond to inhale deeply the fresh cold air without feeling like I was in a hurry. The pond was iced over already, surprisingly enough. The sun tried to burn a hole in the thin cloud cover overhead, but without much success. No matter. I didn’t mind the muted light.

I ran into only a few other hikers and their dogs so I was alone most of the time. That felt good. It felt good to tramp through the forest, over snow-covered ground, simply grooving on the wild. I am, after all, a nemophilist – one who loves the woods and haunts them regularly. My wife discovered that obscure word the other day then brought it to my attention. It fits.

Today I’m still in something of an early winter funk, but it’s not quite so bad after yesterday’s outing. I’ll have to get out again real soon, for a second dose of the wild. And that’s how a woods wanderer like me keeps the faith. While hiking through the forest, everything makes more sense to me, and life seems much more worthwhile.

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Dec 15 2021

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Bluebirds of Happiness

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During a short spell of relatively warm, sunny days, Judy and I went birding. We went birding just to get out of the house. We first stopped at Shelburne Bay, where various waterfowl had been spotted recently. We saw mergansers and buffleheads there, but they were too far away for Judy to take good photos. So we walked the LaPlatte River Trail next, instead of lingering along the lake’s edge waiting for ducks to draw nearer.

The trail following the LaPlatte River was muddy, but we had donned hiking boots before leaving the house in anticipation of that. We took our time, moving ever so slowly over waterlogged boards.

When I first saw movement through the trees, I assumed that the fast-moving, airborne creatures were robins. They turned out to be eastern bluebirds – half a dozen of them passing through. A pair perched temporarily on power lines not far away, making it easy for me to identify them with my binoculars. Incredible! This time of year? A few moments later, one landed on a nearby tree branch, giving Judy an opportunity to snap shots of it.

Bluebirds of happiness. Just what we needed. Deep into the second year of a pandemic, with all kinds of depressing news both locally and worldwide, and one week shy of the darkest day of the year, a little happiness goes along way.

In Russian fairy tales, the bluebird is a symbol of hope. In Navajo culture, it’s associated with the rising sun just as it is in ancient Chinese myths. The bluebird of happiness dates back to the Middle Ages in European folklore – a tale retold by Madame D’Aulnoy in L’Oiseau Bleu. Yeah, the upbeat symbolism of bluebirds is nearly universal. How lucky were we to spot them?

We went to Delta Park after that, catching a brief glimpse of a wren in the dense underbrush along the lake’s shore. Judy didn’t even have time to raise her camera for that one. No matter. The clouds had cleared out by then, exposing a perfectly blue sky an hour before dusk. We went home happy. Sometimes it doesn’t take much to feel that way.

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Dec 22 2020

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Mac’s Bend

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Judy found out from her online birding group that bald eagles have been seen recently at Mac’s Bend near the mouth of the Missisquoi River, so we went there yesterday afternoon. Sure enough, we spotted a pair of them perched atop a tree on the other side of the river, not more than ten minutes into our walk. Unfortunately, they were too far away for Judy to get a good photo of them. So it goes with birding during the winter, more often than not.

We kept walking, following the gated, gravel access road to the Jeep trail ahead. We kept our eyes peeled for whatever else might come along. A woodpecker and a few nuthatches appeared. That’s all. Still it was good getting out of the house, getting some fresh air and stretching our legs. With the pandemic raging these days, we’ve been homebound for the most part.

The river was iced over and covered with a thin layer of fresh snow that also covered the access road. With temps above freezing and no wind, we were comfortable enough as we walked. Sunlight seeped through fissures in the grey clouds overhead. Animal tracks crisscrossed the river. All was quiet as the landscape settled into its winter dormancy.

After checking the time on my cell phone, I realized that there was only another hour and a half of daylight left. No surprise there, this being the shortest day of the year. Winter Solstice. The official beginning of winter. The good news is that the days will be getting longer from here on out.

Judy and I linked arms as we strolled back to the car. We chatted a bit but kept things light. There is enough darkness this time of year – especially this year. Upon reaching the car, we decided to drive around a bit on back roads and continue looking for eagles and other raptors. We spotted a hawk perched on a pole in the middle of a field and saw another one devouring a field mouse she had just caught. We enjoyed seeing houses adorned with colorful lights during our drive back home – Christmas being only four days away. Oh yeah, it’s that time of year.

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Dec 21 2019

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Winter Solstice Hike

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Midmorning. With temps still in the single digits, I strap crampons onto my boots and head into the woods. Just a short hike today – enough to celebrate the shortest day of the year. Today is the Winter Solstice. That means the days will only be getting longer during the next six months. That’s music to my ears.

Technically, this is the beginning of winter, but it has been winter-like here in northern Vermont for well over a month. And it’ll stay that way for another three months. I can’t complain though. I do my best writing this time of year. If I lived in a place that’s warm year round, my literary output would be cut in half.

I tramp a well-beaten path up Aldis Hill. I like this pocket of woods because it’s close by, albeit right on the edge of town. On a cold morning like this, I have the place to myself for the most part. A few people and their dogs are out, that’s all.

A hairy woodpecker pecks away at a dead tree, but no other forest creatures are stirring. No tracks in the snow, either. Whenever it’s this cold, there’s not a whole lot happening in the woods.

I walk with memories flooding into my head – what has happened during the past year as well as those who are no longer with us. Bittersweet thoughts for the most part. I’ve become rather sentimental in my later years. But 2020 is right around the corner, so memories morph into hopes, dreams and big plans for the year ahead.

The hike goes by quickly. Then I head home to attend to my book biz. There’s a cup of hot chocolate in my future, I think. That and a long winter nap.

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Dec 11 2019

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Long Walk on a Short Day

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The snow that had blanketed northern Vermont since early November melted off during the past few days. That gave me a chance to get out and really stretch my legs this afternoon, before it snowed again. So I did just that, heading for the wilder section of the nearby Rail Trail to hike hard and fast across barren ground.

Mid-afternoon and already the trees casting long shadows. The days are short this time of year. No matter. The nearly cloudless, deep blue sky lured me out of my warm car and into the seasonably cool air.

I became a little melancholy yesterday, while listening to holiday music during a book-hunting road trip. My mother loved Christmas so I couldn’t help but think of her, and my father as well. They’re both gone now, along with my canine companion Matika who walked the Rail Trail with me countless times during the past twelve years. But there’s a time to grieve and a time to get on with life. This afternoon, I chose the latter.

There was still ice in the wetlands this afternoon, and patches of snow lingered beneath the trees. It won’t take much for winter to reclaim this landscape, but for an hour I walked with a warm-season gait, leaving faint tracks in the partially melted surface of the trail. I crossed paths with a chipmunk that was also taking advantage of the day. This time of year, it’s wise to get out while one can.

Back home now, I’ll soon return to the work I was doing this morning. But first these words jotted down while savoring the last bit of daylight. The sun is sinking fast into the western horizon. Less than nine hours of light today. The Winter Solstice approaches. Glad I got out and soaked up some rays while I could.

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Dec 19 2018

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Winter Sunrise

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It’s that time of year again. Half of our hours awake take place in the darkness or twilight, and there’s all this talk about being merry. I just roll with it. A friend of mine told me that he thrives on the darkness, so we toasted to that the other day. But I must admit, I don’t quite relate.

I’ve already done a couple hours work in my study by the time the sun comes up. Over breakfast, the eastern sky reddens towards dawn. I visit my favorite weather website to verify what I already know: sunrise just shy of 7:30 and sunset around 4:15. The Winter Solstice is still two days away but we’re pretty much there. Already we’ve seen the earliest sunset, thanks to Earth’s elliptical orbit and other astronomical technicalities. Soon the days will start getting longer again. The latest sunrise takes place shortly after that.

Being neither pagan nor Judeo-Christian, the holidays always feel a little strange to me. That said, I’ve put up a fir tree in my living room and hung some lights outside. The darkest day of the year is about to pass, and that’s something worth celebrating.

Now comes what another friend of mine calls The Long White. We’re already well into it, but there’s a lot more winter ahead. The deep cold comes in January, and we get plenty of snow after that. A good time of year for doing literary work, that’s the upside. All the same, I go for a long walk every other day. It’s important to get outdoors no matter what.

 

 

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Dec 20 2017

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End Year Reflection

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Daybreak. Looking out the window of my study, I watch the dried leaves still clinging to a beech tree rustle in the wind against a dark grey and bluish-white background. The first light illuminates several inches of snow covering the ground. The denuded trees are motionless.

I have been up for a couple hours, printing out a recently revised manuscript, checking email, and reviewing the records I’ve kept of my activities stretching back through the years. The past year has been a busy one, to say the least. Then again, it seems like I’m always busy doing something. I’m lucky that way, I guess.

Whenever I reflect upon past events, I become a little melancholy. It’s not so much a sadness precipitated by any given event as it is a mounting awareness of the passage of time and a sense that things have happened without me fully experiencing them. This is silly, of course. We all live in the eternal present, and despite our best efforts mindfulness can only take us so far.

The past and the present are two different things. We live in the here/now. Our memories are something else – fractured, distorted, piecemeal, selective. There is always a separation between what I am in this moment and what I once was. And yet there is consistency as well. Memory is, after all, what shapes identity.

Sometimes it’s important to stop and think about where you’ve been, where you are, and where you’re going. This time of year seems like a good time to do that. The Winter Solstice is a turning of the page – the end of one chapter and the beginning of another. Before striking forth courageously into the future, one should have courage enough to acknowledge the past and what one has become as a result. This is what I try to do this time of year, anyhow, despite the holiday hoopla. It isn’t easy.

 

 

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Dec 16 2016

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Winter Blues

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winter-bluesThe other day Judy showed me this photo that she recently took out our back door in early morning. “Winter blues” she calls it.

There’s a coldness and a darkness to the picture, much in keeping with what many of us are feeling these days, yet there’s warmth and light in it as well. Double meaning. Leave it to my wife to capture both moods of this season in one image.

I find the darkness this time of year hard to take, not to mention the bitter cold, but the charm of winter does not escape me. There are times when I marvel at the beauty of illuminated clouds strewn across a deep blue sky, appreciate the clean simplicity of the earth blanketed by fresh snow, and accept the dormancy of leafless trees as Nature’s way.

I spot several deer slipping through the forest one morning and suddenly I have nothing to complain about. At the end of any walk I take there’s always a warm house with plenty of food in the cupboards. Not everyone has it so easy.

The blues, yes, Judy and I both feel it. We miss the green world, the barefoot days, fresh produce, and those gentle gusts of warm summer air wafting through the window. But that’ll all come back soon enough. Nature cycles round and round…

How’s that saying go? Curse the darkness or light a candle. There are two ways to approach nearly everything – two entirely different attitudes. Not so much the picture as it is how we look at it. The shortest, darkest day of the year is almost upon us. Then things will swing the other way. And that’s reason enough, I think, to celebrate.

 

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Dec 17 2015

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A Short Gray Day

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December Rail TrailAfter a productive morning on the computer, I went to the nearby rail trail to stretch my legs and clear my head. The sky overhead was full of clouds so I wasn’t real excited about getting outdoors. But the midday temps were well above freezing. That meant the walk would be pleasant enough.

The sun, hanging low in the southern sky, peeked through the clouds just as I was starting out. That was the last of it, though. A stiff breeze blew in more clouds from the west a few minutes later, obscuring the sun and assuring that it’ll rain this evening.

Here in northern Vermont, the sun rose at 7:24 this morning. It’ll set at 4:12 this afternoon. Yeah, it’s that time of year – a tough time for those of us who are energized by light.

Chickadees flitted through the trees, adding a little cheer to an otherwise dreary day. I flushed a great blue heron from a small brook. My dog Matika was happy just to trot along and sniff around. Watching her, I couldn’t help but wonder if perhaps I think too much.

Nature has its moods. It is best to roll with them, I kept telling myself. So I focused on the warm air, and the clear path underfoot as I walked – a rarity in mid-December. Be grateful for that. The deep cold and heavy snow will come soon enough.

The days will start getting longer in a couple weeks. Until then, I’ll illuminate the tree in my living room as grey light gives way to twilight. In fact, it’s time to do that now. In the absence of the real thing, artificial light will have to do.

 

 

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