Tuesday, December 21, 2010

The Longest Night: Ruminations

How quickly we come to this point. It seems that only a few days ago we were still gathering in the last of the gardens. Now the tomatoes shine brightly in rows of jars in the cellar and potatoes nestle in their bin while outside the ground is snow-covered and icicles hang from the eves. And yet, we are only now saying good-bye to autumn and welcoming winter. It seems that autumn invited winter to a sleepover this year and winter forgot to leave. In this part of West Virginia we have snow on the ground almost continuously since the beginning of December, and only two days this month without precipitation of some sort--mostly snow.

But tonight we see the slow return of the sun as daylight stays longer, a minute or two at a time. In olden times great celebrations welcomed the sun's return; today Christmas has overshadowed the earlier date of Solstice and most of us have never experienced the old ways of welcoming winter and the sun. Last night's eclipse drew more people out than usual, I expect, to wonder at the magic of a winter night. I did not get up to see the eclipse--call it old age or just plain tiredness, but although I woke up and considered getting up, I did not. So I missed it, although those who did venture out tell me we had cloud cover so what they saw was a hazy red moon and a red glow across the sky. Which I would have found completely fascinating.

I admit that December is one of my favorite months. I know that is at odds with many people in the northern hemisphere, but consider my reasons. In December, we finally have time to slow down. Evenings are long and quiet, with no cookouts, lawns to mow, gardens to tend, or visitors dropping by. We have time to read, reorganize and recover from the hectic pace of summer and fall. We have the holidays to look forward to-cards to address as we think about friends and family, shopping for others and thinking about them as we wrap gifts. We can look out at the world from our warm houses and see the shape of the hills outlined in white and gray, watch the redbirds, sharp in relief against the snow, fighting at the feeder. We can tramp around collecting evergreens and fill our homes with their scent. We can bake and add to the scent sensation with cinnamon, nutmeg, and vanilla. We can go to bed early if we want.

Poets have ways of describing this season, like this poem, one of my favorites:

I heard a bird sing
In the dark of December
A magical thing
And sweet to remember.

We are nearer to Spring
Than we were in September,
I heard a bird sing
In the dark of December.

- Oliver Herford, I Heard a Bird Sing

Then there is this, a reminder of how it is when we have been outside, and then come in to bed:

Before going to bed
After a fall of snow
I look out on the field
Shining there in the moonlight
So calm, untouched and white
Snow silence fills my head
After I leave the window.

Hours later near dawn
When I look down again
The whole landscape has changed
The perfect surface gone
Criss-crossed and written on
where the wild creatures ranged
while the moon rose and shone.

why did my dog not bark?
Why did I hear no sound
There on the snow-locked ground
In the tumultuous dark?

How much can come, how much can go
When the December moon is bright,
What worlds of play we'll never know
Sleeping away the cold white night
After a fall of snow.

May Sarton, December Moon

In Winter Morning Walks, Ted Kooser sees a portent of spring in his poem for December 21, when the temperature was five degrees:

Perfectly still this Solstice morning,
in bone-cracking cold. Nothing moving,
or so one might think, but as I walk the road,
the wind held in the heart of every tree
flows to the end of each twig and forms a bud.
 So, even though more snow is in the forecast and there is still a good covering on the ground, if we look we might see, as Kooser did, some small sign that Nature is preparing for spring while we prepare for our holidays. It is as it should be; the cycle continues, and we continue on our way too, moving forward with hope into a future unknown and yet somehow familiar with plants that surely come back every year to line our path.


Rowan said...

This is a lovely Solstice post, the poems all describe winter nights so well. Like you I enjoy December with its long, quiet nights spent reading or knitting. The signs of the spring to come are there if you look for them, tight black ash buds, hazel catkins - I think there's the makings of a post here:)

Granny Sue said...

I will look forward to reading your thoughts, Rowan, and your description of how you see spring coming in England.

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