Silhouettes, Shadows, and the Solstice

December 27th, 2012 · 16 Comments · Beyond Gotham

Perhaps the days of shortest daylight create a more intense desire to savor the play of light and shadow. We have just passed the winter solstice on Dec. 21, experiencing the shortest time of daylight for each day. It’s our all-too-human tendency to not appreciate something when we have it in abundance, say, when a June day possesses some 15 hours of daylight in the Northeast United States. Yet the shifts of light and darkness in early winter possess a particular quality, amid that daily prospect of a scant eight hours or so of precious daylight and long, deep nights of tingly cold and moon shadow.

The changes come minute by minute. In the Northeast U.S., our sunsets have been at their earliest point for a couple of weeks and now start to edge later by a minute or two each day. Yet sunrises are slower to shift back and will get later by a small amount until early January, before making the turn toward spring and summer’s very early daylight. But if daylight now is in less quantity, it possesses immense quality – the beauty at the beginnings and ends of the day is often stark and bold.

Flatiron Building In Winter Twilight

The Flatiron Building at twilight

Gantries and Manhattan Skyline

The gantries of Gantry Plaza State Park and the Manhattan skyline silhouetted after sunset

It’s a good time to take a cue from centuries ago. The word “solstice” has Latin origins from words that denote the sun standing, referring to a moment when the sun “stands still” before it moves in the opposing direction, as naturalist and author Hal Borland consistently reminded us. Though the sun doesn’t actually cease movement, as Borland said, we can take its hint to stop and notice the splendor unfolding each day.

Whose Pace?

Unfortunately, the human calendar has its own rhythm. In late November, December, and early January, many are too harried bustling around for holidays and end-of-year deadlines to mark and honor a natural passage of time. Pity if one doesn’t look at the mesmerizing silhouettes and shadows of the solstice time and the passage from late autumn into early winter, and feel grateful. The daily movements of light and darkness remind us of the eternal verities of beauty and serenity, and can be a source of comfort and solace when some world events are senseless.

The dance of light, shadows, color, and elemental forms makes for some of the year’s most remarkable interplay. Building shapes, the silhouettes of hills and mountains, and the bare, delicate outlines of trees and shrubs, at dawn and dusk as the sun rises and sets, produce a visual ballet that moves into varying positions ever so slightly, with each passing minute. The profiles of New York’s skyscrapers, paired with other manmade structures or framed by the trees, create striking silhouettes in the early morning or late afternoon, at times dazzling in pink, lavender, or golden skies. Because the sun’s arc is the year’s lowest, it causes long shadows of amazing geometry on the landscape. We may bemoan the early sunsets, but in the city, suburbia, and countryside they provide a spellbinding picture of light as many head home from their workdays, as if to say “enjoy – and now go home, relax, hunker down, and rest.”

“Lift Up Mine Eyes”

Somehow, I find that looking to the horizons is comforting and strengthening. The first verse of Psalm 121 – “I will lift up mine eyes unto the hills, from whence cometh my help” – has always come to mind. The Bible’s scholars discuss various meanings for this line. Some Christian scholars say it decries a tendency to turn to the natural (as pagans did) for aid and not to God; others maintain that it describes looking for help above the hills toward the Divine or toward Jerusalem; and some see it as a question. Regardless, I find something calming and affirming in the vistas of the horizons, the sureness of sunrise and sunset, and the daily displays of beauty.

The daily rites of sunrise and sunset have been even more comforting in recent weeks while we have been reeling from the horrific news of the Dec. 14 shooting of so many children and their educators in Newtown, Conn. The senseless nature of this violence sparks so many questions and unsettles us. The news and its images are difficult to see day after day. Thus, nature’s rituals – the order and the beauty of daybreak and nightfall, sunrise and sunset and twilight – provide some serenity and signal life’s dependable rhythms. This can give a sense and hope that something beyond the tragedies of this world has eternal truth.

The gifts of this seasonal change and light around winter solstice are precious indeed. Perhaps in late December, we’d buy a few extra hours of daylight at those holiday sales if we could. Yet nature isn’t selling, she is showing. As Borland wrote, “Now we pay for the long days of summer in the simple currency of daylight.” Nature as teacher: The rhythms of the sun, the stars, and our Earth are beyond our control, this seems to say, but they reflect a balance, to the day and the year. They teach us to walk with them. Year in and year out, this is the endless cycle. In their passages and changes, we learn to appreciate balance and the infiniteness of time and season.

Golden Sunset And The Trees

A golden sunset over the Shawangunk Ridge

Post-Sunset Sky

The sky over the Shawangunk Ridge not long afterward

The Light Before Sunset, Brooklyn Bridge Park

The light before sunset at Brooklyn Bridge Park

Sculpture At Brooklyn Bridge Park

Sculpture at Brooklyn Bridge Park

Long Shadows On A Marsh

Shadows on a winter landscape

Before Sunrise

Just before sunrise

Sky, River, Mountain

Reflections and silhouettes, near the Wallkill River

Flatiron Building after sunset

The Flatiron Building after sunset

Sunset Over The East River

The sun and silhouettes across the East River

Gantries Silhouette

Gantries silhouette at Gantry Plaza State Park

View the slide show larger at Flickr.

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16 Comments so far ↓

  • Shannon M. Allain

    I feel like I just took a peaceful winter walk with you, Susan. A beautiful, tender piece which I found very welcome right now.

    • Susan DeMark

      Wonderful, Shannon — and thank you! I’m so happy that you found it welcome. Even the wonderful things of the holidays can make us in need of some quiet spaces, I find. So touched by your response.


  • Collier

    Beautiful images. This is a great time of year to get out and explore. Thanks for sharing this post!

    • Susan DeMark


      Thanks so much! I agree very much with you about this time of year. I find it inspiring and energizing. That’s cool that you do, too. Glad to share with you and everyone!


  • lynne suprock

    Beautiful pieces of such tiny shrines of humanity against the awesomeness of nature’s backdrop!

    • Susan DeMark

      Thanks, Lynne, for that perspective. You always conceive so visually, which is why you create the amazing art that you do. They are “tiny shrines of humanity” in comparison with the vastness of nature as we know it and the universe beyond.

      Gratefully and with wishes for blessings in the New Year,

  • Diana

    Lovely! Your post reminds me to enjoy the winter and not complain about the cold so much 😉

    • Susan DeMark

      Thanks so much, Diana! It’s easy to grumble sometimes about the cold, isn’t it? Your comment here sent me to your blog post about not making New York’s resolutions. Very wise thoughts. There is a common thread between this post and your column, I believe — the importance of appreciating what we have in our lives and finding ways to look beyond ourselves to what is around us.

      Again, thanks, and Happy New Year!


  • Caryn

    Susan, I generally try to spend the Midwinter period quietly and meditatively (after the Christmas and Chanukah get-togethers!), with lots of long walks. You have expressed so clearly and beautifully what “catches” me about this season, and you have done it visually and in words. Thank you so much!

    • Susan DeMark


      You’re very welcome! That makes me very happy, to know that I caught something that you appreciate, too, in the season. It’s what I aimed to do. Like you, I find the long walks and meditation on my surroundings during those walks a welcome respite after the holidays. Thank you for stopping by and sharing what you find and enjoy during the midwinter period.

      Joys and blessings to you in the New Year,

  • Janet Pozzuto Polas

    Susan, I read your blog through Shannon’s post and was surprised and delighted to see you are the ‘mindful blogger’. Love the photos and the thoughts.

    • Susan DeMark


      What a very nice surprise, to see your comment in my inbox. I’m delighted to see it!

      Thank you for your wonderful response to the post and the blog. You’ve made my evening. I hope and trust all is well with you, and blessings to you in the New Year!

      Shannon inspires me!


  • Chris

    Beautiful piece, Susan – just beautiful. Your speaking of nature’s rituals – “the order and the beauty of daybreak and nightfall, sunrise and sunset and twilight..” reminds me of chapters of my favorite book – Anne Morrow Lindbergh, Gifts from the Sea… Here is but one golden nugget – “Perhaps this is the most important thing for me to take back from beach living: simply the memory that each cycle of the tides is valid; each cycle of the wave is valid; each cycle of a relationship is valid. And my shells? I can sweep them all into my pocket. They are only there to remind me that the sea recedes and returns eternally.”

    • Susan DeMark

      Thank you, Chris — your response touches me deeply, and especially because I know you as one who is so observant of nature’s cycles.

      That passage of Anne Morrow Lindbergh leaves me feeling awe. It flows like a wave. I need to read that book…have wanted to do so for quite a while.

      I’m grateful that you shared the passage, for someone who reads your comment now has that “nugget” to take away, and for your bringing your own richness here.

      Blessings to you in the New Year…and many hours to feel the joys of your exploring!


  • Out Walking the Dog

    What a beautiful post, Susan, and lovely photos. I’ve been away from your site too long!

    • Susan DeMark

      Thank you so much, Melissa! That makes my morning. Hope to keep giving you reasons to return, and I hope, too, you’ve been enjoying your walks into the wild world of New York City nature. Looking forward to exploring your observations this spring!


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