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.
The Flatiron Building at twilight
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.
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.
A golden sunset over the Shawangunk Ridge
The sky over the Shawangunk Ridge not long afterward
The light before sunset at Brooklyn Bridge Park
Sculpture at Brooklyn Bridge Park
Shadows on a winter landscape
Just before sunrise
Reflections and silhouettes, near the Wallkill River
The Flatiron Building after sunset
The sun and silhouettes across the East River
Gantries silhouette at Gantry Plaza State Park
View the slide show larger at Flickr.