22 December 2009

Celebrate the Coming of the Light

Today is the first full day of winter. Yesterday at 12:47 p.m. EST was the Winter Solstice. If you had a chance to see the sun rising or setting, it would have appeared to hug the horizon closer than ever because the earth’s tilt was at its maximum declination.

I use that word, declination, for fun--it was the word of the day yesterday at Visual Thesaurus Magazine, an online service I subscribe to.

It used to seem odd to me that it feels like winter several weeks before winter officially arrives and that Christmas, which we consider a winter holiday, barely makes it into the official winter season. Part of the reason, I think, that it seems like winter long before it really is, is because daylight wanes up until the Winter Solstice, when it begins to wax again.

I don’t know if it happens like this every year, but the new moon very nearly coincided with the Winter Solstice this year. Through Dec. 15, the portion of the moon we see was growing smaller (if, indeed, cloud cover allowed us to see any of it) and thus giving off less light. Then, Dec. 16, 17 and 18, the three days of the “Dark Moon” phase, it disappeared entirely until it reappeared Saturday, Dec. 19, as the merest eyelash. Yesterday and today it’s in its peak crescent form, and it will continue to “grow” until the full moon on New Year’s Eve.

Many gardeners, in springtime, continue to plant with a new moon as almanacs advise, so that the increase in light at night will help to pull the new life forth from the ground.

Cycles Within Cycles Within Cycles

I see the waning and waxing of the moon as a smaller cycle within the larger cycle of the earth’s movement around the sun and the changes in sunlight we experience as a result. That cycle is in me as well, and in every living being. I go through times of decrease and increase, and each of those is natural and will pass into the other eventually. This happens to us all. It is what makes us alive, and we should celebrate it in ourselves and in each other.

It’s when I began to garden that I gained a new appreciation of cycles and of winter’s place in the cycle of life. As much as I love watching things grow, caring for a garden takes a great deal of time and effort. Suddenly, winter revealed itself anew to me as a time of rest, and along about July I began to look forward to its coolness and its chance for repose.

The plants rest in winter, too, after pushing past their peak around the time of the summer solstice and retreating gradually back inside themselves so they can regenerate for another year of spilling forth. Let me give you an example: my asparagus. Unusual in that it’s a perennial vegetable, the asparagus crop is done around the first of June, depending on the weather and my diligence at harvesting.

Instead of cutting the stalks for eating while they’re still under a foot and tender, at that time I begin to let them grow as tall as they like. In a few weeks they’re as tall or taller than I am and they “bloom” into gracious ferns that shade their corner of the yard like a primeval forest. Or at least it must seem so for the birds, rabbits and other wildlife who congregate in their coolness as summer temperatures soar.

As the garden moves toward fall, these same ferns bear tiny red berries, which the birds and rabbits feed on. We don’t cut down the stalks until falling temperatures and waning light turn them from citrusy green to brown. Why? Because as long as the topside is green, the underside, which I personally buried under a foot of earth, is drawing off energy to produce next year’s crop. The ferns are like giant straws, reaching toward the sun to suck energy down into the plant crowns.

I’d like to see what happens underground the day after the Winter Solstice when daylight begins to increase again! The plants certainly must feel it, as I do now that I'm aware of it. This knowledge gives me a new appreciation of the winter world. The colors of my yard, though subdued, are alive with a sort of restful beauty. Shapes are more apparent, particularly when snow accentuates the remaining deciduous plant structures and evergreen shrub forms.

Winter turns my yard into a sort of sculpture garden, and I realize I don’t need to see evidence of growth at all to know it’s going on. Something is always happening, always growing. And often, more is going on below the surface, beneath the ground, in the dark, and even in the winter. It’s true for people, too; you’ve heard the adage, “Still waters run deep,” right?

Bird by Bird by Bird

I like to feed the birds, and I usually keep feeders filled in both the front and back yards year-round. But 2009 was a stressful year for my family and me. I forgot to fill the feeders most of the time, or if I remembered, I just didn’t do it. I was too depleted. But things are finally turning around.

I know birds depend more on feeders in winter when there’s less food available naturally than in summer when things are growing everywhere, and that snow makes it even more difficult for them to scavenge for food. So before the last snow hit, I brought in ALL my feeders (Six? Seven?) and cleaned and filled them. The snow came and went over the weekend, and no birds showed. The seed and suet just sat there. The birds had forgotten me, I surmised, just as I’d forgotten them.

Then yesterday, on the Winter Solstice, the first cardinal couple visited my front-yard feeders. This morning, the tree outside the window where I sit to write is full of at least six pairs of cardinals, busily exchanging places at the four feeders. The males spar in the air from time to time, as do the females. All flit from feeder to feeder to ground, where they retrieve what’s fallen. The brown and white palette of my snowy, hibernating yard and the gray, clouded light that is midwinter make these always colorful birds more striking than ever. Even the tawny females seem lit with an inner glow I wouldn’t notice in the glare of a sunny July day.

Now there are two gray-blue nuthatches with white chests and faces and black caps, prancing down the trunk of the ash tree. One squirrel just chased another away until he (or she?) is done filling his cheeks with my corn. It waits across the street until the first squirrel leaves, then moves in and out in a flash, followed by a third. Where there was no activity, now there is an abundance of life.

Most of winter is about the light increasing, whereas after the Summer Solstice in June, the garden is on the wane; it’s dying, in spite of the beautiful weather yet to come. Like an iceberg that’s more than three-fourths underwater, winter is mostly the “new” waiting underground. Life, of which I’m a part, always finds a way to sustain itself, though some days the feeder is empty, and other days no one comes there to eat in spite of an abundance of food. But if it hangs there long enough, eventually there will be diners.

As I organize my writing projects for the New Year and prepare to celebrate the Christmas holiday with my family, I look forward to a period of flow after so long an ebbing. And I’m thankful for cycles, something I can depend upon. Regardless of our individual differences and various beliefs, it’s important to realize that the one thing that unites us, world over, is the cycle of life and, at the Winter Solstice, the coming of the light.

True blessings of the season to you and yours.