Sunday, December 21, 2008

MIDWINTER…OR NOT

Winter officially begins today with the arrival of the solstice twenty-one minutes from now. If this were Newgrange, Ireland—which certainly wasn’t what either the site or the area was called 5000 years ago, when the passage tomb was built—there’s a chance some of my distant kin might have been huddled deep in the cave-like structure’s innermost recesses, awaiting a single shaft of solstice sunlight to briefly illuminate the floor of the large chamber located at the end of a long passage. We don’t really know why this lighted moment was so important to the Neolithic people who built Dún Fhearghusa, to give it its old Irish name. Ceremonial, surely—though how the renewed sunlight marking the beginning of the sun’s return tied into the huge, hollow grave mound remains a mystery. It was, however, important enough to justify a tremendous amount of brutal labor. If Newgrange were located in my corner of southwestern Ohio, the big event would probably turn out to be a bust this time around. When I poked my head outside a few minutes ago, the sky was heavily overcast, and of course, pitch dark. I wouldn’t bet on it clearing soon enough to allow for a sunrise observance—a bummer if you’re all dressed up in your finest woolly mammoth skins, hoping for an actual sunbeam. This morning is instead likely to be one of those in which the changeover from dark to light is almost invisibly gradual—the former leaking slowly away while the latter seeps in from the east. Dawn which just sort of evolves rather than happens. Today is also the old midwinter point, according to the former order of seasonal reckoning. One of my favorite Christmas carols is “In the Bleak Midwinter,” by Christina Rossetti and Gustav Holst. But as a kid, I could never understand why the piece referred to midwinter, when winter had—at best—barely begun. It wasn’t until I learned that in earlier times, the Celts, among others, considered that winter began on Samhain, November 1, and ended on Imbolc, with spring’s arrival, about February 1. Midwinter was then centered at the solstice—a perfectly logical way of aligning the seasons, if you ask me…which, of course, Pope Gregory XII failed to do when he screwed up the calendar in 1582. But whether it has been here six weeks already, or is just now arriving, winter is indeed upon the land. And making its presence known, too, with a skift of snow during the night, 18 degree temperatures outside right now, and a predicted low tonight of 4 measly degrees. Brr-r-r-r!
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Well, I was wrong about the overcast sky persisting. Though there were still clouds along the eastern horizon only a minute or two before sunrise—they obligingly scooted off-stage as the actual event took place. Who would’a thunk. (It didn't make it a degree warmer, though, as I waited in the side yard for the magic moment when the sun peeped over the little hillock to the east and began climbing through the tangle of limbs in one of my big sycamores. Oh, the things we photographers must do for that perfect shot…) At any rate, it’s time to feed the birds. By solstice dawn’s early light, I see the dastardly squirrels have again yanked the suet feeder off its hook and onto the ground. Can’t have a bunch of irate woodpeckers upset. Welcome to winter!

2 comments:

The Solitary Walker said...

Glad you put yourself out for that 'magic moment' shot. I think it turned out rather well!

Enjoyed reading this post very much. 'In the Bleak Winter' one of my favourites too.

The grizzled but still incorrigible scribe himself! said...

Thank you, Solitary.

It was really cold out there when I did the shot—but nothing like as cold as the day became. The dawn's high was as warm as it got. By the time I made it back home that evening, it was 3 degrees, with a hard wind that would cut you in half, causing a wind-chill of 19 below.