Daniel Webster Wildlife Sanctuary in the snow.
A wonderfully wide, open, often-sunny place for an invigorating winter walk!

As I write this, we have not seen the sun for seven days. We’ve had an entire week of dark, dreary, and mostly drizzly weather, and complaining about it is not an option because we know it could be much worse. All this rain could have been snow. The relatively warm winds could have been freezing. But still we’re unhappy. Almost every person I’ve spoken to in the past two days has been in a rotten mood. What’s going on?

It may just be holiday stress, but some people don’t seem to be susceptible to that. And I doubt that it’s just widespread malaise. So let me suggest a more universal motivator: light deprivation. It’s been a long, dark week — probably the darkest we’ll have all year — and we’re having trouble dealing with it.

It’s not just the weather that has made the days dark, but the time of year. We are approaching December 21, the winter solstice, and with that comes the shortest day and the longest night of the year. Since late June, the days have decreased in length and the intensity of the sun (as we experience it here in the northern hemisphere) has waned. In this final week of autumn, the days will be as short as they’re going to be until next December. After the 21st, the first day of winter, the days will start growing longer again as we begin our long slow march toward spring.

I often find inspiration for these articles while driving to and from work. By viewing the same landscapes day after day, I find that I am more aware of the subtle changes that take place in the natural world throughout the cycle of the seasons. Lately however, most of this driving has been done in the dark, or in the half-light of 8 AM. There isn’t much to see, and I find myself craving color, looking extra carefully for a bit of green or a spot of gold in the distance.

These dull days make me appreciate some of the features of the landscape I normally take for granted. It’s no coincidence that we’ve created a seasonal industry around the harvesting of spruce and fir trees. We need these evergreens — whether growing in the yard or brought into our homes in Christmas trees and wreaths — to remind us that the world outside comes in colors other than brown and gray.

And then there’s the water. Even on the darkest days, water holds its own light. The sun, however weak, seems brighter and more promising when reflected on the surface of a river or pond.

And finally, Christmas lights. Not exactly a natural feature, but naturally-inspired. The stringing of lights for the Christmas season is actually a tribute to the winter solstice. These extra lights, bright and twinkling like stars, are meant to guide us through the winter. They bring light to the dark hours, and hope for the new year.

In the meantime, if you too have got the “shortest-day blahs,” step outside for a walk. Spend a few minutes observing how nature herself buckles down for the winter season.

by Kezia Bacon, Assistant Director, North & South Rivers Watershed Association
December 1996