It is the law of supply and demand. The value of a commodity increases with its scarcity. So the increasing scarcity of light these days has made it silver and gold… deepening to violet and magenta at the margins of the day, when we travel to and from work in synchrony, for a few weeks, with the sun’s own daily commute.
In November, when the landscape drops its modesty along with its veil of leaves, nature dims the lights in a deft bit of physics and stagecraft as the woodlands bare all.
The light really does thin out and scatter at this time of year, and not just because the days are shorter. We aren’t any farther from the sun in the winter months. The earth’s orbit is only slightly elliptical, and remember, it is always spring or summer somewhere. The reason we have seasons at all is because of the earth’s 23.4 degree tilt relative to the sun.
On the summer solstice in June, the sun shines down on us from an angle of roughly 73 degrees. On the winter solstice in December, the sun comes slicing across the landscape at an angle of about 25 degrees.
Think of a flashlight directed straight down at the floor in a dark room. The light may illuminate a tight circle around the hole in the toe of your sock. Now, move the beam outward so it hits the ground at a much lower angle. The light spreads out over a much larger area to reveal the shoe, the cat, and the lost remote under the couch. The beam of light coming from the flashlight does not change in intensity; it is just spread out over a greater area. So the same amount of sunlight that shines down just on Newtown at noon on the summer solstice, gets spread out over Newtown, Southbury, Brookfield and Bridgewater at noon on the winter solstice. During this annual photon shortage, we share and share alike.
It is human nature to love the light when there is not much of it. November looms in the Northeast woodlands like a great Gothic gateway to winter. It is not the finely wrought filigree that catches the eye; it is the sheer beauty of the sheer light coming through. It is the silver lining that edges our restlessness about the cold dark uncertainty of the winter ahead.
That restlessness in some creatures is directly linked to the shifting position of the sun. In the middle of the last century, scientists found that European starlings were using the position of the sun in conjunction with their own circadian rhythms to decide when and where to migrate. The researchers fooled the starlings, by positioning mirrors around their enclosures to lower the apparent position of the sun in the sky. The relative “migratory restlessness” of the birds increased to match the altered position of the sun.
Who knows what the slumping angle of the sun is doing to the murky machinations of our own ancient brain stems. Call it seasonal affective disorder. Call it world weariness. If you are pious or pagan, treat it with sparkling festivals. Light is precious. Light is dear. Light is silver and gold. Spend it wisely in these coming dark months as a down payment on spring.
(More than 90 Field Notes essays by Curtiss Clark can be found at www.field-notebook.com.)