Illuminations of the Winter Solstice

Without the night, how can we appreciate the day?

4:41 p.m. until 7:15 a.m..  Fourteen hours and thirty-four minutes from sunset to sunrise…and that doesn’t even factor in the long, early morning shadow of Pikes Peak or the afternoon dusk as the sun drops below the ridgeline behind Big Spring around 3:30. On this longest night of the year, it’s dark and cold at camp, with snowflakes spinning down as the storm settles into the mountains to the west, but it’s beautiful…and good.

As Clark Strand wrote over the weekend in his New York Times Op-Ed piece, “Bring On The Dark: Why We Need the Winter Solstice,” we need this long night to remind us that night is “the natural corrective to that most persistent of all illusions: that human progress is the reason for the world.” Granted, without all of this manufactured illumination and technological progress, I would not be tapping out this post on a computer, but—instead—be huddled under the same blankets scribbling by candlelight.

Yet Strand’s cautionary tone also provides validation to those of us who have had the opportunity to eschew “progress” for the natural rhythm of the seasons. Who among us does not remember hustling around an alpine base camp at dusk (possibly because the batteries in our flashlight or headlamp died days before) preparing for an “early” bedtime simply because the sun had set? Or, even more magically, watching the campfire die down to embers and find ourselves speaking more and more quietly as the darkness enveloped our senses and revealed the stars.

Though the Winter Solstice is often called the first day of winter, for me, it represents the first step of the sun’s long journey back to the north. Right now, she is so far to the south, the shadows I cast as I walk trail far behind me, or sometimes stretch across the road completely. Over these next few months, the shadows will become shorter and shorter, bringing me back to the center, bringing me back to summer, bringing me back to myself. Yet my gratitude for the solstice is deep and solid, for without the dark, how can I celebrate the light?

Strand said these long nights were once for connecting with others and with yourself. Before electricity, people “told stories and, with so much night to work with, woke in the middle of it to a darkness so luxurious it teased visions from the mind and divine visitations that helped to guide their course through life.”

We know what he means, we have experienced it time and time again in the woods. Remember it now: you wake from a restless sleep caused by an errant pinecone in your left hip, you listen to the breathing of your tentmates, the rustling of nylon sleeping bags, the soft whump of a moment’s breeze on your tent fly, and you exhale. You push your mind beyond the tent, back to the laughter around the campfire, the faint taste of hot chocolate still in your mouth, and to the millions of stars above you. Around the campfire, someone said, “Isn’t it crazy that any one of those stars could have planets just like ours around them?”

As you look up, your mind begins to expand, trying to make sense of it, wondering if it is possible, if it is true. And someone else whispers,  “Some of those stars might not even be there anymore…what if we are just seeing the star’s light that is still traveling toward us over millions and millions of light years?” Your mind continues to stretch and your heart expands because this is an amazing moment with amazing people and you are so comfortable with yourself, with your friends, with this place that you can actually wonder, out loud, “what if?”

And then, you find a comfortable, simple silence together………until, “OOOOOOHHHHHH!” and everyone wishes quietly on the same shooting star, wishes quietly that this night will never end.

-Ariella Rogge-

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