Into the Dark

The previous few days had lulled us all into reptilian sloth.  No need to brace myself against any brisk breeze or cutting wind.  The high temperature lingered around 72°, when 50° or so is normal.  On my bike rides I could wear bib shorts and a headband with my long-sleeve jersey (I began my rides when the temperature was in the low 60s).  Regular sox; fingerless gloves.

Surprisingly few riders took advantage; many walkers did though, especially where the W&OD skirts the office buildings of Reston and when I was out there around lunch time.  It’s nice to be on a reduced and flexible work schedule, free of the constraints of regular hours and brief mid-day respites from the desk.  I suppose I earned my freedom over the decades, but as I pity the grindstone-honed noses of shirtsleeved workers on lunch break I also admire their determination to get a bit of exercise and fresh air between conference calls, client conversations, and seemingly interminable meetings full of the jargon and clichés of whatever profession they pursue.  Been there, done that.  Truly cared about it at the time.  But see ya, guys.  As you re-enter the building for the afternoon I’ll be down the trail.

Yesterday the inevitable cold front brought an end to our true Indian Summer, qualified as such by coming along after a period of hard freezes and cold rainshowers verging on snow.  One always forgets how much difference those 15 or 20 degrees make.  Today it’s mid-morning and only about 35°, and Christmas is on the way.

The truth of the season is in its darkness.  The sun rose at 7:13 today, 18 minutes after our alarm goes off (we need 5 minutes of classical music in the morning before the grim reality of the news on NPR shakes us awake).  But on December 30 it will rise 14 minutes later than that, at 7:27.  After twelve days at that time, it will finally move a minute earlier, signaling earlier sunrises.

Of course, more total daylight begins on December 22, after the 9 hours, 26 minutes, and 17 seconds of light here in northern Virginia on December 21, the shortest day of the year.  John Donne wrote of this day in his “Nocturnal Upon St. Lucy’s Day, Being the Shortest Day”:

   The sun is spent, and now his flasks
Send forth light squibs, no constant rays ;
The world’s whole sap is sunk ;
The general balm th’ hydroptic earth hath drunk,
Whither, as to the bed’s-feet, life is shrunk,
Dead and interr’d.

 The paradox of December 21 being shortest is that the sunset begins to be later just a few days hence.  It hit 4:46 p.m. on December 1, and will leave that plateau on the 13th to lengthen out to 5:00 p.m. by January 4.  This strange asymmetry between sunrise and sunset time changes is a result of the facts that (1) the earth’s axis tilts and (2) the earth’s orbit is an ellipse, not a circle.  I can’t go much deeper into an explanation than that.  The time differences make day length harder to track, but psychologically I respond more to the presence of light at the end of the day than absence of light at the beginning.  As Robert Louis Stevenson pointed out, dark mornings are just a fact of winter life: “In winter I get up at night / And dress by yellow candle-light.”  We’ll worry about going to bed by day later, when it’s summer.

©Arnold J. Bradford, 2012.

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