Today, December 21, is the Winter Solstice: the moment of the year when the Northern Hemisphere tilts farthest from the sun. Around the Solstice, daylight in the Maine Woods is short – well under nine hours. Nights are long, dark, and cold. The sun rises and sets far to the south, and even at noon, it hangs low above the southern horizon. Four frozen months stretch ahead, in which the woods and waters will lie dormant under an icy blanket.
But the moment of greatest darkness is also the moment we turn back toward the light. Starting tomorrow, each successive day will be a bit longer. The sun will rise and set a little farther to the north, and climb a little higher in the sky. The change will be hardly noticeable at first. Nonetheless, by the end of January, we will gain a full hour of light.
To me, the darkness of winter does not seem like a black void. The long nights allow me to bask in the soft glow of moon and stars, whose silvery light echoes off the snowy Earth. And the physical darkness helps me to focus on the light that my eyes cannot see – the light of the spirit – deep within me and all around me: in the sky above; in the forest, mountains, and ponds; even in the soil beneath my feet, waiting to spring into new life in due season.
Last February, while living in my off-the-grid cabin on the shore of First Roach Pond, far from the nearest neighbor, I sang the folk hymn, “I Wonder as I Wander.” The song comes from the southern end of the Appalachian Mountain chain that I see, in its northerly incarnation, from my own shore.
Although the words specifically consider the Christmas story, I believe they reflect a universal longing. Each of us is so small, and the cosmos is so vast. How can our lives possibly have any significance? And yet, somehow, they do. We are intimately connected with a whole so great that it far surpasses our limited ability to comprehend.
It can be hard, in the hurry and stress of daily life, to feel that connection. During this hectic season, may we all find some time to step outside: to wander under the winter sky, to wonder, and to seek, with the eyes of our spirit, the light that shines in the darkness.
Star photos taken by Eddie O’Leary; dawn photo taken by Wendy Weiger.