Monday, December 31, 2007

New Year's Eve - by one calendar, at least

It's New Year's Eve, and my husband Richard and I are not out partying. It's not so much that we're not as sociable as we used to be, or that we don't stay up late much, or that we're getting old. All of those are true to some extent, but they're not the main reason we're not out partaking in the revels marking the end of one year and the imminent arrival of a new one.

The main reason is the timing. For me, the changing of the year has already happened, on winter solstice. The night of December 21 was the longest night of the year and the days have lengthened noticeably since then. So since I've already celebrated the turning of the solar year, it seems to me like this New Year thing is old news.

The business of marking January 1st as the beginning of a new calendar year is a relatively new phenomenon in human history. The ancient Romans apparently began a new numbered year on January 1 (although that day actually varied a good bit since the years weren't precisely calculated), but even as late as the Middle Ages, different European countries began the new year on dates varying from Christmas to Easter to the first of September. The standardization of the year and its opening day as January 1 was the result of the widespread adoption of the Gregorian calendar (named for Pope Gregory XIII) between 1582 (when the Pope ordained the new calendar) and 1752 (when renegade countries like Britain and Scotland finally got around to adopting it).

The adoption of the Gregorian calendar was quite handy on the whole, since it corrected some serious issues the Church had with the Julian calendar, including the fact that the day of Easter drifted around too much, and the aggregate errors in year length required large adjustments from time to time.

But the late medieval astronomers and mathematicians who devised the Gregorian calendar deviated from the solar calendar in one respect important to me: rather than have the new year begin on the day after winter solstice, which is when the Northern Hemisphere turns toward light, life and spring, they set it as a week after Christmas, so as not to distract from the religious holiday.

No wonder then that the official New Year's Day seems a bit anti-climatic to me: the solar year ended on winter solstice, a week and a half ago.

Still, Richard and I will each light a candle tonight, and looking at that flame that represents light in the darkness, new beginnings, hope and life, we'll say our resolutions for this new year, solar or Gregorian or whatever.

Happy New Year, no matter what calendar you use!

Saturday, December 22, 2007

Lighting the Darkness

Every year my husband Richard and I celebrate the passing of winter’s longest nights with a party: we fill our bellies with homemade eggnog and other treats, and our hearts with the companionship of friends and family.

To warm our spirits, we light the darkness, filling dozens of paper bags with a scoop of sand and a small votive candle, and lining our block with these luminarias. As dusk falls, partygoers help us light them one by one; the small flames burn through the night heralding the sun’s return at dawn.

Light is a traditional part of winter celebrations in latitudes where the tilt in Earth’s axis sends one hemisphere away from the sun during half of each year. The resultant darkness inspires the menorah of Hanukkah, Advent and Kwanzaa candles, and the Yule log burned in holiday bonfires.

Before our relatively recent understanding of the effect of Earth’s rotational eccentricity on day-length, it must have seemed as if the sun retreated each fall, leaving only darkness and cold. Then, as if by magic, our celestial source of light and heat had a change of heart after winter solstice and the days grew longer again.

No wonder my Celtic and Scandinavian ancestors lit bonfires atop hills near their homes on the shortest night of the year. The ancient Norse illuminated the dark times with a 12-day feast in crowded halls lit by burning log and taper, where bards recited epic poems in which heroes triumphed over the darkness of evil just as the returning light would eventually banish winter’s long nights.

The luminarias that Richard and I light every year are a tradition born in Hispanic New Mexico from bonfires and hanging paper lanterns lit to guide the procession portraying the Holy Family in their search for shelter. (The paper-bag lights are still called farolitos, “little lanterns,” in Santa Fe, but are luminarias elsewhere.)

Holiday lights are meant to illuminate, a word that means “to light up,” and also, appropriate to our modern insight into the way Earth’s tilted axis is responsible for the annual alternation in day length, “to explain, make clear, elucidate.” Light alleviates intellectual darkness, bestowing knowledge and understanding.

As I strike a match to light a wick at our holiday party, and place a flaming votive candle on its bed of sand inside a paper bag, I think about the lessons in luminarias. The bags by themselves are flimsy and flammable, the candles too dainty for sizeable light, the sand simply grit underfoot.

Yet together candle, lunch bag, and sand do their part to illuminate the darkness: each slender wick feeds liquid wax into flame; the paper walls shelter flame from wind and snow and their translucency diffuses light; the sand grounds the bag and prevents the flame from incinerating the paper that protects it.

Inside their flammable shelters the candles burn steadily hour after hour through the darkness of a long winter night. When dawn comes many of these ethereal lamps are still glowing softly, demonstrating the extraordinary resilience and beauty inherent in the simplest of things.

As I light another wick and watch the streetlights wink on, clouding my view of the darkening sky, I wonder if our ancient fear of the night has blinded us to an illumination visible only in true darkness: the light of the stars. Away from the glare of electric lighting, the night reveals heaven’s miracle: we see the stars only by light from the past which has traveled years across space to reach our eyes, while their current light shines only in our future.

Standing with family and friends in the darkness of a blessed winter night, I turn my face to the silver-spangled heavens. My spirit glows, lit by the commonplace grace of small candles burning in simple paper bags.

Happy Solstice, all!

(This essay first appeared in my weekly column in the Salida, Colorado, Mountain Mail newspaper, and was heard on KHEN community radio, 90.6 FM, Salida, Colorado. All rights reserved.)

Tuesday, December 11, 2007

A year in butterflies

My friend Bob Pyle, author and lepidopterist extraordinaire, is embarking on an amazing journey around North America: in 2008, he will attempt to find and observe as many butterfly species as he can in the United States and Canada. His Butterfly Big Year will serve as a witness to the status and lives of our 800-some butterfly species, and also as a benefit to raise funds for - and awareness of conservation of these amazing pollinators. (Imagine knowing how to transform your body from crawling caterpillar to fluttering adult - that's an ordinary part of life for a butterfly.) You can take part in his historic journey by pledging a donation to the Xerces Society for every species he sees and documents, and you'll also be able to read about his travels and experiences in the book Swallowtail Seasons: The First Butterfly Big Year, to be published by Houghton Mifflin (once Bob makes it home at the end of the year and gets to writing!). Bob's a scientist, but he's also a man in love with butterflies, and this journey reflects both his passion and his knowledge. I eager to hear his dispatches from along the way.


After a fall so warm and dry that we had no significant moisture between September and December, a storm late last week finally brought us rain turning to snow - lots of it. Our local ski area, Monarch, went from bare ground to skiers' nirvana with over 70 inches - almost six feet - of new snow on Thursday and Friday. Another storm blew in yesterday, dumping foot in the high country.

With that kind of snow, it was impossible to resist playing hooky today. So we didn't: this afternoon we piled our skis, boots, and poles in the car, along with our daughter Molly, home for a pre-holiday visit from Portland, and headed for the mountains. Twenty minutes later, we were parked in a white wonderland, with fresh snow covering trees, rocks, mountainsides, road, and no one else in sight. We laced up our boots, clicked into bindings, grabbed our poles and began to schuss uphill.

Flakes of snow twirled out of thinning clouds overhead; two ravens coasted by, silent but for the sound of air passing through their stiff black wings. Then it was just the creaking of fresh snow under skis and labored breathing as we climbed the old narrow gauge railroad grade. Ours were the first tracks - except for the twin-hoofed prints of a herd of mule deer that bounded uphill through the snow as we watched.

We skied uphill for almost an hour, then followed another railroad right-of-way around a forested ridge, swooping down and across a creek almost buried under mounded snow. We saw more deer tracks, met two other skiers, and two guys in a Jeep looking for a lost pair of dogs. We startled a flock of mountain bluebirds caught uphill by the sudden storms, and watched a long-tailed, rusty-capped sparrow hop about, foraging for seeds on the surface of the snow.

For the last half a mile, we raced the sunset downhill. We schussed around the last bend as the clouds overhead turned brilliant pink and then began to fade. Red-cheeked, out of breath, and almost giddy, we stowed our skis and slithered down the snowy road toward home as the early darkness of a winter night swallowed the landscape and its mantle of fresh snow.

This afternoon's outing reminded me - again - of the joy of simply getting outside and losing ourselves and our cares in the company of the living world. How easily I forget, and how generous and beautiful is the remembering!