Tuesday, December 21, 2010

Happy Solstice!

Today is very special in that it is both the Winter Solstice, the shortest day of the year (and the official first day of winter) and the first time that a total lunar eclipse has occurred on the solstice since 1638. Those of you who did not get outside to watch the eclipse will unfortunately have to wait another 84 years for the opportunity.

In honor of the once-in-several-lifetimes event, I thought it would be fitting to share some of John Burroughs' musings on winter. Burroughs did not limit his appreciation of the natural world to special occasions, of course--one winter day was as worthy of attention and exploration (and the accompanying joy) as the next. Still, I think reading his work today is a good way to celebrate (that, and a good long walk in the woods.)

"If the October days were a cordial like the subacids of fruit, these are a tonic like the wine of iron. Drink deep, or be careful how you taste this December vintage. The first sip may chill, but a full draught warms and invigorates. No loitering by the brooks or in the woods now, but spirited, rugged walking along the public highway. The sunbeams are welcome now. They seem like pure electricity--like friendly and recuperating lightning. Are we led to think electricity abounds only in summer when we see in the storm clouds, as it were, the veins and orebeds of it? I imagine it is equally abundant in winter and more equable and better tempered. Who ever breasted a snowstorm without being excited and exhilarated, as if this meteor had come charged with the latent aurorae of the North, as doubtless it has? It is like being pelted with sparks from a battery. Behold the frostwork on the pane--the wild, fantastic limnings and etchings! Can there be any doubt but this subtle agent has been here? Where is it not? It is the life of the crystal, the architect of the flake, the fire of frost, the soul of the sunbeam. This crisp winter air is full of it. When I come in at night after an all-day tramp I am charged like a Leyden jar; my hair crackles and snaps beneath the comb like a cat's back, and a strange new glow diffuses itself through my system.

"It is a spur that one feels at this season more than at any other. How nimbly you step forth! The woods roar, the waters shine, and the hills look invitingly near. You do not miss the flowers and the songsters or wish the trees or the fields any different or the heavens any nearer. Every object pleases. A rail fence, running athwart the hills, now in sunshine and now in shadow--how the eye lingers upon it! Or the straight, light-gray trunks of trees, where the woods have recently been laid open by a road or clearing--how curious they look, and if surprised in undress! Next year they will begin to shoot out branches and make themselves a screen...

"He who marvels at the beauty of the world in summer will find equal cause for wonder and admiration in winter. It is true the pomp and the pageantry are swept away, but the essential elements remain--the day and the night, the mountain and the valley, the elemental play and succession and the perpetual presence of the infinite sky. In winter the stars seem to have rekindled their fires, the moon achieves a fuller triumph, and the heavens wear a look of more exalted simplicity. Summer is more wooing and seductive, more versatile and human, appeals to the affections and the sentiments, and fosters inquiry and the art impulse. Winter is of a more heroic cast and addresses the intellect. The severe studies and disciplines come easier in winter. One imposes larger tasks upon himself, and is less tolerant of his own weaknesses.

"The tendinous part of the mind, so to speak, is more developed in winter; the fleshy, in summer. I should say winter had given the bone and sinew to literature, summer the tissues and blood."

-from John Burroughs' America: Selections from the Writings of the Naturalist (pg. 122-23)

John Burroughs (L) and John Muir, rockin' out.


Karen Nemes said...

Lovely passages. Thanks for sharing; now I'm thinking differently about winter.

The Galt Line said...

I second that. You made me want to go outside after days of wanting anything but. Thanks :)