It was at about this time that I concluded my month-long epic voyage by backpack and train 19 years ago. I climbed aboard Amtrak’s “Southwest Chief” one last time in sunny Albuquerque, following a one-hour layover that I maximized like an escaped convict soon to be returned to “the hole.” Soon I would return to my snowed in cabin near the Canadian border in Minnesota, where it was -33°F, dark, and contained more snow than I had ever seen. Sufficiently fortified, however, I was nearly immune to the shock. Bemused, I made note of the 106 degree difference between this arctic environment and Albuquerque—an outpost on another planet—while sleeping in five-minute increments during breaks in the ten-hour drive from my mom’s house in southern Wisconsin. The car, which I refused to idle, succumbed to the cold almost instantly.
At this time of year we have less than nine hours of light each day. My trip, more of an expeditionary quest or pilgrimage than a vacation, had taken advantage of every minute of it. Sometimes I found a way to cram in up to 25 miles of hiking during these shortened days in places like Olympic National Park, Yosemite, and the Grand Canyon. This included breaking and setting up camp. (I detail this in the second part of my upcoming book—the “Found” section following the “Lost” portion—which is now in my last grinding edit.)
Since then I have not taken daylight for granted (or water, for that matter, but that’s another story). At this time of year, especially, one can see why many civilizations have worshipped the sun over the millennia. Aztecs, Egyptians, Greeks, ancient Indonesian mythology, and countless others, all revered this great ball of fire as a deity. The Roman Empire celebrated the festival of the birth of the Unconquered Sun on December 25th, which of course was ultimately replaced by Christmas.
Here are some ways I am appreciating the light, limited as it is, at this time of year. It’s absence, darkness, makes the heart grow fonder. You can find your own metaphor for the dark times of life if ya wish. There’s always evidence of light’s existence somewhere.
1. My family and I plucked out the perfect Christmas tree from a vast forest yesterday. This was a fantastic experience. We counted twelve rings denoting 12 years of photosynthesis from where we topped the balsam. There were only 11 rings a couple inches up where I made a fresh cut before putting it into water, displaying roughly a year of vertical growth I reckon.
2. Lichen is amazing. It is estimated to cover approximately 6% of the Earth’s surface. Some specimens are thought to be among the oldest organisms on the planet. The symbiotic relationship between fungus and algae (which do the photosynthesizing), and sometimes cyanobacteria, displays the truth of the proverb that a cord of three stands is not easily broken. They are pioneers in some of the bleakest and most austere areas, such as bare rock, and can patiently endure the harshest conditions. In 2005 several lichens were released into the direct vacuum of space, encountering wildly fluctuating temperatures and cosmic radiation. After 15 days it was determined that they sustained no discernible damage from their time in orbit. Amazing. I’m finding it hard to burn these specimens here, in fact. Although the old man’s beard is a fantastic fire starter (best for catching a spark and blowing into a fire when using a flint and steel). I hope this short note in homage will help me to more indiscriminately use my woodpile after pausing to admire some of these remarkable organisms.
3. An occasional nap with light streaming into the bedroom is one of the best uses of daylight. Awaking to find yourself bathed in warm sunlight after twenty minutes of sleep is more satisfying that any spa treatment.
4. Harness solar power by drying your clothes outside on sunny days. Yes, this is a recurring theme for me, but putting productive sunlight to work is good for the soul.
5. Hay is best, but leaves are good too. A pile of green hay for the chickens amidst all the snow and ice of winter reminds me of the sun and the growing season on even the bleakest days. The spent brown leaves here are what I had on hand. Each was previously a photosynthesizing engine.
6. Anything worth eating relies on the sun. A bowl of soup made from fresh peas, for example, is a bowl of sunshine. Savor good food grown in real soil (or atop it as one of the hoover beasts) beneath life-giving sun.
7. Take in Vitamin D out on the trail. Bright sunny days with reflective snow all around are like taking it intravenously.