Thursday, October 29, 2009
The year has turned
The year has turned and the day grows pale, and winter's shadows creep ever longer into the day.
This is the time of Samhain, a very ancient seasonal festival which announces the "dark half" of the year. And indeed darkness has drawn itself upon our daily trudge. Just four months ago, the sun was at his strongest, above Orion, bringing to Ireland the long bright joyous days which are in such contrast to those of midwinter. At that time, around June 21st, there was no dark night. At this latitude, the sun in June does not set far enough below the horizon to allow true darkness to settle upon our night. Instead, we get a constant glow from the northern horizon, and the day is long, with sunrise before 5am and sunset at 10pm.
Now come the days of darkness. And they come quickly. From the time of the Lughnasa harvest festival in August, the sun's rising and setting positions on the eastern and western aspects move more quickly towards the south. The maximum daily change in the length of day occurs at the equinoxes, with the Autumn Equinox around September 22nd heralding a quick return to short days and long nights.
For the past week or so, I have watched from my office window the dance of the golden leaves as they fall in heaps and showers from the trees outside. I look out upon many grey days, and the occasional bright blue one, but mostly I feel a melancholy tugging of my heart as the cold winter begins to draw in.
It is difficult at these times to comprehend how anyone living on this beautiful island of ours could not suffer from an episode of Seasonal Adjustment Disorder. There is a dramatic, sudden change to our daylight environment when the clocks go back, which happened last weekend. One day, it was dark at 7pm. The next, it was dark at 6. Those who dwelt upon this land in early times might not have suffered from such a sudden jolt to the daylight experience, but rather a gradual surge of darkness encroaching upon the light. But even then it must have been difficult to let go of the summer and the warmth and the light. Who would wish to dwell in winter's murky abode, its bleak tendrils wrapping themselves coldly around us?
I haven't been so acutely aware of the encroaching darkness this year. Perhaps with all my study on these matters I'm now becoming immune, or should I say acclimatised, to the onset of winter. Perhaps it's because September was warmer and drier than average, one of the best Septembers on record. Maybe I'm beginning to like winter?
As an astronomer, or star-gazer, I suppose I possess that innate gratitude for dark nights, knowing that the summer months present fewer opportunities to engage in that most glorious and ancient hobby. Unless, of course, one is willing to wait until 1am to begin star-gazing.
But I'm getting distracted, because the real reason I began writing this stems from my sudden discomfort at the conditions presenting themselves. All that melancholy light-longing has returned. I suddenly yearn for those long summer evenings which seem so recent. Right now the sky is grey and overcast, and it has been raining on and off all day. There is no chink of blue among the cloud, no sign of the real daylight. It's just grey. And that's how I feel now, looking out the window. Grey.
The night will be here within two hours, unless the cloud clears and we might get a bonus hour. Suddenly, this week, I find myself driving home from work in the dark. I don't like it, especially when it's raining. I feel much different, vastly so, when it is clear and I can see the stars, and the Moon, and Jupiter, out there high in the south like a beacon. Jupiter says to me, "All is not dark. There is always light. And the light will return." It gives me a feeling of inner comfort, and of a sure and steadfast knowledge that the days of light will indeed, inevitably return. Those are the winter nights I savour. The cold I don't mind so much. It's the damp, overcast, dreary dullness which brings the sadness.
Cold can be good if it's clear and the winter Moon is bright. What a huge difference a high, bright full Moon brings to a winter night. And the full Moons are always high in the sky, opposite the lowly winter Sun. Such is the way of cosmic nature, something which was understood with great instinct in the early days of our history.
Today though, we have invented our own moonlight and starlight. Our electric lights and appliances and technological conveniences dispel the darkness so we don't have to long so much for the return of summer any more. We can more comfortably endure the winter so long as we can switch on a light, and sit down in front of a television or a computer.
We have replaced the old fire - the hearth where so many stories were told - with the lightbulb, and the electronic goods which flood our existences with light. In doing so, we have shut out the cosmic order, over which we have declared supremacy. We tell the night that it no longer has dominion over us. We have banished the fairy stories and tales of the banshee and the mysterious lios lights to the past. We say that those were the days when people were not enlightened. Those were the days when people walked in the dark, and when Samhain was greeted with an inevitable hopelessness.
But are we the ones who have lost the light? In allowing our technological mastery to flood our lives with light, we have lost that most precious connection with cosmos? And is that detrimental to our fundamental beings? We have abandoned the former knowledge, the wisdom amassed over generations, and now we know not the signs of the weather, and the movements of the Sun and the Moon and the planets. For that, we have Google and NASA among others. We feel we don't need the former knowledge, being masters of the light ourselves. What extraordinary power we possess, to expunge the darkness with the simple flick of a switch.
But hold this thought in your mind as you extinguish the darkness tonight - is the light that I bring, the illumination that I contrive with my electricity supply and my light bulb, a form of darkness in itself? In turning on the lights, am I also "turning off" the stars and the Moonlight, and expunging the natural radiance of the cosmos from my existence? In flicking that switch, am I shutting off cosmos?