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  • Writer's picturejamesbriankerr

Peaceable Man Files #42: The Lengthening Days

Random musings on my vagabond existence in the Endless Mountains of Pennsylvania and wherever else life takes me.

This morning when I went out to walk the dog, it was 24 degrees Fahrenheit outside.

That was actually an improvement on yesterday when the temperature was in the upper teens. Over the past week here in Pennsylvania, we’ve had two snowstorms that brought us a total of nearly a foot of the white stuff.

As we move into the second half of February, winter is very much alive and well. But make no mistake: Mr. Winter is on its way out. I can see it in the shoots of green appearing beneath the snow. I can hear it in the swelling birdsong as our feathered friends start to return from their winter sojourns.

Most of all, I can feel it in the intensity of the sunlight and the slow, gradual lengthening of the days. I no longer need to bring a flashlight when I step out of the door in the morning to take Cassie out for her first walk of the day, and there is still light in the sky when we go for our last long walk in the early evening.

Of course, it’s not that the days are actually getting any longer (wouldn’t it be nice to have more time in the day?). Rather, the amount of daylight within each of the days is stretching out. As the Earth tilts on its axis during its yearly orbit around the sun, we here in the Northern Hemisphere are being treated to an extra minute or so of sunlight at either end of every new day that dawns.

It may not sound like much, but it adds up. Since the winter solstice on Dec. 21, we have gained nearly ninety minutes of extra daylight. That’s a lot of daylight. By the time we get to St. Patty’s Day, the amount of daylight and darkness within each twenty-four-hour period will be split equally. That window of light will continue to grow each day until the summer solstice in late June, at which point we will be enjoying a full fifteen hours of daylight.

It can be hard to notice this incremental change of light as we slog through what can feel like an endless winter. January in particular is so darn long and cold. Even Henry David Thoreau, that lover-of-all-times-and-seasons in nature, wasn’t particularly fond of the first month of the year. “Is not January the hardest month to get through?” he wrote in his journal. “When you have weathered that, you get into the gulfstream of winter, nearer the shores of spring.”

That’s what I’m starting to feel now. Yes, it’s bitter cold outside. Yes, there’s snow on the ground. But with every passing day, the darkness is beating a slow retreat before the ever-growing army of lantern-holding minutes. We know who will win this battle.

Spring. Warmth. Sunshine. Flowers.

What a difference sunlight makes in our outlook and mental health. We human beings pine for it, we reach for it, we’re even willing to relocate to warmer climes to get more days of it.

The same is true for many of our fellow creatures. On sunny days, Cassie loves lying on the floor in the foyer, bathed in the warmth of the sunlight streaming through the glass storm door. On cold winter days up at my mountain property, I’ll often see deer bedded down on the sunny sides of slopes to catch the rays.

The sun is the great giver of warmth and life, and like plants, we are forever bending our faces to catch more of it. Research shows that shorter daylight hours contribute to decreased serotonin levels and impaired cognitive functions. No wonder so many of us feel the winter blues or, even worse, suffer from seasonal affective disorder this time of year.

There was a time in my life when winters were very hard to get through. My first major depression during my early twenties hit me during the winter months. I remember that winter as a brutal time, so cold and snowy and bleak, as if I was walking through an Arctic tundra that had no end. It felt like spring would never come and all I could do was keep walking in the hopes that it would.

Eventually, sunlight and happiness returned to my life, but it didn’t come all at once like a lightbulb turning on. It came incrementally, one sunray at a time. I’d have a bad day, then a good day, then a bad day, then two good days, until eventually most days were sunnier than they were dark.  

My job, in the meantime, was to hold on and keep the faith that spring would come –to look for it, to expect it, even on days when there was no tangible evidence of it. That’s the nature of hope. “Hope is the thing with feathers/that perches in the soul,” writes Emily Dickinson in her famous poem, “and sings the tune without the words/and never stops – at all.”

For all of you who are tired of the winter or are struggling with the winter blues, remember: Spring is coming. Beneath the blanket of snow, the flower bulbs are waiting patiently for the right combination of light and warmth.

What is true for Mother Nature is also true for human nature. As sure as the sun will rise tomorrow, warmer days are coming. Crane your head toward the sun and listen for the birds.

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