Today, on the first day of winter, the river is almost entirely sealed in ice. The few stretches of open water -- black as midnight, long and attenuated with comet's tail seams of scarred new frost on either end -- are bordered by ice as thick as my wrist. I stand less than a foot from the flowing water, fearless and secure. The edges of the opening are as ragged as torn cloth, layered and napped by the current. The irregularly fringed edge creases the flowing water into ripples, which braid into those formed by the opposite fringe to form precise, miniature, V-shaped standing waves.
I cross the river on old ice, cloudy and opaque. A hair-line crack has developed, extending from one bank to the other, producing a knife edge that provides a gauge to the depth of the ice layer: it's at least six inches thick here. The surface of this older ice is smooth and dotted with key shaped fruit from maple and ash trees. Toward the center of the river the newer ice, more transparent, reveals embedded air bubbles and a few stray bits of vegetation. I'm at a loss to estimate this ice's thickness until I notice a hint of movement: a sprig of spruce floats on the live water beneath the ice, at least a hand's width under the soles of my boots.
My goal, the east side of the river, is flooded with sunshine. Even at midday my shadow stretches like a giant's following the river's current, north. Despite the wind and the falling temperature, I'm abruptly warm. My eyes meet the sun as it hovers just above the ridge that defines this floodplain, the west bank enveloped in morning shadow. I trace the path of the sun's light through the treetops, bare brown branches gilded against a blue sky that seems more expansive, more open, somehow more alive than any summer sky. The route of the light, as defined and precise as the river's, angles across the thick, flat needles of a cedar tree, projecting its blue outline across the frozen water. Surrounding the cedar's shadow, the liquid stream of sunlight pours onto the dully reflective ice, the color of a just-bitten Delicious apple: pale yellow with the merest hint of rose.
Consecrated by sunshine, I climb the red sand of the riverbank to the bleached grass of the unexplored shore. I have never set foot on this side of the floodplain. Logic would tell me that it is identical to the west bank, but it is not: the farther side has a ground cover composed almost entirely of ferns while this new land seems dominated by grasses. Or is it that I'm blinded by the golden light of the sun?
Robert Frost labeled the winter solstice "the darkest evening of the year" but I prefer to define it by light. The farther north one goes, the lower the winter sun rises in the sky until -- famously or perhaps infamously -- it abandons the day entirely at extreme northern latitudes. The low sun translates to fewer hours of daylight in the winter, but there's another result: the sunlight that we do receive is angled. Unlike summer, the winter sun in the north country never climbs to a position directly overhead. The lower the angle of the sun, the greater the amount of the earth's atmosphere its light travels through. Our atmosphere isn't empty space: the gases and moisture and stuff that cradle life here on earth also intercept sunlight, deflecting it, refracting it, absorbing certain wavelengths and bending others, altering the very nature of light in a myriad of intricate and beautiful ways. That is what gives color to sunrises and sunsets: the sun itself does not change but its rays are transformed on their extended journey through the earth's atmosphere.
And that is the source of the north country’s golden winter light. The high, summer sun is featureless, shadowless, colorless. But as the rays of winter's low sun travel through the atmosphere their light becomes golden with undertones of peach and mauve, as intricate as a setting sun.
It's only with us for a month, this day-long sunset, and today marks the apex: the day when sunlight is most nuanced, most golden, most subtle. And most rare: this is, after all, the shortest day of the year. Celebrate it, embrace its fleeting colors before they fade into Frost's darkest evening of the year.
Causes Louise Young Supports
articulation of indigenous rights (organization: Cultural Survival)
sustainable, renewable, and independent energy sources