Wednesday, November 30, 2011

November Sunsets

We rake leaves. We go to the store. Commuters drive home from work. I put the perennials “to bed” by drawing leaf mulch over them. Anne cleans up the sidewalks and curbs and driveways and patio and other places where the leaves can’t rustle around all winter without being a problem to someone. She walks home from the train in the evenings.
Whatever we do, wherever we are, once we’ve turned the clocks back, sunset catches us too early each day.
Early dark is a shock to the system.
Change, in the solar sense, happens slowly. The hours of daylight dribble away tiny bit by bit. Minutely might be the word, because it’s a matter of a minute or two each day. It’s hard to register slight daily changes.
Where was the sun yesterday? Where is it today? Our eyes can’t tell the difference. Since we live indoors instead of largely outdoors, like our ancestors, few of us note the change in position of a sunrise, from one season to the next, or note where it sets on the horizon now as opposed to where it set last June (when the hands of the clock climbed toward nine p.m.).
Or how high, or not so high, it stands in the sky at noon compared to where it stood at 1 p.m. (daylight savings time) on the summer solstice.
It’s the end of daylight savings time, the sudden loss of an hour, that puts the difference in our faces. We miss that extra hour of sunlight at the end of the shortened day. For many it’s the difference between coming home in daylight or in the dark.
Coming home in the dark is like saying goodbye to the world, certainly the sunlit world of nature, for the whole work week: “Take it easy, world. I’ll look you up again on the weekend.”
Those of us who work at home or have a more relaxed schedule, whose workday doesn’t hinge around the conventional end of the business day, find it easier to stick our face out of doors during daylight to register the new patterns in the bare trees, count the last orange leaves on the cherry tree, monitor avian life at the bird feeder (I wrote “bird fever”: what am I being told?), or stomp down to the corner store on any excuse to get a mouthful of fresh air.
Some of us watch the light fade from the sky every day, as if obeying a ritual in a private religion. For me sunset-staring is never more important than in the short days of November and December. The more we are indoors, the more the spectacle of nature is reduced to one simple, remarkable, all-important fact: sometimes light, sometimes dark.
Often we are in our car when the fundamental change takes place. It catches us in traffic on the way home, or racing a light to beat the traffic. Or we pass a big plate glass window walking the corridors of commerce, or medicine, or academe. The sky is painting its big message in broad strokes and bright colors. Daytime is over. Prepare for a lengthy period of lightlessness.
We’re still natural enough beings to notice this. The advent of electric lighting changed the human experience of night. Darkness is now more of an inconvenience we can quickly remedy (unless a freak storm takes the power lines down) than the serious barrier to human activity it posed for all the millennia of our species’ existence up to a century ago.
But sunsets still speak to secret places in our minds. Slow down, they say, have a care. Find shelter, warmth, companionship. Maybe a storyteller and a glass of grog.
And the annual plunge backward in time makes us more aware of them now than at any other time of year. Maybe that’s why they seem more beautiful, certainly more stirring, than ever.