An early dump of glistening snow finds me making my way through the woods on snowshoes, ecstatic to be out here, earlier by a month than the previous several winters. Over a foot seems to absorb sound the way the slate gray, late autumn hillsides of several weeks ago devoured light. A pickup sticks version of the past year’s storm damage and blowdowns creates a maze I delicately negotiate, slowly making my way through tangles of branches, invisible under the fresh snow.
Vivid, elongated shadows streak the bronze-tinted snow as the afternoon sun peeks momentarily over my shoulder before disappearing for good behind the trees this darkest week of the year. I realize the familiarity of the forest where we live changes dramatically depending on time of day, season and weather conditions, different memories highlighting each visit and now — with the day already beginning to fade at 3 p.m. — the revitalizing solitude feels ancient.
The end-of-year insanity has simply fallen into the same mundane obliviousness with which we seem to experience everything in the post-industrial age. Modern holidays seem like nothing new. Contemporary culture has its yuletide infused all day, every day for months, not unlike a morphine drip, frequently with the same numbing effect.
As I plod on, tight groves of evergreens sparkle, exotic gems reflecting off their snow laden branches in the dwindling light. Is this what Martin Luther saw in that Bavarian forest in 1500? Maybe it was starlight or moonbeams that prompted him to balance lighted candles on pine boughs celebrating the season, or so the story goes.
I wonder, as I head toward home, if the Druids were afraid the sun would soon be gone forever in the 18th century or if they noticed the almost imperceptible lengthening of the day. These “Wood Priests” of Great Britain also used holly and mistletoe to celebrate eternal life and evergreen branches over their doors to ward off evil spirits.
Solstice marks the beginning of winter in the northern hemisphere, the darkest day of the year. Coupled with Vermont’s paltry number of sunny days, our tendencies run toward eating like we just got out of prison and sleeping like a black bear. It is as easy to understand the history of myriad cultures celebrating the returning light this time of year as it is to put on a couple of extra pounds.
Although the sun has set, thanks to the reflective snow, dusk lengthens enough for me to easily make my way through the overgrown meadow, toward the illumination and woodsmoke in the distance. I don’t know if the tree we dragged out of these same woods several days earlier, now festooned with several strings of twinkling, white lights, was a subconscious effort toward protecting us from evil spirits, but despite my best, curmudgeonly efforts at cynicism, I feel a bit merry.
Walt Amses is a writer and former educator from North Calais.
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