55: A matter of degree.
- December 24, 2017 -
I know that Canada is often depicted as this vast, heavily forested, and perpetually wintry nation tucked away somewhere far up north, but I don’t think that very many of us who live here would describe it that way. Even where I live — which, to be sure, is significantly farther north than all of the most populated Canadian cities (Montreal, Toronto, Vancouver..) — we don’t claim to be residents of ‘the north.’
No, when we say “up north,” we have a very different understanding of what that means in relation to our surroundings, a very specific image in mind as to what constitutes such a geographical area. Typically, we Saskatonians will mean no farther north than Northern Saskatchewan, whether that’s just slightly north into the boreal forest or farther north towards the uranium mines. We don’t even begin to think of the ‘true’ north, of, say, the Northwest Territories or the Arctic Circle. That’s something else entirely. After leaving the city, you’d have to pass through some several thousand kilometres of mostly uninhabited land before coming upon such a boundary, and such extremes aren’t taken into account in everyday conversation.
We do still feel the effects of the winter solstice rather intensely here, though, and this despite the fact that we’re not particularly far north. It’s even something that gets spoken about in eager, hushed tones, something referred to with equal parts reverence and desperation. “We’re almost there,” we’ll say to one another as a gesture of reassurance in the days and weeks leading up to the big event, a way of bolstering our spirits as we dig in our heels and await the lengthening of the days.
It really is difficult to express the extent to which a lack of sunlight can be disorienting, or the ways in which the darkness of the morning is entirely different from the darkness of the night. Mainly, though, I think it just comes down to the fact that when it’s 6am.. 7am.. 8am.. almost 9am and it’s still as dark outside as it was in the middle of the night, neither your body nor your mind is ever quite sure what to make of things, never quite sure how to adjust to the rhythms of such an irregular day. And so, once we reach that barrier, once the calendar announces that it’s finally, finally December 21st, there is a palpable sense of shared accomplishment in the air, of having yet again made it through the worst parts of the winter season, and we all share a collective sigh of relief.
In the midst of this annual bout of disorientation, though, I think there’s also a great deal of poeticism to be found. For one thing, it is rather moving to watch it all unfold, to bear witness to this powerful phenomenon reminding us that we’re really not so in control as we often like to believe. It’s a reminder that, for all of our standardization and mechanization and optimization, we remain utterly powerless when placed up against such long-established forces as those which dictate something so essential to life as how much daylight we are to receive.
Because, more often than not, we simply like to think of the end of the year as an on-off switch, something which occurs at a precise moment of our choosing. We like to say that the year ‘begins’ on January 1st and ‘ends’ on December 31st, and that there are clear-cut, wholly unambiguous boundaries which separate the many moments in between.
But, cling as we might to our calendars, to-do lists, and day planners, the rhythms of the earth don’t operate according to such linear terms. No, in nature, any change which occurs on an annual basis comes gradually, as the result of small shifts over long stretches of time: the days growing a little longer or a little shorter, the temperature becoming a little warmer or a little cooler..
It is always, in other words, a matter of degree, a matter of incremental development being ushered in across a wide-ranging and multi-layered spectrum, and it is precisely of this fact that the solstice so gently reminds us.
Waving from my desk,