Friday, December 20, 2013

The Darkest Days

I think of the depth of winter as being sometime in late January - early February. The December arrival of the winter solstice catches me off guard. It feels early. Winter is just starting; are these really the shortest, darkest days?

All throughout Autumn, the locals repeatedly warned me, a newcomer, about winter on the North Coast. These warnings were as ominous as they were vague. Just you wait till winter... It will get bad... Stay the winter and see if you still "like it" here!...

Now that the solstice is coming, I am reminded that winter is in full swing. And I get occasional inquiries into the progress of my opinion. On the day of a particularly bad storm, or a drastic temperature drop, someone will inevitably ask: "And how do you like it here now, eh?" - studying my wind-burned face with a hint of glee.

Granted, living here is not without challenges. The winter cold feels far worse than the temperature readings suggest, due to the nasty strain of dampness particular to these parts. The winds get so powerful, it can be difficult to walk, let alone ride a bike. Visibility can grow poor - and rapidly - due to sudden onset fog and flurries. While food is very affordable here, heating is problematically expensive and needs to be thought through carefully. None of this has put me off so far; I adjust. On non-windy, or mildly windy days, I try to get all my long-distance errands done. I have figured out how to get things delivered, if need be. Working from home, I try to time my work so that I'm out of the house in daytime and work mostly early morning and after dark - as its more efficient to heat the house that way.

Daytime lasts until about 4pm these days. Except on those badly overcast days when the sun never really comes out, and the 24 hour period is split into a state of complete darkness and semi-darkness. Those days have not been infrequent as of late. In fact today was one of them. Allowing myself to be pushed about by erratic gusts of wind, I cycled to the little farm shop down the road after riding a mildly hilly loop along the base of the mountain for purely recreational purposes. The light at 10:30am looked no different than the light at 3:30pm, all diffuse and veiled and, if you want to be unkind about it, dirty-dishwater-like. It is the sort of thing that I suppose should feel depressing, but isn't - instead awaking a part of me that is asleep in more overtly cheerful environs and inspiring a flurry of creative and productive activity.

The darkest days are here, and they are okay. I have bikes to ride and work to do and food to eat and logs to burn and people to talk to and animals to pet. The Winter Solstice is tomorrow and it will be the shortest day yet. Suddenly I feel like a bike ride to celebrate. Who else is planning a Solstice Ride?

34 comments:

  1. I try to do a Winter Solstice ride every year, and will probably pedal down to the Pacific coast twelve miles away--something I do once a week at least anyway. it's Los Angeles, so rare are the dark brooding days, and a welcome change they are when they do come. (Yesterday was one; Gina and I rode through a light rain to a delightful coffeehouse/bistro a few miles off for an early dinner.)

    The Winter Solstice is the root of all the end-of-year celebrations in northern cultures. Though the winter is yet to come, the end of declining sunlight speaks the promise of spring. Worth celebrating with a ride!

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  2. May I suggest a Tour of the Animals for your solstice ride!

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    1. Every day os Tour of the Animals day : )
      I love it.

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  3. bikes
    work
    heat
    food

    at least you have your priorities right!

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  4. "It is not the strongest of the species
    that survives, nor the most intelligent
    that survives. It is the
    one that tis most adaptable to
    change"

    Charles Darwin

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  5. It seems living in rural and northern climates one must be proactive in order to avoid severe cabin fever, reman sane and hopeful. Being outdoors as often as possible is wise and being prepared when outside ain't such a bad idea either. I know few who don't, at times, suffer some form of despair but then the beauty of these seasonal markers as cause for celebrations is acknowledgment and affirmation of what makes life interesting and worthwhile.

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  6. My first year in a rural and northern environment was not as bad as advertised. Mostly, like you, I was warned of the length and isolation issues and expected it to be absolutely terrible. Low expectations made it okay in comparison. As the years went by, however, it can wear on one if there is no opportunity to get away. Travel guides were on everyone's tables throughout the winters.

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  7. Cheerful environments are all about Do.

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  8. Last year I tried a sunrise to sunset ride - boredom finished me off at 2pm. Tempted to do it tomorrow, weather won't be an issue here, plenty of hedges for shelter.

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    1. My last sunrise to sunset ride ended in a DNF :(

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    2. Less of the ): – that was the most epic post you ever wrote! :) It was a much longer day; you only finished up with a DNF because you hadn’t yet learned to climb out of the saddle, and you just hadn’t factored in how much slower you’d be on unlit roads, something none of us would realize until we were racing against the clock. You were a proper hero that day, and given how you’ve developed since, if you did the 300K again next year you’d waltz it. Hope you get into Irish audax/randonneuring – and even time trialling!

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  9. "While food is very affordable here..."

    Elaborate please? I would have thought living in the UK would be more costly than in the USA.

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  10. The Irish like to think they have the worst weather in the world. Nobody ever gets weather like they do. You'll probably get asked, "And what's the weather like in America?" That's a question that doesn't have an easy answer. I think Ireland is bigger than America. Ireland is definitely bigger than Australia. The Irish mindset is not as silly as it seems, though. They have conquered the world with immigration. The Irish empire is huge. Anyone with the slightest Irish decent can get an Irish passport, so maybe the Irish empire is bigger than America and Australia put together.

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  11. I hate sun glare and love gloomy days. But I like warm gloomy days before a violent storm. And the storm itself. Riding through flurries is fun if they are not stinging you at 40 mph.
    There is something to the whole diffuse light thing. The bright greens and changing leaves show really well and in pictures too. Less eye strain.

    At least there's cool blog stuff to read! Many thanks.

    And now to see if I can read the squiggly test words . . .

    vsk

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  12. As someone who's moved to a similar climate, it's not the winters you have to worry about, it's the summers! Your expectations for winter are likely to be low, but a long grey wet cold summer can be a real downer

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    1. For much of my 20s I lived in East Anglia and looooved the long damp cold summers. Fondly I remember sitting on the riverbank with my best friend on a charming July afternoon, both of us shivering in our wool winter overcoats...

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    2. And East Anglia's the driest part of the UK ...

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  13. Last year I rode every day in December, no problem.

    There has been some light snow and freezing rain the last few days. Nothing major to anyone except the blasted salt people.

    It's easier to wash salt off boots than a bike. So I'll probably spend tomorrow hiking the lake front.

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  14. Your words are so poetic, warm and kind. Michigan is not that different in winter time - well we do have snow, but anyway, thank you!

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  15. That's a great photo! I take it you still ride the mountain bike?

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  16. I'm about 100 miles south of where you are, right at the very southern tip of Ulster. I love the long nights. It goes back to my first job as a dairy herdsman about 30 years ago. Long summer days meant long working days, when it was time to make silage up to 18 hours a day. In mid winter most of the cows were dry, so a short evening milking time and home early. Every since I look forward to the long nights.

    I love to sit by a nice warm stove on a winters night, drink a few glasses of whiskey, read a good book and listen to the wind howl and the rain beating on the roof.

    In recent years I've grown fond of long night time bike rides, something very relaxing about being alone in the darkness with just my own thoughts for company.

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  17. In Ireland, there's a saying: "We never died a winter yet." Being Irish is all about survival. I know this is a universal thing, but the Irish climate makes it more of a challenge.

    V, I don't know if this is your first Christmas in Ireland, but I wonder if you're familiar with the tradition of the Wren Boys on St. Stephen's Day, the day after Christmas Day? Also known as Hunting the Wren, but pronounced as Wran.

    On that day, groups of young men go from house to house with a wren in a cage, and recite the following lines: "The wran, the wran, the king of all birds, on Stephenses Day was caught in the furze, so up with the kettle, and down with the pan, and give us a penny to bury the wran."

    The reason why the wren is known as the king of the birds is explained by a legend. It seems that, many years ago, the birds decided to hold a contest to see which of them should be king, and it was settled that the honour should go to the bird who could fly the highest. They all did their best, but it was the mighty eagle who achieved the greatest height. Just as he was about to stake his claim to the crown, the tiny wren, who had concealed himself in the eagle's feathers, emerged and flew just a few inches higher, thereby becoming king of the birds, a title which he holds to this day.

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    1. I funded my very first bicycle at the age of 14 by spending a day on the Wren boys. Rural south Sligo is famous for the quality of it's traditional music. My own adventures on the tin whistle did not come up to these standards but people still contributed. Looking back it was probably a cheap method of getting me to stop!

      The bike? Second-hand 1940's steel Raleigh with rod brakes and chain guard. I even had enough money left to add blue handle grips and a dynamo for lighting! Wow, what a machine!

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    2. A reminiscence inspired by Carigeen's mention of Sligo. In 1996, I was living in a cottage in rural Carmarthenshire, and my wife used to drive 200 miles on a Friday to spend the weekend with me. I had no car, only a bicycle, and lived miles from anywhere. Her birthday was approaching, and I was anxious to find a present for her. I used to listen to the Gay Byrne radio programme on RTE from Ireland while I was working on the cottage. This particular day, there was a competition on the programme. The prize was a newly-published book called Remembered Kisses, which consisted of Irish romantic poetry with the poems accompanied by reproductions of well-known Irish paintings from the National Gallery of Ireland, the Hugh Lane Gallery, etc. A really nice book, which I knew she would like, having accompanied me around those galleries many times. The question was to complete this epitaph: "Cast a cold eye on life, on death ......" I reached the telephone in record time, rang RTE, was put through, and gasped "horseman pass by." The epitaph, of course, is that of the Irish poet and senator W.B. Yeats, who died and was buried in France shortly before the war, and whose remains were eventually reinterred in Drumcliff churchyard in County Sligo. He had taken the precaution of writing his own epitaph in advance (yes, I realise it would be difficult to write it subsequently), including the prediction that he would indeed be laid to rest "Under bare Ben Bulben's Head." Otherwise, I suspect he might have remained in France. I won the competition, the book duly arrived, and my wife and I treasure it still.

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    3. Being a vegetarian at this time of the year even has more connotations of survival. Cycling this morning to a farmers market and food co-op felt good to get the last of the fresh veg before next week. Also flying by the long line of cars queuing to get into shopping centres felt great. For me parking was no trouble with the stormy weather all about. Returning propelled by the wind down the canal through the deserted streets of the financial district, crossing over the Liffey in sunshine felt good on my loaded bike. December can have great intervals amidst the chaos and busyness.

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    4. That post made me nostalgic for dear old dirty Dublin. I haven't spent Christmas there since 1997, when we went to the Christmas Eve service of Nine Lessons and Carols in St. Patrick's Church of Ireland cathedral. During the service, a great storm blew up which left a large part of the country without electricity for several days. We were all right up in Rathgar, though. I've never seen anywhere as crowded as Dublin at Christmas. Sometimes, it's impossible to cross the street for the heaving mass of people. Since then, we've come to prefer spending Christmas where there's absolutely nobody around, and total silence. Going for a brisk walk in the snow and not seeing a soul. I miss Dublin, though, despite the changes in recent years.

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  18. Sounds just like winter in the pacific northwest. But we just got snow, so a ride is likely out of the question unless it all melts overnight. We generally do not heat our house during the day to save on firewood, but it's been extra cold this winter so the fires have started earlier and earlier.
    Happy Winter Solstice!

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  19. Very nice post. Here in Northeastern Ohio, we've gone from a lot of snow to pouring rain. My "Solstice Ride" will be a few days late, as I'm rebuilding my bike, and it'll be on a trainer inside a warm, dry house. Happy Holidays!

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  20. I was out on my Solstice Ride yesterday when I passed a field full of Shetland ponies. I parked my bike, whistled, and about half of them trotted over. I speak Equine so I told them about your wee fat Irish grip-muncher. They were all neighing, they thought it was hilarious. :)

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  21. "The darkest days are here, and they are OK." I love that quote. Indomitable. Makes me proud to be Irish.

    Remember the dictum though "It can ALWAYS get worse." Enjoy your ride.

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  22. "Wee fat Irish grip muncher" I love it!
    I did a little ride Saturday the 21st with some friends in Prospect Park Brooklyn, then down Ocean Parkway to Coney Island.

    Sorry to change the mood but it was sunny, calm, about 55 degrees F, and people were sunning themselves after a week of ice and nastiness. Was glorious. Yesterday was 71 degrees in NYC for a bit.
    Now (lunch time) it looks like the streetlights should be on and it will be 30 degrees F at the high for Christmas.

    Happy / Merry to you all.

    Victor K.
    vsk

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  23. Hello Velouria. A wee bit off-topic, but by all accounts, I love how you have described your current local environment and not just in this post. I come from near Antrim and it's just a different world away from where you are at, comparatively speaking.

    The thought of just escaping to there for a weekend, renting out a wee cottage for the family and cycling as much as I can, sounds like bliss.

    I did do a couple of round trips between Coleraine and Limavady a few summers ago and loved it - especially on the coast road between Castlerock and Bellarena.

    Anyhow ... best wishes for Christmas!

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  24. Here in Seattle you know when it's a dark, dark, gloomy day when you can actually see the headlights of cars showing on the road in the daytime. I have to say, it does get to me sometimes... since often sunshine is equated with happiness.

    So congrats on standing up to the test of gloom and biting cold humidity!

    Happy Holidays! (and I've always thought it is amazing how well bicycles do in the snow. It's just the ice where things get tricky)

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