Thank God for global warming.
It is the season of long shadows, when the sun begins his descent early in the afternoon, turning the world into a shadowy realm only a few hours after the crest of noon. But unlike most early December days, the sun has been giving out-of-season spring temperatures.
It was on such a day that we took advantage of the fortuitous weather here in the South. On a day that would reach a high of 60 degrees (16, to all you centigradians), I drove 50 miles east to meet up with Chuck for a hike through the Uwharries. Often credited as one of the oldest mountain ranges in the world, it lacks the verve and tourist-loving views of the Appalachians, the Andes, or the Rockies. But what it lacks in postcard-picture vistas, it makes up with seclusion. After a brief incident with a punctured left tire–and the generous help of a hunter from Tallahassee–we entered the arboreal maze. For the entirety of the day–9 miles, 5 hours–we would see two humans.
Uwharrie trails are deceptively easy to get lost in. Good maps seem rare, and landmarks are rarer on what often seems an undifferentiated wander through the woods. Indeed, aside from wooden signs at intersections and the creek crossing, only a smattering of yellow and white blazes, often blended with the moss and lichen of tree bark, led us through the labyrynth of trees. Couple this with the dry leaves that covered every inch of the woods, and the hike was something of a guessing game, catching turns at the last second, checking directions on the compass frequently, never keeping eyes off the trail.
Up and down, up and down. The trail skirted an inland peninsula of well-marked private land, never settling into a flat groove. Every quick steep ascent paired with a treacherous rock picking descent on unstable leaves.
By 2:30, we were surprisingly tired and the shadows began to lengthen here in the time of shorter and shorter days. We began in hushed whispers to consider time and distance and float the possibilities of turning around to make it back before darkness fell. We checked the map with trepidation as we hadn’t seen any landmarks in quite some time, as we had varying electronic estimates of how far we had come, of how far we had to go. Generally, we were now moving straight south, which the map said was the right direction. So we pushed onward, somewhat uncertain of the trail ahead.
Anxiety and confusion can reign this time of year. The stories of people at the poles who suffer crippling depression in the days of perpetual night are well known, but less accepted is how much the creeping days to Winter Solstice can sap those of us in more temperate climes of our verve as our hemisphere lurches further away from the sun, further and further toward the darkness. I spend most of my working days inside, and by the time I leave and arrive home, the cold chill of night is biting at my heels, chasing me indoors once more. The presence of sunlight in my life becomes scarce.
I remember a teacher telling me in high school that the triangle of Thanksgiving, Christmas, and New Years causes more depression, and thinking it must be about the stress of the holidays, the hustle and bustle of buying gifts, planning big meals, and family strife. But the more I think about it, I think about the darkness that pervades the natural world. We often look to human causes, but the more we are driven inside by the cold and dark, the more we forget our connection to the natural world and how much sustaining energy we derive from the sun. In the darker times of year, it can be more difficult to think clearly, to retain energy. We want to sleep more. We tend to want to hunker down, huddled next to our individual hearths, guarded against the darkness.
It’s no surprise, I suppose that cultures across time and space have planned holiday celebrations around the Winter Solstice. In America, we have a conglomerate of the “holiday season” dominated by Christmas, which has itself adopted the traditions of the tree and the yule log from pre-Christian traditions. The Christian Christmas is of course joined with the more modern materialist feeding frenzy by our modern cult of St. Nick, but our “holiday season” also encompasses the celebrations of Haunukkah for those of Jewish origin, Kwanzaa for the African American, Festivus for the Seinfeldian, and finally the modern bacchanal known as New Years for all comers. But the Romans had their Saturnalia. And even in the Southern Hemisphere, cultures plan celebrations around their Winter Solstice, such as the Matariki of the Maori in New Zealand. When the days are darkest, these celebrations can form a welcome distraction from the reactions of our bodies to shorter days and scanter sunlight. Like the animals, we too feel the need to sleep and hibernate, the confusion caused by the long shadows. Lost in the ritual of ceremony and preparation, we can choose to ignore this natural pull toward sleep and energy preservation, we hold the darkness at bay.
By 3:00, Chuck and I finally found the intersection of the trails, which let us know we had about 2 1/2 miles to go. The beginning of the chill was on the air, and the shadows began to stretch, but we had time to rest by a campsite, even enough to joke about lighting a fire. Chuck had packed in a couple of beers, so we toasted to the afternoon.
As we settled in, we both admitted the tinge of anxiety we had felt before we got to this clearly marked point in the trail, at the intersection of two trails and a forest road. The forest is vast an uniform, trees and hills stretching for miles in all directions. The Uwharries are notoriously easy to get lost in; the darker it got, the more difficult it would be to find our way out. And unlike the summer, where a night under the stars could be a pleasant respite, getting caught in a December night unprepared could be precarious, sickness inducing, even possibly death. Although the hike had seemed simple enough at the outset, we had to consider our own frailty against the open night in making decisions for our safety.
Of course, the easiest and safest course of action would have been to not come into the wild, to stay safely at home, and let the brief sunlight take care of itself and forget the darkness in the glow of my modern hearth…a television playing football. But there is value in facing and embracing the darkness as well. The Tao claims it is from darkness that all things derive, our primordial womb that gives birth to mystery, to manifestation, to understanding. And without a knowledge of the darkness, our knowledge of the light is incomplete. And so, in the days leading to and from the solstice, in the days where shadows are long and light is short, I strive to be outside wandering the woods as much as I can, to grasp every last drop of the sunlight, and to know the lurking shadows. I find my time sloshing through the trails to be the best method of meeting the impending darkness head on. Knowing the crest of that anxiety’s break, and then the resulting calm that swims in its wake, I remember that I am a creature of the natural world, beholden to cycles of the natural world, the ebb and flow of light and dark, the tilt of the earth, the change of the seasons.
Chuck and I picked up our packs and began to make our way on the last two miles of the loop. All was calm and peaceful as the sun began to sink lower in the trees. Knowing our goal was shortly ahead, we walked leisurely as the shadows continued to lengthen across our path. Even when Juno took her usual run though the woods chasing some phantom wildlife, we stopped restfully and waited the cycle of her return. Soon, we were in the car and riding home into the beautiful setting of the sun, back to the home, back to the hearth, under the twinkling dark blanket of night.