Winter Solstice

grayskies:geese

It hasn’t seemed like winter this December; more like a mild November with moody skies, soaking rains and even a few thunderstorms. What little snow fell, melted into the unfrozen ground. But the sun tells the truth as it rides low on the southern horizon. I always look at winter solstice (10:48 p.m. CST on December 21) as a milestone achieved: We’ve reached the time of peak darkness for the winter. And happily, though sunrise is still getting later, sunset began to lengthen on December 10th!  We celebrate solstice with extra candles on the dinner table, a glass of wine, and Celtic Christmas music.  

I look for the understated, sometimes harsh beauty of winter, and I like the extra hours of moon-watching. Yet, I impatiently wait for the seeds, bulbs, perennials and tiny creatures that rest in the dark earth to reawaken. In the meantime, I will try to appreciate the slate skies and spent plants that add their own stark loveliness to the winter months.

The mid-December moon is often visible during the day.

The mid-December moon is often visible during the day.

Joe-Pye seedheads.

Joe-Pye weed (Eutrochium dubium) seedheads.

Flame grass seed heads.

Flame grass (Miscanthus sinensis ‘purpurascens’) seed heads and leaves.

Fluffy goldenrod seeds.

Fluffy, soft goldenrod (Solidago) seeds.

A few seeds still cling to the soft, empty cup of a milkweed pod.

A few seeds still cling to the soft, empty cup of a milkweed pod (Aesclepias syriaca).

Winter Sky

The winter sky is moody and ever-changing even in the city.  The rising sun glows a warm orange on trees and buildings that belies the steely cold air.

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The sky grows to a brilliant blue, then often softens to dove gray — especially in early winter when clouds quickly blanket the blue, sputter snowflakes, or spin a squall before moving out.

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Winter sunsets fire the horizon unlike any other time of year.  As the sun sinks lower, light streams through our southwest windows flooding the rooms with deep golden rays.  I love that last burst of gentle, bright warmth and, for a few moments, I work in those rooms when possible — perhaps to write, catch up on paperwork, or even fold a basket of laundry.  Soon afterward, broad strokes of rose illuminate the west, then slowly die down to pink embers.

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Many evenings, in the final glow of twilight a silvery moon brightens against a pale, fading sky.

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November Moonrise

I miss the long, light days of summer with their extended periods of predawn and dusky twilight.  But, if there’s an advantage to the lengthy winter nights, it is the beauty and greater visibility of the moon and constellations.  The sun’s lower angle allows the moon to be visible during some daylight hours of the winter months.  The planet Venus also is visible high on the southern horizon in the late afternoon and early evening, and is referred to as the “evening star”.

The November moon rises in mid-afternoon.

The November moon rises in mid-afternoon.

A good resource to find out about what’s currently visible in the night sky — such as planets, constellations, comets, meteor showers and other heavenly objects — is Sky and Telescope‘s “This Week’s Sky at a Glance”.

November moonrise through red maple (Acer rubrum).

November moonrise through red maple (Acer rubrum).