36 Seconds, Star-Silver

As the Solstice slides past and Christmas comes on, this morning I pull my chair up close to the yellow-orange stored-sunshine glow of the woodstove’s fire and consult a clipboard-mounted chart of dates, times and numbers.  Like all pilots who take off and land and fly small machines over country where there are no runway lights, and for many hundreds of miles no man-made lights at all, I am dutifully cognizant of the constant subtle shifts of daylight and darkness, season by season.  Here at the Hoarfrost River we count and measure the dwindling and advancing sunlight, and watch as it plays into our daily power usage, our indoor and outdoor light,  and the rhythms of our work.  We are well and truly “off the grid”  — that irksome recent label for any outback residence — as if The Grid and its brother The Net were themselves a pair of magnanimous new Deities, pinnacles of human accomplishment, and not in fact more akin to the shifty-eyed heartless dealers, selling dear to hundreds of millions of trembling, drooling addicts.  (And all of us groovy off-grid types are right in there with the rest, clamoring ever for More — more barrels of aviation fuel, more lead-acid batteries and solar panels, more and better generators and chainsaws and LED lights from China.)

But I digress, as usual.  The fire crackles and my knees toast in the glow.   “The chart” laid open on them is a day-by-day annual table, generated by the National Research Council of Canada, which I obtained by simply entering our longitude and latitude. Anyone can generate such a chart, for any location, and the link is here: http://www.nrc-cnrc.gc.ca/eng/services/sunrise/advanced.html

For each date of the year the chart lists Sidereal Time (which I do not claim to comprehend), Nautical and Civil Twilight times for dawn and dusk, Sunrise, Local Noon, and Sunset, followed by three daily Totals. Today I am focused on those totals, one for Day (sun above the horizon) one for Sky (sun within 6 degrees of the horizon – thus giving legal daylight for flying) and, the last of the chart’s eleven columns, Total Illumination.

I am intent on the Total Illumination column – the sum of daylight and usable twilight, or in effect how many hours of light will our dear star send us today, here at 62 degrees, 51 minutes North, 109 degrees, 16 minutes West?

And I see that – oh happy day – tomorrow we will turn the corner, by 36 seconds.  Starting on December 19th, we have had 7.13 hours of daylight per day, and for five days straight the total has been steady there at 7.13.  Seven hours, seven minutes, forty-eight seconds today,  Seven hours, eight minutes, twenty-four seconds tomorrow.  (And yes, I do know that this is all an approximation, an estimate to the nearest hundredth of an hour.)

Another digression is clearly called for, since as I sat here pondering that previous paragraph our battery-powered household system shut itself right down, as it is wont to do whenever the system voltage dips to 11.4 – which it does frequently in these darkest days.  Time to don a headlamp, fetch the little generator, lug it out into the 33-below darkness, pour the fuel, yank on the cord, swaddle the little machine in some old sleeping bags salvaged from the Yellowknife dump, and let it put some juice back into the batteries.  Or, alternatively, just sit here by the fire and peck away in the dark for a while, un-connected to almighty Net or Grid or what some insist upon calling The Real World (as in “reality T.V.?”)  I will digress no further into speculation about the cherished hallucinations of those who imagine that a fully-tricked-out modern North American household (micro-wave, electric lights around the bathroom mirror that are bright enough to illuminate open-heart surgery, dishwasher, ice-cube maker, clothes dryer, 56 inch HD teevee) can all be powered to the standard its inhabitants have so flippantly come to expect, just by bolting a few 2 X 3 solar panels up on the south-facing balcony.

Whoa there Nellie.  Fire-glow, warm knees, hot coffee, and climb down from Soapbox.  Clipboard, chart: Where was I before the lights went out?   Oh yes, for tomorrow, the 24th of December, the Total Illumination here goes from 7.13 to 7.14.  Near as I can figure, that one-hundredth of an hour amounts to 36 seconds.  And – the cause for jubilation – this is 36 more seconds than today, not less.  We have turned the corner and begun the glorious winter-long slide of the sun’s day-by-day return.

What to do with those 36 seconds?  In these scary, secular, fundamentalist, para-scientific, crass, hateful, polarized, battered-Christmas-magic days, I think I will use those 36 seconds, once the sun is up tomorrow, to take down from the wall a plaque my sister made for us, and re-read a poem by Sandburg. Carl Sandburg, born in 1878 in Galesburg Illinois to Swedish immigrant parents, died in 1967.  He was a favorite of our Mor-Mor (Swedish for Mother’s Mother) and she always recited this one from memory, in candle-light  around the tree on Christmas Eve. That recitation, each year, is among my most enduring memories of the Solstice and Christmas and New Year holiday season.

With Sandburg’s homespun poem to fill your new-found seconds of sunlight, I wish each of you a Merry Christmas and a good New Year.


The silver of one star
plays cross-lights against pine-green
And the play of this silver cross-wise against the green is an old story.
Thousands of years.

And sheep grazers on the hills by night
watching the woolly four-footed ramblers
watching a single silver star.
Why does this story never wear out?

And a baby, slung in a feed box back in a barn in a Bethlehem slum
A baby’s first cry,
mixing with the crunch of a mule’s teeth on Bethlehem Christmas corn
Baby fists, softer than snowflakes of Norway

The vagabond mother of Christ
and the vagabond men of wisdom
all in a barn on a winter night
and a baby there in swaddling clothes on hay
Why does this story never wear out?

The sheen of it all–is a star, silver and a pine, green
For the heart of a child asking a story
The red and hungry, red and hankering heart
Calling for cross-lights of silver and green

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