Itís the time of year when our dog, Tasha, wakes me up before dawn to get her morning biscuit and go out into the yard to do dog things. Next week, when Daylight Saving Time drops off, she will likely wake me up at six instead of seven. I would rather negotiate with her than just say no, but her mind doesnít work that way, so sheíll feel rebuffed. In the spring, when dawn comes earlier and earlier every day, her internal clock lags behind, and she doesnít notice that the sun is up and all the nocturnal creatures in our yard have gone underground before she makes her rounds.
So next week, even though it will seem that we get to sleep late, the days are still getting shorter and shorter. At the equinox, the change is most rapidóin September, each day is three or four minutes shorter than the previous one. At the flying field where I get together with other modelers every Wednesday during warm weather, sunset comes nearly fifteen minutes earlier each week. At the end of Daylight Saving Time, of course, our after-work flying is over, because dusk is suddenly around 5:30.
Losing daylight is a less-brutal reminder of the coming winter than are cold winds. Flying a model airplane with freezing fingers is not fun. This is the time when we start talking about building and repairing our airplanes, instead of flying them. As the song goes, everything has its season.
The ever-increasing gloom of evening leaves me a little depressed, even though I donít usually spend much time outdoors. Turning on lights to eat dinner, and closing the blinds in the living room gives me a feeling similar to adjusting to old age. Something is lost, and sometimes itís sad when I notice. By the end of the year, though, Iíll have adjusted to it. The winter solstice reminds me that "this is as dark as it gets," and I can begin to appreciate the slow turnaround as the days once again get longer.
A couple of years ago I obtained from the Internet a table of sunrise and sunset times for this latitude. I plotted them on a graph, and was surprised to discover that even though the solstice always comes around the 21st of December, that tells us only that the time between sunrise and sunset is at its minimum. The latest sunrise and the earliest sunsetóthe actual turnaround points for eachódonít happen together, at least around now. In my plot of three years ago, the earliest sunset was December 8, and the latest sunrise was around January 2. It gets dark earliest several weeks before it gets light latest. In fact, when dawn is still coming later each day, dusk is already changing its direction and is also coming later, but not as quickly. An astronomer friend tells me itís because of the wobble of the earth on its axis. The two turnaround times will eventually come together, but Iím not sure how long that will take. Centuries, maybe. We should have a celebration then, the way we did at the millennium. The day of the sharpest change in daylight, as well as the shortest day.
Even though our modern life has blunted the practical effects of day-night differences, I still notice them, and they have a subtle emotional impact on me. Iíve installed daylight tubes in the fluorescent fixtures over my desk so that I get more actinic rays in the winter. Even so, I get depressed nearly every winter, and yearn for the return of the sun. Judith and I used to have parties at the winter solstice, just to acknowledge the time of most darkness and anticipate the return of daylight. Itís a good excuse to get together with friends, and it gives us a reason to connect with them a little more deeply than just a party would do.
I suppose thatís why the most exciting holidays come in December. They give us an excuse to celebrate and hug and kiss and give each other gifts, all of which are ways we can assure each other that weíre here and alive in these darkest of days. Itís especially important in the high latitudes, where the seasonal differences are the greatest. I canít imagine living in Sweden or Alaska, when the sun doesnít come up for weeks, and then just barely. For me, the long summer days would not make up for the lack of daylight in winter.
The end of October is the time of the plunge, when days are noticeably shorter every day, and the darkness rushes toward us. Still, having been through seventy four of these times, I can watch it happen, just as I watch the approach of the final darkness. Maybe thatís the function of autumn, to remind us to make the most of the light while itís here.
Donald Skiff, October 24, 2003