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Public Radio's Environmental News Magazine (follow us on Google News)

The Dark Days of Winter

Air Date: Week of

Commentator Nancy Lord reflects on the long, dark winter days in Homer, Alaska — and a few reasons why the months should be cherished as well as endured.


CURWOOD: With the winter solstice now past in the Northern Hemisphere, the days are growing longer again, as we swing towards summer. But for commentator Nancy Lord in Homer, Alaska, thoughts of bright days are still very far away.

LORD: This time of year, when I talk to people outside of Alaska, they invariably ask if it's dark all the time - except for when they get their geography or astronomical coordinates confused and ask if it's light all the time. This happens more often than you might think. I don't live particularly far north in Alaska, and on December 21st, the shortest day of the year in the Northern Hemisphere, we had five hours and 59 minutes of daylight. This is quite a bit of light compared to Barrow, Alaska's farthest north town. There the sun set on November 18th, and it won't be back up again until January 24th. But yes, it's dark a lot in the winter here. Even when the sun's up, it's not up very high. It slides along just over the mountaintops, usually behind clouds, and at best offers us only a cool yellow glow. Some people don't like the dark. There's even a disease now - SAD, S-A-D, Seasonal Affective Disorder - which used to be known less scientifically as depression, cabin fever, winter blues, or an urgent need to skip to Hawaii. Those of use who stick it out in the North have our ways of coping. We turn on extra electric lights, lots of them, all over the house. We learn to organize ourselves to do those things that need daylight doing - like skating around the lake - in the middle part of the day. Instead of wasting fireworks on the blue skies of July, we save them for New Year's. We lounge around in steamy outdoor hot tubs; the cooler the air temperature the better, and best of all a chance to press your hot self into angel wings in the snow. And then there's sleep. There's nothing wrong with catching up on a little sleep during the longest nights. Relax, read a few good books. Take a lesson from the Dena'ina, the Native people of this place, who called this time of year The Month We Sing. Without the sun, and away from the electric and car lights of town, there's still a surprising amount of winter light. Moonlight falls across snowfields, bright enough to cast shadows, and even on moonless nights, the white world reflects sufficient starshine to guide your scratchy skis. There's no need for a flashlight once you learn to read the snow and the shadows, to feel the ground under your feet and the wind in your face, and to listen. When you let your eyes open up to the dark, you chance your best look at one of the greatest pleasures of the Northern winter - the pulse and the shimmy and the red flare of the aurora borealis, the Northern Lights. Even so,I admit to appreciating the already-lengthening days. Today we have two minutes more daylight than yesterday, but it's February I look forward to - when every day will bring us five or six more minutes of coveted light.

CURWOOD: Commentator and writer Nancy Lord lives in Homer, Alaska. She comes to us from member station KBBI.



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