To many who live in northern latitudes, the phrase “winter light” may seem like a contradiction. But in my Maine home, just south of the 45th parallel, winter is a light-filled time. There are a number of reasons for this. Winter is our longest season, beginning fairly early but lasting many months. We typically get some snowfall six months of the year – November, December, January, February, March, and April – and it is not uncommon to have continuous snow cover from late November until early April. This means that winter begins shortly before the darkest day of the year, the winter solstice, but lasts until after the spring equinox.
In many ways, February is the heart of winter here. It is a cold, snowy month (especially so this year!) and spring is still many weeks away. But by the end of the first week in February, we have already journeyed more than half the distance from the winter solstice to the spring equinox. By the last week of February, the hours of daylight are increasing dramatically. Today the sun rose at my house before 6:30 a.m. and it won’t set until almost 5:30 p.m. – giving us more than 11 hours of daylight. This is only one hour less than the equal day and equal night of the spring equinox, and it is a big change from the less than 9 hours of daylight we experience at the winter solstice.
But it’s not just that winter is a time of increasing daylight. The winter weather patterns here also make this a season of light. New England is not a place where winters are gray and dreary. Instead, our weather pattern is one of alternating low and high pressure areas. The low pressure areas bring us snow; the high pressure areas that follow bring us days of blue skies and brilliant sunshine. And all that white snow cover reflects and enhances the sunlight.
Sunlight reflected off snow at mid-day can be blindingly bright. (I can’t count how many times this month I’ve gone into a room to turn off a light that I had left on only to find that there were no lights on; the brightness I was seeing was reflected sunlight.) My favorite times for winter light, however, are morning and late afternoon. In the morning, the trees across the road from my house, in the west-southwest, are lit with the rosy glow of the rising sun. By late afternoon, it is a golden glow that lights up the trees in my back garden.
This has been an arduous winter in New England, and I will be happy to see the snow melt and green shoots appear as March turns into April. Meanwhile, I will continue to enjoy the winter light.