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Winter Light

February 26, 2015

winter lightTo 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.

morning glow

evening glow

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.

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30 Comments leave one →
  1. February 26, 2015 12:50 pm

    Jean, this post has given me an insight into a topic I’m working on now, about how we use reflecting surfaces in gardens. I hadn’t considered seasonal aspects of the question. So a big thank you!

    • March 1, 2015 7:43 pm

      Pat, Sounds intriguing. I’m happy to have been able to help. 🙂

  2. February 26, 2015 12:56 pm

    Oh I couldn’t agree more Jean…..the light in winter is the most magical….intense sunrises and sunsets and all those shadows and colors of the snow as the light plays on it.

    • March 1, 2015 7:45 pm

      Donna, This week I’ve been noticing that we’re starting to get those deep blue skies characteristic of March and October. I love that white and blue contrast, which I think of as a harbinger of spring.

  3. Laurin Lindsey permalink
    February 26, 2015 1:07 pm

    So lovely…makes me want to travel north for a bit!

    • March 1, 2015 7:47 pm

      Laurin, A lot of people do travel to Maine in the winter. The state has a thriving winter tourist economy, based primarily on skiing and snowmobiling — both activities that are thriving in this winter’s cold and snow. The year I spent June in Alaska, the owner of the B&B I stayed at in Fairbanks urged me to come back in winter. Maybe someday I’ll do it; Maine is too far south to see the northern lights very often.

  4. Andies permalink
    February 26, 2015 1:17 pm

    Jean, I really enjoyed reading your fresh, positive perspective and I agree wholeheartedly. I was admiring a sunset over woods similar to yours the other day (also in Maine) and thinking similar thoughts. Thank you for putting these into words so beautifully.

    • March 1, 2015 7:49 pm

      Andies, You are very welcome. It’s always gratifying to find that my reflections resonate for others.

  5. February 26, 2015 4:00 pm

    Just lovely, Jean! Every word and image is filled with light! ♡

    • March 1, 2015 7:49 pm

      Thank you, Dawn. I’m very lucky to live in such a beautiful place.

  6. February 26, 2015 4:25 pm

    Our normal weather or the last four or five years must have been exactly as you describe: lows when it snows and highs when it’s sunny. I like that. This year we have had very little snow with gray, overcast days between. Combine that with abnormally low temperatures and you have my least favorite weather conditions in place since October. You picked a great year to leave Pennsylvania.

    • March 1, 2015 7:54 pm

      Carolyn, I always had trouble with the grayness of many Pennsylvania winters. In Gettysburg, winter often reminded me of November in Maine (my least favorite month here) — gray and raining. Last summer I arranged to meet one of my Gettysburg students, who is from South Portland, in the Old Port for lunch one day. It turned out to be a rainy day, and we both laughed about how fitting it was that we were getting together in “Gettysburg weather.” Like you, I much prefer the alternating snow and sun in winter.

  7. Nell Jean permalink
    February 26, 2015 7:51 pm

    I love to look out and see the light on trees in any season. Sometimes we get to see real gold as in your last photo.

    • March 1, 2015 7:56 pm

      Nell Jean, I love both light on trees and the way the color of the sky changes from month to month as the angle of the sun shifts.

  8. February 27, 2015 7:38 am

    The sun is shining this morning, maybe we’ll get a little melt, and I’m so looking forward to that first little dandelion.

    • March 1, 2015 7:59 pm

      Judy, The sun has been strong enough this week to create some melting, and also some evaporation of the snow pack. I’m ready! I’m hoping that this may be one of those years that, because it snowed early and often, the ground isn’t all that frozen under the deep snow and as it melts, greenery and flowers will reveal themselves.

  9. February 27, 2015 12:27 pm

    I remember that beautiful light in Maine! Just as beautiful as your pictures, Jean. I remember loving how early the sun rose in Maine. I loved watching the light move through the house and woods also. I also remember it getting dark by 3pm Winters in Maine. (Sigh) I remember Maine!

    Here in Cedar Key FL (where I migrated to this year Jean), I was ecstatic upon our arrival in December that the sun set an hour later than home! Just a couple more weeks and we will begin our journey home planning to arrive the first day of Spring. I’m hoping it begins to warm up soon!

    • March 1, 2015 8:05 pm

      Kathy, Just this week, I was thinking that I need to adjust the timer for the table lamp beside my living room sofa. When I set it in early December, having the light come on at 3:30 p.m. seemed completely reasonable; now that’s about 2 hours too early.
      I’m a morning person, so I care more about having light at the beginning of the day than at the end. When I was teaching in Gettysburg (which is 30 minutes further west in the time zone), one of my frustrations was how late the sun came up. For much of the winter, I would be getting up and leaving the house to walk to work in the dark. Then, just as I was finally getting up in the light, the clocks would change to Daylight Savings Time and I’d be back to morning darkness again. This past week, I’ve several times awakened in the morning to a room so bright that I thought I must have overslept — but I hadn’t; the sun is just rising earlier.

  10. March 1, 2015 12:23 pm

    Jean, your images are so beautiful and make me envy your location, I love winter lights and the brightness that snow can project to landscape. I know it can be hard so many months of snow, but to me is way much more appealing than too warm weather. I am looking forward to go back to northern exposures! Enjoy your last weeks of winter!

    • March 1, 2015 8:08 pm

      Lula, Like you, I am much happier in cold than in heat. I like snow and winter; it just takes time to get into the rhythm of winter’s outdoor chores. And, of course, the winter makes spring and summer that much more special. Will you be getting back to more northern latitudes any time in the near future?

  11. debsgarden permalink
    March 1, 2015 11:11 pm

    The early morning and late afternoon images are beautiful with the glow of the sun behind the trees. Interestingly, these are the best times in my own garden. The light those times of day is magical! I can’t imagine such a long winter as yours, but nevertheless, the snow creates its own magic!

    • March 4, 2015 7:55 pm

      Deb, I suppose our appreciation of the seasons is strongly influenced by expectations. Since I expect winter to be long, cold and snowy, I’m more likely to be bothered when it isn’t. It took me several years of spending mid-winter in southern Pennsylvania to get used to the fact that it rained a lot and was not reliably snowy. I remember complaining to a colleague from the south once about all the rain, and he replied, “Think of it this way; it could be snow!” “That’s exactly what I was thinking,” I said; “this rain has no recreational value at all.”

  12. joenesgarden permalink
    March 2, 2015 3:56 pm

    I love the stark contrast of bare trees against a colorful winter sunrise or sunset, the long shadows low winter sunshine throws across snow-covered ground and, like you, how the morning sun illuminates the tallest trees so they glow. Winter views offer so much to those willing to open their eyes to them.

    • March 4, 2015 7:57 pm

      Joene, I really do love winter and missed its pleasures during my years in southern PA. Of course, I’m also happy when it ends. 🙂 Today was sunny with temperatures in the mid-forties and lots of melting; it felt like spring.

  13. March 3, 2015 12:00 am

    I was in Denver for a conference recently and ran into a good friend from Maine. She and many others from the Northeast thought the snowfall and sub-freezing temperatures in Colorado were actually warmer and less arduous than what they’d been going through this year back home. I found that instructive. I know this has been a tough year, but I’m glad you’re finding the beauty in it.

    • March 4, 2015 8:01 pm

      James, This was definitely a challenging winter. Although we had less snow than they got further south in Boston and Rhode Island, the much-colder-than-average temperatures made being outdoors less pleasurable than it would normally be in February. We did not have any noticeable melting until this past week. Tonight there was a feature on the local news about how far behind the maple sugar season is — both because the cold has delayed the sap running and because maple farmers are finding it difficult to get to their trees given the four feet of snow in the woods.

  14. March 3, 2015 9:32 am

    Magic!
    I had American visitors this week who asked the usual question – does it snow here? My answer: it is said to twice have snowed here in living memory, but no-one could arrive fast enough to confirm the claim. And so on the last occasion, about 18 years ago, everyone dashed around the mountain, but no-one actually saw any snow, other than that which they themselves had reported falling…

    • March 4, 2015 8:04 pm

      Jack, That’s funny. The snow here definitely has staying power! This year, we wouldn’t mind a little less staying power. There have been years when I’ve been able to do late-winter pruning of clematis vines and some shrubs in mid-March; this year, I can’t get close to them.

  15. March 4, 2015 12:07 pm

    Jean. What a beautiful post on winter I must admit that I tend to endure it but you made it beautiful and have made me realize that I must adjust my thoughts and attitudes about winter. I just shoveled a bunch of snow, good exercise, and am looking forward to spring.

    • March 4, 2015 8:07 pm

      Gloria, I was out shoveling today, too. Although this was heavy, wet snow, it was very nice to be out in the sunshine, especially as the temperatures climbed above freezing and into the forties. I celebrated our first day above 40 in many weeks by washing my car! (It won’t last, because mud season is beginning; but it was nice to be reminded that the car is actually not the color of dirty road salt.)

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