The winter solstice marks the return of lengthening days and we talk about more hours of light but, in reality, the difference between today and tomorrow will be measured in seconds. It’s a slow retreat from the darkness but those seconds add up and around here, at this time of year, we take what we can get, especially with the truly cold time still ahead.
The word “solstice” actually refers to the sun seeming to stand still, as today is essentially the same length as yesterday and yesterday was as short as the day before that. The days have been growing progressively shorter, and we know they will be growing longer, but first there is a pause. The earth wobbles on its axis, tilting us away from the sun and then back again, giving us our grand procession of seasons, and this pause is probably a good thing. If it didn’t take three full days to reverse the direction of the tilt, crash helmets and other protective gear would probably be the hot gifts of the season.
In June, the solstice days bring long, dreamy twilights and short nights that brighten into leisurely dawns. The days shorten noticeably from there — more quickly, it seems, than they lengthen from here — and thoughts of winter creep in, just like the no-see-ums of summer at the cuffs of my sleeves. It might seem strange, trying to remember where I put the snow shovel while waiting for mayflies to hatch, but it’s no stranger than thinking about then, now. Remembering June comes easily on an overcast December day that couldn’t get cranked up to much more than dim.
There is no snow right now and the woods are the color of grouse. The hares stand out, as white as the missing snow, and ermine streak like lightning through dark stone walls. One, a prey item, the other a predator; both at a disadvantage this year, betrayed by their otherwise reliable camouflage. Tracking is nearly impossible in conditions like this, and somehow the absence of snow makes the cold days feel colder, while in the woods everything seems vulnerable and exposed.
Even Fish in a Barrel Pond is different without the snow. Some years the ice forms as a chunky layer of slush, wind-whipped into stiffened submission. Some years the phase-shift from liquid to solid takes place quickly and evenly on a starry, windless night, the entire surface hardening like glass from shore to shore in a matter of minutes. This year the ice formed first along shady edges and in the coves, but mild weather checked its progress and it took days for ice to overspread the entire lake. No matter how it forms or how long it takes, the ice that forms in the first few days of freezing is usually all the ice we get; our normally heavy snows provide effective insulation from the bitter cold and prevent much more from forming. This year the ice has a good start and has set up so clear it looks black.
Our lack of snow has allowed the ice to form more thickly than usual, but snow not only insulates — it also muffles sound. An ice covered lake basin is a lot like a drum, transmitting and amplifying sound, but if you cover the head of that drum with a blanket, or even a piece of paper, its sound will be diminished. With no dampening snow cover, Fish in a Barrel Pond has become essentially an unmuffled drum. Every creak, crack or groan of the ice sheet can be heard. Sounds bounce around under the ice, echoing from shore to shore and back with eerie, high pitched squeaks radiating out from the coves and ominous rumblings across the deeper, middle parts of the lake. During the day the sounds are random, as the ice settles under its own weight or flexes in the oblique light of a feeble sun. At night, though, when the cold creeps back in, the noise of expanding ice is rhythmic, like a machine, booming and churning away in the dark, loud enough I can hear it from bed.
I lived on an island on Lake Champlain for a time, a mile and a half from shore. One winter, the ice was well over three feet thick and just as black as could be. The cracking of that ice as it expanded in the cold rattled the windows of my little cabin, but here it is more subdued, a mysterious sound in the cold, distant night. And here, in the spring, when the ice breaks up, my windows don’t rattle as ice chunks the size of cars are pushed ashore.
A blanket of snow would be nice, to help it look more like winter, but to hear the ice this year is a real treat. It has provided an ethereal soundtrack for the three shortest, darkest days of the year. Three days in a row with identical hours of daylight, a pause in the wobble if you will. Three short days to stand in the cold, listening to the ice, while thinking of the three long days, six months hence, when I will slap no-see-ums and think about snow shovels.