Outdoors Recreation

The Observant Gardener: December Light

Photo by Judith Canty Graves

“It is the life of the crystal, the architect of the flake, the fire of the frost, the soul of the sunbeam. This crisp winter air is full of it.” – John Burroughs

By Judith Canty Graves

As our gardens fade in autumn, there is a noticeable change in the quality of the light that illuminates them. With the approach of winter, the days become shorter and the light more intense. Everything seems clear and well-defined. With sunset in the early afternoon, the dark shadows that trees cast on the earth quickly disappear. The December landscape seems fleeting because of how quickly night descends upon us.

As a photographer, I am especially attuned to the light around me. I notice how it changes every season, but it is especially dramatic in the fall. With the sun lower on the horizon, the landscape becomes more pronounced, a result of what the poet Emily Dickinson described as “a certain Slant of light.”

Some people think winter light creates a dreary effect, but I hold the opposite view. As the earth turns toward winter, I find quiet beauty. December’s afternoon sunlight is the most striking of all, casting amazing shadows.

The December solstice officially begins the winter season. For centuries, people all over the world have observed solstice traditions, recognizing the waning light at the end of the harvest season, culminating in the longest night of the year. Many winter solstice traditions celebrate the birth of the sun, knowing that with each day after the solstice, the days become longer.

With short days and long nights, the earth settles down, the growing season ends with the first killing frost and gardens become dormant. Many plants and insects disappear from the landscape. The natural world rests. Gardeners also have time to rest in winter after seasons of planting and harvesting. December is a good time to evaluate the previous growing season and to plan for the next.

Vita Sackville-West, the English novelist and garden designer, wrote, “People who are not gardeners always say that the bare beds of winter are uninteresting; gardeners know better, and take even a certain pleasure in the neatness of the newly dug, bare, brown earth.”

Spending time outdoors in the winter can be an uplifting opportunity to soak up the sun on a bright day, move in the brisk air and study the bare branches of the trees. We connect with nature when we venture out and appreciate the transformation newly fallen snow brings.

But December also signals the time to turn inward, spend time indoors in a cozy home when the weather is too cold, and enjoy the winter season that is beginning.

Judith Canty Graves is an Asheville gardener with a background in photojournalism. Follow @TheObservantGardener on Instagram.

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