Jim McGuire: Light, juncos and change

We’re at the cusp of change. Christmas is over, December is ending—and a brand new month and year awaits.

Though 2020 served up a few positive moments, most were decidedly not memories we’d care to repeat in 2021. We’ll pass on those second helpings, thank you!

Goodbye and good riddance! Out with old, in with the new!

Not many days ago, I was particularly delighted when handfuls of juncos began showing up to frequent the feeders. I like juncos.

Juncos are members of the sparrow family—smallish birds, dapper in dress. Their upper body is slate-gray, though sometimes so dark it appears almost black. Their breast and underbelly are a dull white or a pale dove-gray. Outer tailfeathers are a bright snowy white.

Juncos are the first and most reliable of our “snowbirds.” Phenological markers.

When they recently began appearing—soon after the onset of cold temperatures, and prior to the solstice—I knew with certainty the seasons had changed. Autumn had morphed into winter…and both winter and the juncos would be hanging around awhile.

The good news is our allotment of daylight is already on the increase. Last week’s solstice marked the point where the pendulum starts swinging back the other way. Each east to-west arc of the sun now takes a little longer, and scribes its path a smidgen farther north, thus delivering a tad more light.

Not a lot at first. But you must keep the faith! By the end of January we’ll have gained nearly a full hour of welcome illumination.

“More daylight is great,” said my wife, “but I need days less dark and dreary!”

Seasonal affective disorder is a type of depression some folks experience during months when natural light levels are low. My wife hasn’t been formally diagnosed, but from late-fall until early-spring her mood and behavior undergoes a definite change. Thankfully, her symptoms are mild.

I’m just the opposite—I actually like cloudy, moody days. They often seem to energize me! A bit of cold, a little drizzle—even a soupçon of sleet…not a problem. Give me a minute to dress accordingly and I’m rarin’ to go!

Which isn’t to say I don’t like or appreciate winter’s bright blue skies.

Here along the river, in just in the last couple of hours, the sky has alternated from thick overcast to broken clouds to a horizon-wide expanse of intense sapphire blue. I’ve watched the nearby moving water change color—from an opaque steel, to burnished pewter, and finally a shimmering jade.

This is one of winter’s gifts—part of the season’s dichotomy. The ever-changing light ceaselessly transforms the landscape; contrasting objects and features between degrees of illumination bright and dim, light and dark, soft and diffused, or vivid and harsh. Differences which simultaneously alter both what we’re seeing while causing us to process that information in a variety of ways.

Light which can change our mood as it changes our viewpoint.

An old friend always liked to describe this interim pause between Christmas and New Year as the “Janus period.”

Janus was the old Roman god of doors and entrances, the guardian of comings and goings. In art, Janus is depicted with two faces—one looking forward, the other to the rear. Behind and ahead.

This was the notion my friend had in mind—that duality of viewpoint when we take a moment to reflect on where we’ve been and where we’re heading.

An annual summation is, I suppose, a good thing. These interregnum days between Christmas and New Year certainly provide the perfect space for such pondering.

However, I’m neither historian nor prophet. So I prefer to let others make their predictions and write their retrospectives.

The truly interesting soothsayers of yore—those ancient gray-bearded oracles who sought wisdom amid the mediums of goose bones and willow smoke—are nowadays in rather short supply. And I have no taste whatsoever for reducing a glorious circuit around the seasons—past or future—to the spiritless abstract of an outdoorsy balance sheet and accompanying prospectus.

I also believe recollections, like a good stew, are best served after a decent interval of simmering. Any meaningful interpretation needs time and distance. Digestive space. Attempting it prematurely is like starting a postmortem while the subject is still breathing.

I much prefer the practical comfort of introspective observation. Less the role of a seer and more of a subjective reporter.

So I’ll continue to watch the sky’s changing light and pay attention to its effects on water and land. I’ll admire the juncos and listen to calling geese, hooting owls, and the keening voice of the wise north wind.

I promise to do my best to understand their messages and meanings and let you know.

May joy and wonder be yours in the days ahead. Happy New Year!