January 1st, New Year’s Day, we entered the year 2015. A few days before, on December 21st the Winter Solstice occurred, the shortest day of the year, with only 10 hours and 5 minutes of daylight. The sun seemed to hesitate, and then the days began to lengthen. As you read this on the 7th of January, we will have 10 hours and 11 minutes of daylight. Six minutes doesn’t seem like much more but give it time. Each day Old Sol will be slightly higher in the sky and at Summer Solstice, June 21st, days will be 14 hours and 13 minutes in length.
The sun is now setting well into the southwest. Temperatures are lower than at other seasons and days shorter. Animals and plants have altered their life processes as the day length changed. Deciduous trees paused in their sap production, their leaves coloring and then falling. Squirrels spent hours gathering acorns and nuts and drying mushrooms for storage. Frogs and toads buried themselves in mud to pause for a season, awaiting the warming rays of spring sun. Many birds fled south, and a great quiet descended upon the fields and forests. Have you noticed that once flexible and resilient tree branches now sway and creak in arthritic stiffness? There is a sense of pause, of waiting for a coming new vigorous and vital season.
Although many animals overwinter successfully and are, in a sense, resurrected in the spring, winter is also a time of death. Across the animal and plant world many will never arise as spring’s sun moves higher in the sky. Death is a reality of all life and part of an eternal continuum.
In general I like winter, but short days, augmented by gray skies and rain, tend to depress me a bit and remind me of the relative shortness of life. We certainly haven’t seen much sun over the past several weeks. In any case, it may be healthy to pause and regain perspective as the New Year arrives.
For some plants and animals, life is very long. Bristlecone pines live many thousands of years, far longer than even patriarchal redwoods. The Galapagos tortoise’ life is measured in hundreds of years. Dogs and cats live up to 15 years or more. For others, life if short. Many small mammals live only 3 to 5 years, and butterflies see only a fleeting single season. Humans, the Bible has said, might expect a lifespan of “three score and ten,” or 70 years, or even “four score and ten,” 80 years. Some people in modern times have lived well over 100 years.
Any death gives pause for introspection, but losses during the Christmas season are especially difficult. During my 17th year and two years after the death of my mother, my father suffered a heart attack. He lingered for three weeks – a time spanning the Christmas season, and he died on New Year’s Day. From that time I was on my own. As an only child living far from my few relatives, it was a time of uncertainty and sadness. The reality of life’s brevity bore heavily upon me. Since that time the holiday season has been a time of mixed emotions. Joy and melancholy still vie with one another.
Each time I find the mortal remains of another organism in the fields and forests it gives me pause to reflect on my own life and its relative duration and importance. The Bible teaches that each sparrow that falls is marked by God. In Luke we read, “Fear ye not therefore, ye are of more value than many sparrows.” So each New Year I vow to use my time well, to be a better, more caring person. And the words of a favorite hymn by Will L. Thompson come to mind:
Have I done any good in the world today? Have I helped anyone in need?
Have I cheered up the sad and made someone feel glad? If not I have failed indeed.
Then wake up and do something more than dream of your mansions above.
Doing good is a pleasure, a joy beyond measure, a blessing of duty and love.
Truly this season ought to be one of reflection and renewal. Let’s not be gloomy. The Mayan calendar ended with December 2012, and there were those who predicted the world would end then. It didn’t. Or if it did, I haven’t noticed. May we so live that our limited time on the earth may be productive and uplifting to those around us, as well as personally and spiritually fulfilling. May your New Year be filled with happiness and helpfulness.
Dr. Risk is a professor emeritus in the College of Forestry and Agriculture at Stephen F. Austin State University in Nacogdoches, Texas. Content © Paul H. Risk, Ph.D. All rights reserved, except where otherwise noted. Click firstname.lastname@example.org to send questions, comments, or request permission for use.