The Longest Night of the Year Just Passed

The Longest Night of the Year Just Passed – Winter Has Started and New Year’s Day is Right Around the Corner.

Did you miss it? On December 22nd the Winter Solstice happened. It marked the longest night and shortest day of the year – 10 hours and 3 minutes here in Nacogdoches. It also marked the official beginning of winter. From now until June 20th (Summer Solstice) our nights will progressively shorten and the days will grow longer. By Summer Solstice our days will have increased to 14 hours and 9 minutes. Then they will start decreasing again. Solstice is a word meaning the time when the sun stands still. It really doesn’t, but the sun does appear to slow or pause for a few days before it gradually starts reversing its elevation in the sky.

Who cares how long the day is? Almost all of us. Time is our tether and rules much of the natural world. Don’t think so? Do you believe punctuality is a measure of personal efficiency and reliability? Are you always striving to be on time; not too early and never late? How many clocks do you have in your home or office? Do you wear a wrist watch or carry a pocket watch? Lifespan, pulse rates, rates of speed, sun or moon rise and set, awakening, sleeping, appointments, meetings, and medication scheduling are just a small sample of time related events. Even cooking is a timed activity. Since long before stoves had timers, cooks calculated how long they should bake their bread or Christmas cookies. We even slip the nasty word “time” into everyday words like daytime, nighttime, mealtime, local time, and Daylight Savings Time.

The number of hours of daylight and darkness controls built-in “biological clocks” in both plants and animals. As the days shorten birds begin annual migrations to warmer areas farther south, while some animals, such as bears and ground hogs, prepare to hibernate. Poultry farmers provide their inmates with additional light as the days shorten so that they don’t stop producing eggs. Dogs and many other mammals grow a thick layer of fine-textured undercoat for winter insulation. Green plants stop producing chlorophyll and autumn colors begin to show. My Christmas cactus blooms when the days are short enough and not before.

People are also strongly affected by the length of day as well as the intensity of light. During the short days and long nights of winter some folks living in more northern areas (and others closer to home) become depressed. Sometimes this is called “cabin fever.” Overcast skies tend to increase the feelings of anxiety and gloom. Physicians call this Seasonal Affective Dysfunction (SAD for short), a condition that can be alleviated by exposure to special bright fluorescent lights which stretch the day as though the sun shined longer, tricking our biological clocks into the impression that it’s really spring or summer.

My point is that time continues to pass. Amazingly in just a few days 2011 will end. New Year’s Day will launch us into another 12-month marathon of calendars crammed with significant or critical times and days for activities, appointments, birthdays, anniversaries, deadlines, and time limits.

As the old year winds down we’ll celebrate the demise of the “old” year and the “birth” of a baby New Year with parties, horns, fireworks, and festive beverages. Some will wake up late on January 1st with the worst hangover of their lives. Others, unfortunately, will indulge so excessively they won’t awaken at all. Worse, their excesses will claim the innocent lives of others. Their time will have run out.

My hope is that we can recognize that our time is limited. Make the best possible use of it. Take time for others. Vow to be a little more thoughtful and pleasant. Keep your priorities straight, and enjoy a wonderful, productive New Year. Slow down a little. Notice the beauty and amazing complexity of the fields and forests that surround us. Don’t waste time. Use it wisely. It comes in limited supply.

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 to send questions, comments, or request permission for use.