I wake around 6:00 and am out on the porch by 6:30, in time for the last 20 minutes of darkness. Most mornings this time of year, the transition from night to day is virtually imperceptible. But this dawn lurches dramatically from dark to light and back again as breaks open and close in the fast-moving clouds. By 6:55 I can see well enough to write between the lines in my pocket notebook. My first page of the New Year, however, will be an almost unreadable mess.
It’s unseasonably warm – 50 degrees (F) – and breezy. By 7:00 o’clock, a large portion of the sky has cleared off, revealing the gibbous moon and one star or planet, maybe Jupiter. A hunter walks up the driveway, headed for his tree stand. (In Pennsylvania, muzzleloader deer season resumed the Monday after Christmas.)
“A little late, aren’t you?” I call out.
He mutters something I don’t catch, then says, “The way I figure it, everyone else probably has a hangover, so I’ll be the first one out here.”
A couple minutes after he heads up into the woods, it occurs to me that I ought to try and watch the sunrise, assuming it will be visible. I tuck a sitting mat under my arm and set off for the crest of the higher of the two ridges, the one to the west, which we call Sapsucker Ridge. Crossing the field, I hear the twitter of waking songbirds, and just as I enter the woods, a white-throated sparrow calls. For once, it doesn’t sound the least bit melancholy. Nor do I hear either of the two popular onomatopoeic interpretations, just the song itself. It stutters a bit at the end, as if the bird still has a bit of sleep stuck in its throat.
I reach the ridgetop by 7:15 and spread the mat at the base of a smallish chestnut oak, some 25 feet away from the mammoth red oak that we refer to simply as the Big Tree. I had thought I might sit against it, but decided I’d rather watch the sunrise through its massive spread of limbs. Who knows how many more years we’ll have it with us? I feel sorry now that I didn’t bring a bottle of champagne to toast the New Year. I would’ve gladly given some to this tree, poured it into the ground around its trunk.
The tree I’m sitting against is a creaker. I look straight up and realize I’ve got company: a dead cherry tree is leaning against it, too. Only one thin branch stands between me and a world of hurt. Fortunately, on this side of the ridge, the wind is erratic, and the rubbing of tree against tree yields only an occasional eeeeeek, or a lower-pitched uk . . . uk . . . uk. A hundred feet to the west, some other creaker is going erk erk erk erk, as regular as a metronome. The whole time I’m sitting there, it doesn’t let up.
Shortly after I get settled in, a crow calls – Here, here – and another answers in the same fashion, like British members of parliament after a stirring speech. Well, what’s not to applaud? As it turns out, I’m very lucky. There’s one, small break in an otherwise solid curtain of cloud above the eastern horizon. From my perspective that break is right in the middle of the Little Juniata Water Gap in Tussey Mountain, some seven miles away as the crow flies. And through that break I’m able to watch the sunrise.
By 7:30 the hole in the clouds has turned deep crimson. At a few seconds before 7:35, the first retina-burning edge of the sun pops into view. It takes only a few minutes to traverse the narrow gap and enter the clouds above. In fact, the leading edge has already disappeared before the bottom of the orb clears the horizon, and at the point where the greatest part is visible, I notice a very thin band of additional cloud bisecting it. I feel as if I’m watching a strip tease through a peephole (not that I’ve ever done such a thing, of course).
Hmm, O.K. – I say to myself – I’m watching the ball rise. By 7:38 the bottom edge is visible above the horizon. Happy New Year!
Less than four minutes later, the sun’s gone and the red is rapidly draining from the aperture through which I was fortunate enough to verify one possible, arbitrary beginning point of another complete circuit of the earth ’round the sun. Is this why the Quiché Maya think of the sun as a mirror, I wonder – because its original radiance has been obscured by the host of calendrical contrivances we read into its (apparent) daily round? The real sun showed its face only once, they say, at the beginning of time. Since then the Day Lords have been ascendant.
I pick up my sitting-mat and continue my walk, heading southwest along the ridge to the so-called vernal ponds. The largest – less than 25 feet across at its widest point – is still just barely frozen. A pool of melt water has formed on top of the ice, which has sunk down so that only the outermost three to four feet of ice are still above the water. The exposed ring of ice bears a striking pattern of what look like the interlocking footprints of large birds. But it’s the water in the middle that draws my attention.
Again, the sense of an aperture: this time, a window into a world of sharper contrasts and greater mutability than the one we know, that dim reflection frozen in the mind’s eye. The tree trunks are silhouettes against a grayish-white sky, with here and there a patch of pale blue or creamy yellow. The slightest movement of air sets the horizontal branches shivering; electric impulses pass from trunk to trunk. It’s never enough to make them really waver, though. They stand, solid citizens, with their heads downward, roots hidden somewhere beyond the edge, behind the clouds.
At 8:20 I leave the pond and circle around behind the grove of Norway spruce at the top of the field. I’m struck suddenly by how quiet it is, apart from a few train whistles. I stop to admire a small patch of milkweed: straight stalks projecting stiffly at various angles to the ground, gray pods still spilling seed-flecked down. A few of the tufts look as if they’re barely holding on, but it’ll take a stronger breeze than this to lift them free.
Half the sky is now clear. In less than a minute the sun will at last emerge into that clearing – and into this one. The milkweed fluff will glisten like snow, which on other years would lie several inches deep by now. In a few seconds the sun will shine full in my face, all of it, for the first time this year. It’s already happening, before I’ve finished writing about it in my pocket notebook. At how many countless points on the planet is another sunrise just now beginning? Sunroot . . . treeshine . . . whatever might have been here, unsayable, in the always present moment – you know – by the time I get it all down, has been here and gone.
A contribution to the Ecotone wiki topic, New Year and Place.