Dec. 14-20, 2009
One need not see in winter a kind of devastating darkness, but instead a time when we can wrap ourselves in the security of our heat, when we can celebrate the ways in which we have staved off our vulnerabilities.
The astronomical outlook
Winter solstice occurs at 12:47 p.m. (EST) on Dec. 21. On Dec. 24 the sun begins its movement to summer solstice, and by Dec. 26, days begin to lengthen; they will continue to grow at the rate of seven minutes a week until Jan. 15. After that, night recedes a little better than two minutes every day all the way to early summer.
The Tufted Titmouse Moon waxes until it enters its second quarter on Christmas Eve at 12:36 p.m.
The Pleiades and Taurus will be almost directly overhead around 11 at night, and Orion will be fully visible behind them. In the far east, Regulus, the brightest star of spring, will be just starting to rise along the tree line. Summer’s Altair sets in the west by midnight; it will appear again in the night sky at the end of May.
The coldest days, those with better than a 35 percent chance for temperatures in the 20s or below, all come at this time of year: Dec. 17-19 and the 25-26. The bitterest day this week is usually Dec. 19, with a 30 percent chance for highs only in the teens. And more below-zero temperatures occur between Dec. 18-26 than on any other December mornings.
Precipitation is common throughout the period, with every day this week bringing a 50 percent chance for rain or snow, except Dec. 16, which is typically the driest and the sunniest day between now and Christmas. Double-digit below-zero temperatures are possible between Dec. 15 and March 22.
Dec. 14: The day after tomorrow is new moon day. Get your bedding plants planted under lights with gentle radiant heat provided below the flats. Root grapevine cuttings, too.
Dec. 15: The Dec. 15 cold wave brings early winter deep into the country near this date. The first significant bout of below-zero temperatures in weather history sometimes occurs after this front, and double-digit below-zero temperatures enter the realm of possibility.
The strength of today’s high-pressure system is also associated with higher-than-average precipitation both before and after its arrival. Tomorrow’s new moon is likely to make this front a whopper.
Dec. 16: Soil temperatures have often fallen into the mid 30s throughout the lower Midwest. The Christmas tree harvest is almost over. Odds against the survival of garden vegetables rise sharply as the full force of the Dec. 15 cold front settles in across the area.
Dec. 17: All remnants of the hostas have dissolved into the light garden mulch. Artichoke leaves are twisted and stiff. The cold and dustings of snow have dulled the colors from the Osage and mock orange leaves on the ground. Throughout the region, this is a time of deeper browning, a further settling of autumn’s fibers.
Dec. 18: In warmer climates such as southern California, daisy trees and golden sennas are in bloom. Pink blossoms appear on the silk floss trees, and maroon and ivory flowers on the Dutchman’s pipe vine.
In the Southwest, the cascalote trees are blooming. In Baton Rouge, the exotic gingers are still open. And throughout the northern states, the bright green of the large-leaved rhododendrons promises spring.
Dec. 19: Between this week and Jan. 3, normal average temperatures drop 1 degree every four days instead of 1 degree every three, signaling a slight slowdown in the chilling of most farms and gardens. Soon the averages become steady; on Jan. 28 they start to climb toward summer.
Dec. 20: The Dec. 20 weather system is often relatively mild (compared to systems of Dec. 15 and 25), but it has a good chance of producing snow all across the northern tier of states.
Mind and body clock
This week, the S.A.D. Index (which measures on a scale of 1-75 the forces which can contribute to seasonal affective disorders) climbs to its highest point since last January, reaching 71 on Christmas Eve. Overcast December skies, December chill and the shortest days of the year equal trouble for those who deal with seasonal affective disorders.
Those disorders include depression, excessive irritability and anxiety. Often, however, the cause of the problem can be the cure: Spend as much time as possible being active out-of-doors in order to counter the negative effects of the season.
Fish, game, livestock and diet
The moon is overhead (its most favorable position for hunting and fishing) in the afternoon and evening this week. The most productive days should be just before the Dec. 20 cold front and then before the Dec. 25 front. The days prior to the arrival of those fronts will also be milder, and will be less likely to freeze (and damage) the carcasses of your fish and game.
Precipitation, however, could complicate your outings. And dieters should plan to have a balanced snack at about 3:30 p.m. and a moderate early dinner in order to keep lunar influence under control.
Winter in the Country
An essay by Jeffery Goss Jr.
Winter is easily the least appreciated of all the seasons. The under-appreciation of winter seems to have less to do with the cold temperatures than it does with the apparent dullness of the landscape. You really have to look closely at nature to notice the activities of life.
In spring or summer, finding a blooming flower is no challenge at all; you might even be able to do it with your eyes closed. In deep winter, though, you have to look around. You may find a witch-hazel in blossom by the creek, or a purple henbit flower in the field. You may even find the pollinating cones of pines or the tiny fructifications of a moss. These, too, are “blooming.”
Walking through the woods and brush is easiest in wintertime, due to the absence of tall annual weeds and the dormancy of biting insects. The only insects you’re likely to see are a few ladybugs, craneflies, camel crickets and perhaps an occasional moth.
With the leaves fallen, sounds tend to carry far. On a calm day in late winter, listen to the surroundings. Listen to hear the laughter of distant chickadees, the chatter of distant starlings, even the familiar sounds of far-off dogs.
Look up into the tree canopy to see the bittersweet vines with their orange-red berries swaying in the wind, and see the distinctive bark patterns of branches as they can be viewed only from below. Smell the smoke of unseen fires, perhaps from some unseen chimney over the ridge.
For a time in winter, the curtain is lifted on the complex stage of the natural world as it is; we are allowed to see it plain and unadorned. Then comes spring, and ever so softly, the heavy green curtain is eased into place once more.
Poor Will’s Almanack for 2010 is now available. Send $16 (includes shipping and handling) for each copy to: Poor Will, P.O. Box 431, Yellow Springs, OH 45387. For more information and to see a sample of this year’s format (or to order with a credit card), visit http://poorwillsalmanack.com