Sunlight.True enough that hiking in the dark could be augmented with a bright headlamp. But there is no substitute for pervasive sunlight, the way it illuminates earth and sky. Regrettably, in the Winter, natural light is in short supply. Even on sunny Winter days, the radiance of the sun seems dim and insufficient. The sun can not bathe us in an intense bright light from its low wintry perch no matter how much we strain to see.
Sundials have been in use for thousands of years, marking the sun’s transit across the sky. Once ancient people realized that our shadows shorten from morning until noon and than lengthen again toward evening, they could use that information to build reliable sun clocks, using a shadow to mark time. Sundials date back to ancient Egypt about 3,500 years ago and a reference to a sundial exists in the Book of Isaiah (38:8): “Behold, I will cause the shadow of the dial, which is gone down on the sun-dial of Ahaz, to return backward ten degrees.’ So the sun returned ten degrees, by which degrees it was gone down.”
Even Stonehenge is thought to be an ancient sun dial of sorts, not marking the hours of the day but marking rather the annual interconnected cycle of the sun and the earth, identifying both the shortest and longest days. And Stonehenge scholars believe that the midwinter solstice was more important to its worshippers than the summer solstice. Perhaps the reaffirmation of the sun’s travel across the sky was most appreciated in the depths of the dark winter days.
Sundials mark the passing of daylight, not by the sun’s light but by its shadow when the light hits the dial’s ‘gnomon’, the element that obstructs the light and casts the shadow. Winter hikers are quite familiar with their shadow since the leaf cover that often shades the trail is absent, allowing light to filter its way down through the naked branches. Walk east in the early parts of the day and your shadow follows you, urging you along the way. Walk west and your shadow leads the way, pulling you along the trail, the absence of light your personal guide.
You are your gnomon.
We know shadows from our early childhood. Shadow plays on the wall in nursery school. Picture books about frightened children cowering from their giant shadow. We know about shadows from language and literature. To Cast a Giant Shadow comes to mind. “Yeah though I walk through the valley of the shadow of death” is a more somber example from the book of Psalms.
Yet light is what we crave in the winter and even though sun beams reach the forest floor those rays of golden light still seem without their full luster. And it is our shadow that reminds us of both the presence of the sun and the absence of its light.
Now slowly approaching winter’s mid point the sun rises earlier and sets later and later if only by a few minutes at a time, increasing daylight by an additional two minutes each day by the end of January. While the sunlight has not yet fully awoken buds and bulbs from their sleep, we can see our way on wintry walks in the woods for longer and longer each passing day. Just follow you shadow toward the light.