Friday, November 16, 2012

Christmas in July… in November

"Scenes emerge from the graying landscape with a sudden breathtaking vividness, only to fade quickly away minutes later, as the daylight dulls and the sky continues to darken."

By Patrick J. Walsh

In the park, it gets dark early now, and the darkness brings an early end to the day.

That small part of the park that has been developed for casual recreational use, carved out of the much larger portion of the 1,538 acres that constitute the total site, is open each day only from eight in the morning to “dusk” — that amorphous shadow hour that moves like the mist through the trees after a storm, as time moves from one season to the next.

In these initial days of the early darkness, there is an unsettling disorientation that disrupts the usual narrative of a walk in the park. Scenes emerge from the graying landscape with a sudden breathtaking vividness, only to fade quickly away minutes later, as the daylight dulls and the sky continues to darken.

© Patrick J. Walsh
Stubbornly holding on to its color, it is a tree out of time...

There is an urgency to my steps. I am thinking forward, anticipating the rapidly approaching Advent season, and the Christmas holiday.

In the sky, the sun is drawing in its light and thinning the warmth of its embrace. I feel the chill of the evening as I make my way along an uneven path in the woods near the side of the road. The ground beneath me is pitted and trenched by the recent rain and snow.

There is a wrenching sadness to the sight of the day’s withdrawal across the horizon, amplified to a nearly unbearable intensity by the heartbreaking beauty of the sight.

The scene is somehow like Christmas in July — oddly askew in this time and place, and yet so familiar and so heartening as to be welcome in even the strangest circumstances.

In the pond, something is stirring in the weeds near the water’s edge. The gangly frame, two thin sticks supporting a puffy ball of feathers, is crowned with another skinny branch that suddenly moves in a half revolution to reveal a long beak and a squeamish eye straining to make out my approaching form in the gathering twilight.

It is the heron, that rare bird, a magnificent sight so seldom encountered when the park is busy with people and their celebrations, when the sunlight stretches into the evening. There is little to distract him now, in the lateness of the day.

With camera in hand, I approach as though I am merely passing by heedless of his presence. I casually begin to snap a series of photos as I wend my way ever so slightly toward him; but he is too smart for my trick. Wary and seeming modestly affronted by my interest, he draws himself up out of the water and glides off toward the opposite side of the lake.

The darkness gathers as the shorter days of winter bring the night early, and as a result of the impact of the annual ritual of setting the clock back an hour to accommodate the shift from Daylight Savings Time to standard time.

As I walk, I am thinking of the time, as the daylight fades.

Standard time first became standard in 1883, as a means of coordinating rail travel. Prior to that time, railroads in various parts of the country utilized different time standards — thus trains in New York, for example, operated on New York time, while the Pennsylvania Railroad calculated the arrival and departure of its trains according to Philadelphia time, which differed from New York time.

As rail travel expanded, the need for a uniform method of setting times for train schedules led to the evolution of standard time and the four North American time zones that are now well established.

In the park, as I walk along the paved road, I am thinking about the ways in which the time and trains of the suburbs translate into the effects of seasons and automobiles in the woods — where the trees pass the seasons like humans pass the hours, and where the plants and animals and birds fend off the effects of human activity, epitomized by the exhaust and heat and noise of the cars passing by on the nearby road.

At one point during my walk, I wander some distance into the woods. In the woodlands’ interior, as I make my way up a formidable grade, there is at the edge of the path a remarkable sight: a small tree still wearing its leaves, resplendent in multiple shades of orange.

Stubbornly holding on to its color long after its taller, tougher neighbors have gone gray, it is a tree out of time, still lingering in Autumn even after the first snow has come and gone.

I want to linger for more than a moment in the company of the colorful little tree, but there is not enough daylight left to loiter in the woods. Even as I make my way back toward the paved road, however, I am smiling at the thought of the bright display of leaves hidden just minutes away from my usual route through the park.

Minutes later, driving slowly toward the exit as I peer out into the gathering darkness over the bright beams of my car’s headlights, I am grateful for the colorful tree and the heron and the last vestige of sunlight on the far horizon — and even for the gloomy twilight whose early arrival so emphatically delineates their essence.

In the first days of the darkness come early, before there is time enough to adjust to the austere discipline of the truncated days of winter, there are still moments left for the appreciation of the transcendent elegance of nature, as she moves heedless of time, from one season to the next.

© Patrick J. Walsh

The Walk in the Park series:
• The Hawk

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