OFF THE BEATEN PATH by BRIAN KELSEY
“Hello darkness my old friend.” We all know that famous opening lyric from “The Sound of Silence” by Simon and Garfunkel. To me, those words are the greeting I choose, to offer to my favorite season of the year…winter.
This oft hated, or at best under-appreciated, season offers us the chance to sit back, rest, re-evaluate and plan for what comes next. If you are a long-time reader of this column, you understand the role winter hikes have played in my life and for my psyche. My head is most clear and my mind is most open in winter. Therefore, I have a hard time wrapping my mind around the vast angst people channel towards this time of year.
As Andrew Wyeth so eloquently states in the quote above, something waits beneath the frozen land, so be patient and wait for the whole show to be revealed.
We are an impatient creature, even more so today than 20 years ago. We are so used to media content, music, “stuff” being delivered to us with the click of a button. I believe this instant gratification has permeated into our souls and has stopped us from standing still and simply focusing on what is in front of us. I don’t want to suggest these technological advances are entirely bad…they have simply changed society and who we are.
But I believe it is our responsibility to step back from time to time and take a break. Winter can provide that opportunity.
I dropped off social media in February 2017 and found I was far less attached to my mobile device. On the other hand, I admit I do enjoy the connection social media can provide for families who are scattered across the country, as mine is. So, if I return, it will be for those moments.
What I will miss this winter on social media are all my Icelandic, Nordic, Alaskan and Quebec-centric pages I’ve followed and enjoyed, and all of the creative ways they celebrate the darkest time of the year with…light.
In the summer, the sun is out the majority of time to “show off” in the early to mid-evening. The setting sun uses clouds and sky to cast pinks, oranges, and amazing shades of red across the heavens above. Then stars and moon glimmer and glow from very late evening to very early morning.
In the winter, we continue to receive amazing light from the setting sun, but these colors occur prior to 5 p.m. and are often viewed from the relative warmth of our homes. Therefore, it is our responsibility to take the beauty of light into our own hands during the winter months.
During visits to Iceland in January 2013 and 2015, I was amazed to see how the Icelandic people use light both indoors and out to create a comforting feeling. Christmas lights hang on trees, windows, businesses, doorways…you name it…and create a warm feeling that makes you long for the already-short day to end and the evening glow of the soft lights to begin.
Simple candles are lit and placed in windows to shine a light both inward and outward—a beacon to those passing by and a message that although it may be dark, we control the light. Even the architecturally ambitious and gorgeous Harpa concert hall and conference center was designed to not only reflect the sky, sunsets and lights of the capital city of Reykjavik, it also puts on a display of its own once the sun sets and the lights in each pane of glass dance to a designers set choreography.
Structures like this are meant to remind locals and visitors alike that although Mother Earth may not be providing many hours of daylight, we can take that responsibility upon ourselves and shine our light a little brighter and with more intention than simple functionality.
Iceland is also quite famous for its New Year’s Eve traditions of huge community bonfires where people gather with friends, family and strangers to reflect on all they have to be thankful for during the past year.
Following the bonfires, what appears to be a well-orchestrated fireworks display at midnight spreads across the entire city. Actually, it’s not choreographed but is simply the entire community coming together to shoot their own fireworks!
It is best described by a travel consultant who stated, “When Icelanders have had enough of the endless dark in the depth of winter, they come together to blow a hole in the skies for one night of blissful celebration!” I love that description, “blow a hole in the skies,” as for only a moment in time, the residents have turned night to day and taken over their own control of day and night.
The same can be said of cities like Anchorage, Montreal and Quebec City, which also face long winter nights with limited daylight. These cities have found ways to forget the darkness and bring the light outdoors to provide residents and visitors an opportunity and reason to venture out in the darkest of winter to celebrate.
In Montreal, I had the pleasure of attending Igloofest, where thousands of people gather outside in January to listen to techno and EDM (electronic dance music). DJs spin music night to day among exceptional light shows, with both the stage lights and the attendees’ costumed attire. Light-up clothing, shoes, gloves and torches create a sea of light that makes you forget that it is the dead of winter. These communities understand the importance of light, or lack thereof, during the winter months and what they can do to help keep people happy, positive and forward thinking.
I understand these are bigger cities and we, in Door County, live in small communities dotted along the peninsula. But there are things we are capable of doing to bring light to darkness, both literally and figuratively.
For some reason, there is some fictional expiration date for the use of Christmas lights in winter. I believe that decorative outside lighting should be employed by homeowners and our communities from November through March. I, for one, know how happy I am to drive through Egg Harbor on a cold snowy evening once they light the streets for the holidays. If LED lights are being employed, there is no financial reason why all of our communities can’t create a warm and inviting corridor for residents and visitors alike. These soft lights could bring life to our cities and villages during a time when they are needed most.
There are ways you may bring the light to your home as well. When the evenings get especially cold, a five-gallon bucket can turn into a vessel that creates beautiful lanterns! Simply fill them with water—boiled water will produce a clearer ice—place them outside on a sub-freezing evening for 24 hours. Then bring them inside and run warm water over the sides and bottom to release the ice.
The water that was directly exposed to the air at the top of the bucket is now your solid base for the bottom. Since the water will not freeze all the way through in 24 to 48 hours, take a hammer and gently tap on your new top to the watery core. Once the water is removed, this will create the opening in which to place a LED lantern.
You will have created a large luminary that you can use to line your walkway or entrance way to your home. These luminaries, coupled with soft LED light strands on bushes/trees/eaves can help brighten the dark winter months and create a more inviting home-life.
If you have a fire pit or a fire ring, keep the area shoveled and prepped for a spontaneous bonfire on a cold and dark winter evening. Besides being novel, it creates a unique way to gather friends and family during a time in which you normally would gather indoors.
Don’t have a fire pit? Keep your outdoor grill handy for a get-together with an unexpected flair.
Staving off the winter blues is within most of our control if we choose to embrace the season, rather than dread its arrival. Creating new habits and traditions may even make you enjoy this time of year a little more.
For me and my family, traveling to cold winter destinations during January has become a way to celebrate winter even more. The colder, windier and snowier the better! Most people think we are crazy, but once you see people who live in harsher environments than we have during winter in Door County, you may begin to celebrate and look forward to this quiet time of year.
Take control of the light this winter and find fun ways to venture outdoors, whether for a candle-light hike, ski or snowshoe, a winter bonfire or simply look at how your community or neighbors have lit their streets or homes.
Darkness is actually important, but so is a little light at this time of year. Enjoy winter and remember that something waits underneath the frozen ground. The whole story doesn’t show.