Pacific Northwest | December 21, 2003Pacific Northwest MagazineDecember 21, home
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In the Luminous Gloom: Shrouded, steeped & sheltered in gray
Sun glints off the ice on this stream in the North Cascades, making blues bluer, whites whiter.
Snugged deep in their caves, bears tell the truth about this, our season of winter light.

As the light leaks away day by day, they start packing in the chow. Get cranky. Do less. Sleep more.

Sound familiar?

It's the sensible — and natural — response to this, the flip side of our manic, blazing summers, our 16 hours of daylight that seem as lost now as the city of Atlantis. As of 11:04 p.m. tonight, the longest night of the year, we are talking nearly 16 hours of darkness. Count 'em.

At the University of Washington, the counselors are offering all-you-can-eat light, in boxes served up to seasonally-depressed students at the psychiatric clinic.

Even the winter birds are darker here: Many species, from song sparrows to woodpeckers, look dusted with soot compared with their kin east of the mountains, the better to blend in with our winter gloom.

Our 1,000 shades of gray are a full-employment act for Northwest poets, painters, photographers and writers, who mine the murk for our unique sense of place.

Consider Portland poet Vern Rutsala in his 1991 "Prospectus for Visitors":

...all this rich green
always loses to the gray.
Even the winter roses
fade, even the camellias
fail — or seem to under
that sky. It's the low
sky that's always there,
that knitted cap. If
you want to stay
learn to wear it
from October on ...

Or this conversation with Bainbridge Island writer David Guterson: "When you cross those mountains westward, you come into a manner of light that is distinctly different.
Alpenglow on Mount Rainier, as seen from the Paradise recreational area, is a gift of winter light.
"It's gray and green, running together.

"It's seeing that fog roll down into tendrils into the treetops, and you can hardly distinguish the fog from the water, and everything melts and mixes together; it's like it's been painted with a really soft brush."

Guterson's newest book, "Our Lady of the Forest," is set in what he calls the "sea-green cathedral light" of Western Washington rainforests.

And then there's Bellingham painter Susan Bennerstrom, obviously Puget Sound-born and bred:

"People say they don't like it here in the winter because it is not light enough. But I spent five years in Berkeley, and it was just so terribly even down there. There wouldn't be this kind of magic light. It's almost thick. Viscous.

"What I love best is fog. I know people who hate it, they think it is very claustrophobic. But to me, it is just sexy."

•   •   •

NO USE fighting it, this winter light is our destiny, sealed by the Earth's tilt.
Icicles at Paradise glow in winter sun.
Earth's axis is fixed on a 23.4-degree angle, always pointed close to Polaris, the North Star.

Because Earth orbits the sun, the orientation of the axis, relative to the sun, changes over the course of the year.

During our summer the Northern Hemisphere is tipped toward the sun: Fat City. But after the summer solstice, we begin our six-month lean away from the light, bringing fall and winter.

By today, the winter solstice, our daylight is the shortest, and the sun the lowest in its arc across the sky all year. Here in Seattle the sun rises no higher than 19 degrees from the southern horizon at noon, compared with 66 degrees at noon on the summer solstice.

And because the Earth is curved, the low sun has to muscle through more atmosphere in winter than in summer. That creates the thick, golden light of a clear winter day, slanting long through windows and, outdoors, stoking saturated colors we see only at the end of the day in summer.

Winter sun throws alpenglow over the mountains, and suffuses winter dawns and sunsets with pink.

Above, Sun ignites the yellows of big-leaf maples near Snoqualmie Pass, while long, plush shadows come early in the afternoon in an alder grove, right. Madrona trees are silhouetted against the peppermint-and-cream twilight in Magnolia, top right. Two exposures of the same subject were combined to create the painterly quality of the photographs on this page. The composition helps capture our experience of light as shifting — changing our moods and impressions along the way.

Glorious interludes, all, that usually quickly give way to ... gray.

We are, after all, on the edge of that great cloud-manufacturing plant, the Pacific Ocean. Add the longest nights of the year to mountains that trap the clouds here for days on end, and just about now we are ready to snug right in with the bears.

Not for nothing did the pagans burn yule logs to bring back the light.

At the UW, students in the Swedish Club have for 50 years running held their own version of the Festival of Santa Lucia in December, featuring a white-gowned maiden crowned with a wreath of blazing candles to vanquish the dark.
Seattle painter Paul Havas works in the Skagit marshlands to capture a gray day on canvas. Ploughing through air heavy with moisture, the light softens the edges of forms.
But for some, winter light is no reverie.

An estimated 10 percent of people in the Seattle area suffer acute seasonal depression. Fully 30 percent here don't feel as good as they would like as the gloom clamps down.

Light boxes help — and so does getting outdoors for as little as a half hour, even on a cloudy day, especially in the morning.

Daylight, for mammals, is the main switch on the body clock.

Special receptors in the retina are designed not for sight at all but to detect the transition from darkness to light, a survival skill of fundamental importance. It is the early bird, after all, that gets the worm.

In us, the retina has direct connections to the area of the brain just above the optic nerve where the master clock sets everything from energy level to body temperature to heart rate.

"In winter, the hibernation response is triggered," says David Avery, director of inpatient psychiatry at Harborview Medical Center.
At the Swedish Club's annual Festival of Santa Lucia, Morgan Adair Clowes portrays the Italian saint wearing a crown of candles to send a message of hope and light in winter's darkest days.
"We eat more, put on a good fat pad, and in the depths of winter sleep more. It's a very adaptive response for facing a winter in which there is not a lot of food around, to not burn as many calories. It's a core feature for animals that live in northern latitudes.

"We have a certain hubris in this regard. Since the advent of the electric light we feel that we are above it all. We are not."

Some are more susceptible to the hibernation response than others, Avery says. Genes make a difference. So does lifestyle.

Go to work in the dark, come home in the dark, work indoors in light 10 times dimmer than even a cloudy day outside: That's asking for it.

Spending too much time indoors can be a big piece of the seasonal-depression equation. "We don't get too many calls from letter carriers and gardeners," Avery says.

•   •   •

WHILE THE LEAN and gyre of the Earth explain the long, velvety dark of our winter nights, to understand the gauzy scrim on most of our winter days, look to the clouds.
The sun The Seasons
How the Earth's trip around the sun creates the seasons
Winter rains, sprinkles, showers, fog and mist suffuse the atmosphere with moisture.

Low, slanted rays of sun collide into a billion particles within the water droplets of clouds. The eye reads this cacophony of physical interactions as white, diffuse, scattered light. Light without shadow or direction. A pewter day, as Seattle painter Paul Havas puts it.

His canvasses are a celebration of gloom: Mountaintops poke out of fog banks, mists slink over the Skagit River Delta, gray tentacles creep tentatively across farm fields.

"The light is kind of pearly and opalescent; there is so much moisture in the atmosphere it seems to capture the sunlight and hold it in the air," Havas says. "It softens the edges of forms, and you get these fog banks that obscure portions of things, then reveal them.
Winter twilight settles early, painting the rain-wet streets of downtown Seattle
"And I like the pewter days, when all the color of any object is reduced into scrim-like ambiguity, and it's very still and quiet."

Painter Rebecca Dvorin Strong of Vashon Island says the winter light "is like a metaphor for life, things are not always crystal clear, things are constantly shifting, you get the brightest light and the darkest, and that which is in between."

To her, the play of cloud and light on Puget Sound creates "light that almost seems like a gossamer surface, a veil, a light, luminous scarf that's lying over the water.

"Then in late winter you'll get those charcoal-gray clouds and part of the sky opens and sun comes out and lights the trees — that is the most exciting thing I've ever seen."

In her diary, color notes for mixing a palette for the sky one winter day read: "Light way up. Darker gray cloud. Light gray. This end fades into mist. Streak of dark purplish gray. Sun shining, then mist. Sun like a full moon."

That's us, alright.

•   •   •

WINTER LIGHT is more than weather here; it is part of an annual balance of bright and dim, active and contemplative, outdoor and in. That first big raft of stratocumulus cruising in from the coast is a cue that sends us back to our books, desks, kitchens, firesides.
Go to work in the dark, go home in the dark. Metro bus commuters tough out their winter routine.
"It's partly why Seattle is a bookish city," says writer and writing instructor Nick O'Connell. "It allows you to turn your attention inside and focus on intellectual or artistic things, which, if you were living in San Diego, you might not because it is so sunny.

"It's definitely a rhythm, and a rhythm that is a lot different from other parts of the country. There are so many damn things to do in the summer, and in the winter, we kind of go inside and get all the other things done we haven't.

"Everyone adapts in their own way. Or, they get fed up and leave."

For the Coast Salish tribes, here at least since the last Ice Age, winter is a turn of the year with its own purpose.

Winter is the time of the sacred winter dances, the healing ceremonies, "the time for miracles," says Lummi elder Pauline Hillaire, 74.

It is also the time for passing on the teachings of the ancestors, through storytelling on long winter nights in the longhouse.

The Lummi people had a 1,200-foot longhouse on San Juan Island, with removable interior walls. The whole community gathered with friends from up and down the coast for winter potlatch celebrations.

"They went out in the summer, traveling place to place in the islands to gather and prepare food. But they had their home here," says Lummi elder Mary Helen Cagey, 86.

"They danced during the winter, celebrated, played games, they enjoyed their life in the winter time."

•   •   •

BUT IF NONE of this does it for you — the rhapsodizing of the poets, painters and writers, the wisdom of the tribes — reach for the strong stuff: altitude.

When in doubt, go higher.

The mountains, with their promise of snow, refracting brilliant winter sun, have long been the Northwest's antidepressant.

Dunham Gooding, president of American Alpine Institute, offering guiding services on mountaintops in six states and 12 countries, has spent a lot of time with his head above the clouds.

At 14,000 to 18,000 feet, the sun burns through an atmosphere that is thinner, making both the colors and light more intense, Gooding says.

And on a day when low marine clouds slide over Puget Sound country, it is possible to actually pop above the cloud layer, like a gopher blinking into the light.

"When you go higher and finally step above the clouds, it's truly magical," Gooding says. "You feel as if you are above it all, in a separate world."

But even the crampon-averse can get some relief: Drive to the sun at Paradise on Mount Rainier.

Leave behind clouds curdled in the folds of the Nisqually Valley. Up here, sunlit powder sparkles on the wind like diamond dust.

Icicles blaze with prisms caught in water droplets swelling at their tips. Birds' tracks make soft depressions in the snow that glow with blue light.

Sun burns incandescent on the mountain's brilliant white flanks.

Shadows — remember them? — pour long and plush from the north sides of trees.

It's a relief to come up here and see for yourself that the sun actually still exists. Even if it's cloudy, the snow still kicks up the brightness.

And if all else fails, there's always this:

As of tomorrow, our little piece of the planet begins to once again turn its face to the light.

Lynda V. Mapes is a Pacific Northwest magazine staff writer. Benjamin Benschneider is a magazine staff photographer.

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