This blog originates on the banks of the Atchafalaya River, in Louisiana. It proposes to share the things that happen on and by the river as the seasons progress. As the river changes from quiet, warm, slow flow to rises of eighteen feet or more, there are changes in the lives of the birds, fish, amphibians and reptiles that use the river. And the mood of the river changes with the seasons. I propose to note and comment on these things.

My Photo
Location: Butte La Rose, Louisiana, United States

I transitioned a few years ago from a career as a water-pollution control biologist. I want to do this blog to stay in touch with a world outside my everyday surroundings, whatever they may be. I like open-minded company and the discussion of ideas. Photo by Brad Moon.

Sunday, December 24, 2006

Winter Solstice 2006

Being aware of the subtle signs of seasonal change is not that difficult for those who spend a lot of time outside. We know what is happening around us without really paying attention. We even become able to predict what will happen soon based on the time of year and our experience – not always accurately, but we try. So we expect it to be humid in the summer and less so in the winter. It will rain more regularly in the summer and more sporadically in the winter as the fronts make their way over us. Late fronts in the spring will be preceded by strong southerly winds. Most of the time we just operate with that kind of background information guiding us, and most of the time we don’t know we do it.

But one of the most significant occurrences in this part of this world of ours goes unnoticed by many– the winter solstice. The solstice, the shortest day of the year, takes place on December 21 or 22. And it marks the calendar beginning of winter, although most of the time you can’t depend on having cold weather in December. What does that day mean to us? Well, it used to have a profound meaning for our ancestors. When people’s lives depended on knowledge of the way the natural world worked, it mattered. And people were very aware that the days progressively became shorter and shorter in the fall, and shorter still in November and December. And there was a thought, way back long ago, that if that kept up, days might just keep getting shorter and eventually the sun might just go away and not ever come back. It seems silly to us now, but to the people who lived and died by the natural cycles, our actual, direct ancestors, the presence of the sun was not a trivial matter. They did not sense the guarantee that we take for granted. So, they noted that on a certain day, almost as a gift of unknown deities, the sun began to stay with them a little longer as the days progressed. It might be cold, and difficult to get food and stay comfortable, but the sun was coming back and that was cause for celebration.

This celebration took the form of rituals performed each year on the longest night of the shortest day. The rituals all involved the use of fire as a symbol of the light that the sun brought with it. The rituals had many forms and came to be thought of as necessary to the return of the sun. And so, even though we have progressed beyond the simple beliefs of our long-ago forebears, many people today have found the strange calmness that comes from paying attention to the Winter Solstice. There is a feeling of having plugged into an ancient mindfulness that comes with lighting a fire on the longest night. I am glad that we are not so modern that we have forgotten the hard-earned practices of our ancestors. We don’t need their predictions of hard winters or long droughts or other climate-related features of our environment to survive now. But we are a part of their heritage, like it or not, and the good feeling that comes with saying “Yes, I acknowledge you” to the Winter Solstice is proof of that.

After many years of doing a solstice celebration on our own, we chose to join others on the longest night this year. It was good, and it produced the good feelings I spoke of above. Sharing with others can be a significant part of the celebration.

I thought I would note the conditions present on the first day of winter at Butte La Rose. The three sunrise pics were done to remind me of the newness and wonder of the returning sun, from a faint glow in the east, to a bold gold spot on the horizon, to the full blast of the sun itself bursting over the river. At sunrise the temperature was 40 degrees, there was a light east wind, and it was partly cloudy.

A couple journal notes. The rain we had the last couple days has kicked the winter frog species into high gear. And the continuing rain we had today will make them even more convinced that the time is ripe for love in the ditches. The spring peepers, chorus frogs and southern leopard frogs are romancing as we sleep.

And fish. Rusty Kimball donated a couple fish to me yesterday – a striped bass and a barfish. Pic is included here. Our granddaughter Elena ate a lot of the striper and she is only 18 months old. But cleaning the striper wasn’t a job I will take lightly the next time. It weighed about six pounds and I chose to skin it, scales and all. After I filleted it, I had to remove all the red meat along the lateral line. That is not something you can do with a dull knife. I keep my knives sharp but that was a test, even for them. I pan-fried the fish and it was excellent.

For those who wonder, Napoleon is well. He looks at the fish on the dock with expectation. He usually gets some.

The river is at 5.5 feet on the Butte La Rose gauge, and the chart says it will stay that way for several days, but it won’t. The heavy rains we have had will cause it to come up a few inches starting today. The Ohio and Mississippi are both rising and we will get some of that water.

Rise and Shine, Jim


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