The Thinker

Searching for daylight

Moving to a new state brings a lot of changes. When you do it for pleasure like we did they should be mostly good. In April we moved from Northern Virginia to Western Massachusetts. Life is definitely slower here, but what’s not slower is the traffic. It generally moves. There are a few predictable choke points. It’s mildly annoying when it happens, but is not one hundredth as annoying as traffic in and around Washington D.C. The good: we now live in a city with a small town feel but with a vibrant downtown and liberal values. Republicans don’t generally even try to run for office around here. Bernie Sanders posters are everywhere.

But invariably there are certain things you miss, some that you did not quite expect. I thought I would miss the ethnic diversity of the Washington area but it’s quite diverse around here too. D.C. is very much a happening sort of city (as evidenced by its traffic) with a general level of affluence not seen around here. Unquestionably D.C. has a much better arts scene, although there is a surprising amount in this area.

One I did not expect to miss was daylight. Moving to Massachusetts meant moving 3.5 degrees north in latitude and 4.7 degrees east in longitude. You wouldn’t think it would make that much a difference in the amount of daylight, but it does. It’s not even Thanksgiving but by 5 p.m. it is already pitch dark here. In fact, the sun is already close to the horizon around 3 p.m. Sunset is this afternoon at 4:24 p.m. The sun rose here at 6:49 a.m. Our earliest sunset starts December 7 at 4:18 p.m. with our latest sunrise arriving December 31 at 7:19 a.m. As you might expect the shortest day is at the start of winter, when we get 9:06 of daylight.

These sorts of short days were not unknown to me. For the first fifteen years of my life I lived in upstate New York at about the same latitude. So I knew what I was getting into by moving north again. After 37 years of living in the mid Atlantic I was used to going home from work when there was still daylight out. The sun may have been setting, but you could still see. For comparison the sun sets in Washington D.C. today at 4:50 p.m. and rose at 6:58 a.m. So it has 9:51 of daylight, whereas we have 9:35.

Strangely enough, it makes quite a difference. The shortest day in Washington D.C is 9:26. (If these sorts of statistics interest you, you might like this site.) In short, in moving I lost twenty minutes of daylight in the winter and because we are further east the sun sets sooner. As a result I am starting to think of daylight as a precious commodity.

The good part is that since we are retired it doesn’t matter as much. If I were still working and living here I’d likely be driving to work in the dark and returning in the dark as well too. I now rise between 7:30 and 8 AM when daylight is just establishing itself. A typical day as a retiree involves a little work, a few chores and daily exercise. Exercise consumes at least an hour and I prefer to do it outside while it is still daylight. As a practical matter this means I have to start exercise no later than 2 p.m. because by 3:30 p.m. it’s already getting dark, with the sun hanging low in the sky. On overcast days like today the streetlights are on around 4 p.m. as clouds drain what little daylight there is. It also means that daylight is slow to emerge. This effectively shortens my period for enjoying the outdoors to about six hours a day.

Part of this problem is manmade. We arbitrarily divide the world into time zones, generally each an hour apart. Washington D.C. is toward the middle of the Eastern Time Zone, so the time of day feels natural year round. Here, an our or so west of Boston, we are not too far from the eastern edge of the time zone boundary. Effectively, I could enjoy more daylight if I would get up sooner.

Oddly enough, I am feeling this pull. I’ve never been a naturally early riser but now I am thinking I should get up around 7 a.m. so I can enjoy the daylight while it lasts. Sunny days are nice but they feel rushed through. With the sun not too far from the horizon all day the sun tends to stream in through the southern windows, making rooms blinding at times. My office faces south. On sunny days late in the year it is too much. I draw my translucent blinds, allowing light in but keeping the sun from shining directly in my face.

Without the bright city lights we were used too, night here feels deeper, darker and a bit foreboding. Streetlights are few. We live in a community where there is usually one bear sighting a year here, generally at the top of our hill. We were the lucky recipients this year when two teenage bears looking several hundred pounds each ambled through our tiny backyard, then across the street right in front of some men running construction equipment. Bears in the light can also be around in the dark of course. These bears are pretty massive. I’m quite sure a sufficiently motivated bear could break into our house through a window. The plentiful darkness raises these fears in my mind.

I don’t feel like I have a case of SAD (Seasonal Affective Disorder). I don’t feel depressed by the longer nights. In a way these shorter days and longer and darker nights are neat. When the skies are clear the skies are amazing! We are fortunate to be away from the city enough to appreciate real dark. No wonder solstice was such a big deal to our ancestors. It’s this that probably makes the daylight feel more precious to me, and which makes me want to get up with the sun and busily engage the world while I can.

 

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