Welcoming First Light

By Alice Kaufman

When I awoke this morning, I realized I’ve mentally turned the corner on winter. It happens every year, sometime around mid-January when I realize the days are getting longer. I may have felt it earlier this year because I spent the holidays in Alaska. This time of year in Alaska, the lazy winter night shifts slowly to morning at about 9 am and then thoughtlessly leads to darkness again around 3:30 pm. In Alaska it is the season for reading, walking with headlamps, visiting friends and sharing hot tubs. But back in New England, I am already embracing the longer days.

This morning after punching the alarm clock into submission I noticed first light. It was 6:20 a.m., still the dead of night for Alaskans. Outside, the earth still slumbered in the night shadows but the horizon was beginning to lighten. The sun wouldn’t be up for another hour but the pre-dawn light was spreading like an impressionist painting.

First light is like the beginning of the symphony, when musicians are fine tuning their instruments before the piece begins. It’s the space before the performance when expectation fills the air. You often miss it, not paying attention in the hurried expectation of the real thing. But the true first light is a breathtaking marvel. It is the awakening of the spirit to a wholly new day. First light – or nautical horizon as it is sometimes called – is the time between night and dawn when the center of the morning sun is between 6 and 12 degrees below the horizon. The illuminating sky is the scattering of light from the upper atmosphere down to the lower atmosphere. This period of time in the day is brief in New England. But in the northern reaches of Alaska it can last for hours. At the poles, it can last for weeks.

While I concerned myself with the varying light of early morning, some 700 delegates from 70 countries were arguing in Geneva whether to abolish the leap-second (NYT 1.19.12). While I watched the imperceptible slip into morning, others were concerned that our clocks, the human-devised keepers of time, are accurate.

While others calibrate milliseconds, I bask in the timelessness of light, as moments turn into daily rhythms and evolve into the rhythms of our seasons.

About the author:  Alice Kaufman works in EPA’s Boston office. She loves to travel, is an avid backcounty hiker, and frequently tromps through Thoreau’s woods in her home town with her husband and kids, and Watson, her mischievous Golden Retriever.

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