A monthly column in the Monadnock Ledger-Transcript.

Monday, October 24, 2011

Shorter Days - Longer Nights

Late-October dusk drapes a Hancock field.
It Ain’t All Bad

You notice it every day this time of year: The days are getting shorter; nights are getting longer.

According to the Old Farmer’s Almanac, we’ll have 10 hours and 39 minutes of daylight today and a few minutes less each day until December 21. The Winter Solstice -- the shortest day of the year, as they say -- gives us a meager 9 hours and 5 minutes of daylight.

That’s when the Earth starts to tilt back the other way, giving us a few more precious moments of light each day. But that’s still another two months away. ‘Til then, we prepare for whatever winter might bring us and adjust to the darkness.

Some folks hate this time of year because of the declining light. My wife complains that she leaves the house when the sun is coming up, and returns from work when the sun is going down. Nary a few minutes to enjoy the outdoors without a headlamp.

I suspect we all get a touch of the winter blues. But some people -- happy and healthy during the warm seasons -- seem to really suffer with seasonal affective disorder. A former colleague of mine illuminated her office with a special lamp recommended by her doctor. She did this in late fall and winter and said it seemed to help brighten her mood.

Aside from using such lamps or moving to warmer, brighter climes, there’s little we can do to stop the dark swing of Autumn. But in the spirit of positive thinking, we can acknowledge a few good things about these longer nights.

1. We’ve got it easy.
For millions of years, humanity has spent nights in the dark or by fire. You didn’t have much of a choice. Ultimately, our nights were lit by hearths, then candles and lamps and lanterns. We didn’t have the luxury of flipping a switch for light until the advent of electricity. Even TVs and computers and phones light our space now. Really. It makes me wonder if we’ve forgotten what darkness is.

2. A Signal for Nature
The onset of longer nights is one of nature’s many signals that things need to happen. Deer and moose enter the rut. Leaves begin to fall. Birds fly south. Berries ripen. Bears fatten up for the winter. The list goes on. While the longer nights aren’t the only factor for these changes, it’s a part of the mix.

3. Get More Sleep
Enjoy that extra darkness as a gift of more sleep. Turn off the TV and go to bed early for a few months. You may find that extra sleep refreshing.

4. Darkness is Healthy
A few more hours of darkness might make you healthier. Scientists have learned that our bodies can produce the hormone melatonin only when it’s really dark. And we need melatonin for all sorts of reasons, including its ability to fight diseases.

5. Go Night-Hiking.
Defy the dark by enjoying it. Get a headlamp and go for a night hike. Since it’s dark early, it doesn’t have to be a late night adventure. I occasionally go night-hiking with friends on Friday nights. It’s fun, especially in the late fall when there are no bugs and there’s a comfortable chill in the air.

6. Discover the Night Sky
It’s amazing how the stars pop out on those crisp Autumn’s nights. Now you can discover those constellations at a reasonable hour. Use a telescope, a pair of binoculars or just your own eyes. Check the almanac for nights when you’re likely to see a meteor shower. You might even see northern lights!

Eric Aldrich writes from his home in Hancock.