As Pamelia and I prepare to head off to South Georgia Island and Antarctica, we're enjoying the dozens of common mergansers that have gathered right here on the Maine bay in front of our house. They're heading south too. These photos, shot by Pamelia, show some of the funky-crested ducks flying in front of Sargent Mountain in Acadia National Park. In some photos the distant water looks like an impressionist painting.
To understand winter's arrival, the year's shortest day, how giant vegetables can grow in Alaska and why Christmas is held on December 25, you must understand this: Our world is tilted. The Earth goes around the Sun while leaning at a 23.5-degree angle—a far more dramatic slant than that of, say, the Leaning Tower of Pisa, which wows us by standing a mere 4 degrees off kilter. NASCAR fans may boast that the banked turns at Daytona speedway angle up at 31 degrees (O.K., that is impressive), but top speeds on that track are only about 200 mph. The Earth keeps a consistent tilt while flying around a star at 67,000 mph. And we're lucky it does.
On Thursday, thanks to the tilt of the Earth, winter officially begins in the Northern Hemisphere. In our part of Maine the sun will rise at 7:04 and set at 3:58—the year's shortest span of daylight. We are passing the Winter Solstice (a Latin term for "Sun standing still"), the moment at which our half of the planet is leaning farthest away from the Sun's rays. You'd think that would make Thursday the year's coldest day. It won't. The most bitter chill likely will come weeks from now, after the northern oceans—still tilting away from the solar warmth—have gotten colder and colder.
We should celebrate our planet's flashing TILT! sign. The planet's angle shapes our climate, makes most of the Earth habitable and gives us four seasons, without which we would feel bereft: no spring buds, no spring training, no spring fever; no 35-pound broccoli florets growing in Alaska's endless summer sunlight; no Midsummer Classic or Midsummer Night's Dream; no autumn leaves; no winter of discontent. No shortest day.
For centuries humans held festivals on the shortest day of the year to celebrate their Sun god and implore him to return in his full summer glory. In creating the Julian calendar in the year 46, Julius Caesar established December 25 as the day of the annual Winter Solstice, thus making that date one of the most important of the year to the overwhelmingly pagan population of the Roman Empire. When the empire began converting to Christianity three centuries later, Pope Julius I made December 25 the official date of the new holiday celebrating the birth of Jesus (whose actual birth date is unknown). Religious and non-religious scholars continue to debate the origins of Christmas, but medieval historians tend to describe the choice of December 25 as a wise political move to encourage pagans to convert by incorporating an existing pagan festival into Christian ritual. In any case, it certainly gives the history of Christmas an interesting slant.
So the shortest day needn't be the dullest day or the darkest one. Even among Sun-worshippers, seeing our local star for only 8 hours, 54 minutes is certainly no reason to despair. In the famous words of Steve Martin, “A day without sunshine is like, you know, night.”
My Car the Badger
Among the cards and letters filling the December mailbag is one from our Tennessee-based friends Brooks and Karen, describing an eventful August visit to New York City. While coming into the city on the frenetic FDR Drive (Daytona-along-the-East-River), Karen realized that in the eat-or-be-eaten fight for lane position she had an edge over the hotshots in the pricey, pristine rides: She was driving an 11-year-old minivan with 196,000 miles on it. No one wants to tangle with one of those. In the spirit of The Naturalist's Notebook, Karen dubbed the van the Honey Badger, after the African creature that has been dubbed "the most fearless animal on Earth."
I miss the days when people gave their cars nicknames (my mom called our old Pontiac Tempest "Bessie"), and heartily encourage you to lull yourself to sleep tonight by pondering which plant, animal or other element of nature might best fit your vehicle. In the meantime, here's a video that'll show you a honey badger in action, taking on even a cobra.
The world of nature shed no tears over this week's death of North Korean dictator Kim Jong Il, whose bizarre reign included a sort of pen-pal relationship (the pens in this case being zoo enclosures) with Robert Mugabe, his fellow tyrant from Zimbabwe. Mugabe had a fascination with endangered and exotic animals, some of which he would order his minions to capture and ship to his friend Kim. Like so many of the starving humans in North Korea, the animals would die. Here's a story from last year about the odd Mugabe-Kim link: http://abcnews.go.com/International/mugabe-sends-exotic-animals-north-korean-death/story?id=10650497#.Tu87Mq79Ub4
I once got a chance to stare out toward North Korea when I visited the South Korean side of the 2.5-mile-wide demilitarized zone between the two countries. The zone runs along the famous 38th parallel. Because humans generally don't venture into this no-man's land, the zone is filled with wildlife, including bears, wildcats, deer and several endangered species. Among the latter is the breathtaking red-crowned (or Manchurian) crane. That crane is a symbol of luck and prosperity. Perhaps by so effectively preserving the DMZ and its reason for existence, Kim Jong Il did sustain at least a narrow strip of nature. Here's hoping that his successor will help the red-crowned cranes multiply, and bring luck and prosperity to a country in dire need of them.
From Sloths to Snails
Since I called sloths "sluggish" in my last post, I felt that little slimy crawly things deserved a good word in this one. I'm reading a short, beautifully written book by Elisabeth Tova Bailey called The Sound of a Wild Snail Eating. In it Bailey recounts being bedridden for months with a debilitating illness. A caregiver brings a snail from the woods and puts it in a potted violet next to the bed. Bailey begins studying the daily habits of her new companion (the snail, not the caregiver) and a new world opens to her.
I'll let you read the book yourself, but here's an tantalizing tidbit that might change how you look at snails: Bailey's little friend had 2,640 teeth. Bailey introduces one chapter with a vivid description from a 1900 edition of Dietetic and Hygienic Gazette: "The mouth of the snail is armed with a very formidable instrument in the shape of a remarkable sword-like tongue...[with an] immense number of sharp little teeth...The quantity of these teeth is incredible."
Not sure how many European countries or bird species you were able to name (last Puzzler), but here's a simpler one. Maybe. Name the type of tree that grows closest to your front door. For more of a challenge, name the two types of trees that grow closest to your front door. And for extra credit, if you've got one in your house, identify what species of evergreen is sitting in your living room right now with lights and balls hung on it.