An egret in flight at Don Edwards Wildlife Refuge in San Jose
When I was growing up in the Bay Area, Alviso had the reputation of being a historical oddity, an out of the way place that time had passed by. In the 1980s, Highway 237 was not yet a freeway and I remember greenhouses along the road. Today, both sides of Highway 237 have modern office buildings, but the core part of Alviso hasn’t changed.
After my visit to the baylands at the Alviso County Park, I wondered why Alviso hasn’t been developed. Some quick research revealed Alviso is below sea level and prone to flooding so new residential development is restricted.
It’s becoming a tradition for me to head out on New Year’s Eve to photograph the sunset. Last year and I went to Capitola. This year I stayed closer to home and went to Don Edwards Wildlife Refuge at the foot of the San Francisco Bay.
While the stroke of midnight is the official end of the year, I find that watching the last rays of the year’s sunlight disappear over the horizon is just as an important marker of the year’s end as the stroke of midnight.
The evenings have started to get that cool crispness that means fall is starting. Summer skies over Northern California tend to be bland and cloudless. With the start of fall, the skies have gotten more interesting, at least some of the time. On Friday, the skies turned brilliant at sunset.
While is the image is from this year, I wrote the following back in 2013 and it still does a good job of capturing of how I feel about the solstice:
The solstice always makes me think about the humans that came 1000s of years before us. They couldn’t really be sure that days would start getting longer again.
All of our forbearers must have had the fear that maybe the days would keep get shorter and shorter and they would be plunged into darkness. The solstice was clearly an important day to many cultures. In Ireland, the massive ancient monument of New Grange is built on a solstice alignment and the rising sun on the solstice illuminates a chamber deep inside. The Mayans ended their year on the solstice which why their calendar ran out on the solstice causing people to predict the end of the world (in 2012).
In in modern times, our calendar year reset and our biggest holiday celebrations are both quite near the solstice which is no coincidence. Humans have always celebrated or marked the shortest day of the year. As the light fades from the sky on this Winter Solstice, I feel a connection to thousands years of my ancestors who also marked this shortest day of the year.
A Snowy Egret at Palo Alto Baylands Nature Preserve
I took my new lens out to the Palo Alto Baylands to try it out and my favorite image was this duck, which I think is a female Northern Pintail. I was unpleasantly surprised about the number of mosquitos who were more than happy to turn me into their next meal. Next time I will bring insect repellant.
For most people the winter solstice, as known as the official start of winter, is just a curiosity and that often gets overlooked being just 4 days before Christmas. However, Christmas is in late December because of the solstice. The early Christian church placed in Christmas in late December to co-opt pagan solstice festivals.
Almost every human society has marked the solstice in some way. The longest night creates a need for a festival or observance with lights to ward off the darkness. Armed with modern science, we know that the days will get longer again. Empirically, our ancestors knew this as well but I always suspect that they also feared that there was the possibility that days would continue to get shorter and they would be stuck in a perpetual darkness. I suspect many early societies had rituals or offerings to the Gods to make sure the days started getting longer again.
Every year on the solstice, I think about the generations came before us and for 1000s of years marked the solstice. The longest night is a connection humanity’s past. We feel the darkness less in the modern world due to electric lighting. But I think it’s worth it to take a minute and imagine how the longest night would have felt to our ancestors a 1000, 2000 or even 5000 years ago with only fire to ward off the darkness and the cold.
A classic neon sign on Broadway Cleaners in Redwood City, CA