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  • Jennifer Jewell


A little colony of winter mushrooms that appear annually - like little gnomes they always seem to me - arrived to welcome the seasonal of cool, dam

Of Light, Gnomes and Gnomon

I live just a smidge beneath the 40th parallel. At this point in the seasonal year, there's a very perceptible sense that light is precious indeed. More precious every day. Our whole planet is making its rhythmic turn toward the Winter Solstice here on December 21st at 8:28 am PST.

Yesterday, the first day of the last month of the calendar year, I spent much of the day happily wandering with John around a lush large-growth, if not old-growth, National Forest of Northern California looking for the perfect Christmas trees. At about 5,000 feet in elevation, it was crisp and clear, fragrant and damp among the cedars, ponderosa pine, douglas and white fir. Manzanita and creeping ceanothus lined the pine needle matted forest floor. So soft and deep the forest floor litter that footsteps and breathing were hushed. Softened. Light and shadow played between the trees of this late fall - almost winter day. Even as the day warmed from 36 to 55 and we meandered, collecting cones and boughs, dried leaves and windfall lichen, we watched for the right trees and we watched our time carefully so as to be home before dark.

Today, on our wander and at home in my garden, we enjoyed 9 hours and 33 minutes of daylight. On the Winter Solstice in 3 weeks, we will have just 9 hours and 21 minutes. This is in contrast (literally) to the 14 hours and 59 minutes of daylight we receive on the Summer Solstice around June 21st.

Bottom: Colorful stems of native California Nude Buckwheat (Eriogonum nudum) collected for display and for adding to holiday wreaths.

As we evaluated trees for their shape, we also evaluated their proximity to other trees determined to follow that cardinal rule of Christmas tree choosing - you look for trees to thin - trees competing with other trees for space.....and light. By only choosing trees with thinning in mind, you improve the chances that the remaining trees and surrounding understory will grow fuller, taller and with greater gusto as they sends their roots deep into the dark living soil and throw their trunks straight and their branches wide - reaching toward and receiving the most possible light, rain, air and other needed resources.Just as when we thin in the garden.

You notice these things if you pay attention in a forest: when a tree or shrub is receiving too little light, it is leaning toward the light, it is thinner, paler. But likewise, some plants are receiving too much sunlight - not enough shelter - or rest from the bounty of light. Plant foliage or bark especially seem to testify to such over abundance - sunburnt, yellowed, wan.

My mind wandered as freely as my feet, a lovely secondary benefit of a good walking wander (you heard the special from November with Mornings Altars? so good.....). John walked nearby. We'd call out when we'd see a group of the white fir that makes for a nice Christmas tree or when we saw a sight worth sharing - a rock studded with glistening moss, a group of mushrooms popped up from the spongy duff.

It crossed my mind: we're all sundials of sorts aren't we - mirroring and turning toward the light, even while our bodies and roots require and are equally energized by the rest and other blessings of darkness on a daily and seasonal cycle? We are like individual gnomons - our faces point up to the sun, and our shadows indicate where we actually are on this planet in these places - our straightness and angles to the earth perhaps even giving hints as to our latitude, our attitude, the season. The gnomon being the stick, pointer or triangular plate that rises up from the horizontal plate of a flat-faced sundial. When setting up a sundial, the gnomon should be pointing toward true north, and its vertical angle in relation to its horizontal plate is (or is meant to be) set based on the latitude of your position on the globe.

Above: A seasonal wreath of native, garden gathered fir, redwood, manzanita and buckeyes.

As I got to thinking about this idea, I wondered to myself if the word gnomon is related to the word gnome, the dark-loving beings of lore you might find in a woods in the winter? Perhaps you've looked this up yourself.

Turns out they are not apparently related words, according to the Oxford English Dictionary. Gnomon comes from the Greek word of same spelling and means "inspector or indicator," while gnome comes from the modern Latin gnomus (originally used by Paraclesus for this purpose), referring to these mythic beings who are thought to be guardians of earth's treasures - and according to other histories, they also work in and protect your garden at night. How wonderful is that?

However, there is also a Greek word gnome (not indicated by the OED as related to the modern Latin word), which comes from the root: gno related to "knowing" and meaning "a short statement expressing a general truth."

As we enter this needed season of long nights and short days, but also nearing the moment on which our beautiful blue dot of a planet begins it steady movement back toward the light, days increasing in length slowly but surely, may we all live with an unshakeable, wondrous belief in the good spirits who guard over the treasures of the earth by night (and by day). May we all be grounded in the lively, lovely darkness that is the soil and night and winter, and which sustains us. May we all look to those and that which point toward true north and the light that grows us all.

In fact, may we each ourselves be some portion of both gnome and gnomon, some portion light and some portion restful, rejuvenating darkness in this world.

A very merry, happy, healthy turning into Winter to you. I am so grateful for your part in Cultivating Place.



PS: Besides the big, bright Full Cold Moon rising tomorrow night, the solstice on the 21st, and all the faithful winter holidays around the world this month, you might also look forward to some great upcoming Cultivating Place guests: author and gardening/nature loving entomologist Doug Tallamy joins us this coming week, we really delve into the beauty of our dark nights with the International Dark-Sky Association on the 14th, we celebrate some garden history with a visit to Colonial Williamsburg at Christmas on the 21st. We end the month and the year with some visionary inspiration when we hear about the interplay between Georgia O'Keeffe's art and life and her love for her Abiquiu, NM garden. Hope you'll take a listen and let me know what you think. Below - as usual are links to last month's episodes, just in case. :)




Above: Native California seaweed (technically a marine algae) wreath off the coast of Trinidad, CA.

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