Ian Hill is a writer, bookbinder, printmaker and lover of wild places. He lives in Cumbria, with a view of the hills. His blog is The Printed Land. The perihelion Ian refers to was January 5, 2012.
“And all those sayings will I over-swear;
And all those swearings keep as true in soul
As doth that orbèd continent the fire
That severs day from night.”
Shakespeare, Twelfth Night
We are as close to the sun as we can be. I turn this thought in my mind as I walk over fields dense with the weight of winter’s rain, each rutted furrow containing a pool of ochre water, each gateway a Passendale of hoofprints, footprints, the deep trenches left by agricultural machinery. The sun, low in the south-western sky, has not risen above the level of the trees, as though a balloon has snagged in their branches and is struggling to break free. The watery light of the late sunrise elides into the peach-coloured soft light of dusk; the day is bracketed by twilight.
We are as close to the sun as we can be. The idea seems so improbable in these crepuscular days of half-light and shadows, this time of year when our thoughts and activities turn inward, to rooms pooled with artificial light, to homes warmed by fires to banish the darkness.
This day in the year, this point where our flattened ellipse of an orbit around the sun reaches its closest point, is known as the perihelion; precise, greek, the word contains the authority of science as though it alone is responsible for changing the shape of our otherwise circular orbit. The timing of this event bears no relation to any of the other fixed points of our celestial calandar; it does not occur on the equinox or the solstice, it is not related to the moon or the seasons. It seems odd to us, in the northern hemisphere, that this close touch of the sun should fall in the depths of winter.
Coincidentally, the perihelion occurs each year at, or near to, twelfth night: a night of feasting and merrymaking, a time to celebrate the end of the winter holiday period. In historic times, for twelve nights the world had been turned upside-down; by tradition, the twelve days of the christmas holiday were goverened by the Lord of Misrule. It was a time when servants gave orders to their masters, when the natural order of things was subverted for a short period. A time when we could believe that things need not necessarily be as they always have been; a time for change and chance, for revolutions and revelations.
In the Christian tradition, this is also the time of the epiphany, when the wise men saw the beauty of God in the face of the infant Jesus. And it is indeed a time of epiphany even in the steeped hedgerows of my native Cumbria; snowdrops diminutive amongst the mulch of winter’s leaves, the pallid flesh of mushrooms slicked with moisture, the snicker of long-tailed tits as they rise like motes of dust from the hawthorns.
My daily walk from home takes me beneath ancient hedgerows which catch the light from the low sun: the angular shoots of blackthorn like tarnished iron, the burnished red of the hawthorns. Amongst them, a single elder rises above the twisted growths of the thorns. It glows almost golden, as though the grooved boughs hold the memory of spring, of the dense heads of creamy flowers which will sit like late fallen snow on the hedges. In this winter light, the branches are gold like a sweet cordial, gold like the springtime sun whose muted sibling ghosts the line of distant trees on my way home.