by John Colgan-Davis
“The sky grew darker, painted blue on blue, one stroke at a time, into deeper and deeper shades of night.” — Haruki Murakami, Dance Dance Dance
We are in the middle of January, and the normal clothing for folks these days is sweaters, turtlenecks, gloves, scarves, hats and thick, down-lined coats. It is the human imitation of the turtle as we desperately try to stave off the wind and deflect the cold temperatures of our most extreme season.
My mother always told us to dress in layers in winter, saying that if you get too hot, you can always take something off, but if you’re cold and don’t have additional clothes, well, you are sunk.
So I take mom’s advice: I can normally be seen in gloves and four or five layers in winter. I am not opposed to being warm. The older these bones get, the less tolerant they are of the cold. And I need to be bundled up, especially at night, because one of the things I love doing now is being outside and looking up at the glories of the winter night sky.
There is grandeur in the night sky in winter for me. The sky somehow seems bigger, bolder and more dramatic in the months between December and March. The stars are clearer and brighter; the moon more obvious and radiant, and there just seem to be more planets waiting to be seen.
The blueness and the darkness seem a little more intense, a little more “there” and present. It could be because there are no leaves on the trees to block out the sky. Or maybe it is because there is less to notice in gardens and yards and in the street when it is this cold.
And maybe it is because so much more of our day is spent in darkness. Sunset starts around 5 p.m. these days, and the darkness is with us longer. Whatever it is, I just love the way the sky surrounds us with its solid darkness and lights and the way it all seems to change so frequently during the winter.
I love watching the moon going through its phases —Full Moon, New Moon, Quarter Moon, waxing and waning, alternately hiding behind clouds on some nights, shining brightly and boldly on others.
I like trying to find the planets; spotting the red speck of Mars in the early Southwest sky and then trying to see Venus moving toward Mars around the 21st of January. And I like to find as many constellations as I can remember — the Dippers, Orion, Canis Major and more.
Of course, it has been decades since my junior high science classes in astronomy, so I can often have the wrong constellation or a planet in the wrong place in the sky when I check the sky maps on www.space.com/16149-night-sky.html.
But I like trying to find the sights on my own first and seeing what I can remember from those long ago days. It connects me with the amazement I first felt when I went to the Franklin Institute Planetarium and heard about meteor showers and saw the rings around Saturn, moon craters and more.
The same sense of wonder is reawakened every winter night when I take a walk around the block or come home from a gig, or just stand outside my door and look up. I never get tired of seeing that sky, and it never ceases to amaze me.
So for all the discomfort winter can bring — and last year it definitely brought plenty — I am still relieved, comforted and amazed by that sky. Its stark dramatic beauty gives the earth an eerie specialness that makes me smile even as I pull that coat a little tighter.
It is a little gift provided free of charge to help make the cold just a little more bearable and a little less terrible. For beneath the drama of the winter sky, all is beautiful indeed.
John Colgan-Davis is a long-time resident of Mt. Airy, teacher and harmonica player with the popular rockin’ blues band, the Dukes of Destiny.