In the northern hemisphere this is the time of year approaching the winter solstice when many of us counter our dislike of the shortening days by shopping or partying furiously under the Christmas lights. It brings to mind William Wordsworth’s couplet: ‘Getting and spending, we lay waste our powers:/Little we see in Nature that is ours’.
But this time of year offers a great opportunity to bear witness to the transitions of day into night and vice versa. We only have to get up at around 7am in the morning to experience the slow creep of dawn or find some sky mid-afternoon to appreciate the onset of twilight.
In cinematography, the period just after sunset or before dawn on a sunny day is known as ‘the magic hour’ due to the particular luminosity that endows human skin with a warm radiance and ensures less contrast in the shadows. (The film director Terence Malick once shot an entire movie in ‘magic hour’ light).
In winter the dawns and dusks aren’t as brazen or clear as they can be in Midsummer, or the ‘magic hours’ as saturated, but, if we take the time to fully attend to them, they often yield their own grace. Even on a day of constant drizzle, we may be able to see more tone and variation in the colour grey than we previously thought possible. We can pick out the linear thrust of branches, the changes in reflectivity of puddles; the white underbellies of fallen leaves. And there’s also a chance to notice our own emotional reactions to these elemental transitions. I’ve sometimes found dusk brings on a quiet melancholy and dawn an energetic optimism but that just as often these feelings are reversed and it’s thrilling to see the sky turn black or scary to see it bleed again with light.
And by appreciating transition in nature, we may also be able to pay more attention to the hundreds of small transitions we make in our behavior every day: from sleeping to waking, dry to wet; hungry to sated; in stepping out of the house and onto the street; going up stairs; climbing onto transport; cycling; or perhaps the simplest transition of all: walking.
Every transition involves a letting go of something and an anticipation of something else. Next time you’re walking you could pay attention to the soles of your feet. Notice how the weight transfers – how one foot lets go to let the other receive; the flexing of the muscles, the sensations in the metatarsal or ‘ball’ of the feet; the part our toes play in walking and the way the knees bend to accommodate each step. Does your walking feel fluid or labored, or perhaps a bit of both? Does your body respond differently to walking on varying surfaces like grass, mud or tarmac? Has your sense of what walking is changed just by paying attention to it?
You can do this exercise whether you’re walking from your car to the office or taking a ten mile hike through luscious countryside. That’s the beauty of walking.