Chasing the Light

When the alarm went off I was deep in the warm comfort of my bed as I peered through a hole in the covers to search for the time on the distant alarm clock. With the Solstice sunrise expected at 8:02 a.m. eastern prairie time, I would need at least a half hour to reach my preferred destination, the inward passage of the Little Minnesota River as it crossed the South Dakota border just past Browns Valley. That was my chosen spot for my annual portrayal of the Winter Solstice. 

When I finally made my half roll and groan to get onto my feet there was about am hour before I would need to arrive for some choice ambient light that comes as a prelude to an actual sunrise. My favorite time of the morning. Of course, the drive would depend on how much snow and or ice had accumulated overnight. A glance out my window quickly dashed my spirits, for it appeared we would have a solidly grayish sky.

This wouldn’t be my first chasing of Solstice light, lasting until the darkness of night settled in a mere eight hours away. This would be my annual effort of sighting and capturing an artful image of dear Sol on this my favorite Pagan holiday. 

No sun, no problem. My chosen Solstice image for 2022.

Being “ever hopeful”, there was some venturing out onto the roads seeking something with the eternal hope of having a break in the dense cloud cover. A handful of pheasants working a harvested field now frozen over with wind crusted snow for some semblance of grain greeted me, as did a pair of deer in the ravine, rushing off in fear, bounding over bush and clumps of grass. Trees glistened with poetic remnants of the overnight blizzard. A lake barren of ice fishers was a sheet of gray ice with gusty “waves” of windblown snow.

My image from last winter’s Solstice was made on a somewhat eerie day as well, when the sun eventually broke early before the clouds came in before blessing us with a poetic sunset that was extremely beautiful. Would I be so lucky? As the “golden” moment approached on this Solstice evening I stood at my kitchen window hopefully eyeing the western sky as darkness eased in over the grayness of a nondescript day. My chasing of the light had been rather uneventful.

This quest of an “eventful” Solstice image began years ago when I ran a small country weekly. Perhaps it was just me, for my colleagues at other prairie papers seemed to ignore what for me was a significant moment in the year, our shortest day of daylight along with, of course, our longest night; that Pagan moment in lore that suggests a leading into some significant religious and cultural celebrations such as Christmas, Hanukkah and Kwanzaa. As challenging as it was this year, it wasn’t the first sunless Solstice over those many years.

A quick review of my captures of Solstice pasts showed similar cloud covered days in 2015 and 2018 without even a peek of the sun. I was hopeful of years like 2010, 2014, 2016, 2020 and even last year when there would be a brief break especially near sunset when some ambient color would appear in the skies. In 2014 my chasing the light concluded with a breakthrough just moments before dusk at a wetland just east of the Ortonville junction, and again two years later when I caught a last minute gasp peaking through the split rock, an almost timeless image linking our geological past with that day’s setting sun. 

Each Solstice seems to have an adventure or story into themselves. On some I was chasing the light. On others there was barely a challenge. In 2009 the roads were ice packed with chilling temperatures, and my image was of a field across Hawk Creek taken in my backyard in Clara City. The sun was barely showing through a snow-hazed sky on a far southeastern arc — a sky with almost a magical Arctic hue.

A year later the Solstice was dark and gloomy, although a hint of nearly a rainbowish color graced a picturesque field in the blue hour. In 2011 we faced another horribly cold day with bright sunshine when I caught a grouping of pigeons in flight against the arc of a sun dog. It was a moment that suggested a hint of flight and freedom in the heart of a beastly winter.

In 2012, the year my wife died, my image was taken in the moonlight during my first drive through Bonanza Education Center. My mind wasn’t on the Solstice, so it was a coincidental moment of magic and personal change. A year later my image came from a momentary stop at the spillway dam on the east pool of the Refuge of wintering gulls in flight over a cover of snowy ice. A “white on white” capture, one that also spoke of freedom, of a personal breakthrough. Once again, a hint of flight and freedom in the heart of winter, of a forthcoming move into both a new relationship and area of the prairie.

The image from 2018 spoke of an interesting late December warmth that produced a fog stretching across the landscape from Benson west creating a magical hoarfrost, a winterish wonderland where a reflection of frosty branches in the open stilled waters on a bend of the Pomme de Terra River caught the eye. 

Some years there simply was no chasing of the light. No real challenge. Thankfully I’ve been blessed with some interesting cloudy sunsets that provided interesting a hint of flight and freedom in the heart of winter. This was even true last year when I chose as my image one that came on the dune of a windblown snowdrift in the basin of a former pothole lake within the Steen Wildlife Management Area a couple of miles east of Listening Stones. It was an image that seemed mysterious and rather fitting for the Pagan celebration.

My chasing of the light on this Solstice was joyful in that despite the snow and the ominous forecast, the roads were reasonably manageable. As the blue hour approached I watched in the warmth of my kitchen with hopes of catching a last minute capture of dear Sol. For many of those past years, Audrey Arner and Richard Handeen would host a Solstice gathering on their Moonstone Farm near Montevideo, complete with a couple of bonfires and strips of venison we would sear over the coals on freshly cut willow sprouts. It wasn’t happening this year because of the weather and roads, so capturing a hint of the sun was my last grasp of holding onto my personal Solstice traditions.

It didn’t happen. So I scanned my imagery of the many past Solstices, recalling memories I’d forgotten of some of those sunless, socked in days. As I looked through my captures I decided that despite my shivering grasp of the camera, that the plight of the pheasants on a wind-chilled frigid, frozen-over prairie field would serve as my new Solstice image, for it seemed to accurately portray the essence of a wintry moment on a pagan celebration. 

Hopefully your Solstice was special, and that the rest of these celebratory religious and cultural seasons are fine as well. 

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About John G. White

Somewhat retired after a long award-winning career in newspapers (Wisconsin State Journal, Dubuque Telegraph-Herald, Denver Post and a country weekly, the Clara City Herald). Free lance photographer and writer with credits in more than 70 magazines. Editor with various Webb Publishing magazines in St. Paul, and a five year stint as editorial director at Miller Meester Advertising.

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