As so often when I paint a new "birch portrait," the impetus for this painting came from running through the woods and being struck by an especially beautiful trunk. The woods are wintry now, of course, so I was surprised when the branches on my canvas sprouted leaves. In the all-encompassing whiteness of winter, I do tend to crave color, and I suppose I must also, wholly unconsciously, be thinking ahead to spring.
I think young leaves are especially on my mind, though, as I've been conducting, in a closet in our house, a small part of a larger experiment the scientists at OneTree Alaska have been doing. They are germinating birch seeds (many of them from "my" tree--the one I've chosen to follow in their major test plot) and are growing them under controlled lighting conditions that simulate differences between late spring and mid-summer germination. By mimicking the amount of light each cohort of seedlings would receive under those conditions, they hope to gain further insights into the effects of climate change on birches and the boreal forest. Working with these folks as their "Artist-in-Residence" is a continuing source of inspiration for me, and seeing the tiny leaves on the inch-high birches in my closet grow daily, in the depths of winter, has to have an impact on what I do when I go to my studio to paint.
New Year's Light may look like a fantasy, but as always in my work, it's an effort to capture my experience at a very specific place and time. The dark, almost silhouetted trees in the foreground are the very ones I looked through from Chena Ridge one winter morning as the almost due-south rising sun transformed the all-white Tanana River Valley into an array of brilliant colors.
As I work on this post today in Fairbanks, a week before the winter solstice, we have only 3 hours and 49 minutes of true daylight, and the sun struggled to a midday zenith less than 2 degrees above the horizon. It should be dark and depressing, but it's not...it's absolutely beautiful.
The sky has been clear nearly every day for a month, every hour of the day and night. The light during the short days is peach, and on either side of those 3 hours and 49 minutes of daylight, we have hours of the kind of magical twilight that lasts just minutes in latitudes where the sun travels a steeper path.
It's never truly dark in winter here, as snow on every surface reflects not only the moon, which is full today as I write and casting shadows like a beacon, but every other bit of ambient light as well. And have I mentioned that we are able to see auroras dance across the late night sky here, on average, 120 nights a year?
I do look forward to gradually increasing daylight, beginning in just a few days, and to the time from May through July when it's light all night, but I love our winter at least as much as our summer, and I love the dramatic sweep of the seasons most of all.