May Day: A holiday made even more joyous by sixteen hours of light

The changing of the seasons is often used as a metaphor, even a euphemism. “She’s no spring chicken,” we say of those who have entered the autumns of their lives. We turn over new leaves and blossom (or don’t) in our careers and, when the going gets rough, spend some time in hibernation.

I’d never given these comparisons much thought, but—trust me when I say this—nowhere does the changing of the seasons grab your attention more than on the Last Frontier, and my interest is compounded by my employment status, which, on my least favorite springtime holiday—Tax Day—I listed as “seasonal.”

This morning, for example, the sun rose at 5:50, and it will set at 10:05 tonight, at which point we’ll have had sixteen hours and fifteen minutes of daylight. This is about five and a half minutes more than yesterday, and the same amount of time will be added tomorrow and the next day, until the June 21. On this day, the summer solstice, Anchorage will experience nearly nineteen and a half hours of sunlight.

But like I said: it’s a place of extremes. On our winter solstice, we get just under five and a half hours of daylight. December and January are dark. Like bring-a-headlamp-to-walk-out-to-your-car-dark. Like leave-in-the-dark-and-come-home-in-the-dark dark. Dark.

Exactly one May Day ago,  I tried on this impossibly heavy backpack in my incredibly messy bedroom (some things never change).
Exactly one May Day ago, I tried on this impossibly heavy backpack in my incredibly messy bedroom (some things never change).

After months of vitamin D deficiency, you can see why I might be excited for the spring equinox and its successor, May Day, which I like to think of as Easter-for-Pagans.

As I enjoy my sixteen hours of 60-degree weather, it strikes me how much my life has changed since last May Day. I was headed into the Talkeetnas to spend a week trapped in a tent, though I didn’t yet know it at the time. I was filled with anticipation and trepidation, and had no idea what it felt like to carry around a ninety-plus-pound pack for the better part of a month.

In fact, had I known at the time what a month of Alaskan mountaineering would entail, I’m not sure year-ago me would have signed up at all. I guess ignorance is bliss. (For the record: I’m glad I went, and I’m glad I made it to see another May Day.)

Lately, I spend a lot of time caught between nostalgia for seasons past and anxiety for what the next trip around the sun will be like. It seems like an awful waste of a sunny afternoon, which is the topic of this Mary Oliver poem—a much more eloquent ending to this post than I could hope to produce.

Such Singing in the Wild Branches
It was spring
and I finally heard him
among the first leaves––
then I saw him clutching the limb
in an island of shade
with his red-brown feathers
all trim and neat for the new year.
First, I stood still
and thought of nothing.
Then I began to listen.
Then I was filled with gladness––
and that’s when it happened,
when I seemed to float,
to be, myself, a wing or a tree––
and I began to understand
what the bird was saying,
and the sands in the glass
stopped
for a pure white moment
while gravity sprinkled upward
like rain, rising,
and in fact
it became difficult to tell just what it was that was singing––
it was the thrush for sure, but it seemed
not a single thrush, but himself, and all his brothers,
and also the trees around them,
as well as the gliding, long-tailed clouds
in the perfect blue sky–––all of them
were singing.
And, of course, so it seemed,
so was I.
Such soft and solemn and perfect music doesn’t last
For more than a few moments.
It’s one of those magical places wise people
like to talk about.
One of the things they say about it, that is true,
is that, once you’ve been there,
you’re there forever.
Listen, everyone has a chance.
Is it spring, is it morning?
Are there trees near you,
and does your own soul need comforting?
Quick, then––open the door and fly on your heavy feet; the song
may already be drifting away.
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