Archived Mountain Voices

The light of winter is ‘tricky business’

Winter Light

So much light in what we call the dark

of the year, a flashing and glittering

of light …

Should it surprise us, having known the holes

of darkness in the longest days?

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— William Bronk, “A Bright Day in December” from The World, The Wordless (1964).


On Lower Lands Creek it has been decreed that winter starts with the first snowy or sleety day in November (often the 12) and extends, with interludes, until the first truly spring-like series of days in late March.

Day by day winter narrows life down, dulling senses with dark cold or sharpening with mere light. Elsewhere barrenness and the promise of death are not neglected … but herein our subject is illumination and awareness. Except at sunrise and sunset or before an electric storm, winter light here in the southern mountains is plain — never pea green as in spring and early summer and never tan-yellow or faded rose as in late summer and fall.    

In this plain light we see edges, shapes and basic colors: twigs and branches, stakes and posts, rusty wire and rotting string, thin blue shadows on snow, brown paths curving beside lichen encrusted stone walls, and the slow fire of moss. Winter provides time enough (before we no longer have the light) to pay closer attention to the daily textures and occasional singularities of this often dark but sometimes bright world we call home.

After the summer haze and the soft tones of autumn, we’re not always confronted by gloom. Instead, we are awakened to windowpanes and lakes that hold steady images of mountains without end transfixed by plain winter light. Pines on the far ridge stand cleanly outlined. Some part of the effect, of course, is that there is less moisture this time of the year. We do see more clearly in cold dry air — so much so that distant objects seem near. You will have noticed how close summer ridges are when blanketed with lingering snow? But once it has melted, they will recede.

That’s the semi-scientific version. Not a few reliable observers — backcountry rangers, ginseng enthusiasts, coon hunters who keep computer records for any movement greater than three feet and whether the moon was shining, and others who get out and about — have reported mountains moving around on their own when light turns silver blue and crisp air is electrically charged. Thunderhead is said to have wanderlust. High Rocks went missing for a week and then reappeared one Tuesday morning. Sharp Top disappeared Thanksgiving morning and hasn’t been heard from since.

After a lifetime as a watercolorist, my wife has an uncanny sense of the interrelationships of colors observed in a landscape. For her there is almost no pure white light … not even in winter.   

“Look,” she said pointing southward from a high ridge, “at the lavender shadows crossing that far mountainside. See how the fluffy clouds way up there are reflecting some portion of light from the sun that’s about to set out there in the west. Winter sunshine is tricky business.”

“Winter sunshine is tricky business?” I repeated.

“Tricky business,” she replied.

George Ellison wrote the biographical introductions for the reissues of two Appalachian classics: Horace Kephart’s Our Southern Highlanders and James Mooney’s History, Myths, and Sacred Formulas of the Cherokees. In June 2005, a selection of his Back Then columns was published by The History Press in Charleston as Mountain Passages: Natural and Cultural History of Western North Carolina and the Great Smoky Mountains. Readers can contact him at P.O. Box 1262, Bryson City, N.C., 28713, or at This email address is being protected from spambots. You need JavaScript enabled to view it..

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