I go out of the house into the black citadel of night. There is a sliver of moon, a dense crusting of stars, and it is very cold, about fifteen degrees. My eyes have not yet adjusted and it is difficult to find the few stone steps from the driveway up onto the lawn. But ten or fifteen steps later I start to make out a faint wash of light over the land.
I’ve climbed often by the barest glimmer of light that comes from stars alone, and many times by a full moon in a sky brimming with a dark brilliance that banishes all stars. Tonight the moon is so slender a crescent that the light around me feels like an even balance of stars and moon. One pale fire, spread evenly across the landscape; some of it from so near, and some from so far.
It is the coldest night yet this year, an early visitation of winter, and as I cross the lawn I think of Donne’s poem, ‘A Nocturnal Upon St. Lucy’s Day, Being the Shortest Day,’ and especially the line, ‘The world’s whole sap is sunk.’ That is winter exactly: everything is stripped bare, everything has receded. The air is emptied of moisture, leaves are gone from trees, herbaceous vegetation has collapsed and withered. All life withdrawn to root and seed. All warmth, far down in the earth. The frost, chasing it down.
What is left: bare branches, darkness, cold, the stars. I am striding through a resistant world, not unfriendly exactly, but not welcoming either. There is a sense of contesting.
And as I approach the tree, without context or obvious origin I find myself thinking the word ‘ardor.’ I climb the ladder, step into the lower branches, and start my ascent: passion, fervor, intensity. I can feel the cold of the branches through my thin gloves as I move upwards alongside the trunk. ‘Ardor,’ from the Anglo-Norman ardour, from the Latin ardere, to burn. I climb, burning with the exhilaration of the cold and the night, lending it fire.
I wonder about the relation between ‘ardor’ and ‘arduous,’ but when I check later I find no common origin. ‘Arduous,’ from the Latin arduus, difficult. From its root meaning: lofty, high, steep, hard to reach. Like the top of a tree.
But the way they chime morphologically and semantically is irresistible: the one very nearly defined by the need for the other. The arduous is what requires effort, ardor, to achieve. Ardor is the passion required to achieve the difficult. The fire required to meet the cold. The sap to be supplied when the world’s whole sap is sunk.
We’re not there yet, St. Lucy’s Day, December 14th. Observed especially in Scandinavian countries, it celebrates a girl bringing light (ardor) into darkness (the arduous), and originally coincided with the winter solstice, the shortest day, falling on December 21st. Or, as Donne puts it, ‘the year’s midnight, and the day’s.’ We are all close to the year’s midnight, here on the brink of December; and I in the tree, now, am close to the day’s.
But at the top of the tree, irregular black branches crossing and recrossing against the stars around, I understand that it is not just that what is arduous requires ardor to achieve it. It is also that there is a kind of ardor in the arduous. There is a kind of light in the darkness. An exhilaration in being at the top of a tree on a frosty winter night; the bracing clarity that ignites a kind of spiritual passion.
The joy of contesting.
Still, we always welcome the girl with the wreath of candles.