Wrapped in Firelight

by Jj Starwalker

As autumn gives way to winter, the evenings grow longer, and in the morning, the sun sometimes stays abed longer than I do. Then, my thoughts turn to lighting.

Unlike many folks, I think, I do not arise and begin flipping on light switches. To me, that scene evokes a sense of panic, of a need to call 911 and move quickly to deal with real emergencies. To challenge the sun with the man-made light before it has risen just feels wrong. Even when my work commute began in total darkness, I would not do this. My coffee maker was set up, and I had only to push a button to start my morning brew and an oil lamp, with a flashlight if needed, and this was sufficient light to dress for work when I laid out my gear the night before. By the time I crested the hill on my way into town, the sky was beginning to lighten, and by the time I pulled into the parking lot to start my shift, the street lights were far from needed. 

By Yule, I am well into my dark season lighting routine. I appreciate the fluorescent shop lights on my grow rack, which holds a few herbs, and this year a marigold plant brought in from the garden. Those lights usually get turned on first, to keep the herbs from getting confused; they also will help the garden seedlings get a good start in a couple of months. And on overcast days, it’s nice to be able to better see what I am cooking and brighten up the space for reading and sewing. But my heart and soul are drawn to the warmth of fire-light.

Whether it is ancestral memories bubbling up on cold, dark nights, or memories of the years I lived in an off-grid cabin in the early 80s, I long for the warmth of a wood cook stove and especially the warm golden light of kerosene lamps. The 80s were the fledgling years of home solar energy, and mostly we lit with lamp oil or kerosene. I have never been lucky enough to have a fireplace to sit by the hearth to spin or do my other needlework in the quiet of winter. But I have managed to accumulate a decent collection of oil lamps, all of which are kept filled year round for storm preparedness and any number of which will be burning at my house tonight.

The glow of the lamps, like the fire and that of candles, is a much different color than the average current light bulb. The lamps put out a “warmer” (more yellow) light than the old incandescent bulbs that gave such a welcoming glow in the windows of houses I passed when walking or riding in Dad’s car on the winter eves of my youth.

I remember sometimes noticing an occasional house with flickering blue light emanating from a window and eventually discovered the source when the family’s TV was visible though an un-curtained picture window. The difference in the character of the light from those homes was palpable to me even as a youngster. Had I needed to knock on a door for help for any reason, I would have chosen the house with warm light immediately.

That is not all that surprising when we learn a bit about the qualities of light and something called “color temperature.” Color temperature refers to the appearance of light–usually provided by a light bulb. Different bulbs emit different qualities of light. When you look on the jacket of light bulbs, you may see numbers ranging from 2500 for a very warm white bulb to 6500, which is equivalent to the quality of daylight–a bluish-white by comparison. This has nothing to do with how much electricity the bulb will use (in watts) or how bright it will be (measured in lumens). It is simply a way to quantify the color of light that the bulb emits. Natural light can be placed on the same scale, with “clear blue sky light” checking in at 10,000–well above your typical “daylight” bulb. Sunrise and sunset come in at 2500, at par with a very warm white light, but the flame of a candle — and an oil lamp — is even warmer at 1800. 

Studies have shown the color of light affects our mood, heart rate, and even circadian rhythms; it also causes the body to release different hormones. Considering this, well, my affinity for the warmer light in winter makes both scientific and emotional sense.

The warm light that surrounds me when I switch to my oil lamp collection after supper makes a fitting end of the day. I am wrapped in visual warmth that evokes equally warm memories, and I spin yarn, as well as new thoughts and plans to carry forward. 

photo credit: Илья Харрис, Unsplash