Solstices Are Milestones of Civilization
+ Von Del Chamberlain +
Note: The 2006 summer solstice will occur at 6:27 a.m. MDT, 21 June 2006, when summer begins in the Northern Hemisphere.
Summer solstice! The Sun reaches its most northern house, to begin its journey south once more. Earth cruises past the point in its orbit that results in the greatest tilt of the Northern Hemisphere toward the Sun, and all life responds. Long days, short nights. No one seems to want to sleep, for it is time to celebrate the light!
In Circle, Alaska the solstice party lasts all day, with its culmination at the mid-night hour, people staring at the Sun as it grazes the horizon, straight north. At the North Pole, devoid of anyone to watch, the day has already lasted for three months and will continue for another three until the Sun begins to drop below the horizon, briefly at first, then longer and longer to finally vanish for six months. People at the equator notice the northern and southern solar migration along the horizon, throughout the year, producing wet and dry seasons, but always it is steamy hot and always there are twelve hours light and twelve hours dark. Southern tropic, temperate and Antarctic zones are the antithesis of the northern ones.
People always and everywhere have celebrated the summer solstice. We can only imagine the rituals that took place at Stonehenge on the plain of Salisbury, but contemporary Druids gather there at summer solstice to watch sunrise over the heelstone and claim their relationship with ancient British ancestors, imagining that they can recapture the essence of archaic ceremonies. High in the Big Horn Mountains of northern Wyoming Native Americans once constructed and used a wheel of stones with twenty-eight spokes and a clear summer solstice sunrise alignment. Again, we can not recapture the complete meaning behind this place, but modern Indians and Whites solstice there believing they feel connections to those who made the Bighorn Medicine Wheel. Other New Agers worship at their own personal medicine wheels or at locals in Zion Canyon, Sedona, Arizona and others they have declared to be "places of power." They flock to Chaco Canyon to surround Fajada Butte, crystals in hand, humming chants that they imagine to be ancient, singing the Sun across the sky, believing that power can be transmitted into their lives in mystic fashion.
What really causes the solstice is nothing more nor less than the movement of Earth in an orbit that is tilted to the direction of the equator. This 23 1/2 degree tilt results in constantly changing solar illumination on the different latitudes of Earth. The explanation is clear and easy to understand, yet the results are truly worth celebrating, for the varying flow of solar energy means everything to our lives. It is enjoyable and of value to understand what we can of the meanings these changes had to earlier people, but the question of genuine values arises when some want to ignore, even dump, understanding in favor of explanations born in ignorance.
Indeed, there are people who behave as if they would discard knowledge and return to earlier times. The number expands amid troubles resulting from growing populations, byproducts of industry and deterioration of religious, family and community strengths. Do not such situations argue in favor of valuing knowledge rather than abolishing it? Isn't it wiser to cherish the understanding we have gained through hard toil running throughout human history, and attempt with all diligence to apply knowledge with great care and sensitivity?
From earliest times until now people have struggled to understand natural realities, such as the causes of the solstices. They found interpretations that satisfied their needs, and they used their understanding for improvement of their lives. Differing cultures came into contact and shared their interpretations. Such toil and dialogue eventually led to science, an intellectual endeavor committed to free sharing of knowledge for all who might be interested. Such knowledge is power, which, when coupled with wisdom, can expand horizons beyond what is possible in any other way. Yesterday we explored the oceans and continents. Today we travel to the Moon and planets. Remote stars beckon as we await future sunrises.
The people at Stonehenge, those who built and used the Big Horn Medicine Wheel, and the Anasazi at Chaco Canyon, all experienced religious, political and ecological problems. So do we, in context with desires to find and explore new frontiers. The problems and solutions are never easy. Responsible and compassionate uses of knowledge, coupled with retention of solid ethical values, is vital to growth toward our human potentials.
What does all this have to do with the coming of the solstice each year? Annual repetitions are milestones of desired changes. Each time we arrive at this point to enjoy the increased illumination from the Sun, human history on planet Earth has yielded one more year of experience and discovery. We can still look out from the center of Stonehenge to see the Sun rise over the heelstone as it did thousands of years ago, but looking around in all other directions yields knowledge that revises and refines what we treasured before. The traditions of earlier solstices belonged to the people of those generations, and solstice by solstice they transformed to become the ethos we claim as ours, here and now. We should honor and respect mores of past solstices, while we apply products of knowledge for the benefit of all mankind and the other creatures we share Mother Earth with.
This article was modified from the original to serve as an information source for all summer solstice events.
For more equinox insights (and some pictures of balancing eggs) visit Phil Plait's Bad Astronomy site. Another good article is Phil's What Causes the Seasons?
Here's another good site full of information: Treasure Troves.
Also available at the U.S. Naval Observatory's site is an article on the Comparative Lengths of Longest Day and Longest Night, and of Shortest Day and Shortest Night and UCAR has a nice explaination of the solstice.
And finally the Science Alliance has conducted egg balancing experiments with teachers.
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