Sun Calendar
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You Don't Need a Calendar on the Wall to Keep Track of the Seasons: Just Watch the Sun.

+ Von Del Chamberlain +

One of the most highly valued skills in all human history has been the ability to predict climate, and individuals with knowledge of how to keep the calendar have been among the most powerful of all people. Entire nations have depended on such knowledge for survival. No king, emperor, chief or president could maintain political power without the assistance of keepers of the calendar. Calendars have always been at the foundation of culture: hunting and gathering, planting and harvesting, worshiping and celebrating are all calendrically controlled activities, and all of these have governed the identity and strength of cultures throughout time. So it was that the person knowing how to keep a calendar accurately attuned to the seasons enjoyed elevated status within society. There is no more fundamental realm of knowledge.

There are several ways of keeping a functional calendar: one could make critical observations of changes occurring in living things, dividing the year into segments identified by selected animal and plant behaviors; one could carefully watch weather patterns and divide time by the onset of major changes, such as the first thunderstorms, frosts, and snowstorms; one could observe the changing patterns of stars at some particular time of night, usually those making their appearance just before the dawn; one could follow the cycles of the Moon, keeping track of changing relationships of lunar cycles and seasons; and one could monitor the migrations of the Sun in the sky, noting its directions of rising, setting, and its elevation above the horizon at themiddle of the day. The most successful calendars integrated all of these, but the easiest and most reliable method, indeed the key to a climatic calendar, is to watch the Sun.

If you wish to really understand the seasons and the calendar, you can perform an enjoyable scientific activity and experience a sense of the ages at the same time. Doing so will yield many levels of knowledge accompanied by deep satisfactions. There are many ways to go about this, but let me suggest the simplest, then you can modify it according to your own interests and circumstances.

Start by locating a convenient place, your sunwatching station, where you can observe either the rising or setting Sun against a distant range of mountains with lots of peaks and valleys, and with no nearby obstructions such as houses and trees. This must be a precisely defined spot-- an exact place to sit or stand, marked in such a way that your location is the same each time you observe. Your calendar will consist of recording and remembering the places on the horizon where the Sun makes its entrances into your days or its departures into evenings.

Always be cautious when observing the Sun! When the ball of the Sun near the horizon is deep red and easy to look at without any stress upon your eyes, it is safe, but when it is the least bit brilliant do not stare at it: glance at it quickly, then turn eyes away. The observations you want to make are the very first gleam of sunlight at sunrise or the last gleam at sunset and it is the places on the landscape where these occur that compose your horizon calendar. You can either make a careful tracing of the horizon and label the dates upon it, or you can take photographs to compose your calendar. If you take photographs, be reminded of the danger of looking at the Sun through lenses and filters as well as directly. Do not take chances that could endanger eyesight!

For many centuries the pueblos of the American southwest have had individuals who watched the movements of the Sun. The autobiography of a Hopi man, for example, contains the following:

Another important business was to keep track of the time or seasons of the year by watching the points on the horizon where the sun rose and set each day. The point of sunrise on the shortest day of theyear was called the sun's winter home and the point of sunrise on the longest day its summer home. Old Talasemptewa, who was almost blind, would sit out on the housetop of the special Sun Clan house and watch the sun's progress toward its summer home. He untied a knot in a string for each day. When the sun arose at certain mesa peaks, he passed the word around that it was time to plant sweet corn, ordinary corn, string beans, melons, squash, lima beans, and other seeds. On a certain date he would announce that it was too late for any more planting. The old people said that there were proper times for planting, harvesting, and hunting, for ceremonies, weddings, and many other activities. In order to know these dates it was necessary to keep close watch on the sun's movements.

These sunwatchers still exist at many pueblos. They are in charge of the calendar, monitoring the beats of the pulse of being Hopi, Zuni, Jemez or any of the other puebloan groups. Today they might keep their observations as notes on one of our modern calendars, but they believe in the principal of making the observations that have been part of their traditional and religious lives as long as they have existed. This maintains ties to their ancestors, who first learned the art of sunwatching, and it empowers them as participants in the cycles of nature. Noticing which houses Sun Father comes out of and goes into informs them of the activities they must engage in to remain the people they are and want to be.

From your own sunwatching station, you can define the solar houses for whatever dates might be most important in your life: birthdays, anniversaries, religious days and holidays can be marked as well as solstices and equinoxes. As we approach the September equinox, it is easy to notice that the Sun comes in and exits a different "house" each day. The changes governing life are extreme right now: sunrise and sunset times and directions are changing rapidly as days shorten and nights lengthen, and the elevation of the Sun at mid-day is descending each day.

Instead of actually watching the Sun on the horizon at beginning or end of day, you can monitor changing shadows of things in your vicinity, you can study the play of first or last rays of sunlight through windows into a room of your home, or you can use a sundial or other construct of your own design. All of these methods of looking around are interactive experiences, the mostpowerful mode of learning through participation. Whether you call it science, or think of it as your personal method of interacting with the universe, you will be rewarded by a depth of understanding that is not achievable in other ways.

Throughout human history, at various places around the world, sunwatchers have been engaged in keeping calendars to establish the heartbeats of world cultures. Mostly, they have believed they were tracking the Sun. Actually, they were tracking Earth in an annual orbit that is tilted to its rotation axis. Always, they were aware of crucial relationships between Earth, Sun and themselves, an awareness of great importance that we should not lose.

More information on the solstice and equinox:
Vernal Equinox: Equinox Means Balanced Light, Not Balanced Eggs
Summer Solstice: Solstices are Milestones of Civilization
Autumnal Equinox: Cruising Along the Equinox
Winter Solstice: A Celebration of Light

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