There’s this house, a small, dusty brown, adobe-colored place with turquoise shutters, a couple of turns off the main road that runs near my house, which I walk by with my family from time to time. In the summer, its small and efficient front yard, which is unremarkable the rest of the year, comes alive and overgrows with sunflowers, all of them clamoring for the clouds like kids around the candy from a broken piñata. It’s become part of the DNA of our summer, as entrenched in our underlying summertime ritual as ice cream and complaining about people who are complaining about the heat are.
If things seem to be a little overwhelmingly summery, too hot, too humid, too much chlorine, maybe we just want some soup, a quick walk past that house often gives us a little, just enough, of a boost, and I sometimes send us out of our way to walk past it. I’m not sure if anyone in my family knew that, but now you do. The secret’s out.
This year’s June solstice is at 2:24 UTC, June 21. That’s 12:24 AM US Eastern, 11:24 PM Central on June 20, 10:24 Mountain, 9:24 Pacific, and on it goes westward. In the northern hemisphere, this means the start of summer. If you’re tuning in from the southern hemisphere, welcome to winter.
Earth’s axis is tiled by about 23.5° relative to the plane of its orbit. The solstice is one of the two days each year, one in June and one in December, when the most direct sunlight reaches 23.5° north latitude, its northernmost (June) point, or 23.5° south latitude, its southernmost point (December). If these latitudes seem familiar, that zone is called the tropics. Those lines are the Tropic of Cancer (north) , and the Tropic of Capricorn (south). It’s no coincidence that that latitudes are the same as the Earth’s axis’s tilt. The direct sunlight spends all its time in that zone.
The word solstice comes from Latin sol, for Sun, and stice for stationary, because the Sun moves more and more northward and then appears to stop for a couple of days. You can see it if you watch and keep track of the sunsets. It’s true; we might have the most daylight today (your mileage may vary) but it’ll be a couple of days, June 23, where I live, before the Sun starts making its way southward, and the nights start getting shorter again. If you’ve been impatient with the bright nights, it’s all downhill from here clear out until December, when night falls, as if it’s being pushed, in mid-afternoon.
If you were to watch the Sun each day, and pay close attention to where it rises and sets, you’d see it gradually make that trip along the horizon. Sunrises move from northeast to southeast and back again, while sunsets move from northwest to southwest and back again. The farther north, in the case of summer, the sun rises and sets, the longer it takes to make that trip from horizon to horizon, and the more daylight we have. More direct sunlight plus more daylight equals summer.
The solstices are a great time to have a look at the Sun, follow the ecliptic, its path across the sky, and get a feel for where that line is. Watch where the Sun vanishes below the ground, and then see if you can imagine the path it took to get there. From there, you can stretch out the line, and find the planets. Jupiter and Saturn are in the evenings and overnights. Venus is making trouble in the mornings. Mars and Mercury are unavailable for comment.
I usually get distracted after a few days, but I love to take a look and watch. I find that seeing where the Sun is, helps me see where I am, and get a sense of where I’m going, where we’re all going. After just a few days, you can get a real feel for how fleeting summer is, but also for how soon it’ll be back.
Yesterday afternoon, on the kids’ last full day of school for the year, I was out running some errands alone, listening to an old Midnight Oil album. I parked the car just so I could walk past the old white house at the other end of town. The sunflower stalks are just starting to come up. It won’t be long now.
Happy summer, everyone, and clear skies!