Day of longest light
I come here for the magic. I come to watch the eastern horizon, solid black, give birth to a shallow dome of blue. Over a span of 80 minutes the dome swells and pales – blue to barn red to burnt amber. On this topmost hill of Round Valley, where the eastern horizon is none other than the Sierra Nevada Range, 100 miles distant, obstructed by no trees or houses, I watch the pageant unfold.
The magic climaxes in the sudden appearance of the star of the show – the star we call our Sun. Before then, the horizon merely glows. When the Sun breaks the dark ripple of the mountains, it glares, sets the landscape aflame.
I awaken early to experience all these things. In summer, extremely early. Tomorrow, the earliest. Tomorrow, June 21 at 3:07 a.m. PDT, the northern hemisphere of planet Earth achieves its maximum tilt toward the light: the summer solstice. Tomorrow at my point on the planet, the Sun rises at 5:45 and sets at 8:33: the day of longest light.
The word “solstice” is from the Latin “Sun stands still.” In reality, nothing in our universe stands still. At our Bay Area latitude we’re burning rubber around Earth’s axis at over 700 feet per second. As riders on the planet we’re clocking in at 19 miles per second in orbit around our Sun. And our Sun is dragging us on its scorching course around our Milky Way galaxy’s nucleus at more than 150 miles per second. When we claim the Sun stands still, what do we mean?
If you’re an early riser, you’ve noticed over the course of the year that the sky begins to flood with light in a different region of the horizon in summer than in winter. The corona of dawn swells behind points of reference (the chimney of your neighbor’s house, a tree, a lamp post) to the southeast in winter and points of reference to the northeast in summer. Every day of the year, the Sun breaks the horizon at a different position along a line from southeast to northeast – with two exceptions: the summer and winter solstices. Beginning today, the Sun will break the northeast horizon at the same position for four consecutive mornings. From our perspective (of the Sun’s rising position along the horizon), it will appear to be standing still.
If our Bay Area solstice’s 14 hours and 48 minutes of daylight calls for a party, imagine the blowout up north. Tonight at the stroke of 12 along the Arctic Circle (66.5° north of the equator) the Sun, having already put in a full day’s work, will skim the northern horizon like a pelican in search of a midnight snack. Then, instead of taking the plunge it’ll engage its takeoff flaps and begin a brightening ascent into the east. Perpetual day.
Folks along the Antarctic Circle (66.5° south of the equator) will see a different spectacle. Tomorrow around noon, following a morning of muted light, the sky along the northern horizon will pale with the promise of sunrise. But the promise will be broken. The sky will pale but the light fail: short dusk surrendering to long night. If in winter you tend to sing the light-deprivation blues, if you’re vulnerable to SAD (Seasonal Affective Disorder), you might want to skip the trip to Ross Ice Shelf this time of year.
Whatever our attitude toward latitude, one thing we agree on – people of all cultures agree on – is that the seasons should be celebrated. The impact on our senses of the transition from spring to summer, cool to hot (and in California, green to golden) should be celebrated. Spring emits a liquid glow, which summer’s sear desiccates. The onset of autumn, its chill air and long midday shadows, resonates in our bones like the toll of a cathedral bell. By winter the leafless skeletons of trees remind us of our mortality. These large movements, dictated by the axial tilt of our planet, and the sensation of awe and wonder they provoke, should be celebrated.
But I confess: I’m addicted to hiking at night, which makes summer my least favorite season. Whether the hike begins post-sunset or pre-sunrise, I’m forced to hit the trail in summer later or earlier than I prefer. I return home long after midnight or roll out of bed at 3 a.m. I celebrate tomorrow’s summer solstice grudgingly.
And then I remember the magic – and set my alarm for 3 a.m.