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NATURE HAPPENINGS - December 2006


Winter Solstice
Stoppage of the Sun

by Damian Fagan

Winter on the Colorado Plateau is a mixed bag of temperature, precipitation and reduced daylight hours. Gone are those long days of summer. If you are a member of the Polar Bear Club you exult in the freezing cold, jump willingly into iceblocked streams, or fill the darkness of your nights with a dazzling display of colorful lights. But if you tend towards a more lizardian nature – as most Moabites resemble – you find the winter cold unbearable, the daylight hours a ripoff, and the night’s darkness more of a curse than a celestial invitation to view the constellations.

You probably share a daily ritual with ancestors so ancient that archeologists do not have a name for them. Your choice of instrumentation is more modern, but not necessarily more sophisticated. You place your mark, perhaps a large X or a sunbearing smiley face, over the calendar’s current day. Sometimes you make a cross in the upcoming date as if that will hurry up the process of spring returning to the canyon country. One less day of winter is one more good day.

But the ancient ones did not have a Nature Conservancy or World Wildlife Fund glossy calendar hanging on their cave wall. They didn’t have the frequency of Christmas music to betray the upcoming event or the sound of shotguns signaling the New Year. What they did have was a great deal more patience and understanding that wishing the sun to hurry up would never have any effect upon its run across the sky. Those ancient people belonged to agriculturallybased society and thus they had to pay better attention to the movement of the sun because this was a primary factor in their planting and harvesting cycles.

In winter, the key solar day is now called Winter Solstice. Solstice comes from the Latin word solstitium and is derived from sol meaning “sun” and stitium meaning “stoppage.” Therefore, the solstice is when the sun stands still. Of course not literally, but both the winter and summer solstices are days when the sun reaches either its most southern or most northern point on its annual orbit. Though the Earth is closest to the sun in January, it is the tilt along the Earth’s axis that is responsible for the different seasons.

Ancient people knew this because they had developed wall calendars without glossy photos.

These calendars often consisted of some concentric circles etched into a cliff face or the construction of a particular window on a dwelling wall. Sunlight passing through narrow windows or rock walls created daggers of light that either split these circles in half or perhaps bordered them on the sides. These agrarian timekeepers knew that this phenomenon signaled the time when the daylight hours would start to get longer in the upcoming future. That and they could lose the fear that the sun would never return again.

Today, we call December 21 or 22 (this varies due to the addition of leap years) the Winter Solstice. This day represents the sun’s southern most point for the year. Incidentally, this point lies at latitude roughly 2 3 . 5 d e g r e e s s o u t h o f t h e equator and is called the Tropic o f Capricorn . Though this is an imaginary line that circles the planet, and has an opposite twin the Tropic of Cancer that lies at the same latitude north of the equator, it is today’s version of the concentric circle petroglyphs.

The two imaginary lines represent the southern and northern limits of the sun’s annual movement. At noon on December 21 (or the 22) the sun is directly overhead at the Tropic of Capricorn. It marks the shortest day for daylight hours and heralds the first day of winter. This is the night when those sun worshipping lizardians thank their pagan gods the start of the end of the short days.

But there are those who rejoice in the beginning of winter not for its soon to follow springtime, but because winter is a magical season in the Canyon Country.

Though the days are short and the temperatures may be cold, the canyons and mesas are blanketed by stillness. The invitation to explore nearby canyons is intoxicating because of the solitude and quiet. Wildlife seems to be more evident and though the birds do not sing like they do in spring, their tenacity to survive under these conditions is uplifting.

But besides the wildlife and the solitude there are the winter night skies to lure one outside. The clarity of the air and the longevity of the night allow one to watch a feature length drama of Greek gods and creatures move across the sky. For photographers, winter skies are an excellent time to shoot star trails or constellations and still be home at a reasonable hour.

Though the desert can be bitterly cold during the winter, there is an overwhelming beauty to this time of year. Snow draped sandstone spires or ice sculptures in the potholes brings an ephemeral dimension to this land of rock and sand that is missing for the majority of the year. And though it may only occur when the sun stops moving across the sky, Winter Solstice is a time to celebrate the beginning of a wonderful season in the canyons.



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