Sunday, 29 May 2016

Watching the northerly march of the sun as we head towards the longest days of the year

I realise that I haven't written a blog post in a while. It's not that I haven't been doing anything. Quite the opposite. One of the things that's been keeping me busy is photography. Among many other things, I've been tracking the northerly progress of the sunsets over the past month or so as we march inevitably towards summer solstice and the longest days of the year. It's just over three weeks away now, and as much as I love this time of year, personally watching the sunsets is always tinged with sadness for me. And in this blog post, I will attempt to explain why.

The sadness finds its source in a number of places. I think that its difficult to live at any latitude so removed from the equator that the difference in the length of day from midwinter to midsummer is enormous. It's not so difficult to live in Ireland in summer, when the days are long and there is a great spurt of life and growth evident all around. Winter is a very different story. The days are short, and are often shortened further by a darkness that is creeping and all-encompassing. Immersed in this darkness, all you can do is accept it, and perhaps embrace it, and wait for the days to lengthen.

A recent sunset over the Boyne from Millmount.
Summer then arrives rather abruptly. In late March, the clocks go forward by an hour. Where previously the sun was setting around 6pm, now it sets at 7, and it doesn't get dark until nearly 8. Because it's the time of equinox, the sun's rising and setting positions on the eastern and western horizons are moving at their greatest speed. The days are getting longer rapidly from Imbolc (the ancient Celtic spring festival of early February), through spring equinox, and on towards Bealtaine (early May). Before Daylight Saving Time kicks in, you are probably driving to and from work in the dark, and find that the only daylight activities you can partake in (apart from whatever work you do) are at weekends, when you try to "cram it all in".

From late March onward, you can start to enjoy the "stretch in the evenings", as it is commonly referred to here in Ireland. And very quickly, within a month, you've gone from driving home in the dark to enjoying brightness until well after 9pm.

Tonight, (May 29th, 2016) I watched and photographed the sun as it went down beneath the horizon from Millmount, a mound said to have been built by the Normans in the 12th century, but which local folklore says is an ancient burial mound. The sun finally disappeared beneath the horizon at 9.33pm. As I write, it's 10.29pm and it's still not dark.

Now don't get me wrong. I love this time of year. And I love the long evenings. I enjoy the extra light. It invigorates my spirit. There is something about the lingering of the light that I have always connected with hope, and vitality. I suppose there's probably nothing unusual about that.

However, part of the sadness that I feel, even at this time of year, stems from the realisation that inevitably the sun will reach a certain maximum setting azimuth and, after halting there for a few days, will begin to start heading south again. No sooner do the glorious days of summer arrive and suddenly the pendulum swings against us. From Millmount, the sun at midsummer appears to set over Hill of Rath, in the direction of another hill at Collon known as the Black Hill. I wonder if this name is one of many place names in Ireland that might possibly be explained through such astronomical alignments. Is it called the Black Hill because it marks the place from which the sun turns back, towards the shorter days and darker evenings?

Today was a particularly glorious day in the Boyne Valley. It was warm and sunny and the whole valley is alive with the business of summer. People were out in droves, walking, playing, relaxing. It was one of those days when you might say to yourself, "if it was like this all the time you'd never want to leave."

But some of us are so married to the place - despite the sometimes endless rain, and the short cold days of winter - that we never leave it anyway.

The swifts and swallows and house martins, having recently arrived back from their faraway wintering grounds in Africa, perhaps conversely remind us of our own rooting to place, our connection to home, something that, until the invention of powered flight, was largely intrinsic to our lives as humans. We might have ventured across the globe as a species, but locally, once we find home, we tend to stay there. And sometimes, bound to that spot on the earth by our sense of belonging, and perhaps reinforced by our sense of community, we might wish that, like the swallow, we could just alight into the great air and fly off somewhere else for the winter, leaving the harsh chill behind.

One of the other things that makes me sad, even on these lovely long evenings of summer, is the fact that the relentless movement of the sun, and the consequent brightening and darkening of the days, is an eternal reminder of the fleeting and changing nature of our own lives. There, reflected in the everyday movements of that golden ball upon which we depend for so much, we see in vivid reality the corruptible nature of our own carnal selves. Just as the day rises tentatively in the east, and the noon comes brightly to strengthen the day, the evening arrives all too swiftly and the day is spent. All this is extended and magnified in the great drama of the seasons, and all too quickly the autumn arrives, with its fallen leaves and drooping spirits ushering in the harsh winter.
The setting sun in early May viewed from Millmount.

So even as we watch the sun dropping down onto the far green-grey hills in the warm evening, we contemplate the relentless march of time, and of season, and how the winters and summers rise and fall with alarming haste. And we think back, perhaps, to the metaphorical dark and bright seasons in our own lives - times when we might have enjoyed a fulsome vitality, or times when maybe there was darkness or a lack of light. We might think of people - friends, relatives or acquaintances - upon whose lives the sun set all too soon.

All of which gives us good reason to enjoy, as much as possible, while we have the time, and while we might be able to, the glorious coming of the long evenings of summer.

And perhaps, as we watch that sinking red orb strike the horizon, we might remember also the ancient ancestors who possibly stood at the same spot and watched that same sun disappear into the earth.

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