Welcome, summer

Jun. 20, 2013 @ 06:53 PM

Were we ancient Egyptians or Druids, today would be a really big day.

As it is, it’s a long day – the longest period of sunlight of the year.

We tend to get our seasons somewhat confused, since the start of “summer vacation” may be marked in your mind by the end of school, or perhaps Memorial Day weekend. It may mentally begin on that first beach-trip weekend, or that first trip to the city pool or your kids’ romp through a backyard sprinkler.

But for the record, today is the official beginning of summer, known officially as the summer solstice.

We’ll note it in passing today – television meteorologists will mention it, as will the occasional newspaper editorial writer – or we may tell a friend or co-worker that summer’s finally here.

But 5,000 years or so ago, the ancient Druids who built Stonehenge in England had the summer and winter solstices much in mind. “Observers in the center of the standing stones can still watch the summer solstice sunrise over the Heel Stone, which stands just outside the main ring of Stonehenge,” wrote Ker Than in Thursday’s “National Geographic Daily News” online.

And the ancient Egyptians, Than pointed out, “built the Great Pyramids so that the sun, when viewed from the Sphinx, sets precisely between two of the pyramids on the summer solstice.”

Granted, there’s nowhere around here to absorb that sort of impact on today’s solstice. But at noon today, you might pause for a moment to note that the sun “appears at its highest point in the sky – its most directly overhead position – in the Northern Hemisphere,” as National Geographic put it.

Those details aside, most people are simply enjoying the fact that for the weeks surrounding the summer solstice, we can engage in outdoor activities in the daylight well into the evening – or for the early risers, quite early in the morning. Those 6 a.m. walks or jogs that seem so forbidding in December take on a much different feel when dawn is breaking.

Our North Carolina Piedmont is actually coming off a relatively cooler than normal spring, with only a couple of 90-degree-plus days in the books so far. Anyone who has lived through more than a summer or two in this region, though, knows that’s only been a tease.

If the thought of impending strings of 90-plus days with stifling humidity gets you down, perhaps you should take a leaf from the ancients and use today as a learning moment – or a celebratory one.

Consider what Jarita Holbrook, a cultural astronomer at the University of Arizona, told National Geographic’s Than:

“Paying attention to the solstices is a way of teaching mathematics, celestial mechanics, and astronomy, culture and history.

“It’s also a pretty good party.”