Thursday, 23 June 2011

The unruly sun

'BUSY old fool, unruly Sun,
Why dost thou thus,
Through windows, and through curtains, call on us?
Must to thy motions lovers' seasons run?'

From The Sun Rising  John Donne

Today is Midsummer's Eve and for days the local newspapers have carried advertisements from country hotels inviting us to bonfire parties in their gardens. In true Scottish tradition the thunderclouds have been brooding all day but no doubt the venues are well prepared with marquees from which spectators can enjoy their rib roast and solstice-themed cocktails while staying dry.'Experience all the excitement of a real Celtic fire festival!' one advertisement enticed. I suppose in these challenging times they can't be blamed for trying but it was tempting to let them know that Midsummer bonfires have little to do with the Celts. While undoubtedly pagan, the parts of Britain with the strongest traditions of bonfires in June are Norse or Anglian, not Celtic.

So Midsummer is upon us, that curious time after the solstice when the sun, at the extreme limit of its station, appears to hover unmoving and undecided in the sky, rising and setting at almost the same time each day. It is, after all, what the word solstice means, from the Latin solstitium, or 'sun-halting'. Like its counterpart at the other end of the year, 24 June has been conveniently commandeered by the Christian calendar as the Feast of John the Baptist who, the Gospel of St Luke tells us, was born six months before Christ and 'jumped in the womb' on learning of the Virgin's conception.

At school we learned that the summer solstice occurs each 21 June and like much else we learned at school, while generally true it is not universally so. In fact the solstice may fall on 20 June (as it last did in 2008) and may be as late as 22 June (although this last occurred in 1971 and won't happen again in any of our lifetimes). This year, in Britain, it fell a little after 6.16pm on the date my school approved of, although those of us living in the northern half of the country could be forgiven for not noticing as it poured with rain and barely seemed to get light all day.

The mathematics behind the precise calculation of the solstice is complex, so perhaps my school should be excused for wanting to keep things simple. But I can't help thinking the lack of punctuality exhibited by something as big as the sun would have been a cause for some consternation among my teachers. It was hardly setting the right example!

With the mixed blessing of hindsight, it seems now that much of my schooling was a sequence of learning and unlearning in this way. We were taught absolute truths only to have them dismantled a term or two later once we were deemed ready for subtler lessons. Thus we learned that electrons orbit around the nucleus of an atom in distinct 'shells', so many electrons to each. Our calculations of valency and compound formation relied on this certainty. Well, no actually, it's not like that at all.

It wasn't so bad a preparation really. The rest of my life, too, has involved as much unlearning as learning. But the trouble with unlearning is that it is often painful, reluctant and incomplete. We don't like to let go of what we thought we knew. We don't want to hear that Shakespeare didn't write every word of his own plays or that Columbus didn't discover America, or that water doesn't go down the plughole the opposite way in the southern hemisphere any more than we don't want to hear that our friends will sometimes let us down or our government doesn't have our best interests at heart.

Anyway, I digress. To get back to the solstice, the problem (if indeed that's how we choose to see it) of the unreliable timing isn't anything to do with the sun. The Earth wobbles on its axis like a spinning top, its orbit is disturbed by the gravity of other planets and, above all, our calendar is just not clever enough. An average orbital year is 365.242199 days. Our Gregorian calendar gets as close as it can. Its sophisticated cycle of leap (intercalary) days in years divisible by four, but not if they are divisible by 100 unless they are also divisible by 400 (still with me?) is a big improvement on its Julian predecessor. But it still means we'll be about a day awry every 3,300 years. Further refinements have been proposed but never adopted, perhaps because a further consideration then comes into play, the spinning of our Earth is slowing down so days are set to get longer!

But that's quite enough arithmetic. Celtic or Norse, Julian or Gregorian, our forebears knew better than to reduce the solar calendar to mere numbers and fractions and we should follow their instincts. Sunsets and sunrises remain high on may people's lists of their most memorable experiences, eclipses and other solar special effects even more so for those lucky enough to see them. We may no longer be attuned to the stations of the sun quite as we once were but there's no questioning the power of our own private star to stir wonder and awe in us.  I'm sure gatherers at damp hotel bonfires will have a good time this evening whether the skies are clear or not, but I wish them at least a glimpse of the star of the show.


  1. A wonderful article Anhrefn. Midsummer Eve's celebrations of my childhood. When I was small my Grandmother told me about a magic night when green ferns flower at midnight. On that night, if you went to the forest, you might be lucky to find this single flower, which blooms only once in a thousand years. Once found, it must be given to the one you love.. I wanted to find it and gift it to my Grandmother but was not allowed to stay up late for many years to come.. Thank you for bringing back very special memories... Let's hope the sun makes an appearance before it sets. Have a happy Midsummer Eve :-)

  2. Our latitude here saw the agrarian fire festivals become more important and the solar festivals less so as we became farmers. At least I think so. Because of the tilt of the earth spring generally springs a few weeks after the equinox and full summer a few weeks after midsummer, and so on. The Celtic year pivots around Beltane, Lammas, Samhain and Yule, which were all overlaid by Christian festivals and their roots forgotten for a long time. So we learn, unlearn and learn again I guess. Do we ever really know anything? It took me a long time to get over the fact that just about everything my parents taught me was wrong! as well as my school. :-)

  3. That's very interesting, and as well as being overlaid by Christian festivals three of them (Beltane or May Day, Lammas and Samhain or All Hallows) have also become tied into the legal year as cross-quarter days, the fourth being Imbolc on 1 February which pretty much coincides with the Christian festival of Candlemas.

    On the subject of unlearning, the one I am struggling to come to terms with at the moment is that Pluto is no longer considered the ninth planet. The lovely mnemonic I learned about most volcanoes erupting mulberry jam sandwiches under normal pressure has become obsolete!

  4. Once upon a time I knew an academically gifted man who told me that once beyond Doctorate, he started to unlearn. Until then, he played an academic 'game' of repositioning and regurgitating knowledge of those assessing him. We all have a lot to unlearn and some of it is not even wrong. Just different .. Here is to more learning and unlearning :-))

  5. On your mnemonic, we also have to unlearn 'Richard of York Gave Battle in Vain' and leave the preposition hanging without resolution. Which is irritating. (And I only relatively recently learnt that this Richard was not Richard III but his father, and it was at Wakefield that the battle occurred - which is where I am currently typing.)

  6. Ah yes, Sandal Castle. I remember stopping off there on a journey south once. And I also remember stumbling across the tomb of Richard III's son, Edward of Middleham, in the parish church at Sheriff Hutton quite by accident. How is the new Barbara Hepworth gallery doing? It's on my list for a visit.