Jun 202016
 

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The June solstice is the Summer Solstice in the Northern Hemisphere and the Winter Solstice  in the Southern Hemisphere. The date varies between June 20 and June 22, depending on the year, and which time zone you are in. The June Solstice this year (2016) in Universal Coordinated Time (UTC – formerly GMT) is on Monday, 20 June 2016 at 22:34 UTC, which is Monday, 20 June 2016, 23:34 BST in London, but on Tuesday, 21 June 2016 at 06:34 CST in Los Angeles. So when is it? The thing is that the exact time of the solstice is determined by the moment when the sun’s zenith is at its furthest point from the equator. On the June solstice, the sun reaches its northernmost point and the Earth’s North Pole tilts directly towards the sun, at about 23.4 degrees. It is also known as the northern solstice because it occurs when the sun is directly over the Tropic of Cancer in the Northern Hemisphere.

This means that, strictly speaking, the solstice is not really a day, but a moment in time. The day on which that moment in time occurs, however, is generally referred to as the solstice, and significant events take place on that day. Ancient cultures went to great lengths to calculate when solstices were to happen, especially the winter solstice. With days getting colder and nights getting longer, it’s comforting to know that things are going to turn around, and Spring is on its way. It’s a ridiculous modern chronocentrism (http://www.passionintellectpersistence.com/chronocentrism/ ) to believe that we are oh-so-smart and know better, but primitive peoples in the distant past thought that the sun was dying every winter and that they had to light big bonfires and perform superstitious magic to bring it back. Hogwash. People really aren’t that stupid. When the same thing happens year after year, you kinda get the idea. The numerous monuments all over the world, aligned to solstices, make it clear that ancient peoples knew what they were doing and were skilled observers.

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Calculating an extremely precise moment for solstices (and equinoxes) is a function of modern astrophysics. I suspect that I am like most people who don’t really care when the exact point is, as long as I know roughly. When I lived in Buenos Aires my apartment had a great view of the setting sun, and because the sunsets were amazing, and different, every day, I got in the habit of photographing the sun every evening as it set. When you’ve done this for a year (and I did it for three – because I’m just a tad driven), you notice how days and nights lengthen and shorten, and how the position of the sun on the horizon shifts over the course of the year.

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Naturally, around the solstices you are aware that the sun’s apparent movement along the horizon is changing direction. It’s not a blink-of-the-eye moment; it takes several days to notice. But it’s evident over time. It’s good if you have a specialist to tell you exactly when the change occurs, otherwise you end up saying “Oh, the sun is heading back in the other direction – damn, I missed the turning point !” It’s much better to be able to have a party right when the change is happening. Here’s a decent video explaining solstices and other stuff if you are interested. There’s a lot more here than just explaining the seasons https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=82p-DYgGFjI

When it comes to dating my blog posts I have several challenges. When does the June solstice occur this year, for example? In Italy, where I am now, it is today (20 June), but in California it is tomorrow by their reckoning. Sorry Californians – I’m going with where I am now. I liken this to figuring out when my birthday is (and when other people’s birthdays are). I was born at 9 pm on 30 March in Argentina. Obviously I don’t celebrate at exactly 9 pm Buenos Aires time; that’s going a bit far, even for me. If I were to, though, I’d have to figure out when it is 9 pm in Buenos Aires according to my current time zone. I am not that nuts. I celebrate my birthday from midnight to midnight where I am (and I try to wish people a happy birthday when it is the day of their birthday where they are). With blog posting, things are not quite so simple.

My server is set to UTC, so it changes from one day to the next at midnight UTC.  Here in Italy that is not a big problem because my local time (which is summer time) is only 2 hours ahead of UTC, so what I think the date and time are locally, is not so different from what my server thinks it is (not that my server does a lot of thinking).  When I was in Argentina and China it was a whole different story. What date my server thinks it is makes a difference to me because my posts are date stamped. If I want to say “today is . . . blah blah,” I have to synchronize with my server so that the date stamp is correct. That meant that when I was in Argentina I had to get the day’s post finished and up before 8 pm or it was stamped on the wrong date, and in Kunming, I could dither around until 7 am and still get a post up for the day before. I’ll be in real trouble if I ever move to Alaska. Fortunately that’s unlikely to happen in this lifetime.

I crossed the International Date Line by ship from west to east in 1965 on the way from Australia to England. That was a trifle surreal. You’re sitting down to dinner on Wednesday night, go to bed, and then next morning it’s Wednesday again. Time zones, the Date Line, Summer Time, etc. are all human artifacts that are important in the global age, but they can mess you up. I tend to be happiest when I can organize my life by the sun, and not by clocks. My body tells me what I need to know. I can’t remember the last time I woke to an alarm clock. If I have something urgent to do, such as catching a plane, I’ll set an alarm to be sure. But I always wake before it goes off. When light fades I go to bed, and when dawn breaks I am up.

Solstices are of marginal interest to me. They do mark the passage of the seasons, and that’s important, but I don’t do much to celebrate them. I get the feeling that a lot of “sun worshippers” at Stonehenge and the like, are ordinary folks trying to invest their humdrum mechanized, modern lives with some kind of meaning beyond clock watching and the daily grind.  More power to them. If you want an excuse for a party, go for it, but don’t expect me to be there. I answer to my own rhythms these days, and they don’t generally involve hanging out with other people.

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As it happens, Queen Victoria succeeded to the British crown on this date in 1837. William IV died at the age of 71 in the early hours of the morning. Victoria wrote in her diary, “I was awoke at 6 o’clock by Mamma, who told me the Archbishop of Canterbury and Lord Conyngham were here and wished to see me. I got out of bed and went into my sitting-room (only in my dressing gown) and alone, and saw them. Lord Conyngham then acquainted me that my poor Uncle, the King, was no more, and had expired at 12 minutes past 2 this morning, and consequently that I am Queen.” Official documents prepared on the first day of her reign described her as Alexandrina Victoria, but the first name was withdrawn at her own wish and not used again. She had just turned 18, which meant that a regency could be avoided, but was young and inexperienced in government and had to grow into the role. This she did over her 63 year reign, the longest in British history until Elizabeth II surpassed her in 2015.

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My mum always made apple Charlotte on Sundays to replace the usual apple crumble for the winter months. It’s a good treat for this time of year. If you make it with wild berries or a mix of berries and apples, which I usually do, it’s called Summer Pudding. Either will do for a celebration today. Here is Mrs Beeton first to combine solstice festivities with the Victorian:

A VERY SIMPLE APPLE CHARLOTTE.

  1. INGREDIENTS.—9 slices of bread and butter, about 6 good-sized apples, 1 tablespoonful of minced lemon-peel, 2 tablespoonfuls of juice, moist sugar to taste.

Mode.—Butter a pie-dish; place a layer of bread and butter, without the crust, at the bottom; then a layer of apples, pared, cored, and cut into thin slices; sprinkle over these a portion of the lemon-peel and juice, and sweeten with moist sugar. Place another layer of bread and butter, and then one of apples, proceeding in this manner until the dish is full; then cover it up with the peel of the apples, to preserve the top from browning or burning; bake in a brisk oven for rather more than 3/4 hour; turn the charlotte on a dish, sprinkle sifted sugar over, and serve.

Time.—3/4 hour. Average cost, 9d.

Sufficient for 5 or 6 persons.

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This is not quite the way my mum did it, nor I. I completely line a buttered pudding basin with bread, fill it with apple slices (or berries), top with a lid of bread, then bake in a 300°F oven for 45 minutes. I used to add sugar to the apples, but I don’t any more because I don’t have much of a sweet tooth, and I try to minimize sugar intake. Use white sugar if you do.