Saturday, December 18, 2010


            Raised the mailbox’s red flag yesterday on the last of the Christmas cards with their non-religious stamps. Waited in line this noon with a well-behaved throng of fellow procrastinators to post the parcels that absolutely, positively have to be there by next Friday. One anvil lifted from my shoulders and a second floated off my chest: duties discharged in a timely fashion for another year.
U.S. Naval Observatory logo

            Generally I relish the whole holiday potlatch, but not this year. Don’t know if it’s the view of the consumer economy from the cheap seats, the depressing business-as-usual going on inside the Beltway or the early cold snap; whatever, this year’s holiday preparations have been a trudge. Then news from the U.S. Naval Observatory cheered me up.

            Guess what, kids? December 21st will see major big doin’s this year. Not only does the sun mark its southernmost declination at the Tropic of Capricorn over the South Pacific island nation of Kiribati, the moon goes full nearly simultaneously with a total lunar eclipse. It rarely gets more astronomically exciting than this. Stonehenge’s neo-druids will be peeing their pants.

I know, I know. What, you’re wondering, does astronomy have to do with gardening?

A past lunar eclipse,
not Solstice related,
at Stonehenge
Well, I reply, there are several connections. Astronomy imposes order on the natural world, just like gardening. You have to be outside to practice hands-on astronomy, just like hands-on gardening. Both disciplines increase your awareness of and appreciation for the wider universe, of which the human race is so insignificant a part. Both make you humble. Both gladden your heart. And what if the astrologers are right, that what’s in the sky at any given time influences what happens terrestrially?

            Mostly, however, the convergence of these three celestial events is just so totally cool that I wanted to share it with you.

The phases of a lunar eclipse

            I came by the knowledge of this astronomical bonanza serendipitously. I’m a hardcore gardener, so I track weather. Have done for years. I take three or four wind-and-sky-cover observations a day, note minimum and maximum temperatures and rainfall amounts, all duly recorded in my weather journal (makes me feel close to Thomas Jefferson). In addition to ambient conditions, daylengths and moon cycles matter to me, as they should to all gardeners. This is where the Naval Observatory comes in. It has a website offering daily and yearly charts of sunrises and sets, and moonrises and sets, the correct atomic time, and so on. (Check it out at In addition, some lovely guy who lives in Northern Virginia contributes a regular column called “The Sky This Week.” I don’t know his name, but he’s one of my favorite cyber-chums. He’s the one who clued me in.
            The moon becomes officially full at 3:13 am EST on the 21st. The eclipse starts rolling a few hours before that, around 12:30 am, with the lunar surface completely covered by Earth's shadow between 2:40 and 3:17 am. During this time, the moon takes on coppery to dark red hue, depending on the opacity of Earth’s upper atmosphere. The USNO guy says the recent eruption of Indonesia’s Mt. Merapi will affect the murkiness Monday morning.

            Just so you know: I will not be awake to observe this exciting phenomenon first-hand, peering through the telescope I don’t own. The last time I was up past midnight on purpose (not including childbirth) was sometime in the 1980s. Supremely content with foreknowledge of its occurrence, I shall snore right through the actual event. 
Those wacky druids!

            Not so the neo-druids, those keepers of what they believe to be the ancient Celtic religious philosophy of the soul's immortality through reincarnation and health and fertility through mistletoe. Stonehenge on Salisbury plain is probably already chock-a-block with the faithful, all prepared to spend a frigid night honoring Luna. They’ll have time to thaw out and grab a nap before reconvening at the standing stones to usher in the beginning of astronomical winter, the venerated solstice.

            Here on the East Coast, at precisely 6:38 pm on the 21st, the sun reaches the point where it’s as far away from us as it gets during Earth’s annual orbit. Allegedly, this marks the longest night of the Northern Hemisphere’s year. In actuality, at least on Oak Island, the “longest night” repeats from December 17 to December 31. Yep, that’s more than two weeks of exactly 14 hours and six minutes between sunset and sunrise. We don’t notice it much because the sun continues to straggle up later—in fact, the length of days during the first two months of the year doesn’t seem to budge at all, which caused me to slide into a Seasonal Affective Disorder depression each and every February of the 20 years I lived in upstate New York. The good news is, sunsets get later too. It’s a tremendous psychological boost to me to know that, beginning on January 1, we pick up a minute or two of daylight each 24 hours. Can spring then be far behind? 

Those wacky Kiriatians!
            While we shiver and winge, I wonder what the inhabitants of Kiribati think about as they enjoy their couple of weeks of sun-dappled longest days. Since they inhabit one of the archipelagos that Al Gore predicts the Pacific will completely inundate at about the same time the last Himalayan glacier melts in 2035, maybe they have other, weightier matters on their minds. Then Tim showed me this picture of approximately 50 Kiribatians enjoying a tractor ride, so maybe not. Perhaps they’re more grounded in and grateful for the present than Americans tend to be.

            ’Tis also the season for eagerly awaiting 2011’s seed catalogs to arrive in the mail, with their promises of next summer’s colorful and delicious bounty. I’m thinking of adding more fruit and berry bushes and trees to the yard come warm weather. In my quest to eat primarily local produce in season, I’ve found I miss fruit more than salad fixin’s during winter. (I’ve progressed to where I feel really guilty, even a little criminal, about buying bananas, ever.) The peaches, strawberries, blackberries and blueberries I froze as they came in last season are nearly all gone, and it’s months and months until the next harvest.

            Maybe the pictures in the catalogs will help.

            Ah, gardening—and astronomy—is like raising kids. The days—and nights—are sometimes very, very long, but the years just flash past.

            Thanks for dropping by. I’m taking a little blog-break until after Christmas, so I’ll see y’all a day or so after Boxing Day. Have a peaceful and pleasant holiday, regardless of the one (or none) you celebrate.


            P.S.—Big kisses and hugs to Tim for pulling all the pictures for this post off of Google, and apologies in advance for any copyright infringement unintentionally committed.

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