Summer Solstice and the Beginning of Summer

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PHOTO: MOTHER EARTH NEWS STAFF
In some parts of the country, June and July are the peak of lightning storms.

I try to speak as an advocate for each season. Perhaps as
you read this you’re wiping the sweat from your brow and
feeling enervated by yet another summer day of heat and
humidity. If so, cheer up June and July are months of roses
and berries, weddings and vacations, the living world at
the height of its life. According to author Guy Ottewell,
summer has a historic importance as well. Here’s what he
has to say in The Astronomical Companion
(Astronomical Workshop; 1986): “Summer seems to be
the oldest word [of the four names of the seasons in
English], traceable back to the proto-Indo-European, and
used not only for half the year but for a whole year, much
as day stands for the day-night cycle; and we
still understand such phrases as `Many summers ago ….’
The cycle is counted by its peaks, its recurrent flashes of
light.” Summer is the peak by which we count and remember
the year.

What is Summer Solstice?

What marks the beginning of summer? Some may believe it’s
the annual dragging out of the barbeque grill. Others may
feel it’s the first dip in the local lake. In the most
technical terms, however, the answer is “summer solstice.”
This is the time in Earth’s year-long orbit when the
northern half of our planet is most tilted towards the Sun.
Thus, even though Earth is a little farther from the Sun in
July than in January, that isn’t as important to us in the Northern
Hemisphere as the fact that we are more tilted towards the
Sun. Being more tilted means the Sun passes higher in our
sky, making days longer. Unfortunately it also means the
amount of solar radiation we receive is much greater.

St. John’s Wort and Summer

Summer solstice was once
considered the middle of summer and is the longest day of
the year (although weather systems lag and July does tend
to be hotter than June). Although the solstice now usually
falls on June 21, long ago Midsummer’s Day was celebrated
on June 24, which the Church held to be St. John’s Day, the
birthday of John the Baptist. June 23 was Midsummer’s Eve,
which was celebrated with great bonfires on hills in
England.

There is an interesting plant, or family of
plants, associated with John the Baptist and his day. They
are called St. John’s worts and are found throughout the
United States, most commonly in the eastern half of the
country. They range in height from approximately four
inches to six feet tall and display five-petaled yellow
flowers with a spray of stamens in the middle.

In much of
our country they really do start blooming around the summer
solstice. These hardy plants, which also grow in Asia and
Europe, were once considered effective in warding off
witches and other evils. In her book, Naming Nature
(Penguin Books; 1992), writer Mary Blocksma says that the
St. John’s worts of Michigan have a local reputation as a
cure-all, and some Native Americans dry the plants to use
as herbal remedies.

The flowers supposedly turn purple when
boiled, and the best way to distinguish them from other
five-petaled yellow flowers which bloom at that same time
is to look at their leaves-many St. John’s worts have tiny
transparent dots on their leaves.

Summer Weather
 

If you love loud thunderstorms and great streaks of
lightening, summer is the season for you. June and July are
famous for their spectacular and beautiful storms.
Unfortunately, with the thrill of a truly powerful storm
also comes plenty of potential danger; always seek the
indoors when a thunderstorm gets too near.

You can estimate
the distance of lightning by counting the number of seconds
between the time of its flash and the time you hear the
thunder it produces: Thunder, remember, is the sound of
lightning. The tremendous and sudden heat from lightening
causes the air to expand rapidly and produce a boom or
rumble. But light is enormously faster than sound. So if
lightning occurs five miles away, we see it virtually
instantly-but the thunder from it will take a number of
seconds to reach us.

The basic rule of thumb is
approximately five seconds for each mile (count:
one-thousand and one, one thousand and two, etc.). So if
you see lightning and then hear thunder from it 15 seconds
later, then the lightning distance equals 15 divided by
five, or three miles away which is near enough for you to
step back into the house. Thoreau once wrote of thunder,
“Now is Nature’s grandest voice heard.”

But from how far
away can this grandest voice be heard? The answer may
surprise you. Even at home in New Jersey, with a crowded
landscape and thunderstorms weaker than the monsters of the
Midwest, I have heard thunder from lightening over 20 miles
distant. But some years ago, I visited a meteorologist
friend who was working with a weather radar in North
Dakota. One July night we used the radar to help prove we
were hearing thunder from awesome lightening …it was 50
miles away!

Astronomical Events 

June and July 1993 bring a total lunar eclipse to some of
MOTHER’S readers. Those of us with telescopes and good star
charts (found in astronomy-oriented magazines and journals)
can find distant Uranus and Neptune at their best. And all
of us get a chance to see summer stars and a striking
pairing of Mars and a star. The lunar eclipse occurs on the
morning of June 4, 1993. Sadly, the Moon will set and day
will come before most of the country can view more than the
partial phases

Even on the
Pacific Coast, total eclipse begins just before moonset and
sunrise, with the Moon disappearing in bright twilight.

Only observers in Hawaii will be treated to the entire 96
minutes of totality, one of the longest lunar eclipses of
the century. But don’t feel left out-the whole country gets
a good look at the next total lunar eclipse, which will
take place this November.

A remarkable conjunction
(meeting) of Mars and the heart-star of Leo, Regulus, is
visible all over the world on June 21 and 22. Mars shines
almost exactly as bright as Regulus in the west for a few
hours after sunset. Jupiter, in the southwest after
nightfall, is much brighter, but you’ll need binoculars to
see a little star very close to it in early June. And you
really need a telescope and finder charts to locate Uranus
and Neptune at their distant best together all night. If
you are awake either tremendously early or very late-the
hour before dawn-you will see brilliant Venus rise in the
east. For lucky rural residents, there are several
constellations to look for.

Low in the south after
nightfall, golden-orange Antares flickers as the heart of
an impressive coiling curve of stars-Scorpius the Scorpion.
High in the south or southwest shines the very bright star
Arcturus. The Big Dipper is getting lower in the northwest.
And when you face east you’ll see the vast Summer triangle
of stars Vega (top), Altari (right), and Deneb (left).

The Living World

I mentioned above that the summer solstice is the official
start of summer in our calendar. But when it comes to
weather and the living world, I believe that summer starts
well before the solstice. Memorial Day, near the end of
May, is the cultural start of summer in this country (for
instance you can now officially wear white), and I think
this is closer to when the summer of weather and living
creatures begins.

For fairly sensitive nature watchers in
much of the United States, the change from spring to summer
is the most dramatic and rapid nature-wide change of the
year. You might think that changes in spring or autumn or
from winter to spring are more pronounced, but spring comes
in many fits and false starts, and both spring and autumn
are entire seasons of numerous transitions.

Summer erupts
over us in one transition-and then remains pretty much as
is. In the eastern United States this dramatic transition
to summer is probably keyed more than anything else to the
infamous Bermuda high. There will still be some cold air
masses that bring major respites from protracted spells of
hot, humid, hazy weather. But when the first Bermuda high
of late May or early June gets locked into place (an
earlier one won’t quite set off the widespread magical
change), the results are amazing: the sky looks different,
the air breathes different, cicadas burst from the ground,
and fireflies first light up. Insects and flowers, which
even the hottest spring days couldn’t bring forth, are now
visible everywhere.