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Saturday, December 24, 2011

Winter Solstice

When we were in Peru some years ago, we took the train from Cusco to Machu Picchu – the ‘lost’ city high in the Andes Mountains discovered just 100 years ago this year. The trip alone was truly memorable. The little train’s engine struggled to climb part way up the mountain, stopped and backed up an equally steep grade, stopped and went forward up further and in this way zigzagged its way up to the level that ran through a mountain valley. After a couple of hours of mountain scenery, we got off at a station below the towering cliffs jutting up on all sides of the amazing site. A waiting bus transported us through tortuous hairpin turns and took us up the rest of the way.

The video takes you to the breathtaking site. The most spectacular part of the tour for me was to the sacred flat rock with its hitching post where the Incans performed the ritual of lassoing the sun at the time of winter solstice. After days of prayers and incantations, they believed they made it stop disappearing into the horizon earlier and earlier each day and start it’s return toward longer days of spring and summer.

The axis around which the Earth spins, precesses [wobbles like a top] and for us in the northern hemisphere, it tips away from the sun to its full extent at winter solstice and then takes 4 or 5 days before it starts tipping back. On June 21, it is fully tipped toward the sun, the days are very long and our summer starts . At the South Pole, of course, December 21 is their longest day and thus the beginning of their summer.

I’ve always been surprised at the extent to which ancient civilizations studied the skies. Observatories from Samarkand in Uzbekistan to Uxmal on the Yucatan peninsula, to name two special ones I’ve visited that were very advanced. They were able to create calendars to predict the best planting and harvesting times and the dates of ritual ceremonies needed to be precisely known so they could be celebrated correctly.

Without the distractions of modern times and the accumulated knowledge so freely available, people had a special connection with the planet when surrounded with the grandeur of the moving skies full of stars that appeared, disappeared and moved predictably. It gave a sense of wonder that is missing now for many of us living in light polluted cities.

At this special time of year, in whatever way you may observe the holiday in our northern hemisphere, I hope you will rejoice in the knowledge that the days will start getting longer and as the Earth warms, anticipate the rebirth spring brings. Soon, out will come our seed catalogues. Rie