Telling the sun's story

Posted: Tuesday, January 12, 2010

"I think of all my adventures

My fears

Those small onesthat seemed so big

For all the vital things

I had to get and to reach

And yet there is onlyone great thing

The only thing

To live to see thegreat day that dawns

And the lightthat fills the world."

- Old Inuit Song

The days are getting longer. Yes, this is old news. The winter solstice occurred on Dec. 21, and the next morning a radio newscast announced that the day was going to be six seconds longer then the day before it. But is measuring the length of daylight down to seconds a story worth telling? Indeed, is it a story at all?

The original meaning of the word solstice dates back to the 13th century. It was when the sun seemed to stand still, as witnessed by where on the horizon it would rise or set in the same place for several days or more, not by measuring the length of the day.

The solstice was an important observance for all ancient cultures of the north. For example, the primary axis of Stonehenge was aligned to mark the location where the sun seemed to stop migrating south. It wasn't a trivial matter of seconds because survival in winter depended on how much food had been stored and remained.

The concept of time split into seconds, even minutes, would have served no purpose at any time of their year. In fact, the notion of seconds didn't even become a fixture in the human mind until the advent of the mechanical clock in the 16th century. The question is - what has it gained us?

As civilization marches forward, we tend to devalue the meaning of evidence related to our sensory perceptions. Reliance on statistical facts such as those compiled by the astronomical clock can dampen our appreciation for Earth's natural phenomena.

Science is obsessed with acute measurements which aren't necessary to tell us what's happening in our world. Consider the question of global warming. Which evidence is more revealing - the melting of the polar icecap and retreat of our glaciers or the scientific instrumentation that supposedly determines the entire earth's average temperature over the course of a year?

Similarly, predicting our daily high and low tides to the nearest minute and inch doesn't add to our experiences. We wouldn't even be interested in those measurements if we never observed wider shores or exposed reefs.

In Juneau, the sunrise and sunset are completely detached from the time we're told they occur. When we do get to witness them, the time depends on where we are relative to the surrounding mountains. Nor does it matter what time the sun becomes an orange ball shining down Gastineau Channel. The stories we tell begin with its stunning beauty.

We experience life through our senses and emotions, not from mental constructs that become predictable facts. Our most cherished memories are cued by experiences, not by dates. It's as if we define the length of our days by how interesting and unique they were rather than lumping them into equal 24 hour squares on a calendar. And stories are essential to remove the sterility of the data and numbers we record.

In the midst of the so-called atomic age, American poet Muriel Rukeyser resisted the scientific notion of progress by suggesting "the universe is made up of stories, not of atoms." In the digital age which we live, we could add that the universe has little interest in the tiny bits of time we call minutes and seconds, or any other data compiled in an attempt to measure the meaning of life.

The actual moment of the scientific solstice is irrelevant to our life story. It may be true that the polar solstice ended weeks of darkness, but the Inuit understood the relationship of their world with the true meaning of light rising above the horizon. Every day that dawns is pregnant with the possibility of pleasure which gives meaning to our lives. Science may be able to measure the passage of time precisely, but it will never unlock the mysteries of love and the longing to survive.

• Rich Moniak lives in Juneau.

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