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When I stumbled half-asleep into my bathroom this morning a little past 7 a.m., the Sun was just rising over the mountain ridge due East. It didn’t signal the Spring (Vernal) Equinox for 2018, but I did sleepily think about people gathered at Stonehenge to mark an ancient ceremony.

I still have time to celebrate that equinox moment because for the Northern Hemisphere it occurs at 12:15 PM ET today. It is not like an eclipse. There is nothing to see or feel. And my Paradelle neighbors are sure to point out that there is still a lot of snow on the ground and more predicted for this first day of spring.

The vernal equinox can happen on March 19, 20, or 21. It means spring in the Northern Hemisphere, and autumn in the Southern Hemisphere. This astronomical spring begins today and will end in June. The illumination of Earth by the Sun is equal. The tilt of the Earth’s axis is now inclined neither away from nor towards the Sun. More equality. The Sun is vertically above a point on the Equator.

Our ancient ancestors knew something was happening today. Eventually, they built devices and even places like Stonehenge to measure and mark changes in the Sun’s movements.

Many of them thought the Sun was moving closer to Earth, and so the Earth would become warmer. At least that is what those in the Northern Hemisphere observed.

They were wrong,but they were correct in marking that today was midway between the sun’s lowest path across the sky in winter and highest path across the sky in summer.

My own Stonehenge – and the way I taught my young sons –  is using the windows of my home. I now know where the Sun rises in the back of my home, and where it sets in the western windows. With my sons, we one year marked those places month by month and watched the Sun move North and then South in winter from one window in the corner of the family room to the patio doors.

Today the Sun rose in the true East, and this evening it will set true West.  Take note.

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I just felt autumn as the equinox just clicked over in the Northern Hemisphere at 4:02 PM. I queued this post for that time in advance so that I could stand outside and feel it.  Okay, it’s not true that you can feel or even see anything happen at that moment.  But…

The Autumnal equinox of September happens and the astronomical start of fall in the Northern Hemisphere (and spring in the Southern Hemisphere) for a brief time is “equal night” – a day of about the same length as the night.

For real, the Sun crosses the “celestial equator.” This is an imaginary line that marks the equator on Earth extending up into the sky from north to south.

It may not happen tonight or even the next few weeks, but the days and nights are somewhat cooler in Paradelle. The days are definitely getting shorter, though that is hard to observe on any daily basis. I already had to change the setting on the timer that turns on some lights in my house.

When I say that I felt autumn, it is because as I stood outside at that moment of equinox I saw the changes in the plants around me. My vegetable garden’s leaves are turning yellow. I will start pinching out some of the tomato plant’s flowers in order to send all the energy to the remaining fruits. Some of those will never turn red and I will pick them half-ripened to falsely turn red in the house. I’ll grab some green ones before the first frost (not due around here for about another month – but no one knows for sure) and make fried green tomatoes and pickle some of them.

The squirrels have increased their activity. The chipmunks seem even more frantic than usual.

The maple leaves are changing.

In the morning when I take my coffee outside to drink, I see a few insects clinging to the screens or window glass trying to grab some house heat overnight. I find a few insects in flowers that didn’t survive the night.

In Ancient Greek mythology, the equinox is associated with the story of the abduction of Persephone. She was taken from her mother, the harvest goddess Demeter, to the underworld to become the wife of Hades, the god-king of the underworld. Demeter eventually got her daughter back from Hades, but only for nine months of the year. So, every fall Persephone would return to the underworld to spend three months with Hades. During these months, Demeter refused to use her divine skills to make plants grow, explaining why we have three months of winter every year.

Mabon is a modern Neopagan celebration which takes place around the September equinox. It is one of the six Sabbats based on the cycles of the sun. The ceremonies are based on the myth of Persephone, and it celebrates the second harvest and the start of winter preparations.

Gather at Stonehenge or Castlerigg and watch the sunrise. Respect the impending darkness; give thanks to the sunlight.

ManhattanhengeManhattanhenge is the name given to an event that occurs when the setting sun aligns with the east–west streets of the main street grid in the borough of Manhattan in New York City.

The term Manhattanhenge is a neologism from Stonehenge where the sun aligning with the ancient stones on the solstices is an famous event. The Manhattanhenge term was popularized in 2002 by Neil deGrasse Tyson, an astrophysicist at the American Museum of Natural History.

Today is the last time in 2017 that the alignment will occur. The New York event occurs twice a year.

The event applies to those streets that follow a plan from 1811 which laid out the streets in a grid offset 29.0 degrees from true east–west. During Manhattanhenge, an observer on one of the gridded east-west streets will see the sun setting over New Jersey directly along the centerline of that street.

The dates of Manhattanhenge usually occur around May 28 and July 12 being spaced evenly around the summer solstice.

On two corresponding mornings, the sun rises on the center lines of the grid on (approximately) December 5 and January 8, spaced evenly around the winter solstice. As with the solstices and equinoxes, the dates vary somewhat from year to year.

This phenomenon occurs in other cities with a uniform street grid. For North Americans who want to be Druids for a day, Baltimore, Chicago and Toronto also have their -henge days.

The events would only coincide with the vernal and autumnal equinox only if the grid plan were laid out precisely north-south and east-west, and perfectly aligned with true north as opposed to magnetic north. Someone should plan a new city for that to happen.

 

autumnleaf-pixa

Another equinox is upon us, one of two times each year when the Sun crosses the equator and it appears, if only for a moment, that day and night are of equal length. For me, that autumn equinox moment just happened at 10:21 AM EDT (September 22).

You can be scientific and astronomical about the equinoxes, as I have usually been in writing past posts, but autumn is my favorite season and that has little to do with celestial events.

My October birthday (the 20th) always feels very autumnal. I have always thought that people may be more comfortable in the season and climate they were born into.

This is the first September since I was 4 years old that it doesn’t feel like a “new year” starting this month because for the all the years after that I was either a student or teacher. The new school year starting was much more of an event that the January hoopla of the calendar new year.

People in earlier times certainly paid more attention to the equinox than we do today. They knew this was a significant and regular event. Temples and structures, most famously Stonehenge, followed the Sun and Moon and it was associated with the changing seasons. They may not have marked the four seasons in the same way that we do, but they noted the two equinoxes.

For their lives, the fact that the nights began to be longer than the days was more significant than the later electric age. They eventually calculated that the next turning point would be the Winter Solstice in December when days would start to get longer again.

Today, we don’t have much ceremony associated with the equinox. Summer ended for most Americans with Labor Day. School started again. Plants and gardens have started to die back for many of us. Halloween and even Christmas items and advertisements started appearing already. We are terribly out of sync with the celestial clockwork.

As an autumn baby, this cooler weather, blazes of foliage, fireplaces and sweaters all feel very comfortable. Of course, I will miss summer when things turn cold in winter (my least favorite season), but for now I am quite happy with the seasonal climate.

The interaction of Earth and Moon ignores our human attempts to mark the seasons by fixed calendar dates. The Sun seems to move southward (of course, its Earth moving) so that it is cooler here in the Northern Hemisphere and warmer in the Southern Hemisphere.

The equinoxes mark spring and autumn, but when the Sun is at its farthest north or south and the length of time between sunrise and sunset is the shortest of the year, we have the solstices of summer and winter. The two equinoxes mark the equal points in between.

This day of balance is always a reminder to me of things I need to do in this season to prepare for the coming winter. There are always summer projects I didn’t complete that I rush to finish. As the weather cools even more, I need to bring in plants, clean up the garden, take in garden hoses and winterize the lawn mowers as I get the snowblower ready.

But for now, all things being equal, I will just enjoy my cup of tea and look at the early autumn blooms on the chrysanthemums and other plants, and watch the birds and squirrels do their equinox dance.

zodiac light

Sunset, Milky Way and the zodiacal light above the platform of the Very Large Telescope (VLT) on Cerro Paranal.

It is September and it feels like the end of summer in that school is back in session. For almost all of my life, the beginning of the school year as a student or as a teacher meant it was the “fall semester” even if the temperature and nature still looked like summer.

Of course, it is still summer and will be officially until the 2016 autumnal equinox on September 22.

This is the best time to observe the odd “zodiacal light” (AKA the false dawn). For the next two weeks, the Moon is not visible in the morning sky.

Unfortunately, where I live in Paradelle (northern U.S.) and in Canada, it’s not as visible. Right time, wrong place.  Best viewing is in latitudes closer to the equator, as in the southern U.S., which is where I saw it only once.

In a rural area with less light pollution and open spaces, you might see what looks like the lights of a city on the horizon or it might seem that dawn is arriving an hour or two early.

What is zodiacal light? It has been poetically described as looking edgewise into our solar system. At this time of the year, the ecliptic (path of the sun, moon and planets) is nearly straight up with respect to the eastern horizon before dawn. The sunlight is reflecting off space dust particles that move in the same plane as Earth and the other planets orbiting our sun in the zodiacal cloud. After sunset in spring, and just before sunrise in autumn, the zodiac is at this steep angle to the horizon. This light is quite faint and moonlight or light pollution makes it vanish.

Sliding our perspective to the Southern Hemisphere, it’s approaching spring equinox and this strange light will appear in the west, about an hour after the sun goes down, as it will in Paradelle next spring.

Bas-relief in Persepolis – a symbol Iranian/Persian Nowruz – on the day of an equinox, the power of an eternally fighting bull (personifying the Earth) and that of a lion (personifying the Sun) are equal.

Bas-relief in Persepolis showing that on the day of an equinox, the power of an eternally fighting bull (personifying the Earth) and that of a lion (personifying the Sun) are equal.

The 2016 astronomical spring for the Northern Hemisphere begins on Sunday, March 20. It will end on another Sunday in June.

This equal illumination of Earth by the Sun is the equinox,this time vernal and later this year autumnal.

You won’t fall over, but the tilt of the Earth’s axis is now inclined neither away from nor towards the Sun. The Sun is vertically above a point on the Equator.

Those ancients, who were better about paying attention to what was happening in the sky and on the ground, made the word equinox from the Latin aequus (equal) and nox (night), because the night and day are approximately equal in length.

You have probably been noticing the day lengthening already.  I keep track of the Sun’s movement around my house. I have a chart and record the angle using a compass from a spot at my window. All winter, the morning Sun would come through the patio doors and shine on my chair in the family room where I sit to read and write. Now, it makes its early morning appearance in the east at another window and sends a beam on the couch where my wife has her morning coffee and reads the news.

In the Abrahamic tradition, the Jewish Passover usually falls on the first full moon after the northern hemisphere vernal equinox, although occasionally (currently three times every 19 years) it will occur on the second full moon. Christian churches calculate Easter as the first Sunday after the first full moon on or after the March equinox. The official church definition for the equinox is March 21. The Eastern Orthodox Churches use the older Julian calendar, while the western churches use the Gregorian calendar, and the western full moons currently fall four, five or 34 days before the eastern ones. The result is that the two Easters generally fall on different days but they sometimes coincide. The earliest possible Easter date in any year is March 22 on each calendar. The latest possible Easter date in any year is April 25.

I like knowing about other calendars, like the traditional East Asian ones, that divide a year into 24 solar terms. There the vernal equinox and the autumnal equinox mark the middle of the spring and autumn seasons, respectively.

In June the season will change again, not with an equinox, but with the summer solstice.

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