Life moves in cycles, and on December 21 we mark the turning of a very big cycle, the Winter Solstice. Light, which has been lessening, will now begin gathering and the mechanism that powers life will bring us, eventually, back to a spring of new growth. As I try and reason through the profound phenomenon of the Winter Solstice, I join the ancient stargazers, the modern scientists, and all those who seek to understand what our place in nature is, or should be.
The Winter Solstice marks the annual rotation of our planet around the sun, the star that supplies the energy of life. Within that cycle is another cycle. The daily rotation of the earth exposes the planet to a disproportionate delivery of solar energy, and the dissipation of that energy, along with the fast spinning of the globe, moves the atmosphere which supports our life. The movement of air delivers life-giving water, which also moves in a solar-powered cycle. We live from, and have our being in, these cycles.
On the Winter Solstice, I am as far away from the source of life as I will be all year. Where I am, about halfway between the equator and the north pole, the tilt of the planet moves us away, slightly, from the sun for half the year. The daily spinning of the globe on its angle leaves those of us in the northern hemisphere in the dark more than in the light for two seasons. Then, as the planet circles around the sun, our half of the globe will be tilted more toward the light, and we will enjoy a surfeit of sunshine. The workings of nature often astound me, starting with this most fundamental construction that defines my place in the cosmos
Our place on the planet can be defined astronomically, and this is perhaps a starting point for understanding our role here. We exist first as passengers, as beneficiaries of the energy systems, water cycles, and rhythms of nature that support our existence. We apply our reason to understand how the machinery works, a task that has taken millennia and which continues as we gain more knowledge. This gives us more comfort, but as our knowledge expands, so too does our prowess. And while our ever-growing abilities have allowed us to benefit more from nature, we now realize that our actions have begun to have a major impact on the planet upon which we depend.
We have now entered the epoch of the anthropocene, a definition of geological time that marks the influence of humans on the physical operation of the planet. The ancient solar energy embodied in coal and oil and gas have been removed from the earth itself and re-converted to heat. The result of course, has been to put this carbon back into the atmosphere and the ocean, which has then changed the chemical composition of the air and water. The sun remains basically the same, and more of its energy is now absorbed in the atmosphere. The planet is warming, and the weather systems have thus changed as well.
We are no longer passive residents of earth, one of several lifeforms that has evolved in this narrow band of air, balance of temperature, and cycles of water that exist on our planet. Perhaps we never were just passengers; perhaps our place here has meant something more from the beginning; perhaps not. Perhaps we are too full of hubris, or not full enough of appreciation of our situation in nature. Perhaps we have come to our knowledge too late.
But, three days before Christmas, I am reminded that humanity has had a deep awareness of the connections between light, life, and our place in nature long before we fully understood how this planet rotates on angle around a star. My religion, like other faiths, celebrates new life at this time of year when we move from a season of darkness to a season of light. We have long sought to understand these mysteries and our connection to them.
Our intelligence, our science, has helped locate us in space, and our science has explained how we come to live on this planet. Now we need to use our knowledge, new and old, to preserve our existence.