Essays and Articles

Winter Solstice

More than fifty years ago, as a young child, my family was driving in Montana, east of the Rocky Mountains near the Canadian frontier.  My father, fascinated with weather conditions, was focused on the road ahead as the temperature was dropping, skies darkening, with a narrow road and an ever tightening valley: clearly he had a family to  consider.  It was oddly quiet in the car.  My sister and I were in the back seat of an old two-door green Ford.  I began to look out the rear window.  The clouds were forming into the most eerie, soft round shapes.  The skies continued to darken, the odd sphere-shaped clouds tightened their grip on the heavens overhead.  My father may have named the shapes; I no longer recall if he did.  But forever those clouds have haunted me.  I knew the world was coming to an end.


We hastened to a motel. It had a carport, as occasionally motor lodges did mid-century, when the hail began to pummel all exposed elements,  tattooing a deafening noise I had never heard.  The world I knew was coming to an end.

My first experience as a child of the scientific generation still provides a respect and genuine awe for the natural world even as I struggle with fabricating the built environment around me.  The clouds which so thoroughly are ingrained within my soul carry a name: mammatus.  This photograph was captured near Hastings, Nebraska in 2005.  Those are the same clouds that I have neverforgotten

Before electricity, the heavens above were the place of wonder. Modern man, surrounded in cities with the ever present glow of lights, the unending stream of cars and non-stop work under the glow of electric lamps, from sunset to sunrise, cannot see or often takes little note of the fact that the heavens are not the universally awe-inspiring cosmos they once were. Occasionally we may observe the enormous glow of the earth’s natural satellite, the moon. Perhaps, in more rural or isolated regions, we ponder the stars and the magic of the Milky Way. Some have forgotten to recognize the celestial wonders, tracing the Big Dipper and North Star and pointing to the moon.  And then what?  Names of television personalities are frequently more famous than Orion or Draco.

Priests and astronomers of old were often one and the same.  They attempted to sort through and comprehend the mysteries seen overhead.  In that process, some humans sought to control others through predictions of eclipses; through promises the sun would return, even if only little-by-little to the warm placement in the firmament we had come to depend upon.  But modern man, or men of the 21st century are not all as aware of the lore or legend the stars foretold. The tales and myths have been displaced with deadlines and spreadsheets.

To be not of the stars was a dis-aster: a disaster.  Renaissance princes and tycoons all had the stars read for them at birth.  Often their ceilings would be painted with fanciful ships and dogs and shields and balances and dragons, each plodding through the nighttime sky.  Astrologers could look to the past and predict the  futures merely by consulting star charts.

We inaugurate Historical Profiles on the Winter’s Solstice, a day the sun stops.  Tomorrow, a rebirth will occur as the sun again arises and somehow glimmers just a bit longer in the heavens, confirming that the winter season has arrived while  providing the promise of a spring just three months ahead.  We think this is a fitting day for a renewed look at small events and unique moments in time.

Scientifically, mammatus cloud formations, despite varying hypothesis, have one environmental characteristic that remains common:  across the anvil cloud/sub-cloud air boundary there exist sharp gradients in temperature, moisture and momentum or wind shear, which strongly influence the formations.  These seem to form throughout the year and around the world, but not very often. I had seen the heavens at work.

In the summer of 1999, my wife, daughter and I were in Venice, Italy. Following dinner with friends, we set off on foot to return to our hotel on the opposite, Basilica side of Piazza San Marco.  Immediately at ground level, we encountered water.  Acqua alta is normal in November and March, when the moon, the tides conspiring with a bit of wind, force the waters of the Adriatic northward only to be blocked by the Lido before seeping into the Lagoon.  Once inside the Venetian lagoon, the waters fill the piazze and other low-lying areas.  We entered the square from the Napoleonic extensions, where the former Chiesa San Gimignano had stood, and came to a halt, staring face on to the Byzantine Basilica with a near-full moon directly overhead, mirror reflection in the waters at our feet.  Venice could not have been more magical. The following day, 12 agosto near noon, the city was bathed in a 93% solar eclipse. Again, the heavens had caught my attention, and caught it hard, never to be forgotten.

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