Today the Sun reaches solstitium, solstice, Sun-Standing: its halting at its northernmost level in our skies.
It isn’t the Sun that moves but our planet, which has come to where it nods toward the Sun. Feel it lean; feel it tip you sunward. I was going to draw a skateboarder maintaining a constant lean as she circles around a bonfire, but then I remembered Table Rock.
Table Rock is at the northern end of South Carolina, and is the highest mountain in the state. It’s in Table Rock State Park and overlooks Table Rock Lake; the proper name for the summit is Pinnacle Point, but we usually called it Table Rock. The name was supposed to go back to the Cherokees, though I think they would have been more imaginative; it looks less like a table than like a whale.
Once when I was about to take a walk up it with a friend, I showed her the topographic map of the area and she said: “Are there really so many trails?” They were the hundreds of contours, wrapped around the slopes. I’d show you what I mean, but I’ve just, while moving, thrown away my large collection of American maps. Well, it was something like this but more so.
And when I was up here with another friend who also had frank gaps in her education, she said: “What does ‘south’ mean?” Table Rock is an ideal place at which to feel what south means, and what the solstice means.
From up here, you come close to sensing the Earth as a ball and yourself on the down-rounded surface of it. The rock rolls away downward. South Carolina, first its forested piedmont and then its distant lowland, seems to roll away downward toward the dipping horizon, which itself seems down-rounded and may even be slightly so because you are so high above it. South Carolina rolls away southward (roughly), so that at midday it dips away downward under the Sun.
In March and September the Sun is on the celestial equator, which is about where that streak of cloud happens to be. At the June solstice it is twenty-three degrees higher.
The ball of the planet is now tipped toward the Sun; you almost feel that you could go falling forward off it, diving clear of that distant horizon. You couldn’t, but you could certainly go rolling off Table Rock, which is a nearer model of the globe. It is the kind of downslope that is most terrifying, because it curves, getting gradually steeper. Not far below the horizon of it that you can see, it becomes vertical, even overhanging. If you are so foolhardy as to venture too far down, or trip or break into a run, you won’t be able to stop. I heard of just such an accident on Table Rock: a hiker slipped too far down, couldn’t stop, fell to her death.
To get back to the solstice: the instant of it is June 20 22:34 by Universal Time (23:34 as distorted by “summer” time in Europe, 18:34 this afternoon in eastern North America). This is unusually early in the calendar year. In our age, the solstice usually falls in June 21 or sometimes 22. The last years when it was in June 20 (by Universal Time) were 2012 (when it was a few minutes later than now) and 1896 and 1892 (when it was a few minutes earlier). – Before 1582, when the Julian calendar was superseded by the Gregorian, the solstice was occurring on June 13.