Shadows evidence physical presence--the instantiation of our bodies and of other creatures and structures. Bathed in daylight, our corporeal forms have the power to block the Sun's rays and cast dark reflections on the ground, what David Abram calls our "shadowflection". Even nighttime, as Abram notes, is nothing other than a hemisphere of the Earth enveloped in its own shadow.
So too, shadows remind us of the sun's presence, and our position relative to it as we stand upon the Earth, our orbital home in continual motion. As the Sun migrates from low on the eastern horizon in the morning, to overhead, to low on the western horizon in the evening, our shadowflections shapeshift by the hour and season. Transitioning from elongated versions of ourselves, as if we were giants standing on the earth, to squat, to long again, they remind us of the continual motion of the Earth relative to the Sun, and perhaps other cycles and changes our bodies experience over the cycles of days, months, and years.
And far more than a two-dimensional surface-restricted image, shadows have three-dimensional depth. Writes Abram in Becoming Animal:
"My actual shadow is...more substantial than that flat shape on the paved ground. That silhouette is only my shadow's outermost surface. The actual shadow does not reside primarily on the paved ground; it is a voluminous being of thickness and depth, a mostly unseen presence that dwells in the air between my body and that ground.
With the summer sun high in the sky, it is prime time for shadowflections, reminders of the our ever-present connection with the Sun, as the Earth turns and turns.
Summer solstice, when the sun reaches its highest point in the sky, is an opportunity to connect with cyclical changes and embrace the bounty of nature around us. Summer is upon us, a time of abundant growth. The day that provides the most light, it is perhaps then a time for enhanced clarity and insight as well as chance to appreciate the world's plenitude.
Derived from the Latin words "sol" (sun) and "sistere" (to make stand), the word "solstice" connotes an inflection point, a moment when what is before differs from what is after, as is fitting for the day that marks a shift from the sun progressing northward to tracking southward and with this a shift from lengthening daylight hours to shortening daylight hours.
Humans have a rich traditions honoring the summer solstice. Ancient Northern and Central European pagans--including Germanic, Celtic and Slavic tribes--celebrated Midsummer with bonfires, which were thought to enhance the sun’s energy and promote a good harvest for the fall. Early Christians celebrated the day as St. John's Day, commemorating the birth of John the Baptist. The Great Pyramids of Egypt are situated such that, from the viewpoint of the Sphinx, the sun sets directly between two of the pyramids on the summer solstice. The ancient Chinese regarded the summer solstice as connected with the feminine force “yin,” and celebrated with festivities honoring Earth, femininity.
The Mayans of Central America built structures to align with the sun's solstice path. And many Native American tribes engaged in solstice rituals, some of which continue to be practiced. The Sioux sun dance entails cutting and raising a tree as a symbolic connection between the heavens and Earth, placing teepees in a circle to represent the cosmos., and participants decorating their bodies in colors of red (sunset), blue (sky), yellow (lightning), white (light), and black (night).
While many ancient cultures were attuned to the sun's cycles and engaged in solstice rituals, contemporary urban dwellers may fell less connected to this astronomical happening. But as entrenched as we may be in our day-to-day lives, the eternal dance between the Sun and Earth continues, a reminder of the extent of time beyond humanity and forces that are bigger than ourselves.
Far more than a concrete jungle, New York City boasts miles of coastline, which in late May and early June are the setting of an annual ritual that has taken place for nearly 500 million years, one of the oldest rituals to occur among animal species.
During a recent stroll on Orchard Beach at Pelham Bay Park in the Bronx, I came across horseshoe crabs pulling up onshore. Intriguing looking, ancient creatures, they remind me of small tanks, able to ambulate while being fully protected by a hard carapace. Japanese legend too identifies the horseshoe crab with military symbolism. It was said that brave warriors who died honorably in battle were reborn as horseshoe crabs, with their shells like samurai helmets, forever traversing the ocean floor.
Why were these creatures migrating onto the sand? Why now? Thanks to the Historical Signs Project of the NYC Department of Parks and Recreation, answering my questions -- and more -- was a nearby sign, "Horseshoe Crabs in New York City Parks, Orchard Beach - Pelham Bay Park." This is what it said about the fifth oldest species (after cyanobacteria, sponge, jellyfish, and nautilus), which has contributed greatly to medical science:
Every May and June, horseshoe crabs emerge from Pelham Bay and Long Island Sound onto Orchard Beach in Pelham Bay Park. Female horseshoe crabs arrive on the beach to lay their eggs, with their male counterparts literally in tow. Males grasp onto the back of the female's shell using their specially adapted, hooked legs, sometimes two, three, or four onto one female. When they arrive on the beach, female horseshoe crabs dig a hold in the sand and lay up to 20,000 tiny olive-green eggs . The males then rush to be the first to fertilize.
The process is heavily tied to the lunar cycle and its effects on the tides. The mating begins when the moon's force is strongest and the high tide allows the horseshoe crab to venture further onto the beach. As the force weakens, the water is never able to reach the eggs. Two weeks later, when the moon's force peaks again, the eggs are ready to hatch and the water sweeps the newborns into the sea. While this timing has provided protection from the sea, the eggs face other dangers. The thousands of protein-rich eggs provide a feast for hungry migrating birds, which can eat enough to double or even triple their body weight before moving on. Some birds are believed to time their migration to coincide with this mating ritual and its resulting source of nutrition.
The horseshoe crab...has been around since before he dinosaurs.... This prehistoric creature may resemble a crab, but is actually more closely related to the spider and scorpion. While the horseshoe crab has a tough exterior that has helped its survival, it is one of the most harmless creatures on the seashore. Its high tolerance for pollutants has also allowed the horseshoe crab to thrive where other species have failed. When not swarming on the beaches in the spring, the horseshoe crab stays mainly on the ocean floor, feeding on mollusks, worms, and seaweed. In the winter, it burrows into the ocean sediment. While the lifespan of a horseshoe crabs in the wild is not clear, they have been known to live up to 15 years in aquariums.
This "living fossil" plays an important role in modern medical science. Its blood contains Limulus Amebocyte Lysate (LAL), which is used by scientists for the detection of bacterial toxins. Tests using LAL are required by the Federal Drug Administration for medications and vaccines. Blood from the horseshoe crab is also used to make a variety of products, from fertilizers and conch bait to hairspray and contact lenses. These uses have led to the overharvesting of the horseshoe crab and a decline of its population in the Atlantic. However, the ancient horseshoe crab can still be seen crawling onto the shores of the Bronx, at Orchard Beach, every year.
If Manhattanhenge, discussed in my prior blog, broadcasts the relationship between Manhattan’s street grid and the sun’s seasonal path, summer’s heat pushes us to respond to the sun’s path with innate astronomical awareness in our daily lives.
With summer in full blast, the sun’s heat radiates off sidewalks and buildings and intensifies the temperature. As a walker in Manhattan, whether for pleasure, errand running, or as part of my daily commute, I often assess what side of a street is better shaded, and choose that side for my walk. With the longer stretches of my walk extending in a north-south/south-north direction, this means walking on the east side of an avenue in the morning and the west side in the evening. The difference in temperature is significant. Winter brings the opposite effect: seeing out the sunnier side of the street for greater warmth and light.
Orientation to the sun has figured in town and city planning for centuries, typically as a way to enhance warmth and light long before the development of modern heating and lighting systems. Notably, in 1916 New York City passes a zoning resolution to preserve sunlight at street level, recognizing sunlight as a public good. At the time, buildings were limited in height—and sun-blocking effects—by engineering capabilities.
With continual improvements in elevators and the use of steel frame structures, building height have multiplied, impacting street-level sunlight. At the same time, urban landscape materials—asphalt, metal, and dark buildings—absorb more sunlight than forests, fields, and snow-covered terrain, resulting in an “urban heat island”, were a city’s temperature is significantly warmer than in surrounding areas. New York City’s heat island effect is most felt at night, when the temperature is 5 to 7 degrees warmer than in surrounding areas.
Scientists and urban planners have considered how attention to the interplay of urban structures and sunlight can enhance energy conservation by cooling the city. NASA determined that dark, sunlight absorbing black roofs in New York City reached 170 degrees on July 22, 2011, a peak day in a heat wave that resulted in a city record for electricity usage. By contrast, white roofs were 42 degrees cooler. This led to the widespread installation of white roofs, with the aim of decreasing electricity usage and reducing city temperatures.
While not as extreme as the impact of roof-top lightening, a shift from the sunny to the shaded side of a city street in the middle of Julycan offer a welcomed refuge. If you find yourself wandering down a city street during the heat of summer, think about how you intuitively position yourself for cooling comfort. We’re not so different from other animals in this way!
The sun will set on Thursday and Friday, July 12 and 13, as usual, if it can be said that a sunset is ever “usual”, with endless variations in moisture, temperature, season, cloud cover, axis of the earth relative to the sun, and even air pollution making every sunset unique. Those of us living in Manhattan will experience a particularly spectacular astronomical phenomenon: Manhattanhenge.
Manhattanhenge occurs twice a year, in late May and early July, when the setting sun is perfectly aligned with the grid of New York City streets.
It is the continually changing relative axis of the earth to the sun that results in Manhattanhenge. From the first day of winter until the first day of summer, the sun sets increasingly north on the horizon. And, it sets incrementally southward on the horizon from the first day of summer until the first day of winter, rising and setting due east and west only on the spring and fall equinoxes (the first days of spring and fall). With the Manhattan street grid--a design proposed in 1811--tilted at 30 degrees east of due north, rather than exactly aligned north-south/east-west, the alignment of the sunset with our street grid occurs off-calendar from the equinox.
According to the American Museum of Natural History, "For best effect, position yourself as far east in Manhattan as possible. But ensure that when you look west across the avenues you can still see New Jersey. Clear cross streets include 14th, 23rd, 34th. 42nd, 57th, and several streets adjacent to them. The Empire State building and the Chrysler building render 34th street and 42nd streets especially striking vistas." Full sun on the grid will take place at 8:20 on Thursday, and half sun on the grid will take place at 8:21 on Friday.
Think about observing this local phenomenon, how it can remind us of our relative place in the universe and the continual, awe-inspiring cycles that intersect the chasms of our very human-driven metropolis.
The Summer Solstice occurs today, the moment during the year when the sun is at its highest point in the sky, marking the beginning of summer in the Northern Hemisphere and the day with the most daylight. In New York City, we can expect more than 15 hours of daylight.
Take a moment if you can to think about the change in seasons brought about by astronomical happenings, by the Earth's tilt and the changing relative positions of the Earth and Sun. Think about the power of the Sun--its light and the heat that warms the Earth and brings forth life and Earth's bounty. And in this moment of honoring the Sun, we also know that from this point the days will become shorter and we begin our transition towards darkness.
by Mary Oliver
Have you ever seen
in your life
than the way the sun,
relaxed and easy,
floats toward the horizon
and into the clouds or the hills,
or the rumpled sea,
and is gone–
and how it slides again
out of the blackness,
on the other side of the world,
like a red flower
streaming upward on its heavenly oils,
say, on a morning in early summer,
at its perfect imperial distance–
and have you ever felt for anything
such wild love–
do you think there is anywhere, in any language,
a word billowing enough
for the pleasure
that fills you,
as the sun
as it warms you
as you stand there,
or have you too
turned from this world–
or have you too
As I hope came across in my previous blog, I had a magical time looking up at the sky from the roof of my building a few days ago. A few evenings later, after a day of work followed by dinner with my daughter, I ventured up there again, a perfect way to enjoy time outside while still being close to home.
It was twilight when I arrived, and the breeze made the world feel open and alive, a contrast to the cozy yet restricted feeling within the walls of my apartment. Glancing around, I notice a faint light in the sky to the west. Venus? Or was it a satellite? No, it wasn't moving like a satellite. And it was too early and too bright to be a star. It was Venus, second planet from the Sun, named after the Roman god of beauty and love. Content to be in the open air, I lingered for over an hour. When I looked toward Venus some time later, it was lower in the horizon. Venus was setting.
Meanwhile, in the southeast sky the full moon peeked out behind a nearby building. And with the darkening sky, faint stars started to appear overhead, mirrored far below by human-made star clusters of apartment lights. I thought about the vastness of our galaxy, the recent discovery of countless other galaxies, and how throughout the history of humankind we have charted the heavens, navigated by them, formed mythologies around them. Venus was the first planet whose motions were plotted across the sky, in the second millennium B.C. And yet here, in a city where the strength of human-made lumens blocks out so much of the visible night sky, and where our own sense of importance--the towers we build ever higher--too often overshadows our awareness of the natural world, we often forget the continual celestial activity happening around us.
Enraptured by cosmic happenings, I was jarred back into the world of New York, New York 2018 by an argument erupting between a couple on a balcony of a nearby building:
She: "Why does it always have to be about you!"
He: "I just need some down time after work. I'm tired. It's been a long day!"
She: "I'm tired too. I need down time too! "
There on the very plain roof of my very ordinary building, in counterpoint and like a grand joke, was the full scope of Venus in action: Our need to feel supported by the people dear to us and the disconnect we often feel with them. Our hunger for understanding and love. The urgency of our feelings. And meanwhile, the earth spins round and round, the moon orbits the earth ever changing in its phases, and Venus and the sun rise and set as they have for eons, long before we ever walked this earth, long before there was a "you", long before there was an "I".
To the Evening Star
by William Blake 1789
Thou fair-hair'd angel of the evening,
Now, while the sun rests on the mountains, light
Thy bright torch of love; thy radiant crown
Put on, and smile upon our evening bed!
Smile on our loves; and, while thou drawest the
Blue curtains of the sky, scatter thy silver dew
On every flower that shuts its sweet eyes
In timely sleep. Let thy west wind sleep on
The lake; speak silence with thy glimmering eyes,
And wash the dusk with silver. Soon, full soon,
Dost thou withdraw; then the wolf rages wide,
And the lion glares thro' the dun forest:
The fleeces our flocks are cover'd with
Thy sacred dew: protect them with thine influence.
About this Blog
Hi! I'm Nancy Kopans, founder of Urban Edge Forest Therapy. Join me on an adventure to discover creative ways to connect with nature in your daily life, ways that are inspired by urban surroundings that can reveal unexpected beauty, with the potential to ignite a sense of wonder.