I sat in the late afternoon sun today and imagined it was mid-October.
I closed my eyes and thought about October’s sun, when it warmed me in the afternoons among the fall colors. I read that the sun in the waning days of February is as high and powerful as in the middle of October. For as much as I love October, this afternoon’s rays met a smile.
I know the sun is climbing higher and throwing off more warmth each day as we inch toward spring. Spring approaching beats winter encroaching.
I’ve been trying to figure out the angles of the sun at various points in the seasons. With some of the study I’m in over my head — azimuths and axis rotations. But I do know that in June, about noon on the summer equinox, the sun will be nearly directly overhead — just slightly to the south.
In winter, the afternoon sun is less than 38 degrees above the horizon, reaching us at such a shallow angle that it has little warming power. It’s the steep angle in summer, not so much the length of day, that warms the land.
Consider that in summer north of the Arctic Circle the sun “shines” 24 hours a day but produces little warmth because of its low angle while mostly skimming the horizon. By the vernal equinox — this year on March 20 — when we hope winter’s back is breaking, the sun’s angle on our patch of earth is at 50 degrees, the same as on the autumnal equinox in September. The sun is banking toward spring right now, one degree of sun angle at a time.
I went for a walk in the late February sunshine. I saw solar panels being erected in an open field, the panels facing south. They are generally tilted at least at a 45-degree angle in winter to take advantage of the low sun. Wine producers operate on the same principle, preferring south-facing slopes on which grapes can pull the most sunlight for ripening.
Animals such as deer figured out the winter sun long ago. Today I saw the ovals of deer beds in the snow on the south side of hills. The deer soak in the late winter sun — what there is of it — and avoid the north wind. Some afternoons the birds at my feeders simply pause, perching in the sunlight, warming after eating.
I, too, stalk the sun like a cat in winter. But winter grows weary, and the sun is starting to follow me. I join it in angling toward spring, when I indeed will be angling for fish and opening the soil to the surging sunlight.
For now, I soak in whatever the sun gives me, hearing the Native American saying, “Keep the warmth of the sun in your heart.”
Note: Last week’s column regarding how wildlife stays warm in winter drew a clarification regarding Canada geese. A reader noted that while geese indeed have a counter-current heat exchange working through the arteries and veins in their legs, it is actually to cool the blood, not warm the blood, on its way down to their legs. The process keeps the legs and feet at nearly the same temperature as the open water — slightly above freezing — while blood coming up from the feet is warmed to heat the geese’s body core. In the counter-current exchange, heat needed in other parts of the bird’s body is not lost.
Greschner, who retired from the Rice Lake Chronotype, may be reached at email@example.com.