169. North Light at Solstice

Some years ago, I had an epiphany at solstice time, all about north light.

North light is one of those concepts we accept without thinking it through. Artists prefer north light for their studios – we learn this young if we are thinking about being painters. Most of us never become artists and never have a studio, so the notion falls into the category of unexamined concepts.

I learned to paint and draw, but my skill level never rose above adequate. I didn’t become an artist, or any of another double-dozen fleeting ambitions, but I did become a writer and later a teacher. As I was nearing retirement, I bought a three acre parcel with house in the foothills of the Sierras.

For the first time, I had the chance to build something bigger than furniture or musical instruments. I was wandering around the back yard on blistering summer afternoon, thinking about north light and about building a shop with big widows pulling in masses of lovely natural light, when I looked at the north wall of my new house and saw that it was in full, hot, withering sunlight.

That’s not supposed to happen. But it does.

I live at latitude 37, roughly in line with San Francisco, Tulsa, and Washington, D. C. Here the sun is so far north (apparently) by mid-summer that it rises well north of east and sets well north of west, traversing a curved path so that at noon it is still south of zenith. The result is that the north sides of structures receive cool morning sunlight, shade during most of the day, and blistering sunlight in late afternoon.

I should have known, but in the cities where I had spent my life there were always trees and the shadows of multiple buildings to hide the effect. I had studied astronomy, but that is about the big picture, not about what is happening in your own backyard. I should have known from a youth spent outdoors, but then I was always on a tractor and in motion, concentrating on the windrow of hay I was creating, not on how sunlight fell on structures.

As a childI was aware of the motion of sunsets across the western horizon as the seasons progress, because every evening I was in the dairy barn looking out its west facing windows. I still love that phenomenon. There is a place near my foothill home where my wife and I go to watch the sunset. The spot faces west, on the western side of the westernmost hill in our area, so the vista carries all the way across the San Joaquin Valley to the coast range, and to the the buildup of clouds beyond where the cold waters of the Pacific spill fog over San Francisco. Mount Diablo, the highest peak in this section of the coast range, lies directly west of our lookout. Every spring and autumn equinox, the sun sets directly behind it. As summer progresses, each sunset is further north until we reach the summer solstice. Then they drift back, pass Mount Diablo, and head south until the winter solstice turns them back north again.

This is how astronomy began, with observations of visible phenomena. There were no ideas of orbiting bodies; that came later. Today, however, we know too much. We learn our astronomy from textbooks, not from our own observations. And then the reality in our own back yard catches us by surprise. more tomorrow and Wednesday


For the record, I scratched the itch to build a building. My wife and I rebuilt a sagging 11 x 24 tool shed, put in big windows and a fancy facade. It is our quilting studio, where I also write. I’m sitting in in it now, watching the sun rise through the east window.


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