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The Sun Clock

 

Ranger Steve Mueller

By Ranger Steve Mueller

 

Another ranger naturalist did not carry a watch. To be on time to lead guided walks, Steve Carlisle used the sun to tell time. He asked park visitors for the time to make sure he was on time for his duties. 

Being outdoors daily allowed me to learn to tell time within 15-minutes by the sun’s location. It is an accuracy skill I have lost by not staying in practice. Like lure casting, volleyball, golf, or canoeing, one must stay in practice to be proficient. I carried a watch as a backup tool to meet arrival responsibilities for park ranger work assignments. The watch is more accurate than the 15-minute accuracy I developed by sun watching.

The sun does not rise at the same time daily. It is in a slightly different location along the Zodiac path as the Earth moves around the sun creating yearly seasonal progression. That is a reason weather forecasters post daily sunrise and sunset times. It is the Earth’s rotation that makes it appear that the sun moves overhead daily. 

The Earth revolves around the sun on a 365-day journey. Revolution is responsible for the shift in the sun not rising or setting at the same time daily. It complicates telling time accurately. People living before the sundials or watches, paid close attention to the sun’s position. It helped them arrive home before dark and allowed them to plant crops when it was reasonably safe to avoid killing spring frost. 

Begin practicing telling time by looking at the sun at sunrise and compare it to clock time. Every 15 minutes check your watch and the sun’s position. It is best to practice during the early or late hours of the day. During the evening, start observing one hour before the time weather forecasters indicate the sun will set and check its position at fifteen-minute intervals. Soon you will not need to compare time with a watch.

It is important to use early or late day observations when it is easier to gage the celestial position compared to objects like the horizon, hills, or trees. Those hours allow us to relax and enjoy how the sun plays into our own nature niche activity routines. Enjoy the beauty of changing light on clouds. Notice cloud silver linings and experience colors deepen and change as the sun dips below the evening horizon.

When the sun’s lower edge first touches the horizon, time how long it takes for the ball’s top edge to slip from sight. Always be careful when looking toward the sun. Quick glances are essential. Special viewing glasses are available. You might still have a pair that was provided for observing the solar eclipse. 

Early and late day observations are safest because sun intensity is reduced by atmospheric interference. Its light must past through more atmosphere and suspended particulate matter before reaching our eyes. The sun appears larger during those witching hours because of atmospheric light dispersal. Even more importantly, there are objects to compare with the sun like trees and hills that make it appear larger at that time of day.  

When the sun reaches high noon, it is the same size as when rising or setting but it looks smaller because we lack objects for comparison. Telling time to fifteen-minute increments midday is more challenging without objects for comparison. It can be done but takes more practice. Telling time in half hour increments is more reasonable when the sun does not have nearby comparison objects. It is fun to use the sun in ways that were required by early civilizations. It creates more independence from human tools. Become more self-sufficient. 

Celestial objects were used as maps before paper and ink or cell phone Apps. Free Apps can be downloaded for identifying constellations. They do little to help us understand how to tell time by observing the sun. Apps do not connect us with natural world in a manner sky-watching can for developing time telling skills. Connect with the real world while enjoying the everchanging sky.

Take time to practice telling time using the sun’s position and later use stars to determine where on Earth you are and how to navigate without modern technology. Depend on your skills instead of someone else’s.

Natural history questions or topic suggestions can be directed to Ranger Steve (Mueller) at odybrook@chartermi.net – Ody Brook Nature Sanctuary, 13010 Northland Dr. Cedar Springs, MI 49319 or call 616-696-1753.

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