The Sun in Our Midst

Author: Kerry Temple ’74

I would like to die outdoors. I would like to die with the sun on my face — the way it feels at the moment its warmth takes you by surprise, coming from far away, and you shut your eyes and lift your face to catch the sunbeams finding you. A touch of gentle heat, a warm wash of sunlight on your upturned face. A cosmic anointing. Which would then make me think of a bare-backed boyhood in Louisiana and being outside all year round, pools of sunlight underfoot and shafts of sun spearing through canopies of live oak and pine. I would imagine the sun-dappled park next door and sunny afternoons out along Bayou Pierre and the sun-blanched sandbars that grew out of Red River in the summertime of my youth.

Back then the sun was a constant companion, as right, regular and powerful as the true presence of my childhood days. Yet nothing I was particularly mindful of — as we all are, of things taken for granted.

My education in sunlight began in earnest when I got big enough to camp, to backpack, to learn the difference between night and day without the aid of electricity. And the importance of sunshine at higher altitudes, higher latitudes. And what happens to human comfort when it goes away.

My sun-filled memories would take me back, too, to one month in my life when the sun did not go away. Four of us, three scientists and a scribe, flew straight north for two days, to a fjord along the eastern scrag of Ellesmere Island in the High Canadian Arctic — all sheeted white in ice and snow, with occasional brushstrokes of blue. North of the Arctic Circle, beyond the magnetic North Pole, nothing was there but two spare cabins and the whole gaping universe. The plane landed on skis and the pilot promised to return a month later.

The sun never went down. It flew lazy circles around the bluest sky. We could not go outside without dark sunglasses to protect our eyes from its searing, blinding rays. We kept shades pulled on the cabin windows, trying to sleep. But it was little use. Over time we stayed up till 2 and 3 and 4 in the morning, the circadian rhythms losing their sway. We’d read and talk, play darts and bake bread and go out again, doing what scientists do when trying to understand the world around them. Caterpillars, by God, that emerge from the long, dark and killing winters to bask in the sun after the snow melts away and then butterfly around before their day is done.

There was rock there, and ice, sun and sky, and startling signs of life — seal holes, polar bear tracks and the fleeting squawk and sport of birds. And little else. Some gruff and woolly musk oxen in valleys not too far away provided a sense of the Neanderthal to a place so primal, so stark and bare, so extravagant in its wonder that it begged a contemplation of the partnering of sun and planet Earth — radically dissimilar but fateful relatives in the incomprehensively vast yet tiny galactic mobile that is our solar system (solis being the Latin word for sun).

The sun is indeed a burning, exploding, radiating, violent cauldron of gas so big that 1.3 million Earths could fit inside it. Yet it is nothing special in the taxonomy of stars, of which there are billions and billions and billions in the universe. We think it bright because of its proximity to Earth. It is 93 million miles away from here; the next nearest star is 270,000 times farther away. But this is a reasonably safe distance for making this life on Earth possible. When I think how susceptible our daily lives are to the variances of temperature, the seasons and the Earth’s curvature, I marvel at just how precisely tuned is this duet of sun and Earth. Or, rather, how proficiently and wondrously this planet has prospered with what the sun has given.

It wasn’t always so, astronomers say. The sun hasn’t been around forever — just about 4.6 billion years. Science tells us that about 9 billion years after the Big Bang, the gravitational collapse of the solar nebula, a vast cloud of gas and dust, formed the sun and its orbiting court of planets, moons, asteroids and other small flying objects. The sun itself is almost three-fourths hydrogen and almost a quarter helium (helios being Greek for sun), with trace amounts of iron, nickel, oxygen and other elements. The power of the sun’s gravity compressed hydrogen, igniting solar fusion, erupting with the nuclear explosions we feel as light and heat on Earth.

As a star, the sun is youngish, still in its main sequence stage, slowly burning up its hydrogen fuel. Yet it persists in heating up, becoming 10 percent more luminous every billion years. In another billion years the sun’s heat will be so intense that oceans will boil, water will no longer exist on the Earth’s surface, and the planet will be scorched and uninhabitable (except perhaps for some deeply subterranean bacteria). Science tells us that the sun will enter its red giant phase 5 or 7 billion years later, when its hydrogen is depleted, causing it to both cool and expand, and then swallow the Earth and destroy it.

For now, however, we are locked amicably in this fortuitous dance, with Earth traveling around the sun in its a near-circular orbit, covering about 584 million miles in little more than 365 days (actually 365.242199 days, necessitating those periodic leap years to keep human time in step with the movements of the celestial spheres). It is impossible to comprehend, much less sense that we ride upon Earth, which is spinning like a top as it simultaneously hurtles through space at 66,800 miles per hour. Nor do we have the sense that the sun, too, is rotating in its own orbit as the Milky Way itself revolves around the black hole at its center. And yet our solar system, located about two-thirds from the center of the Milky Way, is speeding through the heavens at 155 miles per second, circling the galaxy every 225 million years or so.

Science, too, talks in miracles.

Still, we watch the sun — the Greeks’ charioteer — arc overhead, horizon to horizon, defining the length of our days. We are physically and psychologically sensitive to changes in temperature, changes in light and latitude, as the planet’s wobble, tilt and travels make our seasons, as summer bakes part of the Earth with an oppressive sunlamp heat while winter brings life-threatening cold. The setting of my Louisiana childhood is so different from life in northern Indiana, though separated by a scant 950 miles in a cosmic scheme in which distance is measured in light-years and other unfathomable extremities. What an astounding world we inhabit.

And yet we think the sun rises and sets on us.

On days when I turn my face to the sun I remember religious retreats I took that I called backpacking. Going into the wilderness. Leaving stuff behind. A state of subtraction for encounters of the fundamental kind. A relationship with the sun is different when there are no walls, no thermostats or light switches between you and it. Just you and nature. Starry nights and the ceremony of sunrise.

But first there is sunset, the day’s final glory, silent fireworks in the sky. Light fading, then darkness flooding the land. More often than not there is cold, sometimes bone-chilling cold, and almost no light to guide your way. Night descending can be an ominous event. You learn new meanings of sunlight then. Companions and I would stand watch for a while in the darkness of night, taking in the heavens, counting constellations, oohing and aweing at the sky-vaulting meteors. But we are not nocturnal creatures, and eventually we would tuck ourselves in for the night, biding our time till the planet turns to greet the sun.

We would then emerge from cocoons in the lead gray of first-light, before the sun had risen, stomp our feet, blow into our hands, brew up some coffee and wait. The sky would lighten, the air release its coldest grip and the sun announce its arrival — first igniting the topmost tongue of rock, the spires of trees, then creeping down the highest reaches, spilling over the land, driving the shadows away. We would watch its resurrection as it peeked over the edge of the Earth, as electric as tungsten filament in a globe of glass, then rising, revealing more of itself, its rays resplendent. Sometimes, on very cold days, seeking its warmth rather than waiting for it to find us, we might walk out of the shadows and into its light.

Every day is a spectacle if you think about it.

The mountains taught me a lot about sunlight. It is not so constant there, but a companion more capricious. Ridges, peaks and earthen walls block out the sun, enveloping you in shadows. Mountain terrain makes the sky hard to read, with no long view forecasting what’s to come, as dark clouds on the flat plains may signal storm, or expansive, empty skies bring hope of clearing. So you take it an hour at a time. Because the weather, too, is fickle in the mountains. All so changeable. Clouds hurry overhead; winds shift. The sun plays hide and seek. And when it is gone, the mountain world can be threatening, grim, inhospitable. Sunless days of cold and rain are difficult to take, and the tracks of memory imprint feelings of dread upon the soul. So much depends upon the sun. Its absence can depress moods; its renewed presence can lift spirits. Optimism is often a matter of faith.

My bank of sunlit memories would return me to a day I dropped pack after a long climb, after a bad night, lying flat on my back in the grass when the sun broke forth, transformed the world and made everything all right. Sun warm on my face. Sun on the faces of flowers. Sun splashing off radiant red rim rocks — rocks that had looked dull, flat and lifeless moments earlier. Curing, too, my own peevish disposition.

I also like the sun as a glowing white disc on a foggy morning, burning through the thick haze draped upon a meadow’s wet, green grass. Bony silhouettes of lacy bare trees. Or field after field of South Dakota sunflowers as I drive west and the blossoms track the sun’s course, pivoting throughout the day like super-attentive satellite dishes. Even autumn’s colors — the trees adorned in gold and red, auburn and orange — are different with sunlight torching the leaves. Or a winter’s day — cold, gray and dreary — turned vibrantly white and blue when the sun shines on the world, turning gloom to beauty. So much depends upon the sun.

Even here (perhaps especially here in this gray Great Lakes realm), I have come to cheer the charms of sunlight. Radiant dawn through my upstairs window, landing with a splash on the wall across the room. The light playing in the tops of those fluttery cottonwoods out back. A crimson cardinal brilliantly spotlighted in winter woods. The orangey, strobe-light sun throbbing vibrantly through leafy treetops as I drive down wooded two-lane roads. The plumes of tall grasses in my neighbor’s yard, transfigured by the sunlight when its rays enflame the ivory bristles, making them shimmer and glow.

Our sun-graced planet luxuriates in color and light, pieces of radiance — photons actually — known as visible light. It is this blinding white light that can be separated by a prism, or by water droplets in the sky, into all the colors of the rainbow — like those sparkling twin arches so vivid against towering black storm clouds that day in blue-grass Kentucky. But we see the light reflected, not the light absorbed by the objects themselves, which kind of means that red cardinal contains every color but the red you see.

Visible light falls between infrared and ultraviolet light along the electromagnetic spectrum of radiation emanating from the sun. It begins when the nuclear fusion taking place at the sun’s core — the mashing of hydrogen into helium — gives off high-energy gamma rays. As the gamma-ray photons make their way to the surface of the sun — bouncing about like bingo balls for unimaginable years — they are continuously absorbed by the solar plasma and re-emitted to lower frequencies. By the time they get to the surface, their frequencies are mostly within the infrared/visible light/ultraviolet spectrum.

Once they flee the sun’s surface, these photons (those discrete bundles — quantums — of light, exhibiting properties of both waves and particles) take little more than eight minutes to reach Earth. The speed of light.

Think 186,000 miles per second through space.

The solar furnace blasts more at the Earth than the electromagnetic energy we know as light and heat and call sunshine. It also spews a stream of charged particles (mostly electrons and protons) known as solar wind, resulting in power-line surges, radio interference and the northern lights, the aurora borealis, as the flying particles occasionally create a geomagnetic storm in the polar atmosphere. These solar winds impact the trajectories of spacecraft and the tails of comets. Solar flares, recent studies show, emit X-rays; and in 2014, British scientists detected evidence that dark matter — that mysterious, elusive ingredient thought to make up 85 percent of the universe — is also coming from the sun’s core.

Then there are neutrinos, some of the lightest particles known, also produced by the sun, with the uncanny ability to pass right through space, through the Earth, constantly and continually passing through everything, you and me and all of it. So reluctant are they to interact with other forms of matter that if neutrinos were to pass through a wall of solid lead 3,000 light-years thick, only about half would be stopped en route.

The universe — both seen and unseen — is a source of awe, a fetching mystery, a poem to parse for the Author’s signature.

Given the sun’s lordship of the sky, its power to deliver warmth and light, it is not surprising that our species has given it mystical qualities and afforded it the talents of deities. The Egyptians honored Ra, sun god and source of life. Early Persian societies celebrated its rising. Sun worship is found in Babylonian texts, Mayan calendars, the monoliths of Stonehenge, the Incas’ Machu Picchu and ancient Hindu shadow clocks — the earliest known sundial dating to 3500 B.C. Ancient peoples, unfettered by electric lights, cityscapes and television, knew their skies better than we today.

Native Americans on the big-sky, sun-washed plains still perform sun dance ceremonies, sacred rituals of sacrifice for family and community that honor the spiritual bonds of sun and land and people. The Inuit tell of the sun’s journey across the sky as a brother-sister chase. Australian Aborigines explain its daily cycle as a woman’s torch-bearing journey from east to west. She spills red ocher while decorating herself for the journey, bringing color to the eastern sky. At day’s end, reapplying her paints, she spills reds and yellows, coloring the western sky. Returning underground to her camp in the east, her torch warms the earth, causing plants to grow.

Even Christians (despite occasionally disclaiming associations with pagan mythologies) long ago likely synchronized their liturgical year with ancient religious observances relating to the turnings of sun and Earth — Easter at the vernal equinox as a springtime celebration and Christmas coinciding with the winter solstice, after which “the unconquered sun” brings renewed light and life to the world.

Even though ancient thinkers did not grasp the science we do today, some things they just knew. They may not have spoken of phospholipids, stroma or thylakoids, or ribulose bisphosphate carboxylase, the enzyme integral to photosynthesis, but they knew life on Earth depends upon the sun.

The sun’s radiation warms and cools the Earth, creates winds, powers the planet’s tides and currents, and weathers rocks, paint, barn wood, curtains hanging in west-facing windows — and human skin. Most importantly, a portion of that sunlight is absorbed and put to work by plants. Their green pigment, known as chlorophyll, gathers photons and funnels them into a remarkable photosynthetic mill, a chemist’s delight, where life-sustaining magic takes place.

The plant also absorbs water and uses the sun’s energy to break apart the water molecules (H2O), releasing the hydrogen and oxygen. This is the oxygen we breathe, the oxygen that keeps us and all the Earth’s animals alive. Yet, while these plants are “exhaling” oxygen, they are also “inhaling” carbon dioxide from the air, keeping the atmosphere healthy. Meanwhile, in the final step of photosynthesis — the conversion of solar energy to chemical energy — carbon, hydrogen and oxygen are fused to form glucose, a sugar, the Earth’s fundamental food source, which the plants use to grow and make all the other molecules in their bodies and to do the work to stay alive.

Life on Earth.

Apples, oranges, mangoes and plums. Bamboo, wheat, sweet grass and Eucalyptus leaves. Sweet potatoes, blackberries and sage. The planet’s plant life is a stunningly rich garden of industry. Bountiful, lush, efflorescent. Each tree, shrub and weed a factory, a foundry, a refinery converting the sun’s energy into glucose — even the chemical bonds holding these molecules snugly together are derived from the energy of the sun, energy released and passed on when those bonds break. And those plants are the basis for the Earth’s entire food chain, as animals and humans consume plants and other animals, enabling them to grow and live and thrive, that initial solar energy fueling the entire interwoven enterprise but never dissipating, never ending, simply changing form, undergoing chemical reactions, relayed through flora and fauna, slipping perhaps from chemical energy to kinetic energy and back again, according to a basic law of physics, the conservation of energy, which states that energy can neither be created nor destroyed, but persisting through space and time in an infinite loop. And so on.

So that the sun’s energy packed into plant life from eons ago, and those plants dying, decaying, then long buried beneath the earth, decomposing, altered and compressed over millions of years, becoming the thick goop and gas we call fossil fuels — the coal, oil and natural gas we have mined, drilled and pulled out of the ground, to power the cars and planes, factories and cities we know today. So that 21st century human civilization is essentially running on the sun’s energy, the beams of photons that invaded the Earth millions of years ago, trapped and stored till now, unearthed. Still good.

Yet about half of the photosynthesis taking place on Earth is not performed by land plants at all, but by phytoplankton, also known as algae — microscopic, single-celled plants found in all the water on the planet, from puddle to sea. Appearing as a thin, green film on the ocean surface, these comparatively simple creatures double their numbers daily, yet they are consumed at about the same rate, ultimately feeding all the bacteria, zooplankton, krill, fish, dolphins, tuna, whales and other creatures swimming below. Their photosynthesis is not only integral to the planet’s oxygen supply but is also essential for life in the oceans. For sunlight does not dive deeper than 600 feet, and so its life-giving energy depends upon the phytoplankton and the swimmers who eat it and the creatures preying upon other swimmers as the sea deepens into darkness, food scraps, carcasses and other organic debris descending unto the bottom-feeders prowling the stygian depths. A nautical food chain that emanates from phytoplankton — plants so small that a teaspoon of ocean water contains 100,000 of them.

It’s a world in which the littlest pieces are allied with enormity, in a continuous harmony of parts made whole, in an intricately tuned web that’s been percolating for millions and billions of years.

And we humans are the blessed beneficiaries of it all — the oxygen and energy, the food and tools and pith and beauty of it all. Both cosmic and microcosmic, impersonally vast, driven by chemistry and physics yet spiced with personal sensitivities, the alchemy of individuality, the brain imagining more.

So that our bodies, too, (our bodies made of starstuff, composed of elements forged in the bellies of stars and permutated, incarnated and recycled over time) reply to the sunlight raining down — channeling the precious UVB rays, turning on the vitamin D. Scientists have identified almost 3,000 genes influenced by vitamin D levels, with vitamin D receptors throughout the body affecting a wide array of health issues such as the aging of bones, the resiliency of muscles and the vitality of the respiratory system. Sunlight also triggering an instant surge of endorphins, lowering blood pressure, controlling hunger hormones, cutting cholesterol, strengthening the body’s immune system, curing some skin conditions and helping to regulate important internal biorhythms and metabolic balances. The sun as healer, improving well-being, altering moods, lifting the spirits.

Its absence having deleterious effects. Multiple sclerosis, for example, is statistically more common in darker, colder climates. And long, dark winters with too little UVB exposure and diminished vitamin D leave many feeling down and blue and others downright depressed, suffering from seasonal affective disorder.

But the life-powering sun is not always benevolent. The sun can be a killer too — its UVA rays (with a longer wavelength than UVB) causing a handful of cancers, including melanoma, the most dangerous of the skin cancers, killing almost 10,000 Americans annually.

The melanoma I knew was the black mole on the back of my leg, noticed only because of the mirror near the rowing machine where I was working out. The dermatologist cut into it during my initial exam and again deeper several days later when the biopsy showed it to be melanoma. It was not until then, till I read the literature, heard the gravity in her voice, returned over time for follow-up examinations and had other dicey moles removed — but no cancer yet spreading within — that I absorbed the seriousness of what the sun had done and still could do to me. It is the reason for sunblock and hats and a T-shirt at the beach, by the pool. It is something that furthers your education about the sun, and it can make you think about death and life and all.

Sometimes I meet the sun along the eastern shores of Lake Michigan, the white sand beaches and towering dunes that run up and down the coast for miles. The sun’s domain. In a place so bright, I prefer the late afternoon. The sun is not so glaring and hot, as if the dimmer knob has been dialed down. The light diffuses and the air changes and the day breathes out a sigh as the swimmers and sunbathers pack up and go: how it feels when the loud, laughing party is over and only good friends remain in a quiet, settled, more intimate aftermath.

I like the lengthened shadows and the refuge shade when you climb the dunes along trails of deciduous forest, the sunlight filtering in, subdued and not oppressive. I like the circular etchings the sawgrass makes in the sand when the wind blows it around and the tips of the grass are illumined by the late-day sunlight — exuberant life taking root in mountains of sand. And the trail the sun makes across the water, bobbing slices and chips of radiance reflecting off the lake. The glimmering colors I see by the sunlight flecked in my children’s hair. And how, atop the dune, the world is a textured green blanket of treetops for miles and miles.

I will stand or sit, then, take it all in, perch with family and watch patiently the sun go down. It turns gold, red or orange, its light bent, dimmed, refracted by the Earth’s atmosphere. But mainly it shines like a shield, like an egg yolk, like a liquid red rubber ball slipping over the edge. It is hard to fathom that it sinks because the Earth is turning, the world leaning away from it, rolling over. It appears to be sliding right into the lake, easing beneath the watery horizon. But it is we who turn, and journey on, as the sun shines over Iowa, Wyoming, then Idaho, and people there look up and squint, or sweat or wish the sun would come up or come out or go down.

As for me, I like to be outdoors; I’d like to die with the sun warm on my face. I just like the thought of that.

Kerry Temple is editor of this magazine.