In the middle of some gorgeous June day every year, I think: “I’ve seen this before.” It’s a particular peculiar quality of clear blue light, like an apparition of summer, that turns up only in June. Certain skies in August, October and February have their music, too. But the richness and clarity of June’s blue are almost supernatural. I wonder why.

I’m sure one facet is that by June we’ve just emerged from winter, so the possibilities of a sunny day look very fresh. And pastel May has settled into a youthful maturity: The woods are a deep green that fits like puzzle pieces into that blue sky. I suspect, too, that a quality of moisture in the atmosphere sets June’s hue off from the haze of July and the shimmer of September.

There is also, most significantly maybe, the angle of the sun. It arrows down from its highest point in June, and surely there’s a slant-of-light factor, high and direct, unseen at any other time of year, that influences how the blue strikes your eye.

Because the Earth is tilted on its axis and also orbiting, the sun appears to travel up and down the sky over the year. It reaches its highest point around June 21, and then begins to descend — in other words, every day its highest spot in the sky is a little lower than the day before. It reaches its lowest midday height around Dec. 21. It then turns back and starts ascending again toward June. These high and low points in the sky are the solstices.

The farther north you are, the more the sun’s altitude in the sky varies and so does the length of daylight. In central Maine, we’re just about halfway between the equator and the pole, so our summer days are noticeably much longer than our winter days. Once I spent June and July in northern England, 10 more degrees of latitude farther north than Troy, and was dazed by the fact that “midnight’s all a glimmer” — it never really gets fully dark there in high summer. Still farther north, the sun never sets at all around that time, and never rises in the wintertime. (It’s the opposite in the Southern Hemisphere.)

When June’s blue strikes I come every year into the uneasy recollection that people have been tracking the sun’s path for 3,000 years and more. How long before?

The oldest written record of astronomical calculations is a catalog of risings of Venus over 21 years from Babylon about 1600 BC (3,600 years ago). But it seems clear that a detailed knowledge of sky motions goes back centuries further, probably a lot further. The Great Pyramids of Egypt, which are thought to have been built in the centuries around 2700 BC, show signs of orientation to the stars. Stonehenge, which is thought to have been first built at roughly the same time as the pyramids, has standing stones arranged to indicate the exact times of solstices.

And there’s reason to believe sky motions were being tracked even before the pyramids or Stonehenge were built. A site dated to around 5000 BC at Goseck, Germany, consists of concentric ditches and palisade rings with gates aligned to sunrise and sunset at the solstices. This implies people were closely tracking the sun and stars at least 7,000 years ago. How long before they built such facilities were they developing their observations?

In his book “Hamlet’s Mill,” Massachusetts Institute of Technology professor Giorgio de Santillana contended that all of world mythology is a coded oral record of astronomical information. The stories behind the constellations — Taurus (the bull), Leo (the lion), Hercules (the hero), for example — are the late, remaining versions of some of these stories.

The ancient skywatchers did not know that the Earth orbits the sun and is tilted on its axis. But they apparently were well aware that the sun travels a regular path and that the pole star changes position over a 26,000-year cycle of time, and they told stories depicting and figuratively detailing these awesome motions.

If this is true, the implications are sort of astounding. It means the original stories could be 50,000 years old, and probably older. This is not hard to believe, if you ask me. It seems likely that full-blown language, with the capacity for abstraction, was being spoken at least 70,000 years ago, and probably earlier. If so, then people were telling stories around campfires, and the sky in its awesome, ever-changing yet ever-stable expanse would have been a matter of fascination, description and discussion.

The sun is the most prominent celestial body, so it would take no more than a few years for even one perceptive person living in the Earth’s middle latitudes to notice that it travels up and down the sky, corresponding to warm and cold, growing and withering seasons. If such people encoded and passed along this knowledge in stories, then the myth of the gods of the waxing and waning year, as the poet Robert Graves phrases it, is beyond ancient.

Maybe the June blue is not just a seasonal configuration of greenery, atmospheric moisture and high angles of light. Maybe my eye transports the same sense of ancient immanence as the distant ancestors who watched the mysterious and all-powerful sun appear and disappear. We can’t really understand, in any rational way, how they thought or what they knew. In their philosophy, dreams sparked by starlight were as real and important as summer and growing trees.

And there it is, it seems, right in your eye, deep in the blue, blue sky of June.

Dana Wilde lives in Troy. He is a contributor to “Pluto: New Horizons for a Lost Horizon” available from North Atlantic Books. You can contact him at [email protected] Backyard Naturalist appears the second and fourth Thursdays each month.


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