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Celebrate the Solstice at the César Chávez Sundial

By Gar Smith
Tuesday December 14, 2010 - 12:56:00 PM
Gar Smith

With the approach of the winter solstice on December 20, druids, stargazers and the science-minded are preparing to converge on “Berkeley’s Stonehenge” — the César Chávez Memorial Sundial, perched high atop a hill in the Berkeley Marina. The solstice officially begins at 23:38 Coordinated Universal Time on December 21 and, occurs at 3:38 PM Pacific Standard Time in the Bay Area but Chavez Memorial founder Santiago Casal explains: “We are holding [the ceremony on the 20th] in order to experience the simultaneous full moonrise and inform people about the lunar eclipse later that night. ”  

The sundial memorial, which was begun in 2000 by a team lead by Santiago Casal, occupies a 1.5-acre site that enjoys a 360-degree view of the horizon. The site was commemorated in 2001, the first stones were placed in 2002, the circle was completed in 2003, the shadow-casting gnomon was installed in 2005 and new signage (with information on astronomy and the life of César Chávez) was added in 2007. 

Four stones are set at each of the Four Directions and each stone is engraved with one of four virtues associated with César Chávez — Courage, Determination, Hope and Tolerance. In the center stands a three-foot-tall “gnomon,” a stone pillar that casts a shadow over the sundial. On the solstice, the shadow will line up perfectly between the western and eastern stones. 

The current gnomon eventually will be replaced by a monumental tower that will rise 16 feet above the sundial. Lengthening the tower will create a longer shadow whose motion will actually be visible to visitors. (And remember: it’s not just the shadow that’s in motion; the soil on which your feet are planted is also moving —spinning toward the east at around 800 miles-per-hour.) 

This year’s winter’s solstice coincides with a full moon. Like this year’s summer equinox, a full moon will rise over the East Bay hills at the very moment the sun is setting over Mount Tamalpais in the west. 

As Casal pointed out during a recent on-site meeting with the volunteers who maintain the memorial, the newly upgraded sundial tablet not only marks the year’s solstices and equinoxes but also notes the mid-points — periods of the calendar that are celebrated by many cultures around the world.  

“ While it is common to refer to the memorial as a sundial,” Casal points out that “the site is actually it is a Solar Calendar that measures the cycles of the seasons, not the hours of the day.”  

Part of the tablet is the analemma, which traces the 12-month path of the shadow as it inscribes a “figure 8” over the stone. The analemma was charted by a determined volunteer who made a pilgrimage to the sundial every day to draw a dot at the exact point where the tip of the shadow fell at exactly 12:09:07 PM. Because there were some days when shadows with washed away by rainstorms, the analemma is made up of 175 marks instead of 365. 

The site is maintained and the stones and signs cleaned at least twice a week by volunteer Stewards of the Sundial. Casal says the site has suffered only a few small acts of vandalism and has largely been respected, most likely because of the sundial’s association with Chávez. There has been no graffiti and the only major disruption, Casal says, is when a fence was installed around the new, improved site to allow the cement to cure. “The fence was torn down the next day,” Casal says but he assumes this not an act of “vandalism” but as a gesture of “liberation” by someone who failed to understand why the public should suddenly be excluded (even temporarily) from full access to the site. 

The next phase of the site’s development will see the Memorial Sundial relocated 30 feet to the west while 6,000 cubic yards of earth will be brought to the site to build 7-foot-tall berms on the east. The berms will serve to embrace the area as a sacred space, obscuring distracting views of the shoreline developments and dampening the roar of the 580 freeway. 

This year, the solstice sun sets at 4:54 PM. The annual hour-long gathering will take place at the Sundial beginning at 4:15. 

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