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New marketing slogan: 'Park Rapids: The home of 24 seasons!'

Alan Zemek

According to the encyclopedia, the winter solstice occurs exactly when the Earth's axial tilt is farthest away from the sun at its maximum of 23 degrees 26 minutes, when the sun's daily maximum position in the sky is the lowest. The significance of this astronomical event is..."the reversal of the gradual lengthening of nights and shortening of days...and is notably "more evident to those in high latitudes."

I am sure the author intended only a factual description of the magic that happens when the wobble of the Earth is going in one direction, and then just for an instant, for an imperceptible moment, the planet hangs suspended in space and time, before every so slowly it starts to fall, turning over to wobble in the other direction.

I have to admit, it made me chuckle. When I left Park Rapids in mid November it was 65 degrees. When I got back three weeks later it was 22 below zero; "More evident to those in high latitudes?" Gee! Ya think?

As many of us who feel a special quality about it, I am often asked by the great horde of the uninitiated to explain my affinity for Park Rapids, and the inquiry usually gravitates to a conversation about the change of the seasons, winter, spring, summer, and fall, and how each season is uniquely different and helps mark the passage of the years in a way that is possible only in the high latitudes where such changes are "more evident."

But first, a little background: The winter solstice as we know it was first fixed in the year 46 B.C. by Julius Caesar on Dec. 25 on the Roman calendar. A slight imprecision in the Julian calendar proved troublesome, however, as over the centuries the observed date and the actual astronomical event got farther and farther out of sync, until by 1582 the Julian calendar was off by more than ten days. So that year Pope Gregory VIII straightened things out and reset the calendar, moving the solstice back to where it is now, on Dec. 21, the exact moment of the actual astronomical event occurring sometime on or near that date.

What got me thinking about this was an item in the news last week that a full moon, total lunar eclipse, and the winter solstice were all going to occur on the same day, an astronomical occurrence last observed something like 462 years ago, so I got curious and looked it up.

Here is what I learned: While the actual occurrence of the solstice can be calculated to the astronomical second, it can't actually be observed because, obviously, the Earth doesn't really ever stop wobbling. And to make an observation requires a reference in time, so the event can't be said to have been "observed" until after it has already happened. (Okay, I admit I am going to have to think about that one for awhile.)

I also learned that winter is a totally subjective term, there being no scientifically established beginning or middle. In fact in East Asian cultures the winter solstice marks not the first day of winter, but the extreme of winter, so that as of December 22nd winter isn't beginning, it is ending. Now personally, that makes more sense to me, as the days are already growing longer. Today there will be three more minutes of daylight than there was just a couple days ago. (Sunset tonight will be 4:40 p.m.)

Our calendar observes four basic astronomical events, the two solstices and two equinoxes that separate our four seasons. But just marking the four major seasons doesn't do justice to the nuances of change that occur every day of the year in Park Rapids.

I think a much better description of the wobble in our world is found in the Chinese lunisolar calendar that marks 24 distinct astronomical periods in a year. The Chinese calendar also marks the four major seasons, but also describes intermediate seasons with names such as "rain water" which follows the start of spring, and "white dew" and "cold dew" which fall just before and just after the autumn equinox, which is then followed by "frost descent" just before the start of actual winter.

And just last week we observed the winter solstice and soon we will be heading into "minor cold" followed by "major cold" but that is okay, because in the Chinese lunisolar calendar the start of spring is February 4th, and that is just around the corner.

So now this is how I describe Park Rapids. It is more than a place where you can observe the changing of the seasons. It is more than just "more evident." It is a place where you can actually feel the Earth move under your feet. Every day is a new day. Every day is a new season.

Come to think of it, maybe there is a marketing opportunity in here somewhere. "Park Rapids: The home of 24 seasons! Come experience all of them." But truth be told, there is one season I would like to leave out. It is called "awakening of insects."

Seasons greetings and Happy New Year!

Alan Zemek is a Park Rapids area developer and author of "Generation Busted: How America Went Broke in the Age of Prosperity." You can follow his blog, or comment on this article on his website, www.generationbust