Tabloid Astronomy

By David Kessler

Travel across time zones can make a day seem extra long or extra short, regardless of whether you travel eastward or westward.  By the time the plane touched down in Glasgow airport on June 22, I had logged a full day in Boston, a transatlantic flight, a 2 hour layover, the dash to reach my connecting flight, and the trip to Scotland.  It was morning in Scotland when I arrived and I knew that I had several more hours of traveling ahead of me before I reached the bed waiting for me in Glen Nevis.  As I paused by the rack of free airport newspapers for travelers I wasn't thinking about solstices or equinoces, I was hoping to orient myself to being in Britain.  A brief look at the front page of the Independent was enough to both remind me that I had made my trip on the longest astronomical day of the year, and to let me know - in their own tabloid fashion - that I was now in Britain.

At the top of the page was a full color banner of a photograph, with a title running above it: "As the Midsummer sun rises, crowds gather to see what Stonehenge has been missing for 16 years".  The photo showed a fully naked man (from behind) standing with his legs spread and his arms stretched upward in (I assume) ecstatic salute to the rising sun.

The background of the photo was filled with the monuments of Stonehenge and a crowd of people facing the camera - and the nude poser.  Some were dressed in overcoats, some in parkas, some in what anyone who has attended enough renaissance fiares would recognize as druidic garb.  They were spread out in a semi-circle, giving him room, like an audience timidly formed around a street performer.  A caption under the photo said, "surrounded by druids a naked man greets the dawn of the year's longest day at Stonehenge in Wiltshire.  Up to 5,000 people were allowed into the stone circle yesterday, the first time it's been open since 1984"

In summer 1985 I visited Stonehenge with a friend on our way home from a year in Israel.  We waked around the stones on the circular path, separated from them by a barrier of a single piece of string supported by thin wooden stakes that were maybe 3 feet tall.  Within this flimsy barrier were several worn paths.  The story then was that people mobbed, and sometimes vandalized the stones every full moon, and the barrier was to preserve the monuments from destruction.  Perhaps nude celebrants also had a hand in the policy that lasted until 2000.

For all the odd elements in the photo my favorite detail is the wristwatch worn by its central figure.  Yep, he made his way to what is possibly the heaviest calendar on the planet, constructed to be in perfect alignment to that specific day, that morning, that sunrise in fact!  He made his way there to see that event with such dedication that he removed his hat, shoes, wallet, and clothes.  He discarded everything that could come between him and the glorious moment when the careful positioning of the ancient stones would be fulfilled... except for the one object on him that was redundant in that moment - his timepiece.

Talk about "bringing coal to Newcastle"!

From the front page of The Independent - Thursday, 22 June 2000:
" Up to 5,000 people were allowed into the stone circle yesterday, the first time it has been open since 1984.  English Heritage, which manages the stones believed to have been built by the pagan religious order of druids, has only allowed limited access since the Stonehenge Free Festival was banned.  This sparked clashes in 1985 as pilgrims to the site demanded they be allowed to perform religious rites.  Wiltshire police were drafted in yesterday in case of trouble, but only two arrests were made during the eight hours the site was open."

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