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Randy Holladay is a former Louisa County High School earth science teacher. His guest column, On & Off Earth, is published once a month. 


For millennia, humans worldwide have held celebrations leading up to and around the Winter solstice. Human awareness of the days growing no shorter and the sun “standing still” are, next to fire; metallurgy; and agriculture, the base for all human knowledge, or science, to follow. Every culture and creed holds end of the year celebrations during this holiday season. This year will certainly continue those traditions, with twists and changes yet to be seen or known.

As I began to write this month’s column, I realized we have used up our quota of superlatives in describing this year. I can now only muster a weary sigh to cover 2020. The same words (unprecedented!) seemingly reused daily to cover the happenings this year, just don’t do the job anymore.

Keepers of records have been busy this year: Our winter passed without one day completely below freezing and no real snow; Australia kicked off 2020 with record high temperatures and massive wildfires, trends that would move north with the seasons. Down Under also saw monster hurricanes that shifted to the northern oceans in turn – I’m still a little shocked our record-smashing hurricane season is actually over. All in-your-face signs of the new realities of a rapidly warming planet.

2020 has also seen record citizen involvement, millions marching against racial injustice and inequalities, voter turnout surpassing any seen before, and thousands stepping up to donate and distribute food to the millions struggling to survive amid the still-raging pandemic. And, most Americans, happy to wear a mask, are doing that small, easy thing to protect themselves and their fellow citizens.

With all the turmoil swirling about, I still realize how lucky I am to be able to mostly stay home and wander the woods with a very good dog. The views in the forest have changed; only the evergreens and a few red oak leaves up high and beech leaves down low remain, and the rolling nature of the Piedmont terrain is now easily seen. My hope continues to be that everyone can get outside for a daily walk on the planet, a brief respite from the realities of 2020.

As I wrote, way back in my first column in February, I’m often outside at and after sunset, enjoying the moon, planets and stars as they “turn on” in the growing darkness.

While Mars still beams bright and rusty, high in the southeast, the real show in December is Saturn and Jupiter. The two bright “stars” in the southwest at dusk have been sky neighbors for most of 2020 and will draw ever nearer all month.

On the 21st, the evening of the Winter solstice, they will be closer than has been seen on Earth in nearly 800 years, so close as to be observable in the same field through a telescope. Get out at dusk and watch this once-in-a-lifetime planetary conjunction.

And, stay safe. There is still much for each of us to do to make this a happy holiday season. As is the rule, there is nothing but change coming today, tomorrow and into 2021. This Holladay would like to wish each of you the merriest and safest of holidays and nothing but the best for all of us in the coming year.

Randy Holladay is a retired Louisa County High School earth science teacher.

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