George Ball is chairman of W. Atlee Burpee Company and past president of The American Horticultural Society, Washington, D.C.
Today at noon, unplug your backlit screen, stroll outdoors and take in the buoyant charm of reflected light. Afterwards, take a few minutes to reflect on the sun, the superstar powering the existence of the earth—including us, all things animate and inanimate, everything.
The Vernal Equinox is the first day of spring, the occasion par excellence for honoring the sun, and every gardener’s unofficial national holiday. From our earthbound vantage point, the equinox feels like the solar system’s yearly reboot: calibrating the seasons, hours and minutes, nights and days, the season ahead, and the circadian clocks that tell our minds and bodies what time it is.
From today forward, the sun will arc ever higher over the earth, reaching its peak on the Summer Solstice, the first day of summer. In the coming months, we can bask in the prospect of more sunlight and heat, longer days and shorter nights, and a thriving solar-powered landscape, exploding with life, color, aroma, and abundance.
NASA’s dazzling new images of the sun, taken by the Parker Solar Probe, bring us ever closer to our neighborhood star. The solar close-ups, taken from a spacecraft the size of a compact car about 4 million miles from the sun’s surface, are the closest so far. However, the luminous images of roiling gases fall short of bringing the sun back home. Instead, they remind us of the sun’s utter singularity, unfathomable heat, and daunting remoteness, just short of 93 million miles.
Back here on earth, there is something new under the sun: a humanmade sun in the making. A consortium of 35 nations is collaborating to create the first humanmade star on Planet Earth, sited on 444 acres in a small town (pop. 1,000) in southern France. Scheduled for completion in 2025, the megaproject, the most massive scientific research undertaking in history, will be the most expensive structure in the world. Think big.
The mini-mini-miniature new-fangled star (named ITER, aka International Thermonuclear Experimental Reactor) will allow earthling scientists to recreate the forces powering the sun and distant stars. The goal is to determine if nuclear fusion—not to be confused with nuclear fission—can safely serve as a carbon-free and inexhaustible source of energy for the world. Let’s hope so.
As of February 4th, the new star’s site incorporates a sculpture, Sans Titre, (Untitled), by American artist Christine Corday, that fuses humanity’s creative and scientific aspirations. A fully functional, nickel copper alloy, five-pound bolt, it will join uncountable others keeping the mega-station together. The untitled work, likewise unidentifiable, will be an invisible collaborator, both participant and witness to the world’s most gigantic spectacle of all time. Its humility and untitled title remind us of the nameless craftspeople who erected the megalithic structures, pyramids, cathedrals and other glories of human endeavor.
A new, humanmade sun is an inviting prospect. The original sun, one of the more than 350 billion stars in the Milky Way, has been with us a while, debuting 4.6 billion years ago. Equal in mass to 109 Earths set side by side—it cannot readily be shoehorned into a medieval village in southern France. This new, compact model is a development to be celebrated around the world.
If you wish to bring a star to your home, there’s no better place to start than a garden. Step outside to experience the sun in all its power, glory, and majesty. In your garden, you can marvel at the miracle of photosynthesis, the miraculous conjunction of sunlight, water and carbon dioxide that creates the sugars that engender plant life, and, for that matter, all life.
Your home’s solar laboratory offers a season of delectable and beauteous discoveries that you can see, touch, smell, and taste—all sponsored by the sun, our local star.