For thousands of years, people around the world have tracked the sun and created ways of marking the solstices and equinoxes in stone. Literally. Stonehenge, Chaco Canyon, Chichen Itza, and many places like them around the world contain man-made structures and natural landscapes that interact with petroglyphs to indicate the seasons. These structures helped them to know when to plant and harvest crops, when to expect certain weather patterns, and when to conduct their rituals and ceremonies.
Today, we are so obsessed with our smartwatches, smartphones, and Google calendars that we’ve lost our connection with the signs given to us by nature for timekeeping and navigation. That’s why I found so much joy in creating my own backyard compass and seasonal tracker. It’s so simple but gives me a sense of connecting the landscape of my own yard with the larger scope of nature, including the cosmos.
Start by creating a compass to find the cardinal directions: north, south, east, and west. I used two methods to build mine by using daytime and nighttime techniques to verify my position.
Then, I waited for the solstices and equinoxes to roll around throughout the year to add my seasonal markers.
Here are the instructions for creating your own Backyard Compass with diagrams created by my daughter when she was younger.
GATHER YOUR MATERIALS
- 8 straight sticks, one of which should be about 12 inches in length
- Hammer to get the sticks in the ground
- Tape measure
- A square or something to measure a 90-degree angle
- 5 pavers, stones, or bricks
- Marker, paint, or sidewalk chalk
SELECT A LOCATION
- Find a place in your yard with the least obstructed view in all directions, especially toward the Eastern horizon.
- Choose a stick about 12 inches long and thick enough to make a good shadow.
- Make it a bit pointy at the end.
- Use the hammer to drive the stick into the ground.
MAKE REGULAR OBSERVATIONS
- Begin at 11:30 AM by placing a stick in the ground at the end of the shadow made by the main stick.
- Repeat every 15 minutes until 1:15 PM.
- If you are on Daylight Savings Time when doing this, shift your times to one hour earlier.
MEASURE THE SHADOWS
- At the end of your observation time, measure the distance between the main stick and each smaller stick you used to mark the points of the shadows.
- The shortest measurement indicates the cardinal line. Your main stick is SOUTH, and your other stick that marked the shortest shadow is NORTH.
- Extend your North-South line by measuring 5-10 feet to the North and 5-10 feet to the South.
- Place large rocks or pavers at these two locations and replace the main stick with an observation stone that you can stand on.
EXPAND SOME MORE
- Create a perpendicular line from your standing observation stone using your square or some other device to measure a 90-degree angle. Extend these lines 5-10 feet in both directions.
- Place a large rock or paver at the end of each line and label them East and West.
OBSERVE THE NIGHT SKY
- After dark, stand on your standing stone and face your rock labeled “North.”
- Look into the sky and see if you can spot the Big Dipper and Cassiopeia.
- The North Star, or Polaris, is right in the middle of the two constellations. It’s not as bright as most people expect. Use a stargazing app on your smartphone if you want to confirm the location of the North Star.
- If necessary, adjust your North stone to align perfectly with Polaris. If you have to make an adjustment, change the other stones, too.
For a permanent fixture in your lawn, dig out the grass and dirt underneath your pavers to set them in the earth to prevent tripping and ensure the lawnmower won’t hit them. If space does not permit, a temporary compass can be drawn on a driveway with sidewalk chalk.
Once your compass is in place, you can plan to add your solstice and equinox markers. Choose three large, flat stones, bricks, or pavers and inscribe the following, or some variation:
- Summer Solstice
- Winter Solstice
- Spring/Fall Equinox
Let’s say you’re approaching the Summer Solstice. You’ll want to mark your calendar and set an alarm to get up before the sun rises that day. You stand on the standing stone of your compass and watch the sunrise. As soon as you see it peek above the horizon, place your Summer stone to mark where you saw it rise. Do the same for the other seasons. You’ll now be able to identify where the sun rises each season while standing on the compass standing stone. You could expand this and do the same for sunset on the solstices and equinoxes.