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This is a free educational resource for parents, teachers, and community groups. It works any place where you have a patch of ground with a stick, flagpole, fence post or some other vertical object. (You can also use your own body as the vertical object!) This resource makes use of our first green technology – THE SUN, A STICK AND ITS SHADOW…

[The next four paragraphs appeared in The Maui Weekly on April 21, 2011. If you’ve read this, please skip to the first blue and green graphic below.]

Pssst! You… yeah, you… are a passenger on a planet – on a blue green planet that’s orbiting a golden star. If our planet were not spinning, we wouldn’t have days. If she were not orbiting, we wouldn’t have years. If our moon were not orbiting us, we wouldn’t have months — or “moonths” as we originally pronounced this word. You and I would not be inhabiting this planet if our ancient ancestors hadn’t… hadn’t… hadn’t what? Eons before we learned reading, writing and ‘rithmetic, we put a stick in the ground and we watched the shadow it cast. We observed the shadow changing during the day and during the year. We observed how the changes are orderly, predictable, linked with the seasons and linked with the life cycles of all plants and animals. We observed that the cycles of life-on-Earth are the rhythms of Earth-and-sky. And we asked ourselves, “Why?”

Answering this takes us many centuries, but it shows us how to plan. And planning equals survival when our food grows — or migrates into our territory — only at a certain time of year. Planning equals survival when the materials for our clothing and shelter grow — or migrate into our territory — only at a certain time of year. With planning we know when to aim our arrows at migrating birds and animals, when put our fishing nets into the water, and when to plant our seeds. Our hunger to know why the rhythms of life-on-Earth are the cycles of Earth-and-sky rewards us with more than food. It develops our brains and it connects us with the cosmos. The more we connect with the cosmos, the more eager we are to understand the cosmic cycles by which nature satisfies our needs. So, we upgrade our sticks-in-the ground: we create sundials, obelisks, and eventually massive, sky-aligned structures like Stonehenge, Machu Picchu and Chaco Canyon. We also upgrade our observing skills by creating mathematics, astronomy, physics, geography and more. Eventually, we discover that the Earth beneath our feet is transporting us through the heavens. Yes, she’s spinning us and orbiting us through space with a mathematical precision that we track with clocks and calendars.

Our stick-in-the ground is our first clock, our first calendar and our first observatory. With our observatory we can tell the date. With our observatory we can observe holy days — holidays. In ancient Greece our stick-in-the-ground is called a gnomon (“KNOW-mun”), meaning “indicator” or “one who discerns.” And our gnomon becomes the root of our words, knowing, knowledge, cognition, recognize, diagnose, gnosis, connoisseur and cognoscente. Yes, our gnomon is the root of our knowing. It’s also our original green technology, but we may not recognize it as a technology because it has no moving parts. It needs no moving parts because our planet provides all the motion!

If all I know is how to pass tests — and I don’t know how to provide for my needs without destroying the only planet in the solar system that offers me food, clothing, shelter and air to breathe… What do I really know?


If you watch the stick’s shadow at sunrise or sunset you’ll see that it does something dramatic on June 21 and December 21. This drama shows us where we are in our planet’s orbit! If you’re wondering how we can know so much from so little, please imagine this:

You’re facing east at sunrise on June 21, watching your stick and its shadow. You mark its shadow by placing a few stones or pebbles along the full length of the shadow…

Keep marking the sunrise shadow as often as you can – and you notice that the shadow points farther and farther toward the left because the sun rises farther and farther to the right. (Each day the shadow points farther to the north because the sun is rising farther to the south.)

On September 22 you notice that the shadow looks like this:

Finally, on December 21, you notice that the shadow stops moving because the sunrise point stops moving. On December 21 the shadow looks like this:

For the next three months you keep marking the sunrise shadow as often as you can – and you notice that the shadow points farther and farther toward the right because the sun rises farther and farther to the left. (Each day the shadow points a farther to the south because the sun is rising farther to the north.)

On March 20 you notice that the shadow looks like this:

On June 21 you notice that the shadow looks exactly the same as it did last June 21 because you’re back at the spot in our yearly orbit where you began watching the sun, a stick and its shadow. You also notice that the shadow stops moving because the sunrise point stops moving.

If you’ve marked the shadow with stones and you’ve written the date on the stones, you’ve made yourself a calendar!

June 21: summer solstice in the northern hemisphere; winter solstice in the southern hemisphere

September 22: fall equinox in the northern hemisphere; spring equinox in the southern hemisphere

December 21: winter solstice in the northern hemisphere; summer solstice in the southern hemisphere

March 20: spring equinox in the northern hemisphere; fall equinox in the southern hemisphere.

(These dates are approximate because our calendar is not a perfectly accurate map of our planet’s position in its yearly orbit – and because our planet’s orbit is not a perfect circle; it’s an ellipse.)

If you’d like to learn more about what your shadow stick is telling you about our solstices and equinoxes, please return to our home page and read “SEE FOR YOURSELF…”

If you’re using your own body as a shadow stick you’ll need a partner to mark your shadow. You’ll also need to mark the spot where you stand so you can be sure to stand at the exact same place each time. Before your partner marks your shadow, make sure your two feet are perfectly parallel and touching each other.

Here’s how your partner will mark your shadow:

Place one pebble in the little space between your two big toes.

Place one pebble at the other end of your shadow, at the top of your shadow-head.

Place one pebble where your belly button is.

Go off for a while and return to your pebbles about 30 minutes later. See how your shadow has changed. In other words, see how fast your planet is spinning you around her axis!

Watching your shadow calendar teaches you how to think the way our earth does. Cultures that think the way our earth does are the ones that survive – and thrive.

GREEN TOOL, GREEN SCHOOL began as 52 weekly radio spots that aired on radiOpio, broadcasting from the Paia Youth & Cultural Center, Paia, Maui. (Opio means youth in Hawaiian.) I created this radio almanac with Laura Civitello, director of radiOpio.

The first four paragraphs of this GREEN TOOL, GREEN SCHOOL post are the text of radio spot number 9. The texts of all radio spots are available at

(The audio files will be posted soon on this website.)

The radio almanac was inspired by Susan Wyche in the fall of 2009. She was designing a garden for Kihei Elementary School on Maui. She told me that it was challenging to get teachers to bring their students into the garden because it might be seen as a distraction from their basic education. The idea that any educator might have trouble seeing the connection between gardens and learning catapulted me into creating the radio almanac as a way of demonstrating that a garden (with a gnomon in it and stones to mark its shadow) can be the basis of an interdisciplinary sustainability curriculum.

We’ll be expanding GREEN TOOL, GREEN SCHOOL with the help of your comments, questions and suggestions. Please write them in the LEAVE A REPLY box below. If you’d like to be updated on the evolution of this project, please say so and enter your email address (we’ll keep it confidential) in the same box.

Harriet Witt


  • Throughout the awesome scheme of things you actually secure a B- with regard to hard work. Where you lost me was first in the details. You know, it is said, details make or break the argument.. And it couldn’t be more true in this article. Having said that, permit me reveal to you what did deliver the results. The text is actually very engaging which is possibly the reason why I am taking an effort to opine. I do not make it a regular habit of doing that. Next, despite the fact that I can see a leaps in reason you make, I am not really sure of just how you appear to unite the ideas which in turn help to make the final result. For right now I shall subscribe to your issue however hope in the future you actually link the dots much better.

  • admin

    Thank you for taking the time to comment on Green Tool, Green School! I’d love to hear more about how I lost you in the details. This is my first time writing on the subject of shadow sticks and education, so I have a lot to learn about presenting the material. Any observations you can share will be most appreciated!
    Aloha, Harriet

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