Walnuts

The walnuts are always the first to turn.  At least around here they are.  Their yellow leaves began to litter the bike path in August.  Their nuts can be quite a hazard to a jogger if it’s not quite light.  Still jacketed with their spherical rind, an unexpected foot landing on one can lead to a rolled ankle or even a fall on the pea gravel.  Such incidents led me to wait until it’s light enough to see clearly before going out for a jog.  You see, I like to exercise before starting work, so I jog at first light.  In June this can mean heading out even before five if the weather’s clear.  Since I start work around 6:30 this is a comfortable time to go.  Nobody else is on the bike path then.  And with Covid lurking, that’s a good thing.

The earliest sunrise comes about a week before the summer solstice.  By the time summer officially begins I already have to delay my jog slightly.  This is one of the great disappointments about Daylight Saving Time.  After winter’s long darkness, it starts to get light in the morning and I think to myself “I’ll soon be able to jog before work again,” but then we set the clocks back and set sunrise progress back by another month.  During the darkling months of the year I have to jog at lunchtime.  The changing walnuts always warn me that such a time is drawing near.  Already here in early September I’m getting back late for my usual work time since the sun is reluctant to throw its first crepuscular rays over the brow of the hill before six a.m.  The problem with this is that many more people are out on the bike trail at six than I ever see at five.  And often they don’t care to share.

There are a couple of older guys who walk abreast, taking up pretty much the whole trail every day now.  They hear me coming, look back, but like the marching band in “American Pie,” refuse to yield.  Single file for them is a sign of weakness.  I have to divert into the dew-soaked grass on chilly mornings to get around them with my now-wet feet.  I long for the days when I could easily jog before they even think of heading out to the trail.  The solitude of half-light.  The walnuts are the prophets of the tree world, however.  Their fruit is both nutritious and dangerous.  Scattered across the trail in the persistent dusk of a cloudy morning, they’re both a hazard and a warning.  And it’s a sign that the morning jog may already have to wait until mid-May to reappear.

Sunrise Sunset

The earliest sunrise doesn’t take place on the longest day.  Things like this are what kept me out of a career in astronomy.  No, the earliest morning occurs about a week before the summer solstice.  It keeps staying light later in the evening, but the darkness creeps back in the a.m.  I know this because I awake before sunrise and I jog at first light in the summer.  For a couple of weeks now I’ve been having to start my jog later and later as I wait for the sun to catch up.  The latest sunset is about a week after the solstice.  Now matter how you count it, the days are getting shorter now.  Another lesson I’ve learned from my early morning jogs is that it’s chilliest just before sunrise.  The temperature keeps dropping from what it is around 3:00 a.m., meaning that it’s coolest just before the sun comes up.  Life lessons from the jogging trail.

I took astronomy both in high school and college.  Always fascinated by space I guess I was optimistic that perhaps the mathematics would’ve dropped out of it somewhere between diploma and baccalaureate.  My mind is more of the humanities type, dealing with approximations and analogies.  The concepts I get, but I can’t swim in formulas.  One of the main sources of perplexities was just what I’ve been describing about the earliest dawn and latest evening.  Shouldn’t they be the same day?  And how is it that the longest day is neither the earliest sunrise nor latest sunset?  Math may explain that, but I can’t.  There’s a wonder in it all.

Jogs before work (for I start that early as well) are possible only a few months of the year at this latitude.  They will give way to lunchtime breaks soon enough and yet summer has only just started.  The days will seem longer although in fact they are getting shorter.  You see what I mean about approximations and analogies?  I still occasionally read books about astronomy, and when NASA (or some privately funded venture) makes announcements about what’s going on in the heavens I pay attention.  Yes, I would liked to have gone into astronomy, but life has a way of steering you down certain paths.  Besides, there’s a certain wonder in retaining the mystery of how the longest day occurs three times in the course of two weeks, depending on your definition.  

Too Much Light?

The summer solstice comes whether we want it to or not.  Today is the longest day in the northern hemisphere although, as I write this the sun has not yet risen.  It was a sleepless night, making this day seem even longer than it already is.  Over on Horror Homeroom, where they understand sleepless nights, my piece on the movie Midsommar will appear.  I won’t say here what I say there, or you might not go and read it.  I will say that for a horror film Midsommar boldly sets itself in a sun-bathed atmosphere, making it all the more unsettling.  To see more you’ll need to visit the Homeroom.

There are implications for the longest day.  One of the most obvious is that from here on out days will be getting shorter.  That’s the thing about anticipation—we crave the light when it’s in such short supply in December and January.  This year of Covid, the spring blended into a long stretch of social distancing and isolation, even as the days were growing longer and the weather warmer.  It was like some spokes were missing from the wheel of the year.  Now that summer’s here many people are acting as if the need for caution is gone.  Midsommar may help with that, since it shows that the daylight sometimes shows us what we don’t really wish to see.

Ancient peoples kept an eye on the seasonal changes long before they learned to write.  Etched into the landscape markers like Stonehenge and Avebury and countless others were oriented toward celestial points on the solstices.  Equinoxes were also observed, as well as the half-way points between.  This altering of the earth to commemorate the progressing of the year took great effort, so we must assume it had great importance.  You don’t move boulders unless you feel strongly compelled to do so.  Such compulsion strikes us all as religious.

So it’s the longest day of the year.  What will we do with it?  When we look back at it, will we see what we wished we might have done with all that light on our side?  Will we treat it just like any other day?  The beauty of holidays (of which capitalism recognizes far too few) is that they teach us to stop and reflect for a few moments on the messages our planet sends us.  Our longest day is also a message.  What we do with that information is up to us.

Long Ranger

The summer solstice is nearly here (on which more anon).  The coronavirus outbreak reached crisis level in the United States just before the vernal equinox, so we’ve been living with this now for over a quarter of the year.  The World Health Organization has been warning that the greatest danger now is complacency.  I’ve been seeing troubling signs of it.  Many people equate the partial opening up as a license to ditch the masks and start having parties again.  I go jogging around 5 a.m. these days because, well, the solstice.  It’s light enough and I’ve already been awake a couple of hours by then.  Parks and playgrounds around here are officially closed still, but the other day just after first light I jogged by a group of guys playing basketball before sunrise.  The days are longer and it feels like nothing can harm us in summer.

Like most other people I worry about the economy.  You’d think books would be big business during a lockdown and in fact many kinds are doing quite well.  The academic kind less so.  Still, I haven’t given up my hope that the pandemic will prove transformative.  We should emerge from this better than we were going into it.  Granted, the Republican Party has put the bar really, really low, but people are, I hope, starting to realize we’re better than our government.  We know that black lives matter.  We know that science is real.  We know that people matter more than money.  Nevertheless it’s difficult to keep wearing masks when we’ve shed the winter clothes and donned short sleeves.  Disease, like Republicanism, doesn’t respect human desires.  We need to keep the masks on.

A strange kind of giddiness comes upon us during these long days.  There’s so much light!  Those who can sleep past 4 a.m. are finding the sky already glowing when they awake.  At this latitude it stays light until almost 9 p.m., or so I’m told.  Thinking back to our primal ancestors, we were only really active during daylight hours.  Sluggish and sleepy in the winter, we’re now stimulated with so many photons we don’t know what to do with them all.  I sincerely hope that Covid-19 has had enough of the human race and is ready to leave us alone.  In the light of the day, however, the evidence isn’t there to bear that out.  We can still celebrate the longest day of the year with masks on, knowing that six months from now things will be very different.

Weathering the Sun

I may have given up on Weathering the Psalms a bit prematurely.  Those who know me know that the weather impacts my mood.  Now that I have a yard to mow that feeling has grown exponentially since perpetually wet grass is happy grass and is impossible to cut with a reel mower.  Today, while those of pagan inclinations celebrate the sun, there’s more rain in the forecast.  As there has been since Sunday.  If Yahweh’s the God of the sun, then Baal’s had the upper hand for some time now.  As an article on Gizmodo has pointed out, this has been the rainiest twelve months on record for the United States.  And we’re largely to blame.  We’ve known we’ve been warming the globe since the 1980s, at least.  Yet we do nothing about it.  You can’t stop the rain. 

Our species occupies that odd role of predator and prey.  Most predators, actually, are prey to somebody else.  Not being nocturnal by nature, we fear the dark when we feel more like prey.  Since we’re visually oriented, we crave the light.  Today, when the conditions are right, we have it abundantly.  Ironically, of the seasonal celebrations, the summer solstice is the only one with no notable holidays.  Easter and a host of May Day-like holidays welcome spring and Halloween and Thanksgiving settle us into fall.  December holidays around the other solstice are the most intense, but summer, with its abundant light and warmth, is perhaps celebration enough.  Or maybe we know that marking the longest day is a transition point, since now we’ve reached a natural turning point.

So, it’s the solstice.  From here on out the days start getting shorter and we slowly move toward the time of year when horror becomes fashionable again.  The light that we crave now ebbs slowly to the dark we fear.  There should be a holiday around here somewhere, for those of us outside academia continuing working right on through.  The problem is western religions, especially Christianity, place no especially memorable events here.  Resurrection’s a hard act to follow.  Calendars, apart from telling us when to plant and harvest, are primarily religious tools in origin.  When things are their darkest, six months from now, the church moved the likely spring birthday of Jesus to counteract pagan festivals encouraging the return of the light.  I, for one, would like to see a day to commemorate it, even if it’s raining again.

Let the Sunshine in

The earliest sunrise does not occur on the longest day. At least not at this latitude—I can’t speak for the entire world, but sunrise lags behind the latest sunset by a few days. In Germany the longest day was January 30, 1933. It seems that the Nazi Party did not win the majority, but Hitler was made chancellor anyway. All he wanted to do was to make Germany great again, right? No matter who it hurt. When Americans, who sacrificed thousands of souls, found the concentration camps they swore it would never happen again. That was, however, before Donald Trump was born. Indeed, those seeking the transmigration of souls might wonder where he’d been wondering for the previous thirteen months. There’s some cryptic stuff happening here.

How can it be that sunrise isn’t earliest on the longest day? Back in the days when science mattered, it was simply explained: the number of minutes the sun is in the sky maxes out on the summer solstice. Sunrise can keep getting earlier for a few more days, but so will sunset. The longest day, in the biblical world, was when Joshua was fighting at Makkedah. The slaughter was going so well that the big white guy upstairs (oh no, he’s not Jewish, you see) reached out and held the sun in place for another 24 hours so it could continue. That, you see, is the longest day. Not exactly sand chairs and sunscreen, although the latter might’ve been awfully useful.

Although in modern times the solstice is known as the first day of summer, in olden times it was considered midsummer. The solstices and equinoxes were the midpoints, not the start of something. Such a perspective can make a world of difference. June, it is said, is named for Juno, the pagan wife of Jupiter. The constantly cuckolded goddess of marriage. Only we call her long-suffering, since stormy weather should be over by June, shouldn’t it? With enough lawyers even sin can be made to sound righteous, for longest day brings everything out into the light otherwise. The longest day, you see, can be fake news. Around here the sun will rise still earlier tomorrow. Experts—those we no longer believe—tell us that the solstice was yesterday. And yet, what is that orange thing arising in the east so early in the morning? Don’t be fooled; the longest day is over.

Solstices

Most cultures outside of the tropics, where the difference in lengths of days is noticeable and portentous, there is a celebration of the winter solstice. This day, of all in the year, is the shortest and tomorrow there will be more light than there was today. That light will continue to grow until the summer solstice when the slow decline back to darkness begins. Religions have their rituals for a reason, and the slow turn of the seasons is perhaps behind all major holidays, in some way. So as the seasons shift, we look for signs of light. And what a portentous year it has been. When we open the Monday morning paper to find out that the wrong Miss Universe (as if earth corners the market on beauty) was crowned, it rings of unspeakable darkness. Is it not equally dark that we still parade women before the camera to judge them by their appearance? Is it not a lack of light that says women have to flash thigh and cleavage in order to be as important as the tuxedo-covered males who ogle them? The days are short, my friends.

And if we can rip our eyes from one stageshow to another, the Republican candidates continue to engage in a battle of silliness that would make Caligula smile. Have we lost our ability to face serious issues? Just the other day I was commenting to my wife that publishing has a difficult time because reading is something few people seriously engage any more. I hope I’m not coming across as judgmental, since I like a good diversion as much as the next guy. Still, thinking through something that is not simple, where the answers are always more gray than either black or white, is becoming more essential in surviving a culture that finds what razor you shave with more important that how many people an assault rifle can take out at one go. For a nation with access to the resources we have, shouldn’t we think of ways of getting people to engage with sustained thought once they leave college? To bring back the light?

IMG_0149

Light comes in many forms. The sun is a symbol as well as an astronomical body. Artificial light, however, predominates in a world where nature tells us to slow down once in a while and sleep a little more. Only at the equator are all things equal. In days when it is suggested that reflecting photons in a mirror might conceivably produce real photons, and thus more light for the universe, I find it hard to sleep. Too much is happening for any one person to keep track of it all, and to have my few hours of sunlight occluded by the shenanigans of the media and its factotums feels like the longest night is indeed upon us. It is, for those with hope, also the beginning of light.

Making Light

Back when I was a starry-eyed camp counselor in the Western Pennsylvania Conference of the United Methodist Church, “Christmas in July” was a chic (in as far as Christians can be chic) trend. Kids lucky enough to be at camp that week were treated to a neo-Christian holiday that included a half-birthday for Jesus and cheap gift-giving. (The fact that Jesus’ birthday, in as much as it can be determined, is mid-way between December and July seemed a strangely mute point.) Our “gifts” were generally manufactured from natural products found in the woods and were a diversion to help the homesick campers concentrate on the truly Christian practice of getting stuff. Interestingly, here on Midsummer (the solstice is actually the first day of astronomical summer, but our pagan forebears were more into astrology, it seems, than astronomy) we are on the second most-celebrated holiday in the northern latitudes. With its midnight sun in the far north, and warm temperatures starting to make a regular appearance, light outweighs darkness for just a little bit, and life is never easier than this. No wonder Midsummer appeals to the archetypal mind.

Of course, Christianity could not accept a purely natural holiday, attributed as it was to the beneficence of heathen gods. In an even more dubious exercise than fixing the date of Jesus’ birth, Midsummer became the nativity of John the Baptist, or St. John’s Eve. While some scholars dispute the historical existence of Jesus (not terribly convincingly), the case against John the Baptist might be a little stronger. The prototypical forerunner, the herald announcing something greater than himself is so uncharacteristic of religious folk that it lends itself to considerable doubt. John is described like Elijah, one of the greatest prophetic figures of biblical times. John’s birthday? Anybody’s guess. Since he is second to Jesus, put his birthday on the opposite solstice. (I realize the solstice was June 20; at this early hour of the morning, I think today may also qualify.)

Back at Easter, historically near the vernal equinox, I found myself at Stonehenge. Knowing I was missing Druid priests by a full set of quarter days, it was still an exhilarating experience. Ancient people welcomed the return of increasing light with religious fervor. The effort it took to move these monoliths to the barren plains of Salisbury is nearly unimaginable. They represent, at some level, the invincible nature of the sun, our warmth and light. In physical, astronomical, terms they had no idea what the sun might be. It was, undoubtedly, the source of light and warmth, and even every lizard and turtle sunning itself on a rock participates in welcoming its return. So we’ve come to the solstice once again. It is the high point of the year. Now we begin our slow descent back into nights that will grow longer until the winter solstice once again reverses the trend. We don’t need Christmas in July–we already have it in June.

A Midsummer’s Daydream

Solstices and equinoxes are among the earliest religious festivals in the world. While there is no means of proving this, the signs are fairly indicative; ancient peoples were close watchers of the sky. Like many other species of animals, they used subtle clues to help them determine which direction to go at what time of year. Once agriculture developed, the sky contained the key of when to plant and when to harvest and when to thank the gods. It is no surprise that when the classical religions developed many of their festivals centered around, especially, the equinoxes and the winter solstice. Did they even bother with the summer?

The summer solstice tends to get lost in most modern festive calendars: it is summer, a time when we are busy relaxing—the crops are in the ground, firewood need not be gathered just yet, and life is perhaps just a tiny bit easier (except for those poor kids who still have to finish out the school year!). No cause for wonder that this particular holiday (traditionally Midsummer) is most evident in northern Europe where in just six months days will be dreadfully short and very cold. Midsummer celebrates light, fertility, and healing. Some traditions claim that witches meet on Midsummer as the sun begins, once again, its inexorable journey south (from the northern hemisphere perspective) nearly to disappear in the dark December.

The modern day Midsummer celebration held by reconstructionist Neo-Pagans is Litha. The name is borrowed from the Venerable Bede but the observance of the solstice is certainly authentic. It is often celebrated with fires to shorten the already apocopated night. It is the time when darkness is at bay. It is perhaps telling that the major religions have little to add to days of relatively carefree existence. People need their religion when things go bad, but when the struggle is minimized we might leave angry gods behind for a while and just bask in the ease of it all. But, as the Neo-Pagans and witches know, the longest day of the year also foreshadows the darkness that, until this day next year, will never again allow us as much light.

Northern European Midsummer's bonfire

Kupalle or Ivan Kupala

The mysteries of newspaper layout are opaque to the laity, but the basic premises are clear; important news in the front, less pressing matter behind. The human eye, while expert at pattern detection, craves breaks in a series of repetitive columns of identically sized words. Newspapers and textbooks therefore punctuate the strictly “factual” information with images that lighten the ocular burden. So it was that yesterday’s New Jersey Star-Ledger graced the World and Nation section on page 10 with a photo of Kupalle.

Photo credit: Nikolay Yastrebov, European Pressphoto Agency

The caption notes that these young ladies are celebrating the pagan summer solstice holiday of Kupalle in Minsk. The summer solstice was almost two weeks ago, so why the photo made its premiere yesterday is one of those newspaper-specialist mysteries. Nevertheless, my curiosity about Kupalle was piqued. The photo looked like a more family-friendly version of a ceremony portrayed in The Wicker Man where young ladies leap over a fire. Some research revealed that Kupala is an ancient Russian water goddess, connected in some way with Neman, a Celtic goddess (thus the Wicker Man tie-in). The festival dedicated to Kupala involves leaping over a bonfire to ensure fertility. Kupala may have been lunar in origin but her name translates as “she who bathes.”

Christianity has a long history of subsuming “pagan” celebrations, often “baptizing” them into Christian form. In Belarus, Kupalle became the festival of Ivan Kupala, “John the Bather.” Kupalle was literally baptized. June 24, as the fictive date of John the Baptist’s birth, is a saint’s day in Roman Catholicism. The timing of the holiday intentionally coincides with Midsummer, one of the most sacred times of many nature religions. Ironically, in the Baptist’s name a holiday was reborn into Christian form. In the post-communist days of Eastern Europe, not only does Orthodox Christianity appear publicly, but its precursors once again engage public interest. Even if it is two weeks late.

Sol Invictus

Perhaps for abject fear of paganism, western civilization has avoided holidays associated with the summer solstice. Being the lightest day of the year in a frequently dark northern hemisphere, it was naturally a time to celebrate the victory of light over darkness. While the winter solstice insinuated itself into the complex of Christmas holidays and Easter became intricately intertwined with the vernal equinox, the summer and autumn holidays were rejected.

This neglect of the powers of light coincides to some extent with the orthodox Christian rejection of Gnosticism. The Gnostics, able dualists like their Zoroastrian predecessors, celebrated the victory of light over darkness. Remnants of their theological outlook survived in the canonical Gospel of John and the always questionable Revelation. Ancient societies throughout the world recognized the summer solstice because, regardless of its name, the sun was acknowledged as a powerful deity. On this day the sun is at its height of strength, banishing darkness for longer than any other day of the year. It is a day not to waste.

Christianity has preserved some minor holidays for the summer season, but with the advent of a leisure-based society where summer is a time to take it easy, if not cease work altogether, the solstice lost its grip. Perhaps because light is so abundant already in the longer days as winter wends its way into spring and summer and lingers pleasantly until the vernal equinox, summer itself is simply holiday enough. Those adhering to the ancient religions nevertheless gather at sites like Stonehenge and Maeshowe, or even Egypt’s famous pyramids to consider the unending influence that our special star holds for its most imaginative planet.

The stones of summer