Winter Solstice and the Longest Night

Today marks Yule or Winter Solstice, the year’s shortest day and the longest night, here in the northern hemisphere. As the earth grows dormant and plants store nutrients deep within their roots for the winter; so we clean up the garden, store and preserve food for the winter, and prepare for spring planting. Traditions dating back to ancient times include bonfires, and eating and drinking in celebration. For a long moment of darkness as our planet tilts away from the sun, we await the eventual return of its warmth and light.

This year, 2020, which we can’t chase away fast enough, the solstice also brings a special astronomical event: in a rare planetary conjunction, Jupiter and Saturn will rendezvous in the night sky. For the first time in nearly eight centuries, these two planets will appear conjoined. Not since the time of Marco Polo, have we been able to witness such a phenomenon from earth. The fleeting union occurs for just a couple hours after sunset, to the west-southwest as the sky darkens. They should be visible to the naked eye, but using a telescope or binoculars will show them individually, glimmering through the twilight. As Jupiter twins with Saturn as a “double planet,” we watch the gods play in the winter sky. 

Now we’re cooking with pumpkins, and due to a hotter year we even have winter tomatoes! In the garden, squirrels chitter and laugh as they run up and down large walnut and oak trees, storing their nuts. We hear the (new) caw of ravens, come to disrupt our neighborhood crows; and the songs of oak titmouse, white-crowned sparrow, finches and towhees.

 

Winter signs are everywhere: the air’s icy bite when I swim at the city’s outdoor pool, as my kicking foot leaves the water. I lost my father almost four decades ago to the day, my mother just eight short years; I still see their faces in the night’s cold stars.

Writing about this powerful, magical change of the seasons, British author Susan Cooper’s poem “The Shortest Day,” says it simply and beautifully:

And so the Shortest Day came and the year died
And everywhere down the centuries of the snow-white world
Came people singing, dancing,
To drive the dark away.
They lighted candles in the winter trees;
They hung their homes with evergreen;
They burned beseeching fires all night long
To keep the year alive.
And when the new year’s sunshine blazed awake
They shouted, reveling.
Through all the frosty ages you can hear them
Echoing behind us—listen!
All the long echoes, sing the same delight,
This Shortest Day,
As promise wakens in the sleeping land:
They carol, feast, give thanks,
And dearly love their friends,
And hope for peace.
And now so do we, here, now,
This year and every year.
Welcome, Yule!




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A Feast for All the Dead

Halloween, known in Gaelic traditions as the festival of Samhain, marks the end of the harvest and old year, and the beginning of the new year with the coming dark of winter. Now, the veil is thinnest between the worlds: time to put plantings and gardens to rest, and to honor our beloved dead.

This year, 2020? Nearly a quarter of a million people have died of COVID-19 in the US alone, as the pandemic runs rampant around the world. Wildfires, massive unrest, political and racial violence. There’s not much more I can add to what’s been remarked on repeatedly in a year of such global chaos.

The tradition of Dia de los Muertos joins the others in feasting and honoring our loved ones who are gone – whether through bonfires, special food and drink, visiting graves and other monuments and burial sites. 

Earlier in October I set out alone for the coast, thinking of my mother, who died 8 years ago. I think of her every day, with almost everything I do: gardening, cooking, getting out in nature. Her words wash over me like a soothing balm and I hear her voice, feel her presence so strongly, looking out at the sun setting, in the dimming light of day. Taking a moment to remember those most precious to us helps to keep strong those unbroken bonds of love.



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Fall/Autumn equinox

These are dark days. Literally, as it was for Sonoma County and the SF Bay Area when we awoke to an oddly dim daylight resembling a post-apocalyptic doomscape. Amidst brutal heat, the very air we breathe has for weeks been choked by wildfire smoke that’s now traveled around the globe. Climate change is here for us all, with a vengeance.

This Autumnal Equinox – when the sun crosses the celestial equator and day and night are, as it seemed that day, nearly equal – comes in one of the strangest and most difficult years in memory. Covid-19 laying waste to the world’s populations, massive social unrest in response to historic injustice, and a dangerously divided citizenry. Yet fall has still arrived, showing up in some of its old reliable ways: leaves falling, shorter days, change in light, familiar constellations like Libra, Virgo…

This equinox has traditionally been the celebration of the harvest, with feasting and merriment. Humans have an ancient connection to growing plants that feed us and give us pleasure (as well as cleaning the air, feeding and hosting other creatures, and feeding the spirit); as does getting our hands dirty in rich, brown soil. Planting and the associated work (such as tending, mulching, composting, and harvest) ties us close to the cycle of seasons, to nature, life itself. And indeed, being outside in the (usually) fresh air, together, helping feed each other during these hard times, bonds our communities as well.

The joy of planting is quite literally the joy of life.

 

Posted in Climate Change, Conservation, Garden, Nature, Seasons | Tagged , , , , | 10 Comments

Celebration of the Harvest

Lughnasa, or Lammas, is here – traditionally the time to celebrate the harvest, and appreciate Earth’s bounty. Lugh, the Sun God, and Demeter, the Harvest Queen, are honored with feasting, bonfires, and dancing. Here we are, in high summer, during the strangest year in memory!

I want to express the great gratitude I feel for our garden, our friends and family, and most of all, for B. We are also lucky enough to live in community-minded Sonoma County, a place filled with opportunities for sharing and helping each other during these very, very tough times. These range from checking in on neighbors, to gleaning crops ripe for the picking and donating to distributors, to food banks and nonprofits dedicated to aiding struggling folks and businesses. Visit your city, county, or state websites for more info; and because it’ll pass before we know it, enjoy the season!

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Summer solstice and Juneteenth

Happy summer solstice! As our earth spins on its axis, on this day in the Northern Hemisphere its pole tilts at its maximum toward the sun, on the longest day and shortest night (in the Southern Hemisphere, summer solstice occurs in December – our winter solstice). In this extraordinary time of global coronavirus pandemic, you can even watch the sunrise at Stonehenge online – the place where, thousands of years ago, people placed stones to perfectly align, marking the beginning of summer. Traditions celebrated worldwide include building bonfires, and celebrating with great feasts the fertility of the Earth and its inhabitants.

Here we prepare for our own, planting vegetables and enjoying the luxury of tending the garden more, due to most of society being shut down. Gratitude is a major part of observing this important holiday, for us. As is taking the time to learn, and reach out more to the community.

Acknowledging that health care workers, and other essential workers, do not have that luxury, I know they’ve been at great risk during the COVID crisis. Poorer folk may not have anywhere to shelter in place, or must live with multiple roommates – all situations that increasingly risk personal health.

 

Amidst this unprecedented situation, communities everywhere – not just Black and people of color and LGBTQ, those disproportionately affected – are taking to the streets and governments and media in historic numbers to protest racism and police brutality. These historic convulsions, which echo other violent incidents in both the recent and distant past, are bringing together allies in numbers not seen for generations. When white college kids and grandmothers unite with young activists organizing Black Lives Matter rallies, this momentous occasion must not be squandered. Action in the streets coupled with phone calls/letters/petitions, and voter action at election time, is at its most powerful.

With so much information circulating throughout social and news media, all of us have greater opportunities to learn. Juneteenth is a holiday I never learned about in school, never learned about the Tulsa Massacre or that neither Independence Day nor even Lincoln’s Emancipation Proclamation made every American free. (That there are still so many prevented from voting is an issue that must be remedied as a larger part of the current protest movement. And, the New York Times’ 1619 Project has put forth a curriculum that schools everywhere can adapt, to address rewriting history in a fairer way.)

With so many organizations, private businesses large and small, speaking out on our current situation, another fact comes to light: that nature is not equally accessible, or equally safe, for all people. Black Birders’ Week was a wonderful response that garnered much support. How could it be, that this resource that usually costs nothing and provides such joy and solace – especially when we aren’t going out in society – cannot be shared by everyone? Camille Dungy’s gorgeous Black Nature reaches back through four centuries to examine poetry through the eyes of African American poets: “There has always been promise and survival in the natural world.” Lauret Savoy, author of the powerful Trace and other books on science and nature, writes, “Our lives take place. Who are we in this place called the United States?”

Who are we? How can we help better care for one another? This is something others teach me more about every day, and every day I discover I still have much to learn! As we pass through this date – one marking this historic year by a “ring of fire” annular solar eclipse – maybe that’s something to think about no matter where we live, whether watching the skies or looking at a patch of soil rich with blossoms like blue stars.

Posted in Astronomy, Birds, Garden, Literature, Nature, Poetry, Seasons, Writing | Tagged , , , , | 4 Comments