Winter Solstice and the Longest Night

Happy Solstice! On this shortest day and longest night of the year, autumn’s harvest season ends and winter begins. Nearby, a wonderful local bookstore hosts the Point Reyes Books annual reading, named after Wendell Berry‘s “To Know the Dark”:

To go in the dark with a light is to know the light.
To know the dark, go dark. Go without sight,
and find that the dark, too, blooms and sings,
and is traveled by dark feet and dark wings.

Each year around the winter solstice, I go to the sea to take time to remember my father, who died 35 years ago. The ocean was his passion and he passed that love to me. At home we light candles and drink toasts to him, honoring his memory by reading poems he loved.

This year has been more difficult than most. After our election delivered a devastating loss, it’s natural to feel despair – but dangerous to do so for too long, when our friends and neighbors and fellow humans across the world will need help and protection, governance and issues will need vigilant activism in our communities. Maybe above all, this is a time for self-examination.

A dark night of the soul, the existential crisis when we confront the shadows within ourselves and use this time for reckoning, is a time for turning inward and contemplation before girding ourselves for the coming year. In what is traditionally the season of death, the earth still keeps turning on its axis, there still returns the lengthening of days, and preparation for the new growing season. In that, there is always hope.

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Pumpkins for Day of the Dead

Halloween, Samhain, Day of the Dead: this most important holiday commemorates the end of the harvest season, and the start of the fallowing of the earth as it rejuvenates in slumber until the following year. Fortunately, recent rain brought us a harvest with a plethora of pumpkins. Ancient lore tells of the incredible power of this versatile winter squash that magically transforms into soups and curries, pickles and pies. In a previous post I even located tales of vampire pumpkins!

This also is a time of mourning the dead, celebrating their lives, and communing with the loved ones no longer with us in this world. Most of all, I miss every day my mother, gone for more than four years now. But I also think of my father, whom I lost long ago, when I was much younger. Perhaps this is why I’ve always felt an affinity for the dark, the melancholy, the gothic: the poetry and fiction of Hawthorne; Poe, Stoker and other death-obsessed Victorians; even modern speculative fiction and fantasy, which delves deeply into the existential horror of the loss of those we love the most, and finally, our own mortality. I find it comforting, though, to remember – and in this way, to be with – those we’ve lost. Emily Dickinson wrote:

Because I could not stop for Death –
He kindly stopped for me –
The Carriage held but just Ourselves –
And Immortality.

 

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So many shades, all from one strain of seed

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Our pumpkin patch – the behemoth at upper left was 26 pounds!

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Autumn Equinox and Equal Night

20160613_111224On September 22, the Autumnal Equinox, fall “officially” arrives here in the Northern Hemisphere (although the Southern Hemisphere marks the return of spring). The sun rises due east and sets due west, shining directly on the Equator. Both hemispheres experience nearly equal day and equal night – hence the Latin name “equinox.” After the sun rises and sets farther and farther north throughout summer, the Earth halts on its axis for this brief period of time, then again begins its tilt and gradual lean away from the sun, signaling the coming of winter, season of slanting light and longer shadows.

Many different cultures have celebrated the occasion from Asia, to Europe and beyond. This can be done by feasting on summer’s harvest and preparing for winter’s colder temperatures and longer nights.20160805_115220
20160726_19074020160901_175804Days are noticeably shorter now, and our garden is filled with the songs of birds and bugs, joining us as we gratefully celebrate our own bountiful harvest.

 

 

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Celebrating Lammas and Lughnasa with Bounty from the County

20160713_182120 It’s Lammas (also known as Lughnasa) once again! The Wheel of the Year has turned already, which is unbelievable to me. This holiday marks the beginning of harvest season, and I’m filled with gratitude for the bounty in our garden.

This year the drought was relieved for a moment, with needed rain that came perhaps to honor Lugh, for whom this festival is named. While we eat and drink the fruits of our own harvest, share with friends, neighbors, and other farmers, and can and freeze to preserve whatever is left over, I’m constantly aware that many others at the same moment are going hungry, sometimes without even a shelter over their heads.20160719_191631

The simple fact of this process of nature – this warming of the soil and awakening of seed into fruit, then flower, then full circle into seed again, brought about by the longer days with more sun – means quite literally not just sustenance for the soul, the mind, the weary heart, but the very stuff of life itself. 20160708_204256

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Solstice: a Paradise of Forms in Nature

Summer solstice is upon us: the time of year we fully celebrate the daylight in all its glory: when the earth tilts on its axis to most directly face the sun – which is highest in the sky – and we in the northern hemisphere experience the year’s shortest night and longest day.

Some say the highest purpose of form is to serve its own unique function. Thinking of simple yet brilliant creatures such as the snail reminds me of ancient mathematician Fibonacci’s sequence, which was limited by the golden mean or golden ratio, a number so universally irresistible, it’s been used by artists, architects, writers, and scientists to describe the symmetrical appeal of the human face and body, buildings, poetry, the structure of flowers, and animals such as the chambered nautilus.

An earlier post highlighted some of the fantastic forms that local lichens take. Perhaps not everything under the sun takes the form of the golden mean – but it’s a beautiful idea – and every day I’m enchanted by the multifarious and fantastic forms in nature.

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20160413_155118 20160508_14281420160428_185634  20160508_152710 Spiderwebs, Robert Louis Stevenson State Park

 

 

 

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The Lichenologist, or, Taking a Liking to Lichen

(Sorry, I couldn’t resist! ) This bad pun was even made by our instructor at a recent class B. and I took at the Pepperwood Preserve, a nature preserve focusing on conservation, research, and public education. We knew nothing about lichens before, just always noticed them on hikes locally and abroad.

Lichens aren’t plants, but rather a symbiotic relationship between fungi and algae, and grow on bark, stone, a wide variety of surfaces. California is the first state to adopt a State Lichen! These and other fascinating facts we learned from our teacher, a member of the California Lichen Society, which offers educational information, citizen science opportunities, and membership resources.

A recent Atlantic article profiles a man who fell in love with lichen later in life. And during our class hike around the preserve (as well as in nearby Robert Louis Stevenson State Park, home to Sonoma County’s tallest peak, Mount St. Helena), we were struck by the beauty and versatility of lichens – as well as their fierce tenacity in different harsh conditions. It’s easy to become obsessed with these amazing organisms.

For the Lobaria, Usnea, Witches Hair, Map Lichen, Beard Lichen, Ground Lichen, Shield Lichen

Back then, what did I know?

The names of subway lines, buses,

How long it took to walk twenty blocks….

When I saw you, later, seaweed reefed in the air,

you were gray-green, incomprehensible, old.

What you clung to, hung from: old.

Trees looking half-dead, stones.

Marriage of fungi and algae,

chemists of air, …

Transformers unvalued, uncounted.

Cell by cell, word by word, making a world they could live in.

-Jane Hirshfield

 

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May Day/Beltane

Happy May Day! Today we celebrate both the venerable tradition of honoring our workers, and the holiday also known as Beltane in some parts of the world. This holiday celebrates the coming of spring and summer, and focuses on fertility and the growing season. We may celebrate with a bonfire, or dancing around a Maypole, or simply appreciating earth’s bounty all around us. This year, we’re especially grateful that winter rains have brought lushness to our garden after several years of drought.

So, in honor of the season and also to sneak in another poem at the end of National Poetry Month, here’s one of my favorites, by one of my favorites, William Butler Yeats:

The Lake Isle of Innisfree

I will arise and go now, and go to Innisfree,

And a small cabin build there, of clay and wattles made;

Nine bean-rows will I have there, a hive for the honey-bee,

And live alone in the bee-loud glade.

 

And I shall have some peace there, for peace comes dropping slow,

Dropping from the veils of the morning to where the cricket sings;

There midnight’s all a glimmer, and noon a purple glow,

And evening full of the linnet’s wings.

 

I will arise and go now, for always night and day

I hear lake water lapping with low sounds by the shore;

While I stand on the roadway, or on the pavements grey,

I hear it in the deep heart’s core.

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Iris

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