Stepping down into a garden redolent of jasmine cascades and stalks of fennel, I snip arugula and lettuces that we planted earlier in the season. First strawberries await ripening and harvest of their juicy berries. Seeing what’s changed from day to day is part of the beauty of gardening, as every day is different: blossoms open and leaves drop, fruits and vegetables ripen. I prune back salvia and camellia, and step carefully over clover and baby tears that spread with winter’s long rains. The black viola we planted to commemorate our dear departed black cat Sam has come back and bloomed several years in a row. There’s no avoiding change — it comes to us all — even when you’re as resistant to it as I am.
The summer solstice, also called midsummer, is all about cycles and change: it occurs when the Earth’s axial tilt faces the sun at its maximum. Except in polar regions (where spring and summer daylight is continuous), it’s the longest day and shortest night of the year. Afterward, days grow shorter as the year again begins to wane. It occurs in June in the Northern Hemisphere and in December in the Southern Hemisphere. The word solstice derives from Latin sol (sun) and sistere (to stand still). Midsummer is the threshold when days blur into night.
The Druids — priests and diplomats of the ancient Celts, my father’s ancestors — celebrated the holiday midway between the spring and fall Equinoxes. They crowned an Oak King, god of the waxing year, who then turned to his darker aspect, the Holly King, god of the waning year. Remains of prehistoric European stone structures like Stonehenge date back for millennia. The famed megalith monument on Salisbury Plain in Wiltshire, England was built in three stages ca. 3000-1500 BC. A series of concentric circles consisting of a bank and ditch, double circle of bluestones (spotted dolerite), and circle of sarsen stones, the main axis aligns with the midsummer sunrise. Four station stones within form a rectangle also oriented toward that sunrise. Built before the advent of writing, its purpose was probably ritualistic, as these monuments often appear to have astronomical or religious purposes.
Ancient Slavic tribes in Europe, pagan ancestors of my Russian mother, celebrated midsummer with bonfires. Their love magic was said to banish demons and evil spirits, as pairs of lovers jumped through the flames and the fire revealed their future mates. Bonfires also were believed to boost the sun’s energy, giving it potency through the rest of the growing season, guaranteeing a plentiful harvest. Crops were thought to grow as high as the couples could jump. (For more information, see religioustolerance.org)
Emily Dickinson, one of my favorite poets, recognized the sacred in nature, in each plant and animal (including humans):
A something in a summer’s day,/As slow her flambeaux burn away,/Which solemnizes me.
A something in a summer’s noon,—/An azure depth, a wordless tune,/Transcending ecstasy.
…Like flowers that heard the tale of dews,/But never deemed the dripping prize/Awaited their low brows;
Or bees, that thought the summer’s name/Some rumor of delirium/No summer could for them….
As the Wheel of the Year continues to turn, I see humanity’s role within its cycles, and feel an integral part of nature.