“Winter after winter
I never cease to wonder
at the way primitive man arranged, in hewn stone,
such powerful symbolism.”
~ George Mackay Brown (about Maeshow)
A handful of friends humored me in the middle of the longest night of the year, ‘toasting’ the earth with our lit candles. Earlier in the day, one of them accompanied me to the Sunwheel, where UMass astronomer Dr Judith Young explained the placement of stones marking the rising and setting of the sun at the furthest edges of its annual arc across the earth’s sky. The setting of the Winter Solstice sun occurs at its most southern position on the western horizon (for those of us in the Northern hemisphere), visibly marking the physical point in the earth’s orbit when our angle to the sun shifts away from the slow gathering of longer and longer nights to the gradual return of lengthier days. Although the coldest days of the year still lay ahead, they are just the tail of the momentum generated at the other end of the earth’s orbit, when the Summer Solstice marks the peak of daytime. These moments of transition are ancient and inexorable. They representative the constituting limits of life on earth.
With unfailing precision, solar observatories around the globe and through the history of humankind offer tribute to this primal source of existence. If life as we know it depends upon the parameters determined by earth’s orbit, then “what,” my friend asked, “does the orbit of the earth depend upon?” “Gravity,” I offered, “which they’re still trying to figure out.” Later, a voice out of memory nudged me to add, “and electromagnetic forces.” These are two different categories of what the physicists call “fundamental forces.” Perhaps, I mused to myself later, my friend wanted to know if I would say God? It could be that “god” is a name referring to the same thing, being a word created by people using various languages to label a recognizable (if inexplicable) phenomena.
Solstice observatories are ancient and evident on most continents, including Newgrange (in Ireland), which is older than Stonehenge by some 1200 years, and Maeshow (Orkney Islands, Scotland). The oldest one in the Americas was confirmed within the last decade at Chankillo (Peru, a Zapotec site), and another one exists at Building J (Mexico). Chaco Canyon’s famous sun dagger (United States) is another type of solar observation mechanism. The Inca built Rumicucho (Ecuador – which boasts some incredible equinox sites, see “Where No Shadow Falls“) and Machu Picchu (Peru, see this virtual tour of the Sun Temple).
There are also ancient solar observatories in Asia. The Uglugbek Observatory in Kazakhstan may be the inspiration for a Sun Plaza apparently under construction in Astana City. This beautifully-laid website by candlegrove, Ancient Origins: Solstice, lays out a panorama of solstice celebrations from around the globe, supplemented by visitors’ comments about Dong Zhi (Chinese), Soyal (Hopi), and Yalda or Sada (Iranian). The site includes borrowings of contemporary religious holidays (Christian, Jewish, Muslim) from earlier pagan rituals and (very exciting!) a lead to information about the analemma (watch the animations!) which explains the Equation of Time and provides great visual diagrams and definitions of ecliptic, true & mean sun, the celestial sphere & equator, and the vernal equinox (which heralds spring).
Our Celebration (Talents, Appreciations, Environmental Goals)
This year’s talent pool was tiny but special. Impromptu performances included a fried vegetable and egg dish (Albanian), creative wine pouring (where?! courtesy of South Africa), and cake made exclusively from dry mix and seltzer (Sikh). Quasi-rehearsed performances included ASL interpretations of Power to the Meek (Eurythmics), Hammer and a Nail (Indigo Girls), and I Gotta Feelin’ (Blackeyed Peas). [Note: The first two came off alright but I failed to make the last song’s crucial rhythm change visible. (Signs of middle-age?!)] The Mexican contribution (“I’m f*ckin’ brilliant”) was a poem by Pablo Neruda, read first in English then in the original Spanish.
by Nichita Stanescu
Tell me, if I caught you one day
and kissed the sole of your foot,
wouldn’t you limp a little then,
afraid to crush my kiss?…
by Marin Sorescu
I was sitting an exam
In a dead language
And I had to translate myself
From man into ape.
I played it cool,
First translating a text
From a forest.
But the translation got harder
As I drew nearer to myself.
With some effort
I found, however, satisfactory equivalents
For nails and the hair on the feet.
Around the knees
I started to stammer.
Towards the heart my hand began to shake
And blotted the paper with light.
Still, I tried to patch it up
With the hair or the chest,
But utterly failed
At the soul.
“Lentius, Profundis, Suavis”
These words in Latin were often spoken by an inspiring Italian leader of the European Greens, Alexander Langer. They seem appropriate to me as descriptions of the institutional effects required globally in order to stem the worsening of climate change and create decent living conditions for people in all societies.