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Solstice thoughts: night and day

June 21, 2023

Last night was the shortest night of the year. Of course, you’d be hard-pressed to note the difference even with a very flat horizon that reveals the exact moment of sunrise. Exact moments are difficult to catch even when you have fine-scale time notation and more than one set of eyes on the task, one for the sun and one for the clock. When do you call it day — when the sun’s aura first breaks into the sky or when the sun fully rises above the horizon? Or maybe when the center of the sun is visible? But how do you judge that until the full disk is visible? And what do you do with all these minutes and hours of light before and after day?

In my part of the world, there is enough light by 4am to move about without stumbling over things. However, official sunrise doesn’t happen for over an hour. Then the sun is hidden behind the mountains for about two more hours. This process is repeated in reverse on the other side of day time, with twilight lasting until nearly 10pm, though the sun drops behind the western mountain peaks before 7pm and sets at 8:36pm today.

In Helsinki, there is very little darkness for many weeks around the solstice. So when is it night there?

This obsession with exact timekeeping becomes a little silly when scrutinized. We don’t experience exact time as it is measured by digital devices. Conscious thought isn’t measured in fractions of seconds, and our observations are always lagging behind the present moment. Once we’re aware of the moment in the world, it is already past.

But on a less esoteric but more fundamental level, the world doesn’t conform to fixed digital time any more than we do. The questions raised above are only some of the holes in our labels for time. What does the solstice sunrise mean at the poles? In the tropics? Anywhere but on Earth? And Earth time — all these divisions of the planet’s orbit and its rotation on its axis — what does all that mean in space? When we say it takes twelve years to get to Pluto from here, what does that mean for the ship that travels that distance? What is day on eternally dusky Pluto? What do all our timekeeping devices do with the slowing of Earth’s rotation? Or the gentle oscillation of the Earth’s orbit? And how do our bodies experience any of this time?

We think we understand time. We pretend that all these noted moments define time. But time disdains our moments. Time is fluid. Time is relative. Time is better defined as embodied change, as life, as being. It is not fixed and it certainly is not fixed to human scales. It breathes and pulses, grows and contracts. It is both monstrously long in duration and infinitely short. It is both a tempered heartbeat and the staccato blast of a landslide. It is incomprehensible and refuses to be constrained by our notions of recording and measurement. What is the solstice but a fleeting moment in the relative dance of an unremarkable star and one of its small, rocky planets? And yet what is a human life without that recurring moment? And how do we comprehend time when we are floating in it? How do we define what defines us?

I went to bed chewing on my growing wish to run off and join a monastery, to find or found a place that lives fully in the present without generating waste or harm. Only I don’t believe in any of the monastic faiths. None of them are fully embodied and Earth-based. None are grounded and centered in this present moment. All have aims of attaining some other spiritual existence that is both eternal and therefore superior to mortal Earth-life.

I don’t want to be superior nor do I think that’s possible for a relatively minor being enmeshed in a much greater organism. Nor do I want to be a spirit, not that I think that I-as-I-am-in-this-body could still exist in a completely different state — whatever that means. I also would not want to be eternal even if I thought that was a thing. Imagine an existence outside time. Imagine never changing. I can’t imagine such a thing. The act of imagining is a change. Existence without time is stasis, which doesn’t seem like much of an existence. So I guess I want a pagan abbey, a place for people like me, of the land and with the land and through the land. Where life is lived intentionally and contemplatively and wholly within the small world that humans occupy fully in their bodies.

I went to sleep with that wish, and I woke in the grey gloaming of Midsummer nautical twilight with what felt like a revelation. Most of our problems are rooted in our basic incomprehension of space and time. Our problems are of scale. We project the human experience of time and space onto the entire universe, both outward and inward. And nothing else conforms to human scale. Not even most of the processes that make up a human body.

Take the idea that we can extract value from the rest of the world, turn it into transportable and tradable form, and then expect natural processes to always replenish what was taken. And on human timescales! Even though we intellectually know that, aside from some human body processes, natural processes don’t operate on human timescales. We know it takes hundreds of years to grow a forest, thousands to make soil, millions to lay down most mineral resources, billions to make a living planet fit to house a human body. But it takes microseconds for radiation to alter DNA. Our bodies have experiential knowledge of none of these processes. We can’t relate to any of these things. And yet we are meddling with all of them and arrogantly expecting them to adjust to our wishes and ways of being.

Similarly, we know that Earth processes are not operating on human spatial scales either. Groundwater replenishment must draw from hundreds of vertical feet and perhaps thousands of lateral miles, as well as thousands of years in water cycling. It takes the whole globe to rebalance the ocean and atmosphere after disturbance — though disturbance does seem to be something that can be quick and quickly generalized from a small central location. We know all this but we can’t experience any of it. It is outside our physical comprehension.

We also know that fluidity in scale — slow to build, quick to break, here large, there small — is found in all natural processes. We think it a bit unfair. But we know it takes energy to resist entropy. Breaking things down is usually much easier than building them up. Except for the poisons and harm we create. Toxic waste products and the biologically inert things we make from oil are not subject to the same timescales as the living things of this Earth. It takes hundreds of years to break down plastic because plastic is so toxic to life that nothing acts upon it except mechanical weathering. It will take thousands of years to render nuclear test and accident sites at least neutral to biological beings. It may take millions of years to equilibrate the pH of ocean water, though it only took a few decades to turn it acidic. We know all this. But we don’t know it viscerally enough to stop causing all this harm.

Yes, we know all this. Lack of knowledge is not our problem. Our problem is that we can’t comprehend any of it. Lack of wisdom is the problem. We can’t internalize this knowledge or apply it. We can’t feel it. Because we can’t experience these sorts of times and spaces. We don’t understand geological time or space. We don’t understand atomic time or space. It will take almost as long as the entirety of human history to undo the cumulative damages we’ve caused in a few generations, parts of which have only taken milliseconds to engender. We can’t experience any of these timescales and yet we’ve participated in them. We’ve released damage into the natural world in discreet places and it has snowballed into global destruction. We can barely sense the effects of our actions at the scale of a few square miles. We hardly know the wisdom of our own place. We can’t feel what we do to the globe. We don’t live long enough or large enough to understand what we’ve done. In fact, we are so parochial in thinking that we believe that when we toss our garbage, there is some outside-away that will instantaneously — miraculously — process it into benign form. How confused we are!

What’s worse, what we have accomplished has come through using irreplaceable energy stores to do work on extremely foreshortened timescales relative to all the natural processes that might remediate the harm. We have outrun natural processes, loading them up with damages that can’t be cured in such short time scales. Nor do we have the remaining energy stores to undo the harm — and it may not be possible in any case. Because we don’t make or restore things. We use energy to break things. Energy in our hands can’t be used for growth or renewal. Certainly not production of more energy.

That said, our efficient harnessing of ancient stores of solar energy has created one thing — delusions of grandeur. With all this massive ‘result’, we’ve begun to think of ourselves as primal ’cause’. We think we make things happen. We think we make things happen on human scales. But notice that our only method of using energy is to destroy the storage materials. We burn these fuels and try to trap what explodes from the rupturing chemical bonds to do work that we can’t accomplish in humanly scaled fashion. We aren’t making, we’re breaking The human-built world is founded upon broken things. We destroy living, changing things to reap energy. And then we name ourselves gods. Delusion!

To some extent this is native to humans. Humans are not creative by nature. We are animals. We break things down. But in some cultures this natural animal proclivity to breaking things has been amplified by that stored energy from hundreds of millions of years ago. In ways that we don’t completely understand. Because we are inside this system and can only see our small part in it. And, to compound our blindness, we are infantile enough to venerate that small part centered on us. In English we name the domestication of the natural will ‘breaking’. We break things to make them conform to our wants and will. We break wild animals. We break in shoes. We break out of cycles that irritate us. We break those spirits that we hold so dear. We break life. And we don’t understand that we can’t put it back together — because we don’t operate on the necessary scales of time or space.

Yes, all animals break down living organisms to harness stored nutrients and energy. Breaking is the essential fact of animality. On this planet, animals obtain energy through breaking apart and digesting the creators. On this planet, animals take from the creators and only give back the processed waste, including animal bodies at the end of life. But on this planet, plants and microbes and a few insects are the actual creators. They harness energy and mineral materials to create embodied order and complex form. Animals, including humans, harvest that order and complexity to feed and shelter their own bodies. Animals do not synthesize, do not create. Humans are only creative when we work within those processes, as a part of those processes. And, even so, we are not doing the creative work. We are enabling the real creators — those plants and microbes and few insects — to do work that we’d like to see in the world. We don’t operate on creator scales of time and space and we don’t experience direct creation, only destruction. Yet we can’t seem to wrap our heads around what it means to be a creator, what it means to be an energy store, what it means to break that store open wide, what it means to the living creator who must replenish those stores. We only know how to suck down the sweetness and demand more with the next breath.

Consider the garden under the solstice sun. The gardener is the least essential part of that organism. The gardener makes no plant materials nor any part of the soil communities that nurture the plants. Those soil communities and those plants are doing all the real work, and this happens on scales that the human can’t even perceive. The gardener just hovers around the edges of this living entity, curating the collective, deciding what will be allowed to live and what will be removed. And then the gardener takes what she wants from the system. A good gardener is one that replenishes what she takes of raw materials, but she does not make anything in the garden. The garden makes the garden — with occasional and inessential assistance from the gardener. A good gardener also knows this and respects it and tries to stay out of the way. She knows she is not growing the garden. The garden is growing.

Most of us are not very good gardeners. We think we are making all that life happen when life happens of itself — and these days, often despite us.

We think we understand Earth processes because we can obsessively measure some parts here and there. But we can’t experience the whole, even if we can extrapolate the measurements, which are really just our labels, not actual existence. So how can we possibly understand the whole within which we live?

I think most of our worst traits — and some of the sillier ones — flow from this incomprehension. We seem to believe that we are simultaneously so insignificant that what we do will be put to rights by the wider natural world and yet so important that we are forgiven for laying such burdens on other beings. We act as though we are building the world when in actuality all we do is break things down. We name ourselves superior when we could not exist outside this organism, nor even very far in time or space from the small places that created us. And we congratulate ourselves for mastering time when all we’ve done is give it silly — but humanly essential — labels. Words that mean nothing and everything.

Like solstice. And dawn. And day. And moment. And lifetime.

I don’t really want to join a monastery. I want to live each moment wisely and intentionally among beings who share my love of this Earth. I want to be divorced from this human-built destruction and live where life is nurtured — and humans stay out of the way of those nurturing processes as much as we are able in these animal bodies. I want to do more than observe and label, I want to feel the world. And I don’t want to break things any more than absolutely necessary to keep this body whole. I hope it’s not necessary to withdraw from the human world to meet my expectations for living. But given experience, that might be the case. There are reasons people like me have always lived on the margins.

I know I am small and I want to live at that human scale and not reach into time and space that I can’t feel. I may know about these things — I was a geologist with a specialty in radioactive isotope modeling, after all — but I don’t pretend to fully and physically understand them. And that is good.

So to put today in human context… tonight will be a short summer night, one of many that feel more or less the same to my human body. Tomorrow the sun will rise very early and I will rise to greet the new day and savor the unfolding of time. These are the scales of a human life. And that, too, is good.

Today is the solstice; today, the sun stands still. Well, actually, if you’ve read much of anything I’ve written, you know that it’s been standing still for a few days now, and it will continue to do so for a few more days. From 17 June to 25 June, day length is 15 hours, 30 minutes, and a handful of seconds. The longest day of 2023 is today, June 21st, but today is only 2 seconds longer than yesterday and tomorrow is only 3 seconds shorter. The day’s routine is definitely stationary this time of year.

The earliest dawn has already come and gone. The sun began rising at 5:05am on the 12th; it rose one minute later on the 19th, and one minute more will be added on Midsummer’s Day (the 24th). The latest sunsets begin tonight. The sun drops below the western horizon today at 8:37pm and will continue to do so through 2 July. On July 3rd it sets one minute earlier. If you are particular about such things and count seconds, the actual earliest sunrise falls on 16 June and the latest sunset is 27 June. But you’d be hard pressed to note the differences unless you have a very flat horizon and a clock with a seconds hand.

And that is sort of the point of all this time-noting. Around this time of year, there is no day that feels substantially longer than any others, and that’s because the solstice does not mark a day that is substantially longer than any others. The summer solstice marks not the day length, but the sun’s furthest poleward point on the horizon. This year that happens at 10:57am this morning, thus fairly close to the middle of the day. It’s not often that the actual solstice happens during daylight hours, never mind at the actual middle of the day. This year the northern summer solstice is interesting because the peak of the sun’s strength for the year comes at approximately the peak of the sun’s strength for the day — and, being Wednesday, also in the approximate middle of the week. But that’s really not that gripping an event in the event itself, and it is passed before you can give it due consideration. It is a point in time, not substantial enough to even be called a moment.

But Midsummer, itself, is a season, not a point, not a second, not a moment. It is a long strand of moments, weeks of the sun rising and setting at about the same time and about the same place on the horizon. So there are many long days and short nights to celebrate, many opportunities to salute the sun. And the day of the solstice isn’t even the best when considered from a cultural perspective. The actual point of the solstice may be a moment, but it is a moment that varies from year to year and so is rather difficult to plan around and simply impossible to observe with any ceremony, ceremonies being longer than moments. However, the historical holiday of Midsummer happens each year on June 24th, the whole day, coming a few days after the solstice moment but still well within the season of sun standing still. It is a fixed day that can be anticipated and celebrated every year at the same time. This is when A Midsummer’s Night Dream takes place, on the Eve of St John’s Day. This is when I salute the sun, usually from my garden, though there are several Midsummer celebrations within walking distance of my house if I feel up to more socializing after my work day. Still, I sort of think sun salutes should happen at sunrise, and most of the parties are night-time bonfires. So maybe both?

Humans have been saluting the sun at this time of year for as long as we’ve been humans. Many of the most ancient relics of human culture relate to time-keeping. Many early public construction projects like Stonehenge, Newgrange, and pyramids worldwide are oriented to catch and direct light at the equinoxes and solstices, often in stunningly complex fashion. Our ancestors felt the need to erect these amazing structures, laboring communally over generations, centuries, to honor our magnificent star.

In that light, perhaps I should not feel so very unusual in my drive to do the same. My ancestors would understand this profound entanglement, connection, communion, this need to feel kinship with the sun, the stars, the rivers, the stones, the wolves and winds and bears and bees and birds. They would know the swelling in my heart at the dawn chorus and the bone-deep calm that descends with the trilling of a robin the dusky purple light. They too would talk with trees and sing with raindrops and dance with meadow grasses. They would understand me, know me, feel me. I would not be so very unusual.

I would not be unusual, but many of the humans I’ve known would be. This whole culture would be an aberration. No, it is an aberration. It has never existed before and likely will never exist again. The rampant dualism, the transcendentalism that places human habitation outside and above this living world, the hierarchies and divisions between human and all else, the sheer hubris of humans in denying vibrancy and agency and personhood to any other state of being — none of that would be comprehensible to our ancestors. And not because they were so simplistic that they could not understand modern concepts. They would simply not understand why any thinking human would believe such apparent stupidity. And why would you want to? How could you be so willfully blind as to hold such nonsensical ideas? How could you live a life in such alienation and isolation and rejection? How could you not feel the sun on your cheek and know that for a caress from a living, loving, caring universe? How could you not feel kinship? How could you not pause in your summer work and salute the passing of time and the sun that marks that passage?

It is my hope that we do not have many more summer solstices that pass largely unheralded. It is my belief that this aberrant time will, indeed, pass and there will be holy days again. But for now I am living in a place, maybe one of the few in my country, that is not aberrant, that is traditional, that is living as our ancestors did, in a world fully ensouled and alive. The solstice, here, is a day to pause and reflect on time and change. There are Midsummer celebrations all around my home here in Vermont. There are people, Pagans and otherwise, dancing with this vibrant world of ours, openly and without fear.

And if it can happen here…

A merry Midsummer to you all!

 

Photo by Philip Mackie on Unsplash

Eliza Daley

Eliza Daley is a fiction. She is the part of me that is confident and wise, knowledgable and skilled. She is the voice that wants to be heard in this old woman who more often prefers her solitary and silent hearth. She has all my experience — as mother, musician, geologist and logician; book-seller, business-woman, and home-maker; baker, gardener, and chief bottle-washer; historian, anthropologist, philosopher, and over it all, writer. But she has not lived, is not encumbered with all the mess and emotion, and therefore she has a wonderfully fresh perspective on my life. I rather like knowing her. I do think you will as well.

Tags: connection to nature, interbeing, seasonal holidays, summer solstice