Solstice 2011

One of the appeals of earth-centered religions and spiritualities is their celebration of a world we can see and touch, smell and taste and hear right now.  No membership in the right in-group, no attainment of a prerequisite spiritual state, no promised future to wait for.  Instead, democratic access to the sacramental gifts of this life:  the pleasures of simply being alive, of breathing air (assuming you have decent air to breathe), of eating and touching and loving the things of this world, of caressing the people you cherish, of hearing their voices and enjoying their physical presence.  Transient, fragile, time-bound, brief — and all the more dear for that.

At the winter solstice our ancestors knew from studying the sky and watching the sunlight on markers of wood and stone that “when the days begin to lengthen, the cold begins to strengthen.”  My father, a dairy farmer, used to repeat the old saying around this time of year with a kind of grim satisfaction.  More frozen pipes in the barn, more days the tractors would start only with difficulty, more days to chip away ice and plow snow.  But when I talk with my students, mostly dwellers of suburbia and “urbia,” and learn they don’t know this or many other pieces of earth-wisdom, I realize again that I stand as a member of a transitional generation.  My parents and grandparents inherited much of the lore and skill of our agricultural past, and have passed a portion of it on to me.  But so many of the rising generation have lost most of it.

Anyone can have that curious sensation of “secondary memory” that outreaches one’s own lifetime, grafted on through relatives and ancestors.  The only grandmother I knew well was born in 1894, and so I can recall experiences that did not actually happen to me, but which — through her retelling, and with accompanying photos or other artifacts — have assumed the guise of shadowy half-memory, as if they indeed left their imprint directly on my own life and thought and perception, rather than through telling alone.  But in the case of hard-earned knowledge of how to live and anticipate change and thrive on earth, they are not the incidents peculiar to one life only, but part of the lore of the tribe.

Solstice feels something like that to me. It’s the oldest pan-human holiday we can discern, predating those of particular cultures and religions by thousands of years.  There’s nothing “pagan” about it — it’s a matter of observable fact, rather than belief, as are the equinoxes.  Neolithic monuments and markers attest to the reach of such knowledge around the planet.  An essay by scientist and author Arthur C. Clarke, the title of which has drifted out of reach of immediate recall, begins like this:  “Behind every person now alive stand one hundred ghosts, for that is the ratio by which the dead outnumber the living.”  The first time I read that, I felt a delicious shiver of mortality and awe.  Yes, the ratio may have shifted (though I hope never to live on a world where that proportion favors the living over the dead — imagine for an instant the conditions that implies), but the image endures.  And of those assembled dead, perhaps half or more knew and celebrated the solstice.  For five hundred or a thousand or more generations, people acknowledged the shift of the planet in its relation to the sun.  The southern hemisphere of course complements the northern in its seasons — their summer is well-launched, and now the days begin to shorten.  The body knows these shifts, while the mind may take its own interval to catch up.  We feel such changes in our bones, on our skin.  In a couple of weeks, by mid-January, the change shows more clearly.  Morning and evening commuters will enjoy more light, and the year turns.

Another of the keys, then, to connect to my previous post on a Religious Operating System, is lore itself:  the knowledge of cycles and patterns we can measure and demonstrate for ourselves.  No need for the fascination and hysteria surrounding 2012 and the supposed End of the World “predicted” by the Mayan calendars.  Does no one remember Y2K?!  Or any of half a hundred “prophecies” of the end over the last few millenia?  The Maya were simply engrossed in the measure of time, and by their reckoning one major cycle ends and another begins.  Their obsession made for precise astronomical reckoning.  Changes are coming, certainly.  Have they ever not come?

Lore includes some dross and superstition, which can almost always be dispatched by dint of careful observation and experiment.  And while some generations may forsake the wisdom which their ancestors long thought worthy of preservation, it is — eventually — recoverable. If the peak- and post-oil folks are right, we face a sharp decline in material wealth and technology powered by a rapidly diminishing supply of cheap energy, and not enough people now know how, or are prepared, to flourish as people did for most of human history:  wood fires, gardens and food animals, home remedies, animal and human labor, solar and wind power on a modest scale.  But little or no electricity, or any of the hundreds of devices it powers, or petroleum products and technologies.  We live with a false sense of security, as if the entire West were one large gated community.  All it takes is a power outage of a day or two, as happened with Hurricane Irene for so many, to cast us out of our ease and return us to the human experience of all generations until the last few.  We could see the real “99%” as all those who lived before the last century and its admittedly artificial standards of material luxury and abundance for a portion of the planet.  But the solstice includes those hundred ghosts and the living, all witnesses of the day that signals the return of light and hope to the world.  May it bring those things to you.

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The solstice for the U.S. actually takes place at 12:30 am Eastern Standard Time on Thursday 12/22.  So calendars favor the majority — for all but the east coast, the Solstice is indeed today rather than early tomorrow morning.

Henge image.

Posted 21 December 2011 by adruidway in Druidry, lore, nature, solstice, spirituality, wisdom

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