We all notice seasonal variation, yet most of us can’t account for it. It is perhaps the most common scientific misconception. Contrary to popular belief, we do not experience summer because the Earth gets closer to the sun. It’s because the Earth is tilted on its axis. When our hemisphere tilts toward the sun, we get more light and things warm up and we call that summer. Our planet does not actually rock back and forth on its axis; it only seems that way, maintaining the same tilt as it revolves around the sun. That point of maximum tilt toward the sun occurs in late June for the northern hemisphere. It’s the summer solstice, also known as Midsummer.
Sadly, most Americans are ignorant of this seasonal moment. We seem marginally more familiar with the winter solstice, probably because of the vast commercial pressures that have accreted around that time in late December. Even so, most of us remain unaware that the winter solstice, our time of maximum tilt away from the sun, is the inverse, the opposite, the antithesis of the summer solstice. Six months removed from one another, we might regard these two celestial events as antipodes, points on opposite sides of a circle representing the cycle of the seasons.
The poetics of the winter solstice are perhaps slightly better understood in our popular culture: the birth of light in the depths of darkness. What, then, are the poetics of the summer solstice? If it is truly the inverse of the winter solstice, then it stands to reason that it must be the birth of dark at the peak of lightness, or the dying of the light at its very summit.
Perhaps this is why Americans have forgotten the summer solstice and the Midsummer holiday. We love summer, with its connotations of fun in the sun and trips to the beach. You’d think we’d be interested in celebrating this moment when the sun is at its zenith. But at this moment of the sun’s greatest power, it begins to decline, to wane, to die. There’s something subversive about recognizing this, something almost offensive to our national character. Our nation is caught up in a fantasy of endless growth and constant improvement. Acknowledging limits established by nature goes against our grain. Quite frankly it gives us the willies.
Elsewhere things are different. Midsummer is still the second biggest holiday of the year in the Nordic countries, especially Sweden and Finland, and also in Estonia and Latvia. (Yule may be bigger, but the Midsummer celebrations are more distinctive.) In Britain a certain bard wrote a rather famous play set on Midsummer Night. Also famous is the monument known as Stonehenge, which marks several astronomical events but seems to be primarily oriented to the summer solstice. It is one of many monuments around the world which honor the day. If ancient people shared our qualms, it did not stop them from observing the solstice. And there are indications that this is slowly changing in America now, as with every year various communities and municipalities are rediscovering the holiday and celebrating it in diverse fashions.
The Day of Days
And how can we characterize the day itself? To us on the surface of the planet, it seems that the sun is rising ever higher in the sky, and on this day it reaches its highest point, seeming to stand still in its march across the sky. (The word solstice derives from Latin for sun standing.) The days have been getting longer, but this is the longest day of the year. If you like natural light, rejoice. This day has more of it than any other — provided the weather cooperates, of course. In New Orleans and similar latitudes, it’s over 14 hours from sunrise to sunset. Anchorage clocks in at 19 hours and 21 minutes. At the arctic circle, the sun stays up all day.
It is not difficult to make an association between summer and sunlight and life. We know that virtually all life forms on our planet are dependent upon energy received from the sun, either directly or indirectly. The summer season in general and the longest day in particular might be be said to represent or embody life in all its fullness. Indeed, our word day derives from the Old English dæg which also meant “lifetime.” It’s related to the Lithuanian dagas, meaning “hot season,” and the Old Prussian dagis, meaning “summer.” Today we recognize at least two distinct meanings for the word “day.” It refers to the 24-hour period, of course, but that’s a relatively recent definition. The older meaning, still with us, is “the daylight hours,” the opposite of night. These associations suggest that Midsummer might well be regarded as the ultimate day of the summer season, the day of life, the day of days.
Sometimes we might complain about all this energy the sun sends our way, especially if we get sunburnt or overheated. But the truth is we capture only a tiny fraction of the sun’s awe-inspiring energy. Only about one-billionth of the sun’s energy enters earth’s atmosphere. Even so, this tiny fraction of solar energy is so vast that just one year’s worth is equivalent to all our planet’s non-renewable resources: all the coal, all the oil, all the natural gas, all the uranium. Combined. We seem bent on consuming these resources as quickly as possible; when they’re gone, the sun will still be shining. Midsummer is the propitious time to recognize and celebrate this superabundance of energy, to consider what it means for for us and how we might respond.
Yet it would be facile and simplistic to imagine that Midsummer is all about sunshine. Precisely at this supreme moment, at the very pinnacle of light and power, the decline begins. As Glenys Livingstone writes, “the seed of darkness is born.” How could it be otherwise? All extremes contain within them their opposites, necessarily, else they would not be extremes. This idea is enshrined in the sacred symbol of the Yin-Yang. In Chinese traditional medicine, Yin is held to begin with the summer solstice, when Yang is at its peak. In the light we find the darkness, in the masculine we find the feminine, in the heavens we find the Earth, in the fullness we find the void. Midsummer is also a time to reflect on this mystery.
Flowers are a fine symbol of summer. The sunflower especially comes to mind, with its solar petals and seeds of darkness. Calendula, verbena, elder flowers, St. John’s Wort and many others have been associated with the day. The rose in particular has been imbued with deep mystical significance. Perhaps it’s the combination of beauty, perfume, and sharp thorns. English folklore holds that a rose picked at Midsummer will stay fresh ’til Yuletide, at which point it may be used to magically divine a young woman’s future husband.
As the romantic floral connotations suggest, Midsummer has long been a day for love and lovers. According to some statistics, July and sometimes August have surpassed June for weddings in the United States, but this is a very recent phenomenon, dating since 2006, and may be more of an anomaly than a long-term trend. For centuries, June has been far and away the most popular month for weddings. The very name of the month derives from the Roman goddess Juno, queen of the gods but also goddess of marriage. This is the time to celebrate union, and not just the young, passionate, lusty desires of May, but also the more mature, stable, lasting commitment, the intimate, deep commingling of self and other.
There are few events more happy than a wedding, and no season so conducive to happiness as summer. Midsummer is a time to contemplate all the good things that make us happy. John Crowley writes in his sprawling novel Little, Big, “The things that make us happy make us wise.” (The book contains a fantastic Midsummer wedding scene.) Go out into wild nature if you can. Glory in the beauty of Gaia untamed, in the thriving vitality of life. Gather some wildflowers, inhale their fragrance, make a garland, dance, drink honey mead, take a nap. Let yourself dissolve in the warm bliss of the longest day.
Starhawk calls the it “the Give-Away time of the Sun.” The superabundance of solar energy that makes possible our ecosystem, the radiant light that sustains Gaia, the very web of life of which we take part: This is a gift. We enjoy all this richness freely, nor are we merely recipients of this beneficence. We also participate in it. Like the flowers, we can flourish, creating something new and beautiful. The Give-Away is not just to us, but of us.
The artist Annabelle Solomon has created a series of quilts based on the cycle of seasons. As part of this work she has mapped the creative process onto the seasonal cycle. According to her scheme, Midsummer corresponds to the time of “fruiting” or “coming into full form.” (Livingstone casts this as “realized creativity.”) This is when “light reaches the fullness of expression in the accompanying abundance” of life on Earth. She recognizes the solstice as a time to pause, reflect, and celebrate: “At this halfway point in the cycle, there is the momentary pause to admire the teeming fullness of life.”
Fruits become sweeter and softer and better for us to eat through the process of ripening. Enzymes within the plant called pectinases break down cell walls in the fruit, making it softer. Enzymes called amylases change the carbohydrates in the fruit into simple sugars, making it sweeter. Enzymes called hydrolases reduce the chlorophyll levels in the fruit, changing the color. We can tell a fruit is ripe by sight, touch, smell and taste. Who doesn’t love a ripe strawberry or juicy peach? We enjoy ripe fruit because the plant developed it for us, so that we animals would disperse their seeds.
All of these changes in the ripening process are triggered by ethylene gas. This is why placing certain fruits in a paper bag causes them to ripen more quickly. The fruit produces ethylene gas; the bag concentrates it. The fruit in the bag will ripen even more quickly if warmed by the sun. There’s a poetry here, perhaps, for the sun is also the source of the energy that grew the plant that bore the fruit. But then, the sun is the source for all our energy, including the energy it took to pick the fruit and put it in the bag, to say nothing of the manufacture of the bag itself. All creativity can be traced back to the sun, from the ripened fruit, to the work of the artist who paints the fruit — or eats it.
There’s a creative power at work in the plant’s transformation of solar energy into delicious fruit. Humans also have this power. We partake in a similar process. We don’t have to be professional artists to realize and celebrate our creativity. The key question for us is how we’re going to use it. We know what we’ve received. We can feel the diverse processes of nature flowing through our lives. But the outcome of our efforts is far less predetermined than the fruit of the plant. We might produce almost anything. What shall we do? What shall we make? What shall we give back? What shall we become? At the end of our lives, we become food for other life, if our bodies are allowed to decompose and return to the ecosystem. Should we not aim to contribute something at least that substantial before our inevitable demise?
And when the work is realized, ripened and consumed, we enjoy a momentary respite, a blissful relief from the churning cycle, a sweet release. Only by letting go do we discover the true purpose of our efforts. We only think we know what we’re doing as we plan and plot and scheme. Only in the living act, the undoubted deed, do we learn the truth.
Into the Flame
Bonfires are an age-old tradition for the summer solstice. Throwing flowers into those fires is also a tradition that goes back hundreds of years. The symbolism of such ancient rituals is multifaceted. Perhaps the act represents a way of offering the beauty of the Earth back to itself. Perhaps it represents the impending diminishment of the sun’s power. Perhaps the scent of burning petals is intoxicating. Try it yourself and see.
Flowers given over to flame. A day given over to love and dreams. A season given over to life and light. And what about us? We can be given over as well. We can give ourselves over. But to what? To what powers will we devote ourselves? What processes will we further?
Creation is not finished. The world was not wound up like clockwork by some divine watchmaker and left to ticktock forward on its own. Creation is ongoing, continuing to unfold and develop right now. And we are a part of it.
Consider our ancestors. If you’ve dabbled in genealogy, you may have traced your family tree back for several generations. If we were able to continue that process, going further back in time before the advent of written records, some ten thousand or so generations ago we would find our matrilineal common ancestor, the Lucky Mother from whom all living humans are descended. Yet further back in time — 600,000 years, a million years, 2.5 million years ago — we find ancestors who were not fully human but who were very close, represented by such skeletal remains as Boxgrove Man, Turkana Boy and Twiggy. 15 million years ago we find our ancestors in the great apes. About 60 million years ago we find Purgatorius, a little tree-dwelling mammal, the probable ancestor of all primates. Before that we have the first mammals coming from the cynodonts, who in turn came from the earliest mammal-like reptiles, the synapsids, some 250-odd million years ago. And we can continue back 390 million years ago to the appearance of four-limbed vertebrates, the tetrapods, the earliest of which were probably aquatic. 530 million years ago we find Pikaia gracilens, a leaf-shaped creature swimming in the waters of the Precambrian period, which may well have been the ancestor of all modern vertebrates. Further still: acorn worms, flatworms, sponges, back to one single-celled organism that lived 3.5 billion years ago — a single simple cell from which all we are all descended.
When we were children, the world and humanity may have seemed like permanent fixtures. Once we gain an understanding of history, we learn just how much things have changed. What does all this past portend? It would be the height of foolishness to suppose that it’s all ground to a halt in our modern moment. Indeed not. We humans can no more stop the continual flux than we can stop the solar furnace. Yet we’re not mere jetsam buffeted by the stream. We have a unique ability to shape our own future. This is the ultimate question for our species. Whither humanity?
The challenges before us seem immense, but we cannot allow ourselves to be paralyzed by fear. Instead, let us emulate the natural processes of the Earth. Start small. Plant seeds. Plant deeply, wisely, and well. Nurture the new growth that emerges.
Start with the self. As within, so without. Our own self-realization will not transform the world, nor need we achieve some imagined inner perfection before we can take action. But it’s a good place to begin. As Gandhi said, “We but mirror the world. All the tendencies present in the outer world are to be found in the world of our body. If we could change ourselves, the tendencies in the world would also change. As a man changes his own nature, so does the attitude of the world change towards him. This is the divine mystery supreme. A wonderful thing it is and the source of our happiness. We need not wait to see what others do.” Let the transforming fire flower in our hearts, and spread.
The Ω Gate
Here, in the hills of ages
I met thee face to face;
O mother Earth, O lover Earth,
Look down on me with grace.
Give me thy passion burning,
And thy strong patience, turning
All wrath to power, all yearning
To truth, thy dwelling-place.
— Julian Grenfell
Modern humans have achieved a remarkable independence from some natural cycles. We may experience this as liberating or crippling or both. Yet however alienated we may be from the natural rhythms and cycles of the Earth and our biology, however artificial our lived environment of climate-controlled cityscapes may seem, we remain inextricably and undeniably a part of the web of life here on our planet. It’s a plain, simple, profound fact, a truism so basic that we may easily forget it in the hustle and grind of our daily lives. Yet on occasion this reality is made manifest, the evidence becomes evident, the truth we’ve always known becomes clear, and we meet the Mother “face to face.” Such meetings may be terrifying or empowering or both.
Midsummer is a time to celebrate such encounters, to commune with nature, to enter into communion, to celebrate our mutual participation through an act of sharing, an intimate fellowship, a closer rapport. You may wish to share your feast with family, friends, strangers and the Earth, as we mark our revolution around the sun.
It’s the nature of cycles that they have no beginning or end. They simply loop back on themselves again and again. A helix is more accurate than a loop, for each iteration of the turning is different than the one before or after. As humans we find ourselves compelled to mark the turning in some way, to say here, now, again. Here we are now again. All holidays serve this purpose, and thus any one is a candidate for marking the new year. Our calendar marks the turning of the year shortly after the winter solstice, at the end of December. Yet a case could be made for the summer solstice as the best time to mark the new year. The ancient Egyptian new year began around this time. In the modern West, the academic year gives form to a good portion of our lives, beginning in the fall and ending in the spring. The summer forms a natural break, a time for vacation and recreation. To vacate and recreate: to leave the old behind and make a new self.
Glenys Livingstone observes that a fitting symbol for this day is the final letter of the Greek alphabet, the omega, which resonates on many levels. The letter Ω is shaped like a gateway, and Midsummer is the passage from one year to the next. Its yonic shape is also suggestive of the Great Mother. Its finality suggests the “birth of the dark” which happens at this time. It is the end of the beginning and the beginning of the end.
We celebrated the lively quickening of desire on May Day. We will celebrate dissolution and harvest at Lammastide. For now we may celebrate the fullness of being at Midsummer.
- Listing of contemporary American Midsummer celebrations
- Online Etymology Dictionary: day
- Exergy Flow Charts from Stanford University’s Global Climate & Energy Project
- The Seasonal Moments – a PaGaian Wheel of the Year by Glenys Livingstone
(Note: The section on the summer solstice was the primary inspiration for this essay.)
- A Geomedical Approach to Chinese Medicine: The Origin of the Yin-Yang Symbol
- Soul Seasons Quilts
- The Origin of Fruit Ripening
- The scientists behind Mitochondrial Eve tell us about the “lucky mother” who changed human evolution forever
- All Species Evolved From Single Cell, Study Finds
- A Gandhi quote
- The Hills by Julian Grenfell
- Manhattanhenge / CC BY-NC-SA 2.0
- Hot Summer Sun / CC BY-NC-SA 2.0
- sunflowers / CC BY-NC-ND 2.0
- Still Life with Fruit and Flowers; van Brussel (1787) / CC BY-NC 2.0
- Flame and Flower / CC BY-SA 2.0
- The gate to summer / CC BY-SA 2.0
- summer greetings / CC BY-NC-ND 2.0
New Orleans, 2013
Note: This essay is a chapter in my book, Spinning in Place.