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Lost on the Winter Solstice

Thursday, December 22nd, 2011: Solstices, Trips.

More than twenty years ago, after losing my home in the Loma Prieta earthquake, I began regularly observing the winter and summer solstices, as my personal, private holidays.

The solstices were important events for some, but not all, traditional societies. Highly organized agricultural societies seem to have based their planting schedules on observations of the solar cycle, but nomadic hunters and foragers may have had less need for such predictive measurements. And of course, in equatorial regions the solar cycles have very different significance.

Almost all of my solstice observations have been dedicated retreats in a special, remote place, usually in the mountains where I can observe the sunrise and sunset from a high place. From experience, I learned that the character of the summer and winter solstices is very different. The summer solstice is a time of thanks for abundance, whereas the winter solstice is the very cusp of the seasonal cycle, a critical time when we want and need the days to change from shorter to longer, to re-start the cycle of food production in our habitat. The longest night is an opportunity to share in this great change, an opportunity for a difficult but rewarding vigil. But in addition, both solstices provide formal punctuations for my year, regular times when I can ritually sum up and review the year’s experiences and get a sense of where I’m at in my life.

Most of my winter solstice experiences have included such a vigil, in seclusion, but a few have been thwarted due to pressing circumstances. This year, financial constraints and family obligations forced me to attempt a solstice observation while visiting family in the Midwest. There are no mountains here, most winter days are overcast, and there’s virtually no public land outside the cities.

Unable to come up with a better plan, I borrowed a car and drove from the city to the small town where I grew up. I knew from other recent visits that there wasn’t anything left there for me, but I couldn’t think of anywhere else to go.

I drove through the gutted downtown, where historic buildings had collapsed or been demolished and replaced with vacant lots. I turned onto Main Street, where ancient shade trees had recently been cut down so the street could be widened, facilitating through traffic. Now you can see from one end to the other, and the town might as well not be there.

I made my way out into the countryside, toward the farms which my Carson ancestors had settled more than 130 years ago. The sky was a uniform mass of clouds; you couldn’t even tell in which direction the sun might’ve risen. Along the highway, old farmhouses had been replaced by new trophy homes surrounded by landscaped grounds and artificial lakes. I came to a tree-lined bend in the river and found that it had been short-cut by a flood-control channel where muddy water rushed between stark banks.

In fact, a few years ago I had visited the mastermind behind the flood-control project, my high school biology teacher. I listened in bewilderment and later witnessed the terrible devastation where giant machines had cleansed 15 miles of river of its shoals and fallen trees, degrading it from natural habitat to man-made drain.

It’s common in the midwest for riparian corridors to retain the last of the ancient forest that covered this land before the European invasion. The trees prevent streambank erosion, and riverside bottomlands flood regularly and often escaped clearing for farmland.

After my senior year of high school, I had lived on the farm beside the river, and my friends and I had discovered a tiny island in the river, hidden back in the woods, which we had claimed as our own, crossing over the shallow channel on a fallen log, building a lean-to and stocking it with canned food. Later, on visits home from college, I would go back there to see how the island was doing. Sometimes the river was in full flood, the forest was deep in muddy water and the island gone from sight.

I stopped the car on the shoulder of the gravel road and made my way through the mud of the recently flooded woods, avoiding thorn scrub and vines and stepping over logs and around standing water until I came to the poor damaged river. It was still running high and muddy. I smelled rotting wood and saw piles of logs left by the cutting and dredging machines. I felt myself drawn further into the dark woods, and then I saw flashes of emerald green. The smell of rotting wood was also the smell of life starting over.

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Summer Solstice Between Fires

Monday, June 24th, 2013: Solstices.


With no plans for the day, I got up before dawn and climbed the slope of Boston Hill to deliver my sunrise prayer. Silhouetted against the glow of the eastern horizon, the smoke of the Silver Fire, burning its way through the ponderosa pine forest of the Black Range, trailed away toward the south. And the sun rose precisely behind the base of the smoke plume, setting the theme for this solstice.

This is our third year of apocalyptic wildfires. First, in 2011, the monstrous Wallow Fire, caused by careless campers, consumed most of the vast White Mountains forest in Arizona, one of my favorite nearby retreats, and the Horseshoe Fire, blamed on illegal immigrants, torched the Chiricahua Mountains forest southwest of here. Then in 2012 the Whitewater-Baldy fire, started by lightning, burned the 300,000 acre heart of the high Mogollon Mountains just north of us, and still, a year later, all trails in that area remain closed.

I had spent my first New Mexico summer solstice on Whitewater Creek, and last year’s maps had shown the fire burning down the steep canyon slope all the way to the creek and stopping there. I decided to venture into the closed area by taking the back way in, dropping into the middle of the canyon from a high ridge, to see how things really fared down there.

Picking my way down the steep trail over sharp, loose rocks, I noticed individual scorched junipers and pinyons on this, the north slope, but here most of the vegetation was intact, whereas far across the canyon on the opposite slope, large swaths of forest had been browned by the fire. The walls of Whitewater Canyon consist largely of cliffs, pinnacles, and talus slopes, but ponderosa forest can cling to surprisingly steep slopes, and I was glad to see about half the forest still green.

When I finally neared the treetops of the riparian canopy I could hear the creek down there roaring over rocks, and I saw that here and there, individual trees in the canyon bottom had burnt. The opposite slope was ash-covered and cleared of undergrowth, and charred or half-burnt logs and branches were scattered amidst the luxuriant creekside vegetation. Lower Whitewater Creek has always been full of small trout, but I didn’t see a fish anywhere, not even a minnow.

Finding a place to bathe and hang out in the shade is tricky here; long stretches of the creek are shallow and gravelly, and the fire had reduced coverage of the canopy. I worked my way upstream until I found a narrow spot between low, overhanging cliffs where there was a large flat rock next to a small pool fed by a tiny waterfall. It would be shaded till mid-afternoon when I would move upstream a few yards. June is our hottest month, and I didn’t plan to hike out until just before sunset, hoping to be in shade on the way up.

A more peaceful day would be hard to imagine. The only minor hardship was the gnats and flies which would swarm me any time I moved. As long as I sat or lay still, they would lose interest in me and gradually drift away. All day long, I bathed, snacked, drank purified water from the creek, read a book about African pygmies, watched birds in the canopy overhead and butterflies and dragonflies flitting above the creek, listening to the never-ending song of water on stone. Whereas in the past, there were always other hikers or equestrians in this popular canyon, the trail closures ensured that I was completely alone. Imagine going an entire day without any human sound, not even an airplane!

Sunlight waned and returned above as high, thin clouds formed and dispersed. Finally, after 7 pm, I packed up and started back. It was a hard slog, and I was torn between hurrying to reach the ridgetop by sunset, and taking it easier to enjoy the last golden light on the canyon walls. About a third of the way up, I saw the moon, almost full and bright as a new coin, rising from the head of the canyon.

Then, when I was far enough up to see the golden mesa fanning out below the mouth of the canyon, I also saw smoke spreading from another wildfire along the rugged horizon way over in Arizona, somewhere north of Clifton and Morenci. When I finally reached the top, I saw the sun setting into the smoke of this fire, so that burning forests both opened and closed this longest day.

I drove a narrow, twisting, and empty road down from the mountain under spectacular crimson clouds in a deepening blue sky, and the big moon shed a soft light on the hills and canyons around me as I found my long way back home in the night.



Summer Solstice 2016

Tuesday, June 21st, 2016: Solstices, Trips.

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