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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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