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Bioregional celebrations

Bioregionalists deepen their connection to place through a variety of creative rituals and community celebrations. The region's biggest environmental celebration is the Earth Day Coalition's annual EarthFest. But there are many simple ways to celebrate the joys of our bioregion. You can go maple sugaring in early spring, observe the warbler migration in May, watch the sun setting over Lake Erie after a lazy August evening, go apple picking in the fall. And, like many bioregionalists around the world, you can remember the solstice—reflect on the eternal rhythms of the sun from your place on the Earth.

Cleveland summer<br />Around the summer solstice, after fifteen hours of daylight, the sun sets in the northwest over Lake Erie. Cleveland winter<br />Around the winter solstice, daylight dwindles to a little over nine hours.

The following essays by David Beach appeared originally in the Cleveland Edition. 

Summer solstice

"Tomorrow the days start getting shorter. It's the beginning of a long downhill slide. Everything takes a deep breath and says, 'Winter!'"

We were hiking around Lake Isaac in Big Creek Reservation with the Cleveland Metroparks' chief naturalist, Robert Hinkle. The almost-full strawberry moon hung over the lake, and it seemed strange for him to be talking about the coming of winter. This was June 21, the summer solstice, the longest day of the year in the Northern Hemisphere. Summer, it seemed, was just beginning.

But the animals would soon sense the passing of the seasonal apex, he said. In the coming weeks, gradually diminishing amounts of daylight would start them on the path toward winter. Birds prepare for fall migration. Waterfowl molt after breeding and grow new flight feathers. By the end of July, the redwing blackbirds start gathering in flocks for the journey south.
Autumn plants appear in the fields. Ironweed is already waist high. And other plants, like poison ivy, are becoming tinged with fall colors.

"Nature sends signals," Hinkle said. "A lot of the signs are subtle, but you can see them if you watch closely."

Before humans were ensconced in cities and homes with artificially controlled climates, we also were attuned to the sun's seasonal rhythms. The summer solstice was a time of uncertainty and danger, since it marked the end of spring, the point when the sun began to weaken.

On midsummer's eve, the devil, demons, poisonous dragons and other imps took to the air. People lit bonfires to strengthen the sun and scare off the evil creatures. And, Hinkle said, they also looked to certain magical plants for protection, especially to St. John's Wort.

St. John's Wort ("wort" means plant or root) is a perennial herb with clusters of brilliant yellow flowers. It blooms near the time of the solstice and undoubtedly reminded ancient peoples of the sun. The Crusaders may have brought the plant to Europe, where it became incorporated into Christian midsummer rituals related to the Nativity of St. John on June 24. The plant was renamed in the saint's honor. Its scientific name, Hypericum perforatum, is a reference to the translucent dots on the leaves. The dots are oil glands but look like pinpricks—holes perhaps made by the prickly hand of the devil as he tried to pull the flower from the hand of St. John.

On midsummer's night eve, people hung St. John's Wort by their doors or wore sprigs of the plant around their necks to ward off evil spirits. It was used to exorcise demons from those possessed. It could help reveal witches. And it was reputed to be a cure for a
variety of ailments—depression, melancholy, delusions, aches, coughs and urinary troubles. According to one legend, if a childless woman picked a St. John's Wort flower while walking naked, she would have a child before next midsummer.

"All this myth and magic is tied into tonight," Hinkle said, as we followed the trail around Lake Isaac.

The sun finally set a few minutes after nine o'clock. The long daylight paled, and our eyes adjusted to the darkness settling over the woods and meadows. We plunged deeper into the woods in search of screech owls. Hinkle tried to lure one close by playing recorded owl calls through a portable loudspeaker. As the eerie, trilled hooting broadcast through the trees, we all looked up into the surrounding branches. Minutes passed. Suddenly, we sensed a feathery whisper passing overhead. Someone spotted an oval shape silhouetted against the moonlit sky. Hinkle caught it in a flashlight beam. The little, gray owl stared at us, perhaps annoyed at being revealed. Then he fluttered back into the darkness.

Flushed with our good fortune at having seen such a secretive bird, we continued hiking through the woods. The path soon brought us to the edge of a creek ravine. From this overlook, we could see some distance through the woods, as if the creek formed a dark tunnel through the trees.

In this space were thousands of fireflies. One male would flash, and then every male in sight would light up in competition. The night was filled with their ethereal fireworks.

Hinkle marveled at the sight. He said, "It's often hard to find magic in our society today. People don't take the time anymore. Their lives are too rushed. But the magic is here. You just have to go out and search for it."

Winter solstice

In the dying light of a record-cold day, we hiked to a rocky ledge in the Cuyahoga Valley National Recreation Area. A dozen of us stood at the edge of a precipice—a gift of the glaciers that had scoured the area thousands of years ago—and looked out over the snow-covered river valley. The westerly wind, after racing across miles of open space, struck us head on and frosted our faces. Cold seeped into our boots from the rocks. Yet we stayed and kept looking to the southwest. We wanted to bid farewell to the sun.

It was December 21, the winter solstice, the shortest day of the year. The sun had been up only nine hours and now was about to set behind the ridges on the other side of the valley. Amazingly, it had broken free of the clouds, and we were treated to a rare winter sunset. For a few minutes the molten iron sun was alloyed with the icy, blue lead of the sky.

The park ranger had been describing how animals and insects survive the winter—how ants tunnel far underground, how bees create a buzzing sphere of warmth in the hive. But, as the sun touched the horizon, he stopped. We all grew silent and said our private good-byes.

Solstice means "sun stands still." Each year, as the winter solstice approaches around December 21, the sun rises farther to the southeast and sets farther to the southwest. It traces a lower and lower arch in the southern sky, so its rays do not strike the Earth directly. At the winter solstice the sun pauses, then turns around and heads north again. It is reborn. The days lengthen until the summer solstice around June 21.

We know that the process is the result of the Earth being tipped on its axis, the Northern Hemisphere leaning away from the sun during a portion of the year. As I shivered on the ledge, however, I tried to forget such abstract astronomical knowledge. I tried to imagine the fears of ancient peoples who depended on the Earth's natural cycles and endured long, dark winters without central heating and electric lights. What if you didn't know for sure that the sun would return? What if the proper respect hadn't been paid to the gods this year? What if it kept getting colder and darker?

Ancient peoples worshipped the sun, and their priests and shamans carefully followed its progress in the sky. They determined the time of the solstice with elaborate structures, such as Stonehenge, or by watching the sun set over sacred mountaintops.

To counteract the growing darkness, ancient peoples lit fires to help the sun regain strength and battle the evil forces loose upon the land. To celebrate the sun's rebirth and to relieve the tedium and dread of midwinter, they staged festivals of renewal. The Druids brought mistletoe into their homes as a symbol of life and healing. The Romans celebrated Saturnalia, a year-end festival of license and intoxication derived from earlier pagan traditions.

Early Christian leaders set the date of Jesus' birth to coincide with the existing winter solstice festivals, and over the centuries many of the old traditions were incorporated into new Christmas practices. There are the Yule logs, candles, evergreens in the home—all symbols of the birth of new light, the triumph of light over darkness, of warmth over cold, of goodness over evil, of life over death.

As I stood out on the exposed ledge and watched the setting sun, I felt close to the root of such traditions. I was far from a church and the city. I could forget about the tensions of the Christmas season, the frenzied shopping and the crowded malls. For a moment I could reconnect with the natural cycles of the Earth, reorient myself in place and time as ancient peoples must have done for ages.

After the last drop of light fell below the horizon, our group walked back to a park shelter about a quarter of a mile away. We emerged from the deepening gloom of the woods and crossed an open field, our boots punching clean footprints in the snow. Away from the ledge, there was little wind. It seemed perfectly peaceful, this cusp of winter.

The people around me were all strangers, yet I felt we had just shared something mystical. We had witnessed the dying of the sun, the true end of the year. At the shelter, we would soon be sharing a roaring fire. The burning logs would release to us the stored heat of the sun.

And we would not be afraid of the longest night that was upon us. We would have faith in a new sun rising tomorrow.

We are returning to our native place after a long absence, meeting once again with our kin in the Earth community. For too long we have been away somewhere, entranced with our industrial world of wires and wheels, concrete and steel, and our unending highways, where we race back and forth in continual frenzy.
—Thomas Berry, The Dream of the Earth

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