Tonight is the Summer Solstice. It is the longest day of the year in the Northern Hemisphere and the time when the Earth is tilted most closely to the Sun (23.4 degrees, to be precise). At the same time, it is the Winter Solstice in the Southern Hemisphere, where everything is the other way round. The word “solstice” comes from the Latin word “solstitium,” meaning “sun standing still.” The sun has now entered Cancer.
Also, a solar eclipse will take place (according to astrologers, a sign of change). It will be visible in central Africa, the southern Arabian Peninsula, Pakistan, Northern India, and South Central China.
That’s what happens on the astronomy side of things. However, Caribbean people are not very attuned to the Solstices or Equinoxes, unless they happen to be studying astronomy. This is because these happenings are so closely linked to the seasons: spring, summer, autumn, winter. Our Caribbean seasons, weather-wise, are not so clearly defined. In Jamaica, we have what used to be “rainy seasons” (roughly the months of May and September), but climate change is putting paid to that. Now we’re grateful for the rain, whenever we can get it – which isn’t very often. We have “hurricane season” (currently June 1 to December 1), but I read somewhere they are considering making it longer; we are already up to the letter “D” in the alphabet – Dolly will be the next one. We also have “mango season” (on now!), and things like “Carnival season,” “bird shooting season,” “lobster closed season” and so on, and on. Trees and birds have their seasons, but you have to be aware of them: the flowering of the Poui tree at certain times, the arrival of migratory warblers in our gardens. You have to be conscious of a softening of the light in winter, and cooler nights. But cool nights are becoming more rare.
Elsewhere, seasons are a shift in the air, a recognition of change, and a distinct change in temperature also, of course. Every season has its own culture, and the resonance of that culture echoes back through the centuries. The Summer Solstice is an example; and one centre of that recognition, and indeed celebration, is Stonehenge in Wiltshire, England.
Why Stonehenge? This is a prehistoric – yes, thousands of years old – monument that aligns to the midsummer sunrise and the midwinter sunset. On the Summer Solstice, the central Altar stone at Stonehenge aligns with the Heel stone, the Slaughter stone and the rising sun to the north east. Along with another stone circle at Avebury, it was inscribed as a UNESCO World Heritage Site in 1986.
This year is the Year of COVID-19. So, the thousands of people who descend on Stonehenge at this time of year are kept out. It’s the kind of gathering the virus would love to spread itself around in. Stonehenge will reopen on July 4.
However, English Heritage, which maintains this ancient monument, streamed the sunset at Stonehenge live on Facebook this evening. Right now, they are streaming the sunrise live (June 21 is the longest day). Along with nearly 90,000 viewers from places as far flung as Chicago, Congo and Cork, I watched in awe as the light slowly faded from the great stones. It was a cloudy evening, with feathery grey clouds tinged with the palest pink. Two or three crows, silhouetted against the light, flew around and perched on the top of one. Every now and then, a crow seemed to be standing guard on top of a stone. For half an hour or so, just before dark, there was a burst of distant birdsong (did I hear a skylark?) from the green plains that surround Stonehenge. The wind blew. A man in a high-visibility jacket patrolled the outskirts of the monument. A small group of people nestled in a field, picknicking the Solstice. I think they were Druids.
The Druids describe themselves nowadays as “following a spiritual path rooted in the green earth.” Just like the spirit of Stonehenge (which has an extraordinary, dark energy – I have been there several times, and I always feel it) they are a little unnerving. They don’t do human sacrifices any more, so we now have the sanitized 21st century version. In the 20th century, they had taken on a “New Age” feel and the hippies were rather drawn to them. But like Stonehenge itself, the origins and the details of their evolution – centuries before the birth of Jesus – remain shadowy.
Apart from a noisy motorbike on the main road, which is not far away, the sunset was a muted affair. The thousands of Facebook viewers from literally everywhere were absolutely, quietly thrilled. The chat overflowed with love, peace and blessings – and memories of people who had visited there (it is a pretty major tourist attraction). I revisited some of my own memories as a child (when I imagined the stones were hollow, and one would open so I could climb into it); and as a teenager in the 1960s, pressing my hand against a stone and finding it strangely warm. In winter, the Salisbury Plain where the monument stands is usually bitterly cold and windswept.
Now, it is early morning at Stonehenge, and the sky is blurry with rain. A purple mist lies over the trees beyond.
The stones stand. Maybe they have a few more thousand years to go.