Today marks the summer solstice, and the final installment in Nina MacLaughlin’s four part series on the lengthening light.
Max Pechstein, Sonnenuntergeng an der see, 1921
New season. New you. We began in the sky, in the stardust, we moved wombward into the water, out into the earthly world, and we arrive, now, in fire. Happy first day of summer.
The solstice is a special day, irregular, when doors swing open that are otherwise closed, like on Halloween, like the winter solstice and the equinoxes. There are extra layers of possibility afoot. Open yourself, why not, ease yourself toward a more primal state of mind. A battle’s taking place. Twins wage war for rulership over the year. According to the ancient myths, the Oak King has been in power since the solstice in December. Now, after half a year at the helm, he’s sapped. Today, the summer solstice, when the sun reaches its highest point in the sky here in the northern hemisphere, the Holly King, the dark mischievous other half, beats his brother, and takes the throne for the darkening part of the year. He’ll rule through yule.
The wheel of the year goes round—round like wreaths hung on doors in winter, round like flower crowns. Two halves within the whole, each force in tension with the other, pushing against, pulling apart, each wanting to overpower its irreconcilable twin. “The very value attached to the life of the man-god necessitates his violent death as the only means of preserving it from the inevitable decay of age,” writes James Frazer in The Golden Bough. “The same reasoning would apply to the King of the Wood; he, too, had to be killed in order that the divine spirit, incarnate in him, might be transferred in its integrity to his successor.” Ritual death, a fertility fest, rebirth. Power rising, taking hold, falling, taking new form. “He must increase, but I must decrease,” says John the Baptist of Jesus, born six months, a year’s half-turn, before him. “You can never have a new thing without breaking an old,” says D.H. Lawrence. “The new thing is the death of the old.” What’s coming?
We’re caught between duality: heaven and hell, summer and winter, light and dark, ant and grasshopper, holly and oak, superego and id, and—the big one—life and death, the circle whose warm-cool palms cup us all. What’s here, where we’re standing, in the center? In plants and trees there is what’s called the meristem, collections of undifferentiated cells which maintain the capacity to proliferate throughout the entire lifespan of the plant. They’re why trees keep growing, thicker and taller, through the years. Meristem. Merry stem. It might as well be another name for the maypole, the grand erection of the trunk, its penetration up and into the sky, ribboned approximation of the earth’s axis. Meristem, this cellular force, this botanical meat or marrow, this pure child that exists in our full-fledged adulthood, obscured by layers of growth and knowing. As potter M.C. Richards writes in her book Centering, “Even at the top of the oldest oak there is the meristem, out which new leaves push. Child in man.” It doesn’t go away.
Robert Graves, in his book The White Goddess, which captivated Sylvia Plath, calls midsummer an orgy of marriage and death. Throughout Europe, throughout history, bonfires blazed on the solstice, on hills and shores, on village streets, on riverbanks, in fields. The sun’s retreating now, so let’s make light last a little longer. Let’s kindle our own small suns here on earth. People leapt over the fire, tossed in their flower crowns, hoped their crops would rise to the height of the flames. In some places, couples leaping over the fire together would have good luck in fertility and love; elsewhere, the leap meant avoiding backache during the harvest. In Norway, the fire kept the cattle healthy and steered away the witches (they fly tonight). “At that mystic season the mountains open and from their cavernous depths the uncanny crew pours forth to dance and disport themselves for a time,” writes Frazer.
Tonight, the light lasts and lasts. Here, in this small city in the northeast, sundown happens at 8:24. There will be one second more daylight today than yesterday. Tomorrow will be two seconds shorter. The midsummer bonfires blaze and glow, and the shadows dance, dark wisps that sweep and fling themselves across the ground, against a mountainside, slipping between the trees, silent as the shooting stars. The fire fades, shadows swell and lengthen, get absorbed into the fuller dark. The uncanny slips back into the mountain fissures, and the hard oak burns to black ash. “Light though thou be, thou leapest out of darkness,” raves Captain Ahab in Moby-Dick, “but I am darkness leaping out of light, leaping out of thee!” The fire glows, the shadows dance.
The more you give the fire, the more it takes.
“Time is our ordeal,” writes Richards, our trial by fire. She goes on: “Fire has its slow motion, its flare. Tedium, alarm, necessity. I tell you we are in it. The voice at the center speaks in tongues of flame.” Here we are, finally, at the center. But we douse that voice with water. We’re scared of the fire, scared of what those tongues of flame will say. The truth at the center is white hot and terrifying. What do we hear when we listen? What is revealed?
Beyond the fire some fifth element emerges. Call it center, meristem, soul. “IT,” Lawrence calls it, “the deepest whole self of man,” the force we’re driven by. “If we are living people, in touch with the source, IT drives us and decides us. We are free only so long as we obey.” Access to IT liberates us as long as we follow where it leads. As long as we listen. We’ve got to be in touch with the source. How do we get there? Octavio Paz makes a map. From a section of the long poem Sunstone, which I taped to my wall behind my bedside table when I was sixteen years old and memorized:
two bodies, naked and entwined,
leap over time, they are invulnerable,
nothing can touch them, they return to the source,
there is no you, no I, no tomorrow,
no yesterday, no names, the truth of two
in a single body, a single soul,
oh total being…
Leaping over time, leaping over flames, two as one, joined, joining, the slipping into the great whole. Part of reaching IT involves bypassing the black-and-white divisions, being awake to the paradoxical oneness of it all. “The fight for freedom goes on. It is built in,” writes Richards. The child in woman and man, the meristem, the force from the start.
“Summertime, time, time, Child, the livin’s easy,” Janis Joplin interpreted Gershwin’s lyrics, “One of these mornings … you’re gonna spread your wings, child, and take, take to the sky.” But until that morning, the song goes on, don’t you cry. After that morning, who knows what harm may come. But for now, for now, the livin’s easy. Tan lines. Hot dogs. The memory-fantasy of summer lives on. The world of dew is the world of dew, and yet, and yet. The truth is this: It starts getting darker from here. Each season is pregnant with the other. You’re young, the season whispers to you tonight. You’re still so young.
Many summers ago, when I was sixteen, I spent evenings on beaches by bonfires and all the nights were parties. One night, a beer, unopened, rolled close to the flames and sat in the sand unnoticed. The beer boiled and the pressure built and the can exploded. Razor shreds of aluminum blasted over the sand, hot shrapnel tearing across the night. A girl by the fire got hit, sliced above her lip. Blood came fast. She touched her face and looked at her fingertips covered in blood. She did not look in pain, or even afraid; more than anything she looked confused. This blood comes from me? My face? Here on this beach, on this night, by this fire? A boy pulled off his T-shirt and pressed it to her face. I can still conjure the calm in his voice as he said, “Don’t worry. It’s just that the face has so many blood vessels.” Some people hovered around her, mostly people stood by the fire as they’d been. What could be done, after all? What had happened had happened.
But the mood around the fire tightened, quieted by the abrupt insertion of danger, of blood, of the power of the flame to hurl metal into the air and cut us all right open. “Put your face in the ocean,” someone suggested. “My mom says it heals everything.” We were children still, relying on our parents’ prescriptions, but harm was starting to find us, there beside the fire. “Oh, thou foundling fire,” says Ahab, “thou too hast thy incommunicable riddle, thy unparticipated grief.”
Stardust, ocean, soil, toil, flame. The riddle we can’t give words to, the grief we can’t participate in, an unkept promise, a glimpse of the mystery, of the unbroken planet that may or may not have existed, the world of dew, the leap over time, there and not there. We’re here and not here. Summer is made of the memory of summer. I didn’t know it then, young on the sand by the fire in the night, awakening to the whole five-sensed thrill of being alive, but I sensed it at the edges, sensed IT at the edges. Even to forget time was to acknowledge it, winter lives in the first day of summer, the wheel of the year picks up speed as it turns. “Shall we offer the nerve-buds / of our bodies / to be nourished (or consumed) in the sun of love,” poet May Swenson asks. I think the answer is yes, even though the flame will burn us to death.
Later that night on the beach, the boy sitting next to me on the driftwood log took my hand and we walked a little ways from the fire and placed ourselves in the valley of a dune. The ocean crashed and sizzled, the waves came and came and came; voices from the beach rose and fell, laughter. The fire glowed. Its warmth lived on my skin. I could not see the flames from where I was in the sand, only the tiny, orangey sparks as they rose and disappeared into the night. Only the glow, and the sense of the shadows it made. I was on my back, earth bed, star blanket. “Look at all the stars,” I said, maybe not even to him. The sand was cool on my back, the earth pressing itself up into me as I was pressed into it. “Your hair smells like smoke,” the boy said.
I woke up the next morning in the attic of my grandmother’s house. Downstairs, on the porch, she and I watched as two people got off their bikes and went to her tangle of blackberry bushes to steal her fruit. She stood and yelled down the hill. The thieves hurried away. This is a summer memory. Summer is earth’s memory. Summer is earth’s memory of all the fertile formlessness, everything arriving, wet-breathed, bloodied burning. Summer is the memory of what we know used to be, but can never wholly recall. So we remember instead: the fattest blackberries too high to reach, prickers that scratch the arm, catch the strap of the sundress, the berries on the bush warm, swollen, ready in the sun.
It’s getting warmer. It’s getting darker. Take off your clothes and slip back in.
Read earlier summer solstice pieces here.
Nina MacLaughlin is a writer and carpenter in Cambridge, Massachusetts.
Last / Next Article