I am afraid I have no witty or poignant start to my column today – most of the summer stories I could find involved baseball, a sport I don’t care for; and I can’t seem to come up with any personal anecdotes about summer. There are songs – “Summer in the City”, “In the Good Old Summertime”, “Summertime and the livin’ is easy…”
I suspect we don’t have a lot of stories about summer because we’re too busy enjoying summer. We don’t have to make up myths about it, because it doesn’t scare us. And it’s not like summer suddenly happens. Unlike a snowstorm to mark the start of winter, or the very first red buds or yellow tinges to mark spring and fall, summer just creeps in. It’s spring, and then without paying attention, it’s summer. We might have some personal markers – the end of the school year, opening the summer cottage, putting the boat in the water, the first burgers on the grill – but really, by the time we do all that, summer’s already happened.
Astronomically speaking – for the northern hemisphere – the summer solstice occurs when the sun reaches the Tropic of Cancer, and we experience the longest day and the shortest night of the year. Summer officially starts on June 20 at 6:34am. On that day, here on the North Fork, we will see 15 hours and eight minutes of daylight. Because of our longitude and latitude, we’re used to the summer days turning into summer nights by around 9:30, so when I spent midsummer in the Upper Peninsula of Michigan, I was in for a surprise. We had planned a bonfire and ritual to start when it got dark – in the evening hours, we had dinner, dessert, drinks, conversation. We waited. And waited. More drinks, more conversation. And we waited. More drinks, and more food so we weren’t too inebriated to light the bonfire. When it finally got dark, it was nearly midnight. It was quite the experience, truly feeling the length of the midsummer day. While we’d been celebrating in some form all evening, we felt the need to sing and rejoice in the dancing firelight.
It’s no wonder the ancients celebrated this day so fervently. How scary the winter solstice must have felt, with its short, gray days and long, unending nights. Is it any wonder that they worried about the sun returning? Summer brought joy: The snow was gone, and the earth was bathed in warmth and green. Food was easier to find. Crops had been planted. The very thing that meant life or death – the sun – had returned. The ancients celebrated the time of year with festivals, rituals, and weddings. To this day, we have ancient sites in Northern Europe that were raised to celebrate midsummer – the most famous of course being Stonehenge, where rituals are still held today to celebrate the long days full of sunlight.
So what does all this sunlight do? For starters, it shows us where we are.
We forget sometimes that we are always home – on earth (unless you’re an astronaut, of course). The summer solstice gives us a great gift – a chance to see the most of our home, in the bright light of day.
If you have traveled at all, you have probably had this experience: you arrive in a new city, in a new hotel room very late one night. It’s dark, and really, all you want to do is go to sleep. You have no sense of your surroundings – which is not that bad, really, because sleep beckons. However, in the morning, you open your curtains – and you see a beautiful vista… or the street…or the dumpsters. But no matter what you see, in the light of day, you get to see your surroundings.
Such is the nature of the solstice. We exist in our world, with plenty of darkness around it – and then, before we realize it, we are having long days… and we get to see what’s around us. We get to see our world.
And what a world it is. Oceans and mountains, deserts and plains, forests and savannahs, and everything in between. Just traveling around the US reveals just about every climate, every type of terrain. Cross the ocean and we get even more – more stunning mountains, deserts, coastlines, tundras.
It is amazing…and it is no wonder we want to travel, especially in the summer, when the days are long and we can see our world… in the light of day.
Yet as much as we travel, the earth reminds us that we are always home. And that is something. Peggy Lee’s song “Is that all there is” haunts my thoughts when I consider the infinitesimal odds that allow intelligent life to exist at all. But as scary as those thoughts can be at times, there is incredible comfort when we turn our thoughts to home – this home. One only has to recall the now famous image of Earth taken from space – the big blue marble – to remember the longing we have for our home. I suppose it is small comfort that we are unlikely to ever leave Earth – we will never leave our home.
And so the Solstice calls on us to celebrate. May you enjoy your answer to summer’s call – with time to explore, warmth to bathe in, opportunity to play.
Postscript: I will be away for two months this summer, leaving around June 15 and returning by August 15. Eight days of that will be spent at Ministry Days and General Assembly in Columbus, Ohio (go Buckeyes!); most of the remaining time will be spent on the second story porch of my sister’s home in Round Lake, New York – resting, reading, planning for the year to come, and enjoying time with my family and friends.