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When the Sun Stands Still - Celebrating the summer solstice, plus, 12 easy garden chores
by Marion Owen
November 19, 1999

O Creator, who told the Sun to come into being and then said "Let there be night and let there be day, day and light," go in peace, keep the peace to enlighten the men whom you have created, O Creator.

O Sun, who are at peace and safe, shed light on these persons whom you nourish, do not let them fall ill. Keep them safe. --Inca prayer for the summer solstice

Glancing at the calendar one spring morning, I realized that June 21, the first day of summer, was just around the corner. As a youngster, and prior to moving to Kodiak Island, Alaska from the Pacific Northwest, I considered June 21st to be just another day, like July 16th or August 3rd. Tennis lessons, afternoon swims in the lake down the street, bike rides, and building forts in the woods--to a kid, the days just flowed along without beginning or end .

Mid-summer also meant engaging in jungle warfare tactics as my siblings and I cut trails through huge blackberry thickets in search of the plumpest and juiciest berries. The more berries we picked, the more our arms got scratched up. No matter. It was worth it. We knew that as long as we brought in the berries, deep-dish blackberry cobblers replaced boring bowls of Cheerios.

The third week in June means something altogether different to me now. It marks the summer solstice, a significant event that for centuries has been a reminder, a link, between heaven and earth. Around the world, particularly in the northern latitudes where changes in day length is more significant, summer solstice is a time of observation, celebration and festivities.

Three Beans Under A Pillow

Throughout Europe, Midsummer's Eve or Saint John's Eve is a special time when many rural people still observe traditional rites connected with fire and water. For example, individual pine trees or towers made Lincoln-log fashion are decorated with flowers and greens. Set afire, people dance around the fire and leap through the flames.

The Saint John's fires are thought to possess healing properties. Mothers hold sick choldren over the embers, and livestock is driven through the ashes. Even Saint John's "night water" is thought to contain great healing power. To roll around in the dew-filled grass or bathe in certain rivers and springs is said to make one strong and healthy.

Midsummer's Eve is also a night of love and superstition. Three beans slipped under a pillow will supposedly reveal one's next romance. A piece of corn hidden in a cake, and fig leaves passed through the Saint John's fires and then touched with midnight dew are also said to reveal the future.

"And His Face Did Shine As The Sun..."

The word "solstice" comes from "sol stare" (the stopping of the sun). It marks the time when the sun stops its apparent northward or southward motion and momentarily "stands still" before it starts in the opposite direction. This is similar to the "stand" of the tide, when the water's horizontal movement pauses before reversing its direction.

The Romans believed the winter solstice as the time when the sun was at the lowest, or weakest point of its journey. Thus, the purpose of many of the solstice rites or ceremonies (that are still observed in many countries today) were to give renewed strength to the sun when it needed it most. The summer solstice was a time to receive the sun's energy when it was at its peak.

Throughout history, the sun appears as an integral part in most, if not all, religions as well as the foundation for whole civilizations. In the Transfiguration, Christ appears before his disciples in all His divine glory. Describing this vision of the divine light, the Gospels use the sun as a metaphor: "And His face did shine as the sun, and His raiment was white as light (Matt. 17:2).

Stonehenge, one of Europe's most important neolithic monuments on Salisbuy Plain in Wiltshire, England, is thought to be a solar temple. The axis of the "bluestones" and settings deliberately point to a position where an oberver standing at the center of the monument would see the sunrise on the longest day of the year‹the summer solstice.

Machu Picchu'S Sundial

At Machu Picchu, the ruined Inca fortress-city in Peru, is the stone "hitching place of the sun", a sundial used to determine the solstices by the shadow cast by the sun.

In ancient Europe, the behavior of the sun was especially important for farming communities.

People needed to measure time‹to figure out the best time for plowing, sowing and reaping their crops, for putting livestock out to pasture, and for most every other farming activity.

Present-day activities are mostly structured around clock-time, with the flow of the seasons all but diffused. Gardening helps to re-awaken one's sensitivity to nature's clock. Flowers don't respond (thankfully) to digital time, and broccoli never matures according to the guidelines on the back of the seed packet.

Make Your Own Ceremony

For your next summer solstice, consider adding a little ceremony, however simple it may be:

--Make Garden Bread: fold in a handful of calendula or other edible flower blossoms and chopped fresh parsley.

--Plant an extra row of vegetables and donate your harvest to a local food bank.

--Host a special "garden party" for the neighborhood children.

--Take your camera for a visual "walk in the garden".

--Decorate your garden with a sundial, windvane, handmade sign or figurine.

--Sit quietly in the garden, in the woods, or somewhere out in nature. Be still. Listen.

The Mid-Summer Job Jar

1) Tea or coffee in the garden? Start your day with a stroll around the garden. If anything, simply to touch bases with what's growing. Look for new blossoms, green shoots, and insects (not all bugs are pests).Take in the sights, smells and sounds. Touch a leaf and really feel its texture. Not only will you keep abreast of any changes, good or bad, but you'll be treating yourself to a daily dose of Nature. Albert Einstein once said, "One cannot but be in awe when one contemplates the mysteries of eternity, of life, of the marvelous structure of reality. It is enough if one tries to merely comprehend a little of this mystery each day. Never lose a holy curiosity."

2) Sprinkle bone meal around strawberries, lilies, nasturtiums, delphiniums.

3) Revitalize slow-working compost heaps by turning them with fresh grass clippings, kelp and fish meal. If dry, hose it down as you work the compost pile. If too wet and soggy, add dry stuff and cover with a plastic tarp.

4) Thin carrots, rutabagas, turnips, beets.

5) Sow another crop of lettuce, radishes, mixed salad greens.

6) Hill-up potatoes as they grow by piling up compost, kelp, leaves or dried grass around the plants. You can leave as little as 3 to 4 inches of green tops poking above the mulch. Remember, potatoes grow from the stem of the plant, not the root, so adding mulch not only saves the plants from wind damage, but you get more spuds!

7) Pick slugs. Pick slugs. Pick slugs. Ugh.

8) Mulch raspberries and currants with compost or manure. Do the same around the bases of broccoli, kale, cabbage, cauliflower and other cole crops for additional support and nutrients.

9) Put up pea and bean supports before they get too far along. (Like kids, they're better behaved when you "get to them" early on).

10) Loosen soil around plants with a hand "scratcher". This is a good way to work in bone meal or mulch, and check for pests at the same time‹especially root maggots, aphids, and need I say, slugs.

11) Weed it and reap. Think of weeding as a meditation exercise, and the task won't seem so tedious. Weed when the soil is moist and before they go to seed.

12) Re-pot houseplants with new soil. If the weather's nice, take them outside for a session of real sun and fresh air. Don't leave them outside overnight, though.

Thoughts To Stick To The Roof Of Your Mind

"Here's flowers for you; hot lavender, mints, savory, marjoram; the marigold, that goes to bed with the sun, and with him rises weeping: these are flowers of middle summer, and I think they are given to men of middle age." --William Shakespeare

"Spring being a tough act to follow, God created June." --Al Bernstein

Marion Stirrup of Kodiak Island, Alaska teaches organic gardening courses through the University of Alaska. An award-winning photographer and writer, Marion also developed PlanTea, the all-purpose tea bag fertilizer. PlanTea is sold in retail stores and by mail order around the world. Discover more garden tidbits, recipes, giggles and more in her newsletter, "The PlantPress." You're also invited to visit: http://www.plantea.com or write to: PO Box 1980, Kodiak, AK 99615; Phone: 907-486-2552. Marion's e-mail address is: marion@ptialaska.net

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