For the last several years I have tried to commemorate the solstice with at least some acknowledgement of this our longest day of the year. Nothing to New Agey, ritualistic or woo-woo; solitude, a hike, etc. This year I awoke early and watched the eastern sunrise from my Forest Service station at the Mill Hollow Guard Station east of Heber, Utah. As I watched I thought of the trip I had recently made to the Chaco Canyon Pueblos in New Mexico where the Puebloan peoples that lived there for approximately 1,000 years developed an elaborate sun, moon and star watching practice. It is thought that the astronomy of these people developed to plan festivals and trade fairs that were held each year and which were attended by thousands of people from all over the region. Being able to predict the cycles of the sun and moon in their ascent and descent in the sky were essential aspects of everyday life because Chaco was the ceremonial center of this brief empire that synchronized trade and streamlined architecture into the uniform masonry that the Chaco ruins reflect. The sun and moon were meticulously watching using simple instruments like a stick in the ground whose shadow was measured each day to orient the villages along a north-south axis. Natural monuments such as Chimney Buttes and small cracks in the rocky mesas were used to track the journey of the Sun high into the summer sky and back to its winter nadir.
How little I know about the cycles of the sun, moon and stars. They have been mostly eclipsed, so to speak, by our more precise technological time pieces and secular calendars. I struggle to remember whether the moon is waxing or waning. I sometimes notice the ascending and receding position of the sun throughout the year, but am never still enough, in one place long enough to watch it actually change. Yet, on the solstice I try to be present to this silent but ever present liturgy as the sun rises and sets, ascends and descends in the sacred sky.
On this particular solstice I didn’t do anything that different. I watched a spotted sandpiper drunkenly walk the shore of the creek near the cabin. I listened to unknown birds call from hidden bows of a nearby aspen wood. I watched the slow advance of a beaver logging operation on the other side of the creek. I walked endlessly through forests that were being ravaged by spruce beetles; the sappy trunks of towering trees smattered with the frass and pitch of fresh beetle entries and exists. The tall, ancient boles whose glory fades one needle at a time; from green to faded brown.
The spruce beetle (Dendroctonus rufipennis) is such a small creature having such a huge impact on a place. I am reminded of us; our voracious appetite for material things, money and comforts is killing the earth upon which we have evolved, lived, loved, laughed and learned. And just as the beetle knows nothing else but to eat, mate and reproduce; we too, despite our supposed enlightened minds, technological prowess and religious moralities are eating ourselves out of house and home. And like the beetle, when the trees run out, we may very well face a crash. I hope we have the strength to buck this powerful evolutionary urge and course correct. Perhaps we will, and perhaps we will not. Yet on this solstice, even under the fading green of spruce trees fighting to stay alive, I have hope that we too will survive, that the trees will grow back and that a balance will be struck.