The joyful paradox of solstice

Only one of these photos was taken at exactly 15.58 and that’s the one at the bottom left. The one of the sheep was taken in the flat while we could still see the setting sun and the other two are of Green Park Station which is shamefully used as a Sainsbury’s car park most of the week, only realizing its vocation on Saturdays when the Farmers Market takes temporary possession. What a gem it would be to see it used seven days a week as a proper, continental style market with stalls, cafes and restaurants. That said, we’ve got a vested interest because our youngest son runs the pizza place at the far end – this year he won second place in the national pizza awards.

Anyway I wanted to mark the solstice on the Potwell Inn site because for us – as it must be for all growers of food – it marks the one of the four quarters of the growing year, being the astronomical beginning of winter; the shortest day; and – more to the point – the moment at which our hearts become fixed on the coming season. The paradox is simply that contrary to all common sense the solstice marks the moment at which we’re closest to the sun; we’ve got the whole winter in front of us. The reason is simple enough. We’re closest to the sun but at the same time we’re in such a position relative to it that the sun’s rays strike us at their most oblique angle; having to struggle through the atmosphere and all its pollution; and so reaches us in its most attenuated form. In high summer the sun shortcuts through it all and beams down on us (at noon) from directly above our heads but at a greater distance.

But for now, this afternoon, we could watch the sun set knowing that in a week or two the days will be perceptibly longer. It’s one of the most ancient festivals of all, and runs deep within our collective imagination; so much so that the upstart religions that arrived much later on the scene were obliged to fit themselves into the deep calendar. It’s a festival of the rebirth of the life-giving sun and was celebrated as such at a time when the UK was an infrequently visited and inhospitable corner of the European land mass where the Celts – which is a bit of a cultural construct; let’s say the stone, iron and bronze age age cultures were far richer and deeper than we give them credit for. The present psycho-geography of the earth is a palimpsest in which many older cultures are inscribed. So – cutting to the chase – the “Celts” observed the next twelve days as if the sun were standing still – and kept a yule log burning to preserve the light until the return of the daylight was perceptible.

For me the celebration of these festivals seems to be engraved somewhere in the DNA – and Christmas is one of the more recent layers of the ancient sediment; and so today we were in festival mood at the Potwell Inn. We spent the morning at the allotment, where providence had provided a new pile of wood chip alongside the enormous bunker full of autumn leaves. So paths were repaired and topped up (they need repairing every year); and looking back as we left, our patch of land finally looked ready for another season. We brought back with us root vegetables and herbs for Christmas but left the sprouting broccoli on the plants until Christmas Eve to stay fresh. There aren’t any Brussels sprouts on the plot now because such was the inexplicable weather during the season they fruited in mid summer. The broccoli did the same thing but fortunately we left the plants in the ground and they’re giving us a second crop. To be honest we haven’t yet learned how to make the best of the polytunnel, but still we have lettuce, chard, even a few radishes growing well there. Then of course we’ve all the stored squashes and masses of pickles and preserves as well as tomato sauces and passata. We’re happy!

Then this afternoon we rushed out to get milk from the direct vending machine – run by a local farm – which is when I took the photos of the station. Madame thought it was slightly weird to be racing back for 15.58 but I really wanted to toast the moment and take a photo to celebrate it – and that’s what we did. Tonight we’ll celebrate with an ultra glamorous meal of breast of lamb, rolled around homemade stuffing with bubble and squeak – which is probably completely unknown outside the UK and, since it contains sprouts may be as revolting to vegetarians as the lamb which has been a great standby in times of poverty since we were students. Oh and we toasted the solstice with a glass of wine too. Last night I fed the Christmas cake with brandy. We never eat it at Christmas and I’ve long since given up wrapping it in marzipan and icing – but on freezing January days it makes a perfect tea break on the allotment with a cup of thermos tea. On the near horizon comes the seed order and the sowing of the earliest crops. My study and the kitchen too will be filled with light from the propagators. Hopefully, if Covid permits, one of my old churches will continue the Plough Monday tradition on Zoom and the cider club will manage some form of socially distanced wassail down on the banks of the Severn.

Somehow, and in spite of the best efforts of the modern Savonarolas who hate anything they don’t understand, or can’t find it referenced in the ten pages of the Bible they still read; we sense and honour the wisdom of our ancient forebears and celebrate the solstices and equinoxes as best we can through fire and earth and rowdy carols. The sun will rise again!

Ghost signs

The first rough draft of the chart with calculations

Bath is full of ghost signs. One of my favourites is the faded trace of Hands Dairy sign, still visible on the wall above a shop adjacent to the Abbey courtyard. In the early 70’s we were students at Bath Academy of Art which, at the time had its home in Corsham, a few miles east along the A4. However we came into Bath, to Sydney Place, for some design lectures and it was only a short walk to Hands – which by that time was a cafĂ©, a bit of a greasy spoon place but it did a wonderful steak and kidney pie and chips. The cafe has long since disappeared but the ghost sign for the dairy is still there today. In fact there are several ghost signs for dairies dotted around Bath, and Jane Austin mentions walking along Cow Lane on her way to Weston. The lane is still there but the cows are long gone.

The point of this excursus is that the signs seem to do more than simply announce the name of a defunct business. To me they always trigger thoughts of the whole history and culture of the era they came from. I could never think of Hands Dairy without hearing the sound of the steel tyres of the milk cart on the cobbles, and the steady clip clop of the horse in front. Ghost signs are faded portals into another age. But you often need a particular angle of the light to spot them. Otherwise they lie there obscured until the season or the angle of the setting sun reveals them.

So it’s been with my sudden interest in pagan seasons. I loathe the word pagan because it’s so piously dismissive of a vast accumulation of human insight and practice – but I find myself using it because its intended target is so diffuse it hardly ever lands a blow. I wrote two days ago about finding Eliot Coleman’s comments about the way in which the familiar Christian seasons seem to be an echo of something more ancient. Anyone who’s ever studied the Old Testament properly (ie with an open mind) will have noticed that there are some epic borrowings from ancient literature. If God dictated the first five books of the Old Testament verbatim to Moses it merely demonstrates that God was a great reader and not afraid to throw in a few unattributed quotations. Eliot Coleman doesn’t really extend the discussion about the overlap of the seasons but I was sufficiently interested to put aside the allotment plan for a few hours, get up unspeakably early and draw up a circular plan – a great wheel – if you like for our particular spot in the northern hemisphere.

The intention was twofold. Firstly I wanted to avoid the flat earth scenario in which each allotment year is a linear sequence of events that ends by falling off a metaphorical cliff. The linear model gifts every January to us like an absolution from the errors of the past; a clean slate complete with seed catalogues ready for the New Year. Of course it’s not like that. By Christmas the buds are on the trees already and the purple sprouting broccoli and all the other biennials stubbornly refuse to vacate their places in the garden. The only way to represent it adequately is to join the ends in a circle so that December and January can speak to one another, and the equinoxes can embrace one another as kindred moments. The second, more prosaic reason was that I wanted a chart that plotted the days with less than ten hours daylight because those are the times, (the Persephone months as Eliot Coleman says), during which plant growth slows to a standstill. Developing a workable plan for sowing and harvesting throughout the year involves a good deal of counting the days forwards and backwards to arrive at the optimum time for sowing.

Actually constructing the chart turned out to be quite challenging because the ‘pagan’ and the Christian cycle of festivals are a bit out of synch; so the chart demanded some interesting calculations of chord lengths because inaccuracies with a childrens protractor get seriously magnified when the circle is 30 cms across, and I found myself blowing sixty years of dust off my trigonometric memory. A day is one three hundred and sixty fifth of three hundred and sixty degrees, and months come in several lengths including thirty, thirty one, twenty eight and twenty nine days. The solstices and equinoxes with their cross quarter days are easier to plot because they’re regular. So after drawing the solar calendar with its traditional names and the slightly displaced conventional calendar on the same circle in months, I then plotted the major Christian festivals around the same circle. Three ways of counting time around the same still point. It was about then that I realized that this was no mere diagram, it is much closer to a mandala; and when I filled in the sub ten hour days with some blue watercolour paint I was overwhelmed by the way in which the systems corresponded like ghost signs from the past. My joy was complete when December dutifully shuffled in and shook hands with January. I was so excited I momentarily considered plotting the lunar months as well but then my brain exploded at the thought of all those thirteenths galumphing around the chart and that I would need a transparent sheet and a drawing pin to construct a sort of tatty flat astrolabe. So I made some coffee and delivered it somewhat Tiggerishly to Madame, who was reading in bed.

The great circle seems to me to be offering something much greater and more powerful than a simple planning tool. It really is a mandala, a means of contemplation and meditation that calls upon us to align ourselves with the way things truly are. Our modern materialistic culture leads us into the dangerous trap of thinking that if something in nature doesn’t please us we can change it with technology. Day length? – get some LED’s; soil temperature? – burn some oil: insects? – blast ’em with chemicals!

An additional gift of the great wheel is that it marks the turn of the seasons with celebration, thanksgivings, mourning and hope. I suppose this all relates to my questioning of exactly why our immersion in the natural world seems to be good for us in a quite such a transcendent way; lifting us out of ourselves into something infinitely bigger. You just need to blow the old orthodoxies and shibboleths away and regard the pattern. It achieves the small miracle of re-enchanting the earth.

Anyway, I think I’ll work on a fair copy of the chart and maybe illustrate it but meanwhile – in case you’re wondering if I’ve become a bit of a Druid – I noticed these walls while we were out walking down by the river yesterday. I think they’re both fun, and rather beautiful.

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