I think of summer solstice as the start of the dry season here in NoCal, but in ancient Egypt it presaged the start of the wet season when the Nile River began to flood.
Nile Valley civilizations acknowledged and celebrated the solstice, when the sun reached its highest point in the Northern Hemisphere, as the most important day of the year marking the African new year.
Celebrations commemorated the longest day of Ra, the sun god, as well as the rising of the star Sirius, which heralded the Nile flooding and divine blessings on the land of Egypt.
The ancient Egyptians recognized the importance of Sirius (one of the stars of the constellation Canis Major) as the brightest star in the sky, as well as the birthplace of the goddess Isis. They called this star Sopdet. The celebrations for new year’s day began at dawn when Sirius appeared on the horizon as the shining morning star emerging from the darkness of the underworld.
Goddesses were involved too. The great triad of goddesses, Isis, Hathor and Nut, was intimately connected with this “divine rebirthing” of Egypt each year, as depicted in detail on the walls of Dendera Temple in upper Egypt, built by Cleopatra. Traditional beliefs held that Isis was mourning her dead husband, Asar (Osiris), and that her tears made the Nile rise.
This festival is one of the oldest in Egyptian history, celebrated from archaic times all the way through to the Roman occupation of Egypt. Ancient Egyptians aligned the Great Pyramids so that the sun, when viewed from the Sphinx, sets precisely between two of the pyramids on the summer solstice. Here on my block we stand out in the street to watch the sun set over the Coast Mountain range.
How will I be celebrating the solstice? Well, my weather app says it’s forecast to be 100 degrees here in Santa Rosa on Tuesday June 21, so my daily walk will have to be early in the morning. After the longest day of summer solstice, the days will gradually get shorter until the winter solstice and the shortest day of the year. Some part of me is looking forward to shorter, cooler days, longer nights and the coming of winter. Now we just have to get through fire season.
Happy Juneteenth, a new federal holiday! And happy Summer Solstice! This week we celebrate the opening up of California and Santa Rosa from covid restrictions. I’ve taken off my mask to eat at a restaurant, I saw a movie at the Summerfield (In the Heights—it was great), and I flew on a plane to visit family in Washington. Holly and I took a road trip to Pismo Beach and we hosted friends for lunch in our house. The awfulness of 2020 is starting to fade, but we must strive to remember lessons it taught us about resilient viruses and fragile democracies.
Two exciting developments took place in our neighborhood in May. The first was the birth of two fawns in Linda’s yard across the street from us. I was out in the front yard when Linda called me over. She had been getting her newspaper when she saw the doe and fawns. The mom left for a bit to forage, but she came back later to fetch her kids.
The second thing was a fire. On a windy day I was visiting with neighbor Pam when we looked up to see clouds of smoke blowing by her windows. When we ran outside to see what was happening, the street was already full of freaked out neighbors.
“I’ve got PTSD from 2017,” yelled Renee. Our block was evacuated when the Tubbs fire bore down on the neighborhood.
Fire trucks were already at the scene extinguishing the blaze that had combusted in Howie’s front yard which had just been landscaped with bark mulch. Apparently a passing driver had thrown a cigarette that ignited the mulch. This set us all worrying that mulch might be the wrong landscaping material as, like good citizens, we replace our water intensive lawns. And so for us on Hyland Drive fire season began in May. It gets earlier every year.
Because she grew up here and is now in her 60s, my partner Holly has taken on the character of an old timer. Lately she’s been telling me that when she was growing up the wind didn’t blow as much as it does now. She also said it was always foggy in the summer; she remembers freezing her ass off at swimming lessons before the sun came out. She ran into somebody recently who also grew up here who corroborated her theory. Perhaps for climate change updates we should just ask old timers what the weather was like when they were growing up.
Fire season with its smoke and toxic air has caused us to depend on a plethora of apps for air quality. We like purpleair best because it uses air quality monitors installed by citizens. We got one and so we can look at the map and see what the air quality is right in our back yard within ten-minute intervals. People also install them indoors. The purpleair map usually shows people’s indoor air to be worse than outdoor.
Nowadays there are lots of online resources to check air quality, smoke, temperature, rain and thunder, clouds, waves—just about anything we can imagine. My favorite discovery this year is windy.com. The visuals are so cool. You can change the screen to show different aspects, but my favorite is wind. Here are some things I’ve learned from the visual image: It’s a lot windier over the ocean than over the land. The wind tends to hug the coast and it can travel either north to south or south to north. Once I watched while it changed direction! Also the app gives you ten days of previews. Our westerly wind tends to blow through the Golden Gate and then travel north unless it’s really windy. Then it can come right over the Coast Range, which generally stops it.
The offshore wind is another animal altogether, coming from the east. Diablo winds propelled the Tubbs fire in 2017 that burned 5200 homes here. Like the Santa Ana winds in southern California, our Diablo winds originate inland usually in the autumn when hot dry weather creates the worst fire conditions. The term Diablo wind first appeared after the 1991 Oakland firestorm in which the wind came from the direction of Mount Diablo in the east.
As fire season starts, we find ourselves in the middle of a historic drought. It’s always something, right? We citizens are doing our best to reduce water use, collecting shower water in buckets, letting lawns go brown and reducing irrigation to our gardens. Californians are practiced at this. I remember the first time I saw this sign in a bathroom: IF IT’S YELLOW LET IT MELLOW. That was in Sonoma County at a friend’s house during the drought of 1977.
Enjoy the longest day of the year. After June 21, the days shorten and nights lengthen. Rain will come with the darkness and I’ve got to admit I’m looking forward to that.
We think of you as we sit on our porch sipping aquavit and eating gjetost cheese on rye crisps looking out at the fjord in our cozy cabin for six in the village of Flam, Norway. To our backs are steep forested mountains and waterfalls. To our west is the North Sea.
Just kidding. That’s where we were supposed to be at midsummer with Scandinavian American cousins. We had made all our reservations and even bought plane tickets when the corona virus hit. Still waiting for refunds.
We had planned to visit the ancestral homes of our Scandinavian ancestors. I wanted to be there at midsommer, a celebratory holiday which marks the summer solstice. Instead we sit in our zero gravity chairs in our Santa Rosa backyard watching our flowers and veggies grow. In June I harvested the last of the oranges and then artichokes, the last of them now blooming magnificently. Tomatoes, eggplant and cucumbers are just coming on. It’s not so bad. Life has slowed way down (though it was already pretty slow around here.)
The Norway trip was the idea of my cousin Gail. She lives in Gig Harbor, Washington in a lovely house that has been sort of a retreat center for the family for the last several years. We would gather for reunions and also to go through Gail’s extensive family history archives, saved in cardboard boxes in her attic. Lately my brother Don has been researching the Swedish relatives.
We share a Norwegian grandfather and Swedish grandmother who emigrated at the turn of the 20th century and met and married in South Dakota where their relatives had homesteaded. They soon moved further west to Idaho, Oregon and Washington, settling in Yakima.
Our grandfather, Bernt, or Ben in American, left Norway in 1898, never to return. He was born in 1878 in Borsa, a fishing village on a fjord not far from the town of Trondheim.
So we may never get to Norway but we have used this opportunity to educate ourselves about Norwegian culture, reading literature and history. My mother Flo and I had already made a pilgrimage to our Norwegian and Swedish ancestors’ homes. Thanks to Flo’s 1979 travel diary, I reconnected with a woman who we met at the Oslo feminist center and who let us stay in her apartment when all the inns were full. In letters, Bente has caught me up on 40 years of her life. She is a lesbian feminist and was part of a back-to-the-land movement in Norway when she returned to her family farm in the north. Now she’s working at a historical museum near Oslo.
We also discovered that our next door neighbors had taken a family trip last year back to his ancestral home in Norway and we had planned to meet up and hear all about their trip when coronavirus hit. Perhaps our neighbors are my cousins too!
Still sheltering in place in NoCal, we shall just have to pretend we are up in the north country. I think I have some aquavit around her somewhere. Skol!
(My Danish friend corrected me. Aquavit is not to be sipped. It is downed, ice cold.)