A solstice approaches, unnoticed
ONCE, HUMANS were intimate with the cycles of nature, and never more than on the summer solstice. Vestiges of such awareness survive in White Nights and Midnight Sun festivals in far northern climes, and in neo-pagan adaptations of Midsummer celebrations, but contemporary people take little notice of the sun reaching its far point on the horizon. Tomorrow is the longest day of the year, the official start of the summer season, the fullest of light — yet we are apt to miss this phenomenon of Earth’s axial tilt, as we miss so much of what the natural world does in our surrounds.
In recent months, catastrophic weather events have dominated headlines as rarely before — earthquakes and tsunami in Asia; volcanic cloud in Europe; massive ice melts at the poles; tornadoes, floods, and fires in America. “Records are not just broken,” an atmospheric scientist said last week, “they are smashed.” Without getting into questions of causality, and without anthropomorphizing nature, we can still take these events as nature’s cri de coeur — as the degraded environment’s grabbing of human lapels to say, “Pay attention!”
To our ancestors in the deep past, that attention to nature was, well, natural. They made the evolutionary leap into human consciousness through close observation, among other things, of what heavenly bodies do in the sky. In a cosmos over which they had no control, paying attention to patterns of heat and cold, light and dark, rain and drought was a matter of survival. The invention of agriculture depended on awareness of seasons, so that times of planting and harvesting, herding and grazing, could be depended upon. Movements of the sun and moon were seen to have both influences on, and counterparts in, individual human experience — from mood swings to menstruation to aging. Astrology opened into astronomy, calculation into mathematics, scrutiny into science. Definitions of the calendar were essential to culture. The solstice was a marker of all this.
But this habit of regard for nature was essential also to the transition into modernity. Contemplation of the sun was nothing less than the incubator of our age. Copernicus and Galileo, after all, ushered humans into the breakthrough of testable knowledge by means of their study — one theorizing, the other experimenting — of Earth’s place in the solar system. The solstice, previously perceived as the sun’s standing still for a moment before reversing course on the horizon, would never be understood that way again. Heliocentrism initiated the maturing of science, which eventually would demonstrate that seasonal rhythms not only produce global dynamics of climate but also hormonal changes — daily, weekly, monthly — within the individual human body, each person biologically synchronized to the cosmic clock. Because of science, we were able to grasp the age of the earth — to know that there have been more than 4 billion summer solstices. Humans awakened to the full complexity of the universe.
Ironically, the accompanying social revolution of industrialization led to illusions of human mastery over nature, and ultimately to detached indifference toward it. Contemporary technological civilization became blinded to key phenomena of the living world, much as the night sky is blotted out by the artificial light of cities. Most recently, the cycles of time have given way to the eternal present of the computer screen — detachment squared. As humans came to know so much, we lost our grip on the knowledge with which we became human: our familiarity with the physical universe we live in. Imagining that we no longer needed nature, we ourselves became the great threat to nature. As our sense of the complexities of life quickened and deepened, our destructiveness of life also quickened and deepened. Through ambitions of unlimited growth, consumption, competitive manufacture, and self-expanding technology, we humans have become a mechanism of extinction. When we stopped noticing Earth, we began to destroy it.
Intimate awareness of nature and its cycles, as we saw, was an ancient mode of survival. But survival is at issue again. Noticing the length of light now, reveling in the sun’s achievement, rejoicing in Earth’s perfect balance, honoring the summer solstice — loving it: This is how we became human, and it is how we stay human.
James Carroll’s column appears regularly in the Globe.