Wednesday, June 22, 2011

Pagan holiday

It saddens me that the old nature-based holidays have been replaced by institutional ones, at least in this country in this era. I would much rather celebrate the seasons than gods or anniversaries of people and events, because those seasons are intensely real and current, whereas those people and events are long past or, in the case of gods, debatable.

Four holidays exist on my personal calendar: two solstices and two equinoxes, which divide the year into birth, growth, maturity, and decline -- just like life. This cycle is universal, unlike institutional holidays. The important people, gods, and events in, say, China, have nothing to do with same in the United States. How can we ever hope for universal peace if we have nothing in common to celebrate?

Regardless, right now is the three-day window that comprises my personal high holy day, the summer solstice. Fifteen-and-a-half official hours of daylight at this location; unofficially, more like 17 hours -- 4:30 a.m. to 9:30 p.m. -- if you count being able to see while outdoors. I’ve often been tempted to move farther north to enjoy the spectacularly long days that go with higher latitudes; however, those are balanced by spectacularly long nights, so I remain in place. For someone who measures hours of light and darkness all year long, it would be the wrong plan to seek out more darkness!

Lacking the ancient rituals that went with pagan holidays, I don’t do anything specific for this one. It would be nice to have a big bonfire or a bacchanal or some sort of celebration with fellow light-worshipers. There aren’t too many around here, so I satisfy myself by just being as awake and aware as possible, spending as much time outdoors or looking out the windows as possible, and startling people by wishing them Happy Solstice. It won’t come around for another year; meanwhile, we begin the long slide back toward 9 hours of daylight.

The decrease will become noticeable by August. The plants seem to know this, timing their birth, growth, maturity, and decline around the equinoxes and solstices. It wasn’t until we moved to Vermont that I caught a real sense solstice-as-climax. Garden perennials that grow in my home turf of Connecticut break out 1-3 weeks later here but have caught up by this date in a spurt that makes the air crackle with energy, as if the solstice is the target they all share. Up north, it’s probably so accelerated that you can see the growth if you sit still and watch. Here, you notice it the next morning, when something you observed 24 hours ago is suddenly 2 inches taller.

Then there are the birds, the sky, the colors, the position of sun and moon, and all the different indicators of the season. This year we’ve been fortunate in having good weather concurrent with the holiday, making it doubly special. I’ve been making sure to be up at 4:30 and not in bed before 9:30 so I can enjoy every minute of it!

Thursday, June 2, 2011

Shut the heck up, will ya?

Yellow-bellied sapsuckers normally summer in our region, though we don't get them in the yard every year. Usually they will blow in like a brass band (belying their quiet and retiring description in the field guides), well after the other migratory birds have settled in for the season; then disappear. Occasionally we'll see holes they leave behind, drilled precisely into a live tree trunk in parallel rows, from whence they get sap.

This year, the sapsuckers arrived earlier than usual, but they sneaked in instead of announcing themselves, blending in with our year-round fleet of downy and hairy woodpeckers. For the past week, however, two males have been disputing territory, first by chasing each other around and around tree trunks or through the canopy, chattering and shrieking, then by staging a hammering competition on our metal roof.

One of them figured out that the roof over the open shed attached to the house outside the kitchen gives reverberates excellently (which we learned years ago from falling pinecones). The other one -- or is it the same one switching off? -- likes a panel on the diagonally opposite corner, right outside the bedroom. He starts there between 4:45 and 5:15 a.m.

Yikes! That wakes you up with a jolt with no hope of returning to sleep. Good thing we normally get up early!

The hammering goes on at intervals all day like spurts from a machine gun against a hollow metal target, so loud it drowns out conversation anywhere near. It was a hot week so we had the windows open, and while working could hear his claws screeching down the metal like fingernails on the blackboard as gravity interrupted his show. It was starting to get reeeeeeeally annoying -- then, abruptly, the contest was over and the birds vanished. I'm hoping he/they found a mate and they're off making baby sapsuckers.

Meanwhile, our normal backyard percussionist, the ruffed grouse, hasn't been seen nor heard from this year. He used to sit on the rock wall bounding the back yard in plain sight and drum away with his wings. (My spouse used to think it was somebody in the area unable to get a lawn mower started who refused to give up.) This went on every spring for 12 of our 13 years here. This year I heard it faintly in the distance once at the beginning of the season, and flushed a grouse from the roadside bushes a few weeks later when taking a walk, but nothing else.

Why the change?

We'll never know, just as we'll never know why the sapsucker chose this year to beat his head against our roof, or why a robin attacked his reflection in the living room window for weeks, 2 or 3 successive years, then went away.

Things should be getting quiet soon as all the seasonal guests hunker down to brood eggs and raise fledglings. Then it will get busy again when an assortment of half-finished birds emerges to try out their wings and their voices before the season turns again.