In rural Sussex County, June can be a zany month for crops and farmers. The temperature might reach 100 degrees during the first week, crisping new plants to cinders. In earlier calendars, June was the fourth month. I’ve been to graduations with the lining in my raincoat, swearing it was mid-November, my lettuces and peas stunned into frostbite.
June moved to occupy the sixth calendar position in 46 B.C., and was given another day. Now June is packed with events and the anniversaries of four states that joined the union, and their flag days.
The summer solstice begins on June 20, and the following two days will share the same sunrise and sunset, the world acting as if the sun were standing still, which is the origin of the word. My Dad taught me about rotations, revolutions, and the axial nature of the Earth. The longest day of the year—during summer vacation. What is more important to a kid than the unadulterated, unwrapped gift of time?
When my father first explained tilting toward the sun, I expected to fall off and the solstice to be explosive and impressive. But, no, the light is not measured in hours. There are no fireworks.
The longest day adds an extra minute of light and this has been calibrated and celebrated by the ancients. The solstice is a subtle event, not a trick of rewinding watches, or an artificial line on a map to change the day. June 20 is the official beginning of summer, but also called Midsummer’s Eve, because for many crops it is the middle of the growing season.
On that day, corn’s tassel tops wave like fans at a ball game. You hear the grass: sighs of delight as the blades shimmy in the glow. Plants suck the energy from those 60 seconds of light like we slurp the bottoms of milkshakes. I wonder if barley has expectations; do the soybeans down the road have standards to meet? Are the stalks critical of how far they have come, and worried how far they have to grow? Do they laugh at our expression, when we face a tough season, “a hard row to hoe?” Do they care that corn is knee-high by Fourth of July?
The solstice is brilliant and brilliance.
If, when the light hits the spot between the lintel stones, the season’s not looking so good, man’s cleverness might overcome the paucity and save the day. But, if at mid-season, the beans stand taller than expected, the grasses thicker and stronger than usual, ah, what joy in those summer nights.
Every June, as buds have gone from fat and furry to hard with fruit, and the fields smell hopeful, I, too, want to feel the light on my face and the radiant warmth of summer.
I mow my horse pastures on June 20; my homage to ancient ties with the soil.
Then, moments before the departure of the 15-hour, six-minute day, I lie on my hammock, positioned on the deck to track the sunset, which falls between the tops of two Leland cypress trees.
If the sky has clouds, the light prisms into rainbows and drops through the trees like a postcard. If the wind blows, the spidery treetops blacken against the glare. A Sussex summer solstice sunset through parted branches is every bit as impressive as that of Stonehenge.
I shade my eyes with my hand because by mid-season, I have already lost my good sunglasses.
I hold my breath until the corridor of light on the longest day is dusky violet and blue.