Tuesday, December 22, 2015

The Light Awakens

I once had the privilege of participating in an authentic winter Solstice ceremony of a central American Indian tribe.  Like most such ceremonies (at least these days), parts of it were improvised to deal with circumstances.  But the spirit was there, and we sang a song that had been sung on the Solstice for untold generations.

The Solstice is still celebrated in the Yalda festival in Iran, honoring Mithra, angel of light, and in China's Dōngzhì festival, marking the time when winter's darkness begins to give way to light. Hindu devotees worship the sun god on Makar Sankranti. Many Christmas traditions have their roots in Solstice celebrations, like the Scandinavian Juul--or Yule--in honor of the sun's return, or the Druid tradition of using mistletoe in their rites.  Like almost all Christian holidays, its appearance at the general time of ancient--even primordial--moments of awe and recogniton of the mysteries of existence, is not even close to coincidental.

It is perhaps the most paradoxical moment to celebrate.  We see it as the official first day of winter, promising months of dark and dreary skies, cold and inconvenient onslaughts of water vapor in its various forms.  Yet as the shortest day of the year, it marks the lengthening of days to come.  The ceremony in which I participated likened winter to the Earth's pregnancy, of unseen growth in the guise of slumber.

Meanwhile here on the North Coast, we're experiencing a rainy December.  We've beat the average even before yesterday's substantial rain and today's heavy showers, all before the week--between Christmas and New Years--that in the past often brought some of the heaviest rains of the winter (accompanied by a nice long power failure.)  Rivers are near flood stage, some creeks have flooded.

In itself this doesn't mean a lot--even in the drought years we've had one month each winter with decent rain, and several really dry ones.  But this winter we were expecting rain--just not so early.  El Nino, they say, hasn't kicked in yet here.

A week or so ago, FEMA saw seen the strength of the oncoming El Nino, and was counseling California to get prepared.

The problems that have already hit Washington (including Seattle) and Oregon (including Portland) from strong pre-El Nino storms may well be in our future: high tides and flooding, river and stream flooding, landslides.

The drought has made flooding (less porous soil) and landslides (forest fires) a bigger problem.  In the last big El Nino here, several small towns were virtually wiped out by a combination of landslides and flooding, which environmental activists blamed largely on the aggressive logging of hillsides and blocking of streams by the notorious Maxam, the last but huge gasp of the predatory timber industry here.

That 1997-8 El Nino caused significant damage in 40 counties of California, and resulted in 17 deaths.  Humboldt officials are telling people to be prepared.  They are working on direct wireless notification of imminent flooding for people who might be affected.  Downed trees and power lines are likely to happen with more than normal frequency.

Heavy rains were unusual since I'v been here until recent years, when rain was less frequent but more violent.  The exceptions were the late winters of the 96-98 El Nino period.  So far the rains have at times been steady, with what might be called downpours.  But not like that....yet.

So the immediate future is likely not filled with light.  Yet that is what is celebrated today--the return of light.  Even though the word "solstice" refers to the sun "standing still."  It celebrates something else as well, I think: the human predilection for the future.