I hope the seriously practicing Pagans and Druids and Wiccans out there will forgive me, but I consider myself at least a casual Pagan (in the same way I am casually Christian and equally casually Buddhist—I celebrate Christmas, I meditate and try to follow the Middle Way, I revere big trees and pay attention to the seasons). And I come by this honestly, at least some of my DNA can be traced back to the Celts of ancient Ireland, as tree hugging, dirt worshiping a people as you could find. Many of those Christian holidays many people celebrate are really just old Celtic (or even earlier naturalistic faith systems) holidays in disguise.
Living almost exactly midway between the north pole and the equator means we have a full complement of seasons to pay attention to, each with an attendant high holiday of either astronomical importance or intermediate punctuation. Premodern people put a lot of effort into following the seasons, almost as if their lives depended on it (they did). Roughly speaking there are the two solistices, the two equinoxes, and four “cross-quarter” holidays (Imbloc, around Groundhog’s day, Beltain, around May first, Lughnasadh, around August first, and Samhain, at Halloween), for a grand total of eight festivals or celebrations to be marked over the course of the year. Right now (literally as I write this the astronomical summer solstice is scarcely three hours away) we are at the time of the summer solistice, traditionally celebrated as Midsummer Night, the shortest night of the year in the northern hemisphere. Today the sun set at 8:24 pm. Tomorrow morning it will rise at 4:49 am (think about how early that would be if it weren’t for daylight savings time…). Today and tomorrow, we get a little over 15 and a half hours of daylight, which I think we can all agree, is something to celebrate.
This year, I celebrated early. I met my friends Nicole and Claire (of the Pinnacle Pursuit fame) in western Maine last week and we spent a long perfect day out in the mountains, hiking new trails and old. Like many hikers, Nicole and Claire had done Long Day Long Hikes before, and they generously invited me to come along when I expressed interest last fall (I guess I passed the test on the Pinnacle Pursuit!). The weather was shaping up to be perfect for our hike, so we chose a route that maximized time above treeline, on a stretch of the Appalachian Trail between Madrid and Kingfield. By hiking this section of trail I was returning to the trail of my very first backpacking trip thirty years ago, and ten years later, when I ran that same summer camping program, I returned leading a gaggle of young teenagers on the same path.
Rather than tackle the entire 30+mile section from Rt. 4 to Rt. 16, we followed a logging road into the base of the southeastern flank of Saddleback Mountain to the Berry Picker’s Trail (which is accessed from the Fly Rod Crosby multiuse trail). Finished last fall, the Berry Picker’s trail offers another route to the alpine zone on Saddleback Mountain, and brings you up to the Appalachian Trail in the saddle between the summit and the secondary summit known as the Horn. From there we followed the AT north along Saddleback Junior, Poplar Ridge, Lone Mountain to Spaulding Mountain. After that we left the AT and hiked to the summit of Mt. Abram on a side trail, and then down the Mt. Abram fire warden’s trail to where my car was waiting (having been parked there in the morning before we started hiking). We weren’t sure of the exact mileage (17-20 was the estimate), and budgeted roughly 10 hours to complete the hike. In the end, the hike was 21 miles, and took us 12 hours, though according to Nicole’s GPS, we spent over three hours on breaks. A leisurely long day hike indeed!
All that stopping doesn’t bother me, there was so much to see. First, there was all the alpine terrain. We are lucky in Maine to have mountains high enough and soil thin enough and glaciers recently enough to have mountains with open summits. I am a self described botany nerd, and I readily geek out on alpine plants.
Claire and Nicole, both naturalists in their own rights, happily joined in the geek fest. Right off the bat I realized that in a way, we were hiking back in time. At the starting elevation, all of the painted Trillium in the woods was past bloom. The higher we went up the mountain however, the fresher the flowers were, until we found them at peak bloom. The forest floor was covered with the small white flowers of golden thread, and in the alpine zone mountain laurel and diapensia were flowering. We saw a Black backed wood pecker picking its way through spruce bark. And above it all sky was unrelentingly blue, a welcome sight in the midst of a foggy misty spring.
It was approaching 8pm as we hiked out the last miles of the Fire Warden’s trail off Mt. Abram hitting the logging road that would bring us to the car. We all felt the miles, and looked forward to the slices of watermelon I had stashed in a cooler in the car as an after thought that morning. It felt good to have used the whole day for the adventure, to greedily take all of those hours of daylight and indulge ourselves in moving in the mountains.
A week later, the longest day (the day the solistice falls on this year is apparently 4 seconds shorter than the day before!) dawned gray and foggy again, making it hard to appreciate. As the day wore on though, the sky had cracked open and burst forth as a gorgeous summer afternoon. The kind of day you thank the world for, the kind of day you indulge in a long mountain hike. Instead, after I finished my work for the day, I took my dogs for an evening walk, in these brief weeks when evening feels like afternoon. As much as I wanted to celebrate Midsummer Night outside on the porch, the mosquitos drove me in, and I spent the last hours of the longest day back at work, organizing words on a screen, listening to a conclave of Barred Owls having a heated discussion about the finer points of owlness.
Tomorrow we’ll have turned the corner, and though summer will continue to feel expansive for several more weeks, by the time of Lughnasadh in August, the days will start to show their shortening. Just like every year it feels like Christmas comes a few weeks too early, so does the summer solstice. I’m only just getting used to these long days, when they start inching back. There are more long days in the mountains and on the trails in my near future. As the days shorten, I’ll just have to take fewer breaks…..