Tongued With Fire ~ A Solstice Remembrance

South View of Salisbury Cathedral from the Cloisters ~ J.M.W. Turner

Even in our more secular age, a faint scent of chaos wafts through the last days before Christmas. “I love Christmas,” says the woman squinting at her smartphone in the checkout line.  “But I swear — if I never make another cookie, it’ll be too soon.”

I love cookies as much as the next person, but my sympathies lie with the woman. While my own preparations have become simpler and less time-consuming over the years, occasionally I find myself thinking, I could stand some peace and quiet.

The season often reverberates with noise to the point of distraction. Mariah Carey or Brenda Lee blaring through the produce aisle can be more annoying than festive, and the the irony of Silent Night drowning out restaurant conversation speaks for itself.

Even the shores of sleep are washed by ebbing and flowing internal questions: What have I forgotten? Will someone be offended? Can we afford it?  Will there be time?   By Christmas Day, many are ready to throw out the tree with the wrapping paper and get on with it. Who needs twelve days of Christmas when only one day of Christmas culminates in exhaustion, disappointment, or boredom?

Seasonal excess aside, most people consider their Christmas pleasures — gathering with family and friends; experiencing the beauty of worship; enjoying the exchange of gifts — well worth the expenditure of time and energy they require.

What we rarely consider is that human celebrations of every sort take place in the context of a world far older than our customs and more expansive than our plans. The world in which we celebrate turns on an ageless axis, independent of human intent and purpose. Though hidden, that world can be searched out and surprised; occasionally, it reveals itself in unexpected ways.

The hidden world surprised me years ago, during a holiday in England. After a brief stop in London, I traveled on to Wiltshire, intending to celebrate Christmas at Salisbury Cathedral.

Arriving without reservations, I found an inn with an available room; before long, I’d met a few other guests and joined in their conversation. Soon, the innkeeper and his wife appeared; cheerful sorts, as bubbly and accomodating as keepers of inns ought to be, they were filled with practical advice for the holiday-makers under their roof.

Eventually, they discovered I hadn’t planned to trek to Stonehenge — ‘that pile of rocks in a pasture,’ as another guest put it. Aghast, they insisted. “But you must go to Stonehenge!” When I suggested the site might better be visited in summer, they exchanged a glance that in retrospect seemed to be saying, “Can you believe this poor, benighted American?”

After acknowledging that summer solstice celebrations were better publicized and more comfortable, they detailed the advantages of cold weather visits. With only a hint of a smile, the wife said, “For one thing, in the dead of winter there are far fewer tourists clogging up the roads.” In those years, that certainly was true.

Enticed by promises of unclogged roads and pleasant conversation, I agreed to make the trip and, as promised, my hosts unraveled strand after strand of solstice lore as we traveled.

While I already knew that the winter solstice marks the shortest day of the year, that time when the sun descends to its lowest point in the sky, I didn’t know that the word ‘solstice’ is derived from the Latin solstitium:  a combination of ‘sun’ (sol) and ‘a stoppage’ (stitium).

According to one charming legend, more than the sun ‘stops’ at the time of solstice. In a silent place, anyone with a quiet mind and stilled heart may hear the earth herself take pause: catching her breath as she waits for the sun to turn, and move, and begin again his ageless journey toward the spring.

Charmed by the legend, I became increasingly eager to explore the old ‘pile of rocks in a pasture.’ When we arrived, any crowds that had gathered to celebrate the day were gone. There were no ticket-takers, no vendors, no guides. There was only a strange and forlorn emptiness: a cold sun shining through high, thin clouds;  a tumble of implacable, cold gray rock, and winter-singed grass dusted with snow. Around the circle of stones a cold wind sighed, rocking the single bird soaring high above the plain.

Moving toward the stones in silence, a sense of presence, profound and palpable, gripped my heart. Suddenly anxious, no longer certain of our solitude, I turned as if to confront an assailant. I found no human presence; the rocks, the sky, and the hush of wind singing across Salisbury plain were my only companions.

Each year as darkness deepens, as days grow shorter and the sun hastens  toward its solstice turn, I remember Salisbury plain: the stones, the silence, and the song. At the time, I hardly imagined that my first experience of that deep and richly textured silence was not to be my last.

Blessedly, such experiences depend neither upon the stones of an ancient culture nor the shades of a people lost in time. A sense of presence, an experience of deep connection to the larger world in which we live, seems intrinsic to life itself. It comes to us as birthright, although there is no predicting how or where it will appear.

Wherever the mystery of connectedness surprises us — in a snowstorm-emptied New York street or a mist-shrouded grove of redwoods; at a baby’s crib or a parent’s grave; in an empty classroom or in an overflowing church — its nature is unmistakable.

If you came this way,
Taking any route, starting from anywhere,
At any time or at any season,
It would always be the same: you would have to put off
Sense and notion. You are not here to verify,
Instruct yourself, inform curiosity
Or carry report. You are here to kneel
Where prayer has been valid. And prayer is more
Than an order of words, the conscious occupation
Of the praying mind, or the sound of the voice praying.
And what the dead had no speech for, when living,
They can tell you, being dead: the communication
Of the dead is tongued with fire beyond the language of the living.
                                                                          T.S. Eliot ~ Little Gidding

There will be no Stonehenge in my travels this year, no moment of wonder in the emptiness of a windswept English plain. But the sun is lowering; the pause will come, and the solstice will arrive. Those who are wise will find a bit of space, a portion of emptiness, some moments of silence in the midst of an over-filled life to embrace its coming and its promise.

Preparing a room built of the very solitude and silent attentiveness that so often eludes us, we may find that, as surely as the sun stops and the earth breathes, the same wind singing over our world’s cold-singed plains will touch our hearts with its strange, vertiginous joy.

 

Comments always are welcome.

97 thoughts on “Tongued With Fire ~ A Solstice Remembrance

    1. There’s a replica of Stonehenge here in Texas that I pass by from time to time, but I’ve never stopped to visit it. If I’d never experienced the real thing, I might have been tempted. On the other hand, now that Stonehenge itself has turned into such a tourist trap, with everything from trinket sellers to timed visits, the sort of experience I had might no longer be possible. No matter, since I have the memory.

    1. I’m glad you found it pleasing. I’ve always found the thin winter light beautiful, and the season’s darkness appealing. This year, the days after solstice will come with some rather dramatic weather, and that, too, has a certain appeal: despite its dangers and discomforts.

  1. An English novelist I’ve read, I think Iris Murdoch, called Stonehenge “the standing stones” and thought there was something uncanny about them, echoes of a Druidic solstice ritual perhaps.
    The holidays brings out a frantic air in many households. My refuge is usually a quiet walk in the woods. It’s not silent like your visit to the Salisbury – I have the company of birdsong.

    1. Do you have the pleasure of birdsong even in winter? Our birds seem to grow silent after the migratory species have come through. Beginning in early November, I rarely heard a bird. Now, things are changing a bit. The sound of the geese and sandhill cranes is common again, and the occasional bluejay fusses, but otherwise there’s a lovely quiet.

      There are places where the veil is thin, and Stonehenge was one. Somewhat oddly, I recall a similar experience while walking at night on a Manhattan avenue in an after-Christmas snowfall. There’s just no predicting when such experiences will come to us.

      1. I was off in the woods yesterday and heard chickadees, nuthatches, and some woodpecker drumming. It’s not exuberant singing, but welcome regardless. Someday I’ll have to see Stonehenge (or another set of English standing stones). Perhaps I’ll have a similar experience – if I’m not photographing them.

  2. Such a joy to read this post. Here we have the longest day but yet to feel the singe of a hot summer, in fact I am heating with a temperature 7 c this morning. You are so right about the customs of Christmas having us in a grip no matter how we wish each year to refrain from this ritual.
    Who wrote and said: A room of one’s own?

    1. Most famously, A Room of One’s Own is an extended essay by Virginia Woolf that’s been published in book form. It’s really a gem, and contains a passage that fits here rather nicely:

      ““What is meant by “reality”? It would seem to be something very erratic, very undependable—now to be found in a dusty road, now in a scrap of newspaper in the street, now a daffodil in the sun. It lights up a group in a room and stamps some casual saying. It overwhelms one walking home beneath the stars and makes the silent world more real than the world of speech—and then there it is again in an omnibus in the uproar of Piccadilly.

      Sometimes, too, it seems to dwell in shapes too far away for us to discern what their nature is. But whatever it touches, it fixes and makes permanent. That is what remains over when the skin of the day has been cast into the hedge; that is what is left of past time and of our loves and hates.”

      I don’t know if Woolf ever made it to Stonehenge, but she obviously knows the experience.

  3. I hope Heaven will have a library where I can research this mystery. I am intrigued by Stonehenge. I do learn some things from shoreacres, but not all I want to know.

    1. I don’t know if I read this, or just imagined it, but you’ve reminded me of this perfect line: “Mystery is what remains when reality has been exhausted.” There’s a lot of reality we’ll never plumb in this life, and perhaps not even in the life to come.

  4. Good evening. It’s remarkable that the Stonehenge stones fascinate and humble people all these years after they were erected. I suppose that uncertainty about their purpose and meaning put folks under a spell.

    1. Whatever it is, the stones certainly are compelling. On the other hand, it’s not only the stones. When I visited, the starkness of the land and the stones’ relative isolation also played a role. So many of these places never can offer the same sort of experience now; they’re too crowded, and too many are dedicated to money-making.

      When I looked at the Salisbury Cathedral webpage, the first thing that popped up was an invitation to “book your visit online now.” Looking further, I found this: “There are bookable entry slots every 15 minutes throughout the day. You can enter up to 15 minutes after the start of your time slot.” I’ve been told the same is true at Stonehenge. That doesn’t sound particularly spell-binding.

  5. What an apt and meaningful post for this time of the year. Christmas is an interesting blend of the religious and the secular; of bonding and of separation; of commercial exploitation and of genuine warmth and goodwill. My first visit to Stonehenge was in the winter of 1973. It was dark, cold and wet and there were only three of us to wander through the circle of stones in awe of how they were brought there, never mind erected all those years ago. On another visit in 1999 I felt I was in another rather brash world of commercialization, although one can appreciate that the hordes of visitors need to be accommodated somehow whilst preserving the stones.

    1. There’s something about places emptied of human presence that resonate in a special way: school buildings in summer; hospitals at 3 a.m; emptied streets in any season. If someone offered me airfare and time to visit Stonehenge again, I think I’d decline. I’d rather carry this experience with me through the rest of my years than attempt an impossible replication. To rephrase Heraclitus’s famous words, “No tourist can revisit the same site; it isn’t the same site, and the tourist herself is different.”

  6. Reading your contemplative post on the power found in the stillness of a sacred place, such as Stonehenge in the dead of winter, a cathedral not being visited by curious tourists, or a forest where the only noise you hear is from the birds singing in tune with Nature.

    1. Your mention of the forest reminded me of another wonderful experience which you no doubt can appreciate: a wintertime stay in a traditional home in the Schwarzwald. It was a year of heavy snow, and after one especially heavy snowfall, I went walking in the woods. Even the birds were silent; it was so quiet you almost could hear the snowflakes falling.

  7. Greetings, Linda! Yes, I am still here, despite our mutually long absences from each other’s blogs. Mine has been re-habbed this year ( after 15 years on the Net) if you fancy taking a look.

    I absolutely love this post. Thank you so much for a beautiful, soulful meditation. I was beginning to think about my usual winter solstice post and what it would be this year: I am going to share yours, with of course a credit to you and a link back to your site.

    I have my own ‘visiting Stonehenge’ story, as different from yours as is possible. As you may recall, I was raised on the Isle of Lewis which has the Callanish Standing Stones, another internationally famous Neolithic site. I visited Stonehenge in the 1970s, and was distressed by the rampant commercialism and general lack of reverence which accompanied the summer tourist treks to that sacred place.

    On returning to Lewis, I discovered to my horror that a local topic under discussion was the proposed removal of the world-famous Neolithic Callanish Standing Stones to make way for local housing (thankfully it didn’t happen!) I had a column in those days in the local “Stornoway Gazette” called ‘Personally Speaking’: it gave me free rein to discourse eloquently on any topic of local interest. I’m sure I needn’t spell out what my topic was that week: yes, a comparison between the still, spare, majesty of the stones at Callanish standing in their ancient eloquence on a bare stretch of windswept moorland, and Stonehenge, primary purpose a staple UK tourist attraction and the raking in of cash.

    I still have a faded copy of that piece somewhere amongst my press cuttings. Your post has inspired me to dig it out and read it again…

    Thanks again, so much, for this piece. And Solstice Greetings to you, one of my first-ever blogging friends!

      1. For me, one of the most interesting facts about Salisbury is that it was the first major cathedral to be built on an unobstructed site. I’ve pondered a time or two the similarity in the way both Salisbury and Stonehenge rise up from that plain. Coincidence, perhaps — but intriguing.

    1. I don’t remember reading of your Standing Stones, although you may have mentioned them in the past. I found this article that contains some history and a few photos: fascinating, indeed. It’s especially interesting that the site predates Stonehenge, and that there’s a least a possibility that other sites exist beneath the peat that’s built up.

      If you campaigned on behalf of the stones with the same determination and enthusiasm that marked your work on behalf of the Children’s Woods, those poor, benighted urban developers wouldn’t have had a chance! People don’t seem to realize that, once gone, such places never can be reestablished. All that’s needed is a look at the various ‘Stonehenge’ replicas around the world to understand that. If only we could go back in time to see how the originals were constructed.

      I’m so glad you enjoyed the piece. I thought of you while writing it, since it nudges up against other of your interests. Feel free to share it however you choose.

      I hope you’re well, and enjoying the new directions your writing and your work have taken. Best wishes for the new year!

  8. I rather wish your post could have been transported back in time when we visited Salisbury and Stonehenge in 1976. It was summer, late June, the weather was wonderful, and believe it or not, Salisbury streets were uncrowded, and even Stonehenge was relatively empty – no guides, no museums, no marked pathways, no explanations. We were free to walk among the stones and contemplate. We loved it, but in the early busy stages of our careers, we weren’t seeking peace, silence and solitude. Nonetheless, we were inspired by both the cathedral and stones.

    1. The freedom to simply ‘be’ in the midst of ancient site is less common today. The reasons are mostly obvious — the sheer numbers of people to be accomdated, for one thing, not to mention some peoples’ inexplicable tendencies toward defacement — but it’s still quite a loss. It’s wonderful that you were able to experience in more pleasant conditions. It occurs to me that sites like this are rather like people; they can show a different ‘face’ in different circumstances. That in itself is one good reason for return visits.

    1. I’m glad to know the piece caught and held your interest. I agree that there’s’something’ about places that are rooted in the past. They don’t even have to be as old — or dramatic — as Stonehenge. An old barn, an abandoned house on the prairie: they all exert a strange kind of pull.

  9. This is beautiful, and profound. I’m glad you had that moment there, with the pile of rocks in the pasture. Alone is a much better way to experience it, I’m sure. Once in a long while I’ve experienced similar moments, usually in the woods, or on the shores of a Great Lake. Always alone. I think those moments wait until the right time to present themselves.

    1. There’s an old saying that ‘when the student is ready, the teacher will appear.’ Perhaps these moments we experience are similar; when we’re finally ready to let our human concerns drift away, a larger world is there, ready to make itself felt. Whatever the explanation, those times always are memorable.

    1. What an interesting post, Derrick. The thought of Jackie and Helen enjoying a sandwich atop one of the stones is highly amusing. Your mention of the fence-off environs suggests I was lucky to be able to wander at will. There are certain downsides to turning such attractions into well-publicized money-makers.

  10. Like you, my Christmas preparations are a lot simpler than in years past. Aside from grocery stores, I haven’t set foot in a retail establishment in weeks. Work has grown to fill every available crevice, however, and I can’t wait for that “bit of peace”. Appreciate the stillness introduced in your post.

    1. I hope you’re able to have an extended period away from work. After all, there’s a lot of celebrating to be done, and in your case, a large number of family and friends to be enjoyed. But even more, I hope you have a chance to just ‘be.’ Our feline friends are masters of that approach to life; perhaps we could take them as models!

  11. Thank you for a significant essay for the season.

    My favorite passage: “In a silent place, anyone with a quiet mind and stilled heart may hear the earth herself take pause: catching her breath as she waits for the sun to turn …”

    For some reason, even in Florida, a cold morning around this time of year spent at the edge of a lake or in a forest one can imagine the earth taking a pause to catch her breath. And our spirit is renewed.

    1. Yesterday, I made a quick trip to the west end of Galveston to take a small gift to a friend. The Gulf was quite a sight. It was as flat as I’ve ever seen it: it looked like a lake, with hardly a ripple. The combination of high cloud and offshore fog had erased the horizon, and the silvery light sparkled on the water. I couldn’t help thinking that Mother Ocean was taking a pause before the arrival of today’s blue norther. If I can manage it, I’m going to head for the coast again today before the wind picks up, just to see it.

  12. Your post very much resonated with me. Indeed, let peace find us, or be adamant in seeking it, amid the Christmas season’s frenzy and clamor. Your Stonehenge experience is a wonderful memory, a nice confluence of traveler’s luck and pluck. Wishing you a happy, mostly halcyon holiday.

    1. Given the weather that’s barreling toward us, a good bit of frenzy and clamor is going to come to a screeching halt as strong winds and sub-freezing temperatures arrive. What that means, of course, is that some of my favorite places may be as empty as that Salisbury plain; who knows what might be found — or what might find a wanderer there?

      It’s wonderful that you stopped by; thank you. Best wishes to you and Brad for the new year. I’ve been thinking of him recently as I’ve explored the history of one of my favorite carols, called “Down in Yon Forest.” It’s an intriguing blend of early Christian symbolism and Arthurian legend; what’s not to like?

      1. My pleasure to have a moment to stop by again, and equally wonderful to hear from you. I always enjoy your Christmas season posts and look forward to catching up on this year’s.

        Thank you for the new year wishes. Brad and I send our best wishes to you as well. We’d love to hear more about your carol — it’s just the kind of thing we enjoy. Perhaps you’ll be writing about it soon?

        Merry Christmas and wishes for only good adventures in your wild weather.

        1. First comes a ‘twelve days of Christmas’ post, and then the song of the season known as ‘Down in Yon Forest.’ With these old carols, the research can be complicated — especially when there are at least a dozen versions of the lyrics, and maybe more. Decisions, decisions!Anyway, I need to get it posted before January 6, when the 12 days of Christmas ends, and it’s time to move into the new year. It is a bit of a spooky carol, so it’s better posted after Christmas day, anyway!

  13. Bravo, Linda! You’ve taken me to a place I’ve long wanted to visit and nudged me to stop for a bit and listen to the silence of peace. I think that’s what Advent is for, actually. Too often, we get caught up in the frenzy of buying stuff, the flurry of activities, and, even if they’re all well-intentioned, they blur the meaning of the season. I for one, though, am looking forward to the sun making its trek toward Spring! Happy Holidays, once again!

    1. I absolutely agree that Advent’s meant to encourage us to empty our lives a bit, so that the gifts of Christmas can find a place when they arrive. That’s one way that our rituals and those of such an ancient people intersect; it’s interesting to imagine what the ‘people of the stones’ might have experienced through their own rituals.

      We’re not going to have the rough weather you’re already experiencing — at least, we’re not going to have any ice or blowing snow. But we’ll be dropping this afternoon from around 60F to 45F to 20F tonight, with 50mph wind gusts. I’ve been putting out extra seed and peanuts out for the squirrels and birds, and the way they’ve been chowing down, I suspect they don’t need a weatherman to know which way the wind is going to blow!

  14. A lovely reflection, Linda.
    And it brought to mind the ending of one of my favorite poems, Shelley’s “Mont Blanc,”
    “And what…If to the human mind’s imaginings/Silence and solitude were vacancy?”

    1. I’ve never read that poem, Rob. When I saw the words ‘Mont Blanc,’ the first thing that came to mind was a certain brand of fountain pens: proof, I suppose, of the power of advertising and a reminder of the longings of a few writers I know. I looked up the poem, and realized it’s too much to tackle this morning. But, it will make a lovely diversion once The Weather hits us this afternoon, making a day or two indoors the best decision possible. Thanks for introducing me to it.

      Best wishes to you and yours for a happy and safe Christmas!

  15. I’ve not yet been to Stonehenge. Places like that with big rocks and massive structures are fascinating for several reasons. Our trip to Peru a few years ago included several sites besides Machu Picchu. Each one included huge stoneworks. How were they carved, moved, and set in place with such precision?

    1. It is fascinating to ponder sites like Stonehenge, and those you mention. The methods of their construction is fascinating, but so are questions about their conception. How long did it take for people to work out the details of the solstice, for example. It couldn’t have happened in one or two years; how was the knowledge passed on, and expanded? In time, some answers may emerge, but I suspect there always will be certain mysteries hovering over such places. Personally, I don’t mind that at all.

  16. Thank you for sharing your very own eloquent essay, Linda, with its thoughtful reminiscences and thought-provoking reflections.
    I love the notion of the earth ” [taking] pause: catching her breath as she waits for the sun to turn, and move, and begin again his ageless journey toward the spring.”
    Happy Solstice.

    1. While we’re distracted with our own quite human — and sometimes quite important — concerns, the earth continues to tilt and revolve, traveling its own path through space. Part of the value of events like the solstice may be that they help us to pause, at least for a while, and appreciate the grandeur of a scheme that’s truly hard to imagine.

  17. That is just genius of Eliot: making a verb of tongue – a most fitting noun for this. Thank you Linda for these reflections. We visited Salisbury and Stonehenge in the summer, and I think you got the better deal! I hope this solstice afforded you the opportunity to stop with the sun today. I went for a mid-day run at noon, and note her peak – low but not as low as when we lived in northern Alberta. But still, she was low enough to remind me to lay low a bit over the next while. Peace to you in doing the same.

    1. There’s no end to the delights buried in Eliot’s lines. I hadn’t noticed his transformation of ‘tongue’ until recently; it intrigued me enough to make it part of the post’s title.

      ‘Laying low’ is going to be the order of the day for a lot of Gulf coast residents. While the weather that’s on the way is nothing compared to what’s going on to the north, we are getting a true ‘blue norther.’ As a friend says, it’s a ’50/50′ — 50 mph winds and a 50 degree temperature drop. But once it’s blown itself out? The skies will be beautiful. I’m really looking forward to it.

  18. You have a mystic component in this one. (I like it) Didn’t see that coming. Thanks for taking me to Stonehedge w/ you. I’m pretty sure I will never make the trip, this side of eternity, but if I ever do, I want to go there this time of year, on purpose.

    1. Your remark about being relatively certain you’ll never visit Stonehenge reminded me of a Mary Oliver poem titled “Going to Walden.” Exchange Stonehenge for Walden, and it seems to fit rather well.

      It isn’t very far as highways lie.
      I might be back by nightfall, having seen
      The rough pines, and the stones, and the clear water
      Friends argue that I might be wiser for it.
      They do not hear that far-off Yankee whisper:
      How dull we grow from hurrying here and there!

      Many have gone, and think me half a fool
      To miss a day away in the cool country.
      Maybe. But in a book I read and cherish,
      Going to Walden is not so easy a thing
      As a green visit. It is the slow and difficult
      Trick of living, and finding it where you are.

    1. You’re welcome, Ann. A little slowing, and a few deep breaths, always are in order. I’m sure your celebrations will please everyone, and I hope you enjoy them to the fullest.

  19. What a beautiful essay. I like the slowing down of winter and the peace of the stillness. The darkness is telling us to rest. And I like your pairing of the sense of a thin place at Stonehenge with those lines from Little Gidding (some of my favorite). May you find peace in the season–and joy in the peace.

    1. I’m fond of winter, too. My favorite sort of Christmas decoration is a lighted star atop an isolated windmill in the country; in the darkness, the light shines especially brightly.

      As for Eliot: he may be our preeminent poet of empty places, both positive and negative. “Rhapsody on a Windy Night” is one of my favorites. Apart from the adaptation of some of its lines for the musical Cats, who wouldn’t admire lines like, “Midnight shakes the memory like a madman shakes a dead geranium”?

  20. The old pagan wheel of the year celebrates the crosses (the summer and winter solstices, and the vernal and autumnal equinoxes and the quasrters (Mabon, Beltane, Lughnasa and Samhain). At the winter solstice, the Holly King, the king of waning and drawing in,surrenders his power to the Oak King, the king of growth, increase and abundance. The wheel of the year turns, not in a circle, but in a spiral. Today is Yule, The reign of the Holly King is ended and the Oak King, the king of increase and abundance reigns.

    1. It’s interesting how many of those beliefs still inform our customs. There’s the carol “The Holly and the Ivy,” the Yule Log that shows up on the occasional table as a dessert, and for New Year’s, there’s first-footing. One of my favorite carols is newer relative to Stonehenge, but quite mysterious: Arthurian legend infuses “Down in Yon Forest.” They’re all connected to a past that’s worth appreciating.

  21. Your post rendered me awe-struck. Although nowhere near in comparison to your experience at Stonehenge, I remember that sound of pure silence and stillness once when on the seemingly never-ending prairies of Oklahoma where no sign of civilization existed many years ago. I’ve never forgotten it. Thank you for this beautiful essay.

    1. One of the wonderful facts of life is that the experience of such resonant silence can take place anywhere. Having spent some time on the tallgrass prairies of Kansas, including time spent wandering the open range, it makes perfect sense to me that you could have a Stonehenge-like experience there. That unpredictability is part of the magic; any time and any place can offer up one of life’s best experiences. The proof? That you’ve never forgotten your experience, either.

  22. “And prayer is more
    Than an order of words, the conscious occupation
    Of the praying mind, or the sound of the voice praying.”

    Amen!

    I have often felt too practical minded to be influenced by mystical places (Dr. M would howl at me thinking myself practical) – but the idea of stonehenge sparks my imagination. I wonder what I might feel if I happened upon it without the tourist trappings?

    1. After a few decades on this earth, one thing that’s become clear to me is that the sacred/secular distinction is problematic at best. In the same way, dividing the world’s places into the ‘mystical’ and the ‘mundane’ is the first step toward cutting ourselves off from experiences like this. Perhaps we can’t travel to Stonehenge, but we can create some of that same receptive silence in our lives. How we do that will vary from person to person, but it can be done.

    1. It was especially fun to write this one while knowing that some of my readers live ‘in the area,’ so to speak. I’m glad you enjoyed it, and I’m glad to have given you some goosebumps that weren’t related to that ongoing cold you’ve been experiencing!

  23. Your writing is so eloquent! Wow. I’m always struck with your words.
    I visited Stonehenge on a summer school excursion at Oxford University. Now that I look back I wish I had appreciated it more. I have some pictures of it; if it were me now, wow, I would’ve been so enthused and interested in it. I guess I’ve matured.
    Thanks for sharing information about the winter solstice and the slowing down of winter.

    1. I was rereading parts of your entry and telling Ellis how nice your writing is. She asked, “what’s her name?” So I told her shoreacres. She said it didn’t sound familiar to her, but when I reminded her that you were the bug identification website lady, she nodded her head ‘yes.’ I’m not sure if you remember how you suggested we post the pic of our mysterious fly on the bugguide.net?

      1. I do remember, and I remember that you posted about raising one of whatever it was (that, I can’t remember). You can tell her my name’s Linda, too. When I started my blog so many years ago, most of us were so concerned about privacy we came up with screen names, but if I were to start one today, I’d certainly use my real name!

    2. I think all of us experience that kind of regret about our lack of attention to the world around us when we’re younger. When I think about the wonderful places I’ve lived, and how little attention I paid to the natural world at the time, I hardly can believe it. Part of it’s that interests change over the years, I suppose. The good news is that we can start paying attention to the world we’re living in today — there always are some delights there, too!

    1. Thanks, Jean. It makes me happy to know you’re settled into a place where you’re able to enjoy the season, especially now that your brother’s nearby. The merriest of Christmases to you!

  24. Oh so lovely prose that is thought-provoking. It’s the same way I feel when I walk the woodlands and beyond to the river. It can be mystical at times, and I get the same thrill I might at the Grand Canyon or Niagara Falls. I’ve never seen Stonehenge, nor even Carhenge in my birth state of Nebraska. Yet I’m fairly certain the thrill would not be any different than the pink/orange blaze sunrise we saw this morning after the Siberian mass moved through yesterday. I hope your sunrise was just as stunning and mystical. Each day has something mystic to behold if we open our eyes.

    1. We’re in full agreement. This sort of experience depends less on time and place than it does on our own openness and receptivity. I don’t believe there’s anything inherently ‘magical’ about these stones, anymore than there is at the pyramids or other ancient temples. But in the isolation, the sense of being a small piece of a very much larger world, can be intense. I think that’s why lone trees in pastures affect me as they do.Seen against the horizon, they suggest something larger than themselves, particularly those who take the time to look.

  25. Excellent post Linda and a timely one for me to read. Recently, I’ve developed an interest in, and fascination with ancient henges whether wood or stone. Not long ago we visited the Poverty Point Native American site in NE Louisiana (which you’ll read all about on Gallivance), where in addition to mounds, there were remains of wood henges. Also, I just finished a couple of articles on Stonehenge and the other henges of Britain.

    What amazes me is how cultures on opposite sides of the globe could develop such similar ideas, cultural features as well as an understanding of and emphasis on the cosmos. I’m sure some evolutionary psychologist has answered this question, but for now I’m still searching for an answer. Very interesting stuff. Take care and Happy Holidays. ~James

    1. I can’t believe I’ve never heard of Poverty Point. I have spent time in western Mississippi, where I discovered their mound culture(s) while traveling the blues trail. Now I’m curious about connections between those mounds and Poverty Point. They’re close enough that there surely was some relationship back in those days. State boundaries certainly made no difference, since there weren’t any states at that point.

      After I began learning about convergent evolution in the plant world, I began wondering about the possibility of convergent cultural evolution. It certainly seems as though the henges and mounds should be examples of that. More research is required!

  26. You’ve given us such a lovely celebration of quietness. I visited Salisbury and Stonehenge in the 90’s. One special memory was of the oxblood-red granite columns in the cathedral, soaring tall and slender over our heads… and visibly bent, if you looked very carefully, under the weight of the stone arches and lead roof above. The forces of time and gravity move the world, however slowly.

    1. So many of the world’s processes move slowly; it’s a hard thing for people who prefer instant gratification to understand, especially where natural processes are involved. I’ve had to explain that to customers from time to time. Whether a six-inch block of wood or a sixty-foot-long rail, varnish dries when it will. It’s not a computer that can be speeded up at will.

  27. This was a wonderful piece of prose, Linda. Just chock full of “all the right words”. Many of us miss our connection to the greater world than that which is immediately around us. Busy with so many things that we miss so much more that makes up life than the familiar complexities of everyday life.
    Your experience on the plain that you were not alone is one that we can often feel most anywhere in Nature if we just listen to our breath and the wind together.

    1. I’m glad you liked it, Steve. You’re certainly right that the constant cacophany of modern life can cut us from from a good bit. On the other hand, much of that ‘noise’ enters our lives by choice. I’m always astonished when I come across articles like this..

      There are several reasons I prefer to go into nature by myself, or occasionally with a good friend. If I want to photograph, having someone else around always makes it hard to concentrate. Even the most patient and interested people send off little ‘vibrations’ that say, for example, “You’ve already spent fifteen minutes with that flower. Isn’t that enough?” And some people just can’t stop talking. Once again, Mary Oliver nails it:

      “Ordinarily I go to the woods alone,
      with not a single friend,
      for they are all smilers and talkers
      and therefore unsuitable.
      I don’t really want to be witnessed talking to the catbirds
      or hugging the old black oak tree.
      I have my ways of praying,
      as you no doubt have yours.
      Besides, when I am alone
      I can become invisible.
      I can sit on the top of a dune
      as motionless as an uprise of weeds,
      until the foxes run by unconcerned.
      I can hear the almost unhearable sound of the roses singing.
      If you have ever gone to the woods with me,
      I must love you very much.”

      1. Mary is right. I love my wife and we do go to the woods together, on vacation, and yes, I do spend fifteen minutes on a flower. and yes she does complain or just walk ahead without me. But in general I always prefer to go alone and actually will not stop at some planned spot if there are cars there. Fortunately there are enough places to go that pasing one just allows other opportunities elsewhere…excepting the few moments that a nice sunrise is about to happen. Even the few times I am with a like-minded photographer there is still enough of a distraction to disturb the force.

    1. I enjoyed all of England, except for the cold, damp London weather in January. I hope you go; there’s so much to see, especially the layers of history can are still accessible.

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