In honour of Steve Wyn-Harris retiring his weekly From the Ridge column after decades wielding the pen, Farmers Weekly dips into the archives for another taste of ag New Zealand’s favourite scribe.
From June 2016
Here’s what you must do with the kids this Tuesday evening, which is June 21. Assemble them (preferably outside under the night sky emblazoned with stars and a moon one day past full) and grandly announce that this is the winter solstice.
You will hold the wee darlings captive until you have told them some of what I’m about to relay to you.
It is possible that many of their teachers have failed to point out this momentous day nor bothered to fill their dear little heads with stories of why this day is so special.
Any teachers reading this should stop the class at exactly 10.34am and tell them that this is the very moment of the solstice. Those of you out on your farms or elsewhere should also stop and reflect upon this wondrous moment.
This coming night will be the longest of the year but rejoice! because every night following will be slightly shorter than the previous all the way until December 21 when we will experience our shortest night and thereafter the nights lengthen again until this time next year. Repeating a cycle that has continued uninterrupted for a billion years or more.
The day just gone has been the shortest day of the year. At midday, the sun reached its lowest altitude and most northerly point of the year.
All of this solstice and resulting seasonal activity came about because Earth’s axis is tilted at 23.4 degrees in relation to our path around the sun.
Over steaming bowls of porridge at our kitchen table on each winter solstice morning I would direct the lads’ gaze towards the rising sun coming directly up over the woolshed across the paddock.
The time would be just after 7.30am and I would tell them that their Invercargill cousins would have to wait another hour to see the rising sun. Then I would point well around to the hills east of us and say that is where the sun will be rising at 5.45am in six months’ time.
In this way I could construct a crude but effective mark of the seasons. My own version of Stonehenge. A graphic example to explain the passing of the seasons and how they relate to the cycle of farming with a bit of astronomy thrown in.
Stonehenge itself was built by folk tied to the land and ruled by the passing of seasons. For them the winter solstice in December was more important than the summer one. This marked the point when many of the cattle would be slaughtered so as not to take them through the depths of winter with lack of feed and the time when much of the wine and beer would finally be fermented, making that coming winter a little more bearable.
Nearly all human cultures have marked and celebrated the winter solstice. Ireland’s Newgrange Tomb is over 5000 years old, making it 1000 years older than Stonehenge but built using precise astronomical observations so that the solstice sun ran down the long corridor to illuminate the burial chamber.
The ancient Greeks, Egyptians, Sumerians, Hindus, Mayans and Incas, among others, all built monuments to capture that special day that marked the solstice.
We have lost the joy and wonder of these ancient seasonal festivals.
Ancient Māori didn’t build monuments marking the solstice but they certainly celebrated Matariki and this has been popularised in recent times.
Translated as “the eyes of God” or “little eyes”, Matariki is the rising of what the Greeks called the Pleiades or Seven Sisters. An open star cluster of relatively young stars, it has also been important to many other cultures.
For the Māori it marks the new year as they become visible in the winter sky in the north and at our antipodes the Greeks used their rising to know when it was safer to set sail on the Mediterranean.
There is a push to have Matariki marked as an official festival and, given its significance across many cultures, I see it having potentially more appeal and relationship-building effect than, say, Waitangi Day.
Various Māori tribes celebrated Matariki at different times – some when it rose in early June, others waiting until the first full moon after the rising or even others for the first new moon following its appearance.
Why not unite Matariki and the long traditions across many cultures from around the world which celebrated the winter solstice into one fun festival we can all enjoy and partake in?
Imagine street parties like we just witnessed in the United Kingdom for the Queen’s 90th birthday around this country, with kids rugged up toasting marshmallows and sausages whilst given some astronomy lessons as they would have had thousands of years ago, and still be put to bed at a decent time.
The adults, knowing the beer and wine was now properly fermented, could toast the new year in and have one last celebration