We had returned to Easter Aquhorthies for a second visit. It was still raining, but this time the sky was much brighter than the iron-grey deluge of the day before and there was already a sense of revisiting an old friend as we each returned to our stones. For myself, I was pondering some of the things we had learned here the day before… beginning with a rather obvious question from Running Elk.
“Where does the sun rise?” He was answered by silence. Twelve intelligent, fairly well-educated people had all apparently reached the same conclusion. The answer was so obvious that stating it was obviously going to turn out badly. Only the dog grinned. The sun rises in the east… that’s what we learn in school and that’s exactly what we think we see whenever we watch a dawn. Only, apparently, it isn’t. Who knew?
Well actually, I did. Except I didn’t know that I knew. It is one of those things simply taken for granted. Sunrise. East. Yet, my garden doors face east and I watch the sunrise most days. But thinking about it, I realised that while the winter sun rises directly opposite my doors, I only see the summer sunrise by looking across the garden next door. At a guess, maybe forty-or-so degrees difference. So the sun does not rise due east, but in the eastern skies, or ‘east of centre’.
As an opening gambit, it was a masterstroke. I cannot have been the only one wondering what else I was simply taking for granted… and that one question opened the mind to considering possibilities that might otherwise have been overlooked.
We had learned about the solar and lunar alignments in the circle and we had also talked about the value of the elders in the community. Running Elk had started that with a question too, asking how old we thought the average life expectancy would be for those who had constructed this astronomical circle. The consensus seemed to be around thirty years… but averages take in the extremes and seldom reflect reality. Infant mortality was high, and perhaps few would live to what we would call a ripe old age. That alters the figures. It also means that those who had lived long enough, say, to remember the preceding major lunar standstills, over eighteen years before, would have unique knowledge, precious to the community. …and would be valued accordingly. Something our own society might remember…
But why, we were asked to consider, was the moon so important to these people? While we discussed the agricultural necessities of growing seasons, my mind wandered back to childhood and Old Moore’s Almanack. This was a fascinating seventeenth century publication, updated yearly and still on sale today. Optimum planting times are listed along with predictions, astronomical and tidal observations and a really intriguing collection of advertisements for strange and wonderful things. As a child, I found the little booklet fascinating. I always wondered why people planted by the lunar tides, believing that by respecting the lunar cycle, the crops would grow more abundantly. My mother dismissed it as old superstition. My horticultural great-uncle John looked up from his prize-winning dahlias, winked, tapped the side of his nose and said, “Think abaht it, lass.”
So I thought about it. I knew that the moon ruled the tides, its gravitational pull drawing the oceans up and letting them fall as it orbits the earth… and maybe that had something to do with the waxing and waning of the moon too. Maybe, I thought, the same thing happens with the sap in the plants? So if you could understand and predict how the moon tides, maybe you could encourage the plants to grow better? The sun quite obligingly rises and sets daily, and the extremities of its yearly journey are marked by the solstices when the sun ‘stands still’. The longest and the shortest days. The moon then, must also have a solstice… and I was back in the present, listening to Running Elk explain about the major lunar standstill… Light dawned. Solstice of the Moon.
Stuart chanted from the recumbent stone, ancient syllables born of the land itself, and we gathered at the Priestess’s stone to listen. Outside the circle, the sound simply died… within it, a matter of inches away, the acoustics were incredible. We stood by our stones and Steve came to the stone, using its amazing acoustics to lead us in a chant. Syllables, symbolising the masculine and feminine potencies of the universe, the sound reverberating through the space. Next, men and women chanted in counterpoint… and for those moments, each of us was priest and priestess of that formless light that owns no name, weaving sound and breath, in homage and celebration of its Presence and our own presence within it.
And when we had done, as if in response, the rain stopped and the sky was lit by rainbows. Right on cue. It was a truly magical moment. You can spend months on research and planning for these weekends, right down to the last detail. But it is these unexpected gifts that light up the days.