Reflections on this Summer Solstice

I grew up in New York City. During my childhood I did not know what the solstices were. I was vaguely aware that it was darker in the winter and lighter in the summer, but I never knew that there were two days in the year when the shift from light to darkness, or vice versa, occurred. I did not know there was a longest day or a shortest day, although I should have been smart enough to figure this out. But even if I had, I would not have felt that such a shift marked anything very important.

Had I grown up prior to the Industrial Revolution, the winter solstice would have been quite a time to mark. As the days in December were growing increasingly short and cold, I imagine I would have been happy to know that on December 21st, even as the first days of winter began, the light would be returning, and the days would grow increasingly longer. On the summer solstice, as the days were warming and the seeds were sprouting for a hoped-for big harvest, I would also have been aware that the next day would be shorter, portending winter’s return.

How could I have been so unaware of the solstices for two decades of my life? Easy. In our built world with electric light at our fingertips, drapes to block the rays of the morning sun, and so much to keep us indoors and in front of screens and books and on our phones (and now Skype and email and Facebook and Twitter), it’s not a surprise that I, like many children, barely noticed the change in light. We notice what we pay attention to, and it’s somewhat disturbing to think that growing up in Manhattan I paid such little attention to the natural world that a fundamental cycle of light was lost on me.

On this solstice, I’m asking myself this: To what do I want to attend? I’m resolving to spend 15 minutes each day this summer simply sitting and observing a small spot in the natural world. Whether it is at our pond, teeming, truly teeming, with life, or in our wildflower meadow watching the work of pollinators, or in the deep woods that border the meadow, I will be paying attention to this beautiful earth I inhabit. Whenever I take time to do this, I realize -- often quite suddenly and profoundly -- that while this land is legally “mine,” of its countless inhabitants I spend the least time actually in, on, and among it. I sleep in a comfortable bed inside, spend hours on my computer each day, live largely indoors. Meanwhile, just outside, life in all its mystery and abundance is happening. For a time each day between now and winter, I plan to notice.

For a humane world,

Zoe Weil, President, Institute for Humane Education
Author of Most Good, Least Harm, Above All, Be Kind, and The Power and Promise of Humane Education
My TEDx talk: “The World Becomes What You Teach"

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