Monday, June 23, 2008

Welcoming Summer -- At the U.Mass. Sunwheel

For the past decade for me, Summer Solstice has meant being at the Sunwheel for sunrise and sunset and offering teachings to the public. The Sunwheel is a stone circle calendar, located on the campus of the University of Massachusetts at Amherst, which I began constructing in 1992. Since the year 2000, the Sunwheel contains 14 standing stones, 8'-10' tall, marking the cardinal directions, the solstice sunrise and sunset directions, and the northern and southern extremes of moonrise and moonset. The Sunwheel enables people to experience the sky, through observing the changing direction to the sunrise and sunset throughout the year. At each Solstice and Equinox, I invite the general public to join me to witness the Sun rising and setting at the Sunwheel, to participate in the experience of the seasons. And since 1997, there have been 9,000 people attending the seasonal sunrise and sunset gatherings, and over 25,000 visitors to the Sunwheel overall.

The beginning of each season is a high energy time for me, full of anticipation, and one in which I feel like I am doing part of my soul's work. Also exhausting, with the Summer Solstice sunrise gathering at 5 a.m., and so much excitement inside me that sleep comes slowly. This year, I had the added element of having been unable to lead the gatherings 1 year ago, so I was coming home. I felt so grateful to be so much better physically than I was 1 year ago, that I was crying tears of joy during dinner Friday evening before going to the Sunwheel. I was unable to eat, as the anticipation mounted.

I never know how many people will come to the Sunwheel for the gatherings -- it depends on the temperature, the day of the week, and how cloudy or rainy or sunny the day has been. The Friday night, June 20, weather was cooler than normal, below 70 degrees at 7 p.m., but the sky was mostly clear and beautiful. In all, 84 people came to the Sunwheel to witness the sunset on Friday, and a total of 192 people attended the gatherings on Friday and Saturday. The crowds at the Sunwheel are always a mix -- people I know and people I don't, people who are new to the Sunwheel and people who are regulars, adults and children, & people who can stand and people who need to sit.

This Solstice, I shared the astronomy of the seasons, the story of building the Sunwheel and being inspired by a Sunwheel on former Blackfeet Indian territory in Montana, and a bit of my personal story including the collapse of my spine and year long recovery. I told people it broke my heart to not be present last Summer Solstice at the Sunwheel, and that I was incredibly grateful to be with them now, in 2008. Together we saw a beautiful sunset, then lit candles to bring in even more light at this light-filled time. These candles were placed on the stones around the Sunwheel -- as darkness set in the extra light made the site look magical!

There was a huge and wonderfully surprising outpouring of love and gratitude from the Sunwheel visitors to me that I will never forget -- people I didn't know hugged and kissed me, told me how happy they were that I was well, glad I was able to be back at the Sunwheel leading the gatherings. I was incredibly moved.

Saturday morning was definitely a stretch for me, getting up at 4:15 a.m. & heading right to the Sunwheel without doing the physical therapy I have been so diligent about doing first thing every morning for 10 months. But a friend was in from out of town, and I told her I would be at the Sunwheel for sunrise, so I went. It felt so familiar -- the quiet of the morning, the damp stillness of the air before sunrise, the sounds of the birds, the smell of damp Earth. And even though it was cloudy, 25 people came for the largest summer solstice sunrise gathering I remember (beginning at 5 a.m., after all).

For the past 7 years -- ever since the tall stones have been at the Sunwheel -- on the morning of the Summer Solstice there has been a red-winged blackbird atop the 10' tall Summer Solstice Sunrise stone AT sunrise. The first year I saw this sight I photographed it, and then year after year the bird (or another) reappeared. Even last year when I was at home, the student who led the gatherings in my place saw and photographed the red-winged blackbird atop the Summer Solstice sunrise stone at sunrise. I always tell people about the bird, and people came to the sunrise gathering to see it. The bird did show up on Saturday morning, but this year it sat atop the 9' tall North stone, the 2nd tallest stone in the circle. It showed up over and over, flying away, and coming back, always landing on the North stone. Avoiding the 10' tall Solstice sunrise stone.

Saturday evening, after a warm and cloudy afternoon, 67 people came to the Sunwheel for sunset. Again it was wonderful, connecting with the people and with the Universe to witness the start of this season of summer. The crowd stayed until 9:15 p.m., when it was so dark that we could no longer see anything other than the candles lighting the stones. And the huge surprise that evening was around sunset someone cried, "There's a hawk on the Summer Solstice sunrise stone." Sure enough, a large bird had landed on the tallest stone at the Sunwheel, and I got a glimpse of it before it flew away. It was very surprising that it landed so close to so many people (it was only ~30 feet away from us). Probably looking for live prey, and we looked a bit too big.

But now I think I know what happened to the red-winged blackbird. It had lost the territorial battle with the hawk, and had to settle for the 2nd tallest Sunwheel stone in the North, not the tallest stone marking the Summer Solstice sunrise.

There is so much more than astronomy that happens at the Sunwheel. A Universe in a circle. All because of love. Love for All That Is.

To learn more about the Sunwheel, click here.
To view the Sunwheel Photo Gallery, click here.
To view the Summer Solstice 2008 photos taken by Sunwheel visitor Steve Fratoni, click here.

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