“all the night’s pure figures”
I was awake for a long time in the night, thinking about time. Often I find myself so close to understanding its passing, what it means. I was awake in the night, thinking, in the room we built nearly 35 years ago, with the leafy silhouette of the arbutus tree dark against the white curtains. This tree, now as high (or higher) as the second story of our house, was a tiny shattered collection of branches when we first began to build in the summer of 1981. But in a few weeks the warblers will be loud in its blossoms.
The moon was in its first quarter last night and when I got up to pee, I paused by the window above the stairs where I could see the Great Bear, Ursa Major, that beautiful constellation,
…that some have called the Wain,
pivoting in the sky before Orion;
of all the night’s pure figures, she alone
would never bathe or dip in the Ocean stream.
(Odyssey, Book Five, 263-6, trans. Robert Fitzgerald)
It was a spring sky, or nearly so. Even though there’s new snow on the mountain behind us, the air has spring’s promise. The colours of green are almost fluorescent, particularly the moss on the trunks of the big-leaf maples which are just beginning to show their flowers. (When we walked the other day, after a big wind, you could see the buds all over the trail.) We think we are tuned to the seasons and maybe we are, to some extent, but I’ve been remembering how last March we spent part of a day with an archaeologist in Portugal, looking at the Almendres Cromlech and other neolithic sites near Evora.
The Almendres Cromlech site was constructed over several thousands of years, each phase reflecting social, ceremonial, and spiritual values, and seems also to be an astronomical observatory — though why would this be a separate consideration? That says more about me than the people who lived there and were associated with the place, were as rooted to it as the stones appear to be rooted in the dry earth. There is one stone which is associated with spring equinox and a line from the site to a single menhir about 1400 meters away points to sunrise on the Winter equinox. It was a place I felt I could spend a lifetime. There were cork oaks and black pigs foraging for acorns beneath them. Wild flowers, chestnut trees, olives, and the oaks, tiny lizards skittering among the stones, the sun. Time was a different thing there, a densely layered accumulation of stones, wind, even the generations of pigs, dating back (at least) to Homer:
Bring in our best pig for a stranger’s dinner.
A feast will do our hearts good, too; we know
grief and pain, hard scrabbling with our swine…
—Odyssey, Book Fourteen, 416-19, trans. Robert Fitzgerald
So the Equinox approaches –March 20, 4:30 a.m. — and we’ll observe it with the usual lack of ceremony. No stone circles to help us predict the sun’s early rising, the long setting over Texada Island. No pig, fattened with the mast of oaks, to roast over a fire of dry chestnut wood. Our stars are storied but who can remember? Years ago when we built our house, we’d sit by the fire outside our tent and John would point out the constellations he knew. Orion, for whom he had special affection (my husband was an archer as a boy and his bow, his quiver of arrows, are in the workshop still, though the bow is unstrung all these years), the vain queen Cassiopeia, and the Great Bear and her son, who never set, “never bathe or dip in the Ocean stream.”