Times of Solstice
At two points of the year, in mid-June and mid-December, the balance of light and dark in the day reaches its most extreme point, and we experience a few days where the sun seems to rise and set in the same place in the sky every day, so that it appears to “stand still” (1). This time is known as the Solstice (from the Lain sol (sun) and stit (still)) (2) and right now we are in the middle of this time of stillness, the Winter Solstice in the Northern half of the world and the Summer Solstice in the Southern one.
This solar event has been observed all over the world and throughout human history, and the stories of many traditional societies associated with the Solstice reflect similar themes of regeneration and renewal. This article will explore some of these themes, and seeks to provide inspiration for those living in modern society to use the idea of regeneration to help in the creation of a truly permanent culture.
What is Regeneration?
A lot of environmental conservation rhetoric gives becoming “sustainable” as being an end goal to ensure environmental care (3, 4). When something is sustainable, it can continue happening with the current resources available, but without improving. Therefore, trying to live in a sustainable way can be seen as a good starting point but should not be an end goal; rather, that “sustainable” can be seen as
“The mid-point between things that are degenerative – …things that break things down, things that pollute, things that destroy, things that damage… – and regenerative activities”
So the aim is to achieve systems which regenerate, rather than simply sustaining. As Toby Hemenway pointed out, naturally-functioning ecosystems usually contain regeneration within them (3).
Flourishing ecosystems are constantly revolving through different aspects of the cycle of birth – growth – death – decay – rebirth. In order for regeneration to occur, there first has to be some kind of death. If there is no death, then things cannot be reborn – cannot re-generate.
This may be easy to see in a physical ecosystem, such as recognising that in order for forest soil to become rich and fertile, those plants which were growing within it have to die so that their bodies can decay and nourish the soil which once nourished them. It seems increasingly important that we also apply this sense to our invisible systems within social permaculture. We may wish to have thriving permaculture systems which nourish the surrounding ecosystem, but if we are not willing for parts of our own system to die, then we may be holding back from the regenerative properties which could be achieved. This can be applied to human communities and relationships, but also within the landscape of our own minds.
Light and Darkness
One of the most effective tools I have found for helping to create new patterns in social permaculture is that of storytelling. We can find tales from many traditional cultures at the time of the winter Solstice relating to this cycle of death and rebirth. For example, the people of the culture of my birth-land of Britain tell the story of the battle of two trees, the Holly King and the Oak King. These trees are represented as twin brothers associated with fire and masculine power (5, 6). Every year, they battle together twice – once at the winter solstice, and once at the Summer Solstice. At the Winter Solstice, the Oak King, god of sky and light, wins the battle and the Holly King, god of darkness and the underworld, is killed (5, 6). Thus even on the darkest day of the year, people are reminded that the days will start to get longer after this point, and that a time of growth is at hand. At the summer Solstice the Holly King is regenerated and kills the Oak King, and the cycle continues to go around (5, 6).
An equivalent story from the ancient Greeks is that of Hades and Perspehone. This tale has been retold in thousands of ways; below is my own version.
Persephone is the daughter of Demeter, a Goddess associated with fertility and growth. One day Persephone meets Hades, the Lord of the Underworld. Perhaps she was seduced or kidnapped, or perhaps she went willingly – either way, she descends with Hades into his domain, where he offers her some delicious, juicy fruit. Meanwhile, Demeter is going crazy trying to find her daughter. In her rage, she forgets to help plants to grow. Leaves fall from the trees, flowers wither and die, and the land becomes cold and bare.
…As Persephone takes a pomegranate, and eats…six seeds…
when Demeter finds Persephone in the Underworld she demands that she comes home. Though Hades try to argue that she has already eaten the fruit of the Underworld, in the end they agree that since she only ate six pomegranate seeds, she can spend 6 months of the year in the world of light, and 6 months of the year in darkness.
Though we are not in Ancient Britain or Greece, these stories can still be helpful in our efforts to regenerate, if we take whichever symbols are resonant with us now and apply them to our own lives. For example, if we take these stories as metaphors, we can recognise that, even though they depict cycles of nature which are absolutely inevitable, both include an element of struggle against this very inevitability. We can see the battle of the tree kings, or Demeter’s refusal to let Persephone go, as symbolic of anytime we try to hold on to old patterns and resist change.
End of Civilisation
Resistance to change, then, may be hindering regeneration at any level – from personal to global. As Toby Hemenway said, permaculture can help us to consciously design a world in which humans can live in a regenerative way along with other beings in the ecosystem; but this is not possible to achieve within our current model of so-called “civilisation” (3). Since much of modern society is based on patterns which are not regenerative and indeed not even sustainable, these patterns need to die in order for new ones to flourish.
As permaculture practitioners, it is not necessarily our job to be a part of the death of the old civilisation, since permaculture is so useful in helping to create the alternative, new culture which can be reborn from this death. However, in order to facilitate the growth of the new human community awaiting its regeneration, perhaps it would be beneficial to ask, at this potent time of year, what patterns are you holding onto in your life which are waiting to die in order to regenerate?
1. National Weather Service (USA), 2019. “The Seasons, The Equinox, and the Solstices”. https://www.weather.gov/cle/seasons
2. Online Etymology Dictionary, 2019. “Solstice”. https://www.etymonline.com/word/solstice
3. Hemenway, T, 2010. ‘How Permaculture Can Save Humanity and the Earth, but not Civilization’. Talk given at Nicholas School of the Environment, Duke University, North Carolina, USA and uploaded 9/2/13 to Films For Action: https://www.filmsforaction.org/watch/how-permaculture-can-save-humanity-and-the-earth-but-not-civilization/
4. UN Development Program, 2019. “Sustainable Development Goals”. https://www.undp.org/content/undp/en/home/sustainable-development-goals.html
6. Sinn, S, 2011. “Tinne (Holly)”. The Living Library Blog, 22/6/11. https://livinglibraryblog.com/holly-tinne/
7. Campbell, J; Moyers, B, 1991. “Episode 5 – Love and the Goddess”. The Power of Myth with Bill Moyers. Available to view for free here: https://billmoyers.com/content/ep-5-joseph-campbell-and-the-power-of-myth-love-and-the-goddess-audio