Friday, June 26, 2009

Honoring the Solstice: Lavender Circles and Three-Second Symphonies

Long days . . . sunrise and sunset remarkably far to the north . . . the sun high overhead: this must be the solstice, although New England has been submerged for days in heavy clouds and sudden torrential rainstorms. But even if I can't see the sun, I find I need to celebrate the solstice as a key moment in our earthly cycle and our planet's journey around the sun.

My bedroom windows look to the east, so long ago I carved a mini-Stonehenge on the windowsill, tracing the lines of the midsummer sunrise, the equinox sunrise, and the midwinter sunrise. Together the solstice lines make an almost-90-degree angle, with the equinox line exactly in the middle, pointing due east.

Another way I’ve found to honor the solstice (involving less vandalism) is by harvesting lavender, my favorite of all gardening activities. Tonight after dinner I began. My 20-year-old daughter Tess joined me with a cup of tea, talking softly while birds heralded the evening. It was peaceful and fragrant and as pleasant as could be.

Lavender harvest begins.

You must harvest lavender when the tall gray-green stalks are loaded with stacks of intense purple buds but before the buds open their petals and release their scent into the air. This seems to happen reliably around the solstice, even despite our moody weather spell. Like many flowers, lavender keeps its buds tightly closed during rainy periods, so those buds just kept getting fatter, packing more and more fragrance inside.

My lavender grows in a couple of terraced beds along some wide stone steps, and the seams in the stones are now white with flowering thyme. Native to the Mediterranean coasts, both thyme and lavender thrive in the heat absorbed and radiated by the stone. Nearby a beautiful, fragrant rose has just burst into bloom, and this year I planted sugar snap peas below a trellis behind the rose. So tonight we had lavender, roses, thyme, and blossoming peas (with the very first pods showing), all within arm’s reach.

Looking down from my deck I can see a couple of newly harvested
lavender plants on the left, thyme growing among the stone steps,
the white blossoms of peas climbing up a trellis, and a bit of the
new red leaves of a climbing rose to the right (buds not visible).

I like to cut the lavender with as long a stalk as possible and then spread it on a sheet on a bed to air dry (lucky room where that bed is). Later you can pull off the buds and stuff them into little muslin sacks to make dream pillows. But my favorite thing to do while the stems are flexible is to make lavender circlets or miniature wreaths, as a symbol of the circle of the year. You gather the stalks together in a staggered procession and bend them into a circle, wrapping it tightly with thread or fine dental floss. Once you’ve made the circle connect, you can insert more stems. A fairly quick, not too fussy or rigid version of this is best — suitable as a spontaneous gift for people you love or a crown for Titania, queen of the faeries.

Spread the lavender on a blanket or sheet on a bed in an airy room.

Overhead in a pine tree a song sparrow sang lustily (and probably lustfully). I must admit that this is my favorite bird, at least tonight. Its Latin name is Melospiza melodia, meaning "melodious singer," with good reason. Each song sparrow sings the loveliest little piece of music, like an exquisite three-second symphony, complete with separate movements. First movement is always two to four broad strokes; then there’s a trill, a pretty little fillip, and a couple of chirps to round it off. The liquid sound fills your ears the way a delicious drink fills your throat.

Could Mozart write anything finer lasting three seconds? People compare it to the beginning of Beethoven’s Fifth or translate it as: “Maids maids maids put on the tea kettle – ettle – ettle!”

Here’s a link to the Cornell Lab of Ornithology Web site where you can hear a version of the song:

Every individual is different, but tonight’s singer was a virtuoso, and he sang at least three distinct songs within a half hour. He repeated each version about 20 times and then changed to a different melody while remaining within the clear parameters of an identifiable song sparrow song, just the way Bach might play with variations on a flute sonata.

Sitting on the steps with my daughter, breathing in the scent of lavender, hearing the cascade of birdsong, and watching the first fireflies . . . yes, this is what we’ve been waiting for through all the dark cold months, the end and beginning of our circular journey through the year.

Happy summer!

Check out Storey's Growing & Using Lavender (Bulletin A-155) for ideas on what to do with lavender.

Deb Burns, Acquiring Editor for Animal, Farming and Equestrian Topics


Melanie Jolicoeur said...


Karen Salva said...

You are so right with timing...ours is a little later, but must get out there ASAP to check! Thanks for the reminder.