Observations for a MidSummer's Eve
Article ID: 15867
Age Group: Adult
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Author: Bran th' Blessed
Posted: June 7th. 2015
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The old ones knew only two seasons: the cold winter when animals had to be sheltered and food stores fostered until the first thaw, and the warm summer when the animals could be put out to pasture and the fields could be planted—which is why we call this solstice Midsummer (as well as Litha) and its opposite Midwinter (as well as Yule) . Our lives are intrinsically different in these warm days than in the cold ones behind and ahead of us. Except for hot desert regions, warm summer days hardly ever pose as much danger to us as those long dark, cold winter nights.
There is a temperature called “Absolute Zero”. It is -273.15 degrees Celsius, or -459.67 degrees Fahrenheit. The Kelvin temperature scale uses the same temperature increment as the Celsius scale but its zero point is absolute zero instead of the freezing point of water. Absolute zero is a temperature than which nothing may become colder, by the very nature of physical reality. Matter at absolute zero is in its ground state, the state of lowest possible internal energy. It is impossible to attain a true state of absolute zero, although scientists have artificially created temperatures lower than one billionth of a degree Kelvin. The ambient temperature of the expanding universe, called the Cosmic Microwave Background (CMB) radiation is 2.73 degrees Kelvin. This temperature permeates the universe, everywhere, and is the remnant energy of cosmic birth.
Arno Penzias and Robert Wilson of Bell Labs were awarded the 1978 Nobel Prize for their rather serendipitous discovery of this background radiation, the oldest light in the universe. For some 380 millennia after cosmic birth the universe was a glowing, white-hot opaque fog of (mostly) hydrogen ions and electrons (“plasma soup”) , which absorbed the available photon radiation. Then the gradual reduction in temperature across the cosmos, due to continuous expansion, allowed the hydrogen ions to bond with the electrons to form stable hydrogen atoms, which then no longer absorbed all the photon radiation. This lead to what is called “photon decoupling” in which the photons were no longer bonded to the plasma, and the universe became transparent for the first time. This photon decoupling released the first light to shine throughout the universe, and that light is the light we now observe as the CMB radiation. Much of the static on your vacant television channels is CMB radiation.
The water you drink contains two hydrogen atoms and one oxygen atom. The hydrogen atoms date back as far as the CMB radiation, 380 millennia after cosmic birth when the universe first became clear and the epoch of the stars was born, or about 13.5 billion years ago. Almost all the liquids we drink contain water, so when you take that drink of water, milk, ale, cola, or juice, take a moment to appreciate the great antiquity that you are taking into your body. Hydrogen and helium are the oldest elements in the universe; their nuclei (ions) forming from the primitive and fundamental quantum particles that first emerged from the pure energy of cosmic birth. All the other elements come from hydrogen. All of them.
The clouds of hydrogen that filled the ancient universe after the release of light began to gather and spin ever inward under the allure of gravity. Forming huge spinning balls of hydrogen gas that compressed into ever denser and hotter spheres that began to ionize and glow under the immense pressures within them. Eventually, they became so hot that the elemental fires of nuclear fusion burst into life within them. The outward energy of these fires was able to balance the inward compression of gravity, and these newborn stars began their alchemy. The fusion that gives life to all stars creates heavier elements from lighter ones. It was long ages into the lives of these first stars before oxygen was born in them. In the solar winds blowing out all around these stars, some of the oxygen combined with hydrogen to form the first molecules of water in the universe. I like to think of that when I drink a glass of cool ice water.
We only live a few score years, we humans. Some of us trace our ancestry and heritage back hundreds of years. And I certainly do not discourage that attachment to our human history. But water is the stuff of life. Virtually all life needs water in some form. And not just water. The molecular richness and bounty of our planet is the basis of all its varieties of life. And all the elements in all the molecules of our planet were born in the nuclear cores of stars long dead. I say “long dead” because only some elements are formed while stars live. Some heavier elements—atomic weights heavier than iron—are created only in the supernova deaths of stars. This planet and its life was impossible until a generation or two of older stars lived their long lives and died. I wonder, do you think that stars fear death as humans do? Do stars realize their mortality?
Part of the lore of my Pagan tradition is that “the Sun is but a mortal light surrounded by immortal night.” If stars were immortal, there would be no worlds; there would be no life. The release of elements through the solar winds is nothing by comparison to the volume of the elements released by supernovas. I want to tell the stars not to be afraid, that they will become new stars and suns, and worlds, and life upon those worlds; that death is not an end but only a transformation. But then, how does that work for you? Are you content to know that your life will have long-abiding consequences on this world? Yes, well. Perhaps stars are wiser than us. They do live much longer after all than we live.
At a Wiccan website that I visit, they were discussing the ritual etiquette for blowing out candles when the ritual is done. Some said it's okay to blow them out and others said that it's not. It made me think about fire and water. When the ritual is done we must after all dispose of both, the ritual flames and the ritual waters, in some manner. But my thoughts were not about etiquette; they were about the dual natures of fire and water. We suppose that water exists before the ritual and after it. In a sense, water is immortal. It takes many forms—solid ice, liquid, gassy steam and often it is absorbed into and bonds with other substances. It is taken into our bodies when we drink it or absorb it into our skin, but we also release the water in various bodily fluids. Water is ever-changing and transformational.
But fire is mortal. It is lit and it is snuffed out. It doesn't exist like water exists far from settles the matter even to the extent that it may be true. It is born. It lives. It dies. Do you see the duality? Do you see how fire is like the Sun (and all stars) , and how water is like the Moon (and all moons and planets) ? If the heat and debris of stellar destruction did not destroy our world and its moon, they would continue indefinitely to wonder through space in frozen darkness. But fire consumes. It must “eat” to live, as we too must eat to live. And when it can no longer eat, it will no longer live. The flame will die out, but the water remains. Do you think that the flame fears death? Think on this when next you prepare to douse a flame.
You see, stars and suns are balls of compressed gaseous elements (plasma) inside which a nuclear flame is ignited. They are really more like the candle or the kindling than the flame. It is not the body of the star that dies. The body of the star is transformed by its nuclear flame from a primary element (hydrogen) into many elements. When the star dies, its body, like ours actually, returns to the starry deep from whence it came as our bodies return to the earth. But the flame, you see...the flame that burns within the star is like the flame that burns upon the wick or the flame of life that animates us. All flames are mortal, all fire is mortal. The stars and candles, like our bodies, exist in space and continue like water indefinitely through many forms. But fire and life are transient powers whose existence is in time, not space. I believe one of the redes is “Ashes to ashes and dust to dust; if born you are, then die you must.”
Where does flame go when it is extinguished? Indeed, where does it come from when it is lit? I like to describe it as an immortal potentiality. The manifest, visible state of fire, which is the flame, is a mortal state that can only be maintained for a period of time. But fire, as opposed to flame, is a spiritual power. The ground-state of fire is invisible, hidden, potential, you see? It exists in the very essence of the wick, the kindling, the star; and it is summoned by the act of ignition—the striking of a match, the super-heating of wood, the super-pressures inside proto-stars. The potentiality of fire is transformed into the manifest reality of flame. And when we douse the flame, we essentially banish the manifestation. But the potentiality remains...forever.
This is the immortality of elemental fire, this potentiality. The burning candle is like the Earth in summer, all afire with the verdant flame of life, the verdant flame that arises from the soil with every spring and drains back into the ground with every autumn. Do you see the image? Do you see the connection? Fire is the immortal potentiality from which the mortal flame is born. Spirit (the Earth) is the immortal potentiality from which life is born.
And this brings us once again back to where we started, to Midsummer, so that we may, as TS Eliot suggests, “know the place for the first time.” We are all surrounded, shall I say embraced, by mystery and wonder from the day our lives are ignited to the day they shall be doused. Everything in between is a marvelous gift.
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Bran th' Blessed
Location: Madison, Tennessee
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