Bringing Back the Sun

By John Hanson Mitchell

Beaver Brook Trail in Littleton, Massachusetts

Almost every day for the last twenty-five years I have trekked down through the woods below my house to a dry bank above a slow north-running stream known as Beaver Brook. The bank offers a good vantage point for viewing the surrounding landscape, and if you are of the type who appreciates the implications of the flow of dark waters from source to sea and the unfolding progress of the seasons, it’s one of the only places around here where you can gain some perspective on the regular cycles of the natural world, as opposed to the alarming events of the current human condition.

Last year just before dawn on Christmas morning I went down to my place beside the brook to watch the day unfold. It was a day not unlike that of other days that I visit the place, except that it was the official beginning of the winter season. The sky was cloudy, and the air was filled with that close, watery scent of coming snow. I went out anyway and rather than follow the cart track that leads through the woods to the stream, I took a short cut and clambered through a tangle of oaks and pines, interspersed with thickets of bittersweet, brambles and multiflora rose, skirting walls and brakes and blow downs all along the way. With only a slight suspension of disbelief you might think for a second or two that you were in wilderness here. In fact, this is a fast suburbanizing region of former farmlands and apple orchards, and in order live with the myth of the past, you have to go burrowing into the night woods and seek out those few isolated spots in the area, such as the stream bank. Henry Thoreau knew all about this sort of thing. He might have liked my private sanctuary.

Down at the brook, the grass on the bank was still snow free and I sat cross-legged above the waters and waited for sunrise. There was nothing to wait for in point of fact; this day was characterized by that flat, seamless pall of sky that prefigures snow. A few flakes began drifting down as I watched, followed by a few more flakes and then by a steady, but light fall.

As I waited, a pale faded image of the white winter sun, much filtered through the mists and drifting flakes, showed itself—a silvery coin behind the black branches of the trees. It was an odd, somehow portentous sunrise, the type of light into which the native shamans and Puritan ministers of these parts might read dark omens — which got me thinking about the implications of this particular holiday.

Among Christian cultures, Christmas marks the day when it is believed that the Savior of the world was born, the Prince of peace who would mark the start of a golden age. But in fact, shortly before the historical birth of Christ the same date was celebrated by a popular Roman cult whose chief luminary was Mithra, who was not exactly a god, but a representative of what they believed was the true and only god — the sun. Mithra, who pre-dates the birth of Jesus, not coincidentally, was born on December 25.

Long before that, by a thousand years or more, the day was celebrated as a solstice festival. This was, for all the cultures of the world an absolutely critical holiday. In earlier times, the ancients watched the fading light and shortening days with dread. It was not clear that the sun would not carry on in its decline and never return. To halt this process, shamans and holy men and later priests and potentates would carry out certain rituals, most of them involving fire — the thought being that the fiery sun would be nourished by earthly light.

In ancient Egypt, pharaohs, who were considered the earthly embodiment of the sun, used to perambulate the temple walls to encourage the real sun in its daily course. Each year at Rhodes, the ancient Greeks would cast a chariot and four horses into the sea to refresh the wornout team of Helios, who drove the chariot of the sun across the sky by day and sank in the western seas at dusk. Some of the local Native American tribes would shoot fiery arrows into the night sky at this time of year, and all across the globe fires were lit, ritual hymns were sung, sacred herbs were consumed and dances were performed imitating the course of the year.

Here, amid the silence of the drifting snow, and the quiet flow of black waters below the stream bank where I was sitting, you could catch a hint of all this. On mornings like this, the pre-Christian wilderness manifests itself; the peace of wild things descends, time stalls out, and even runs backward so that I might be sitting here 500 years ago, when all eyes were on the night sky and all around the world the sacred fires burned.

Mr. Thoreau, were he with us now, would surely understand.

John Hanson Mitchell is a travel and natural history writer and the author Ceremonial Time: Fifteen Thousand Years on One Square Mile. He founded and edited the Massachusetts Audubon Society journal, “Sanctuary.” Mr. Mitchell lives in Littleton, Massachusetts.

 

 

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Children in Peril: What Would Henry Do? What Will You Do?

By Ken Lizotte
President Thoreau Farm Trust

Thoreau Farm Trust Board President Ken Lizotte

As we all know, Henry loved children and they loved him. Though he never sired any of his own, a natural mutual attraction could not be missed that lasted his entire lifetime. Even on his deathbed, he asked that neighboring children be let into his room.

Which raises the obvious question that today echoes the title of Thoreau Farm’s current book of essays What Would Henry Do? That question is: if Henry were alive today, what would he think, what would he say, what would he do about what’s happening to our children?

What would Henry think for example about the hundreds of children literally kidnapped by our Federal government, separated from their natural parents  just because they crossed our southern borders to escape tyranny in their home countries that threatened their children’s very lives?

And what would Henry think (and say) about the thousands upon thousands of children abused over so many, many decades by the Catholic Church? Only now coming to light are countless crimes covered up by Church authorities who could have, and should have, done something to stop them yet did nothing.

What would Henry think, say and do about the horrors of human trafficking, preying upon teenagers worldwide? Or gun violence that has slaughtered school children of all ages? Or parental abuse, drug epidemics, teenage suicide rates?

It is all so unthinkable that this goes on and on without the slightest hint of help from those who have sworn an oath to protect our children from such atrocities. Instead government authorities (Congress mostly) pay us only lip service.

Using this question in our book’s title as a guide — what would Henry do? — we must ask ourselves now what will we do? Please think of Henry when you respond, as in:

  • Speak out against war, slavery and discrimination
  • Engage when all else fails in civil disobedience
  • Participate in a modern-day underground railroad
  • Write a blog or letter or article or book
  • Campaign for candidates who seem likely to actually do something, not just call for a “moment of silence” and then forget and ignore the issue
  • Contribute to social and political organizations actively fighting for our children’s rights and lives, such as the ACLU and other human rights advocacy groups

If you agree, please join me in taking one step, however small, today, then another tomorrow. By banding together, we can end these horrors. Adhering to Henry’s notion of a life of principle, and imagining what Henry himself might think, say and do if he were with us today, we can surely overcome.

 

 

 

 

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A Loch Ness Monster in Long Lake? Or, if Humans Are Creatures, Can Creatures Be Human?

by John Hanson Mitchell

On a clear night recently, two local scientists spotted a strange, long-necked aquatic animal rising above the surface of Long Lake in Littleton, Massachusetts.

Sketch depicts the south shore of Long Lake in Littleton, Massachusetts, where the monster was spotted. Credit: John Hanson Mitchell

Dr.Timothy Ahearn. who holds a degree in aquatic biology, and Dr, Lawrence Millman, an ethnographer and an authority on aquatic animals, were boating along the shores of the lake around 11 PM when they saw a large serpent-like form rise out of the water. The creature stared at them briefly and then arched its back and submerged.

“It looked like your classic Loch Ness Monster, “ Millman said. “Or descriptions I’ve read of Lake Champlain’s creature, Champy, and I would have thought I imagined it, except that Tim saw it too.”

“Neither Larry nor I could believe what we saw,” Dr Ahearn said, “but after it disappeared, our mutual descriptions matched. The thing rose no more than four or five feet above the water and it had a slim snake-like body and a head that resembled some sort of reptilian otter. In fact, we both at first thought it was an otter, but its body was too slim and snake like and far too long.”

Sketch by John Hanson Mitchell

Long Lake, it should be said, does harbor some unique aquatic species. Every August, a host of nickel-sized jelly fish appear en masse in the waters. These were identified a few years ago as Craspedusta sowerbii, a rare species of freshwater jellyfish that occurs in the Yellow River in China, as well as Long Lake and a few other sites in North America.

And Dr. Ahearn, who lives on the lake, has seen a giant water scorpion just below the clear black ice, also immense water bugs. Eels, black water snakes and an unusually large snapping turtle have also been seen in the lake over the years. Furthermore, there was a legend among the local Nashobah Village Indians of a lake creature know as the Ap’chinic, although that “species” lived in Nagog Pond, and was more like a giant octopus.

Dr. Millman, who is a Research Associate at Harvard University, spent several afternoons reviewing the literature on Native American lore and historical reports of local sea serpents but could find no reports, other than the Ap’chinic, and several sightings of a sea serpent in Massachusetts Bay in the mid 19th century, later disputed.

Sea serpents, lake monsters, winged snakes, dragons and the dreaded, ship-swallowing, deep water squid known as the Kraken are, of course, the stuff of legend and myth. But as geographers, anthropologists and crypto-zoologists, point out, the legends and folk-tales of pre-literate cultures often reflect real creatures and prehistoric geologic events such as world-wide floods and ice mountains.

For example, the Nashobah people, a seventeenth century group of Christianized Indians believed that the four winds were trapped inside Nagog Hill and would periodically roar and thunder and shake the very earth. Geologist later determined that the area is an epicenter for earthquakes.

Loch Ness and Lake Champlain are known for their depths, and were both connected to the sea after the retreat of the glacie, the theory being that Pleistocene sea creatures were trapped in the lakes when the lands rose after the ice retreated. Long Lake, by contrast is shallow and spring fed, not prime territory for monsters of the deep.

One other detail, for what it’s worth, is the fact that the Long Lake serpent was seen around Halloween, a period when cultures around the world record extraordinary events; the dead can walk, spirits rise from the earth, and bats, witches, dragons, flying snakes and other “mythic” creatures course through the air.

It is also the time of year when the so-called Wild Hunt would pass over. Ghostly hunters, eternally damned, would touch down on earth in this season in the form of high winds and carry people away, only to have them return weeks, or even months later with no memory of where they had been.

So why not a local Long Lake primordial water dragon?

“This thing was benign,” Millman said. “Not dangerous. It just stared at us briefly in curiosity. Littleton should be honored to host such a rare being.”

John Hanson Mitchell is a travel and natural history writer and the author Ceremonial Time: Fifteen Thousand Years on One Square Mile. He founded and edited the Massachusetts Audubon Society journal, “Sanctuary.” Mr. Mitchell lives in Littleton, Massachusetts.

 

 

 

 

 

 

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