It is a beautiful, sunny day not long before the summer solstice and I am hiking once again in the mountains near my home in western North Carolina. For weeks before this, the late spring sky has been overcast, or it has rained – seemingly non-stop in dismal and uncharacteristic bouts of oppressively tropical humidity followed by sudden and torrential downpours. This unpredictable and alarming weather pattern has caused flash flooding in many areas and loss of life and property up and down the east coast of the US. What seems an ominous trend in weather has been weighing on me, and so, on this first fine day outdoors in the woods, the light of the sun seems that much brighter.
As I make my way up a steep and strenuous trail that rises above a granite gorge, the roar of white water recedes, replaced now by the sound of birdsong. The trail ascends the mountain slope higher and higher and the forest opens up. I notice the fullness of the light, even filtered through the dusky verdance of a deciduous canopy – this is the light of a planetary high-noon approaching: the summer solstice.
As I consider this, I realize my regular hikes through these mountains have come full circle, too. It was about a year ago when I first began this practice of solitary hiking, letting my thoughts go running wild among the trees to be absorbed by the forest, or carried away by the fast moving streams, or echoing off the rocky crags.
I think of a day I ventured into the woods not far from here in late October of last year, a few days after a freak tornado struck. Amidst the golden slant of autumnal sunlight penetrating the fiery foliage, I descended a trail into a devastated canyon. The further down I went, the harder I had to work to navigate around or over the blowdown that increasingly blocked the trail. Where the tornado touched down, tall trees had been blown over at the base in every direction. The scene brought to mind a volcanic eruption or a nuclear test site. But even amidst the destruction so much beauty remained.
In winter too I have spent time in these mountains. The bare trees and sere clearings are dimly lit by a low sun, if it is not hidden behind a layer of gray cloud. The vivid colors of the other seasons fade to monochrome in a season of stasis and decay, sleep and regeneration. The quiet of the woods is punctuated by streams of my cold breath filling the air and vanishing.
As my lungs heave and my legs propel me slowly upward in the warmth of the present day, I think of the day when I returned to that other trail earlier this spring. This time, the trees at the top of the canyon seemed bare and lifeless as I descended. Soon though, buds appeared among the branches, and as I moved lower still, lime green blotches emerged in a pastel pointilism splayed against a robin-egg sky. Life had returned at the lower altitudes and was making its way up the mountains. The wreckage was still visible at the bottom, but clothed and somehow ameliorated by the new growth of green rising up to fill the empty spaces.
My thoughts return to the present and I reflect on the fact that I have known this place in many of its multifarious modes through a full circle of the earth’s orbit around the life-giving sun, and I feel that much more connected for it as the cycle begins again. As Nietzsche so poetically wrote, “Everything has returned. Sirius, and the spider, and thy thoughts at this moment, and this last thought of thine that all things will return.” Indeed.
It’s later in the day now and I’m making my way back down the trail when I sight my third snake of the day. Timber rattlers and copperheads are common here, so I’m careful where I tread. This snake – a black racer, I think – lies half across the trail, studying me with its head up. Its body is twisted in a zig-zag shape, like a lightning bolt or the folds of an accordion. A friend of mine recently mentioned that this shape indicates the snake has swallowed another snake and is now in the process of digesting it.
I stop in my tracks and wait for it to cross the trail, but the snake, so obviously full with its most recent meal, seems in no hurry to move. I move forward giving the snake a wide berth and keeping my eye on it as I walk past. As my mind ponders this snake’s extraordinary gustatory feat, I am reminded of something else: the image of the ouroboros.
The ouroboros is a potent symbol – a depiction of a snake swallowing its own tail. Originating in ancient Egypt, the ouroboros made its way to Renaissance alchemists through Greek magical tradition and Gnosticism and Hermeticism. Its influence is present also in other modern esoteric traditions, and the psychologist Carl Jung identified it as an archetype as well as a sort of alchemical mandala. Throughout its history however, the power of the ouroboros has been felt as a symbol of the cyclical nature of time and a visual metaphor for the idea of eternal return.
In his recent essay in Emergence magazine, entitled “A Storm Blown from Paradise,” the British writer and poet Paul Kingsnorth offers us a magnificent and evocative discussion of modern civilization’s turn away from the cyclical cosmologies of time and history that define many earlier cultures and religious systems toward a linear narrative of progress and “transcendence.” It is this linear conception of time that separates us from the natural world while giving rise to many of the harmful and destructive modern myths which assert the centrality of human existence and human concerns in the universe.
In making his argument against the linear timescales that dominate modern life, Kingsnorth touches on the work of several prominent literary figures of this and the previous century, among them W. B. Yeats and Walter Benjamin. The title of the essay comes from a Benjamin critique of a painting by Paul Klee, but at the heart of this piece is a discussion of what is perhaps Yeats’ most famous poem, “The Second Coming,” and of the symbolic image that underlies that poem and much of Yeats’ later thought and work, the gyre.
The gyre, like the ouroboros, is an image that conveys a cyclical conception of time and history. Rather than forming a closed loop, the gyre implies outward and upward progress, an evolution, before the form of the outward-spiralling system fails and breakdown occurs: “The centre cannot hold; / Mere anarchy is loosed upon the world” as Yeats wrote. But Yeats’ aesthetic of gyres governing the movement of history also describes a counter-gyre – a sort of antithesis of the previous system of culture and history that emerges from the center of that age’s point of collapse and moves in the opposite direction. Kingsnorth sees in Yeats’ poem and visionary theory of history if not an outright prophecy, at least a symbolic representation of the rise to ascendancy and ultimate crisis and collapse of western civilization, at which time a “new” cultural paradigm and cycle of history can begin again.
Further along in his essay, Kingsnorth demonstrates the cyclical cosmologies that governed life for many eastern and indigenous cultures throughout history, and how this conception of time is inextricably linked to the natural world and the circularity of its own cycles. In this wonderfully lyrical passage he writes,
If the world, and time itself, is cyclical, then everything that will happen has already happened. Change is inevitable, death is part of that change, the future and the past hold hands. In a cyclical world, as in a calendar year, what has been will be again, and vice versa. The leaves of the tree die every autumn and grow every spring. Nothing changes and everything changes and each human life, like each leaf on a tree, is part of the endless, effortless, turning of the wheel.
“But,” insists Kingsnorth,
we do not live in that world. Or, rather: we do not think we do. We—the modern peoples of the post-Enlightenment, post-Reformation, post-industrial world—have invented a new and singular vision of time, and of life. We have broken the circle and made ourselves a new image to live by. Not a return, but an onward movement. Not a cycle, but a progression. Not a circle, but a straight line.
Ultimately, we are subjects of linear time, which represents a human effort to measure and assert control over the universe. We find ourselves enslaved by a technological civilization in thrall to the linear logic of progress and quantification even as the natural world from which we have so thoroughly separated ourselves breaks down around us.
We have alternatives however, Kingsnorth concludes. Other ways of being do exist, and in time these will come to replace the ideologies of a linear time culture that is jeopardizing life on the planet: “A return to cyclical thinking—to notions of fate and repeating time, to an understanding of the small place of a single life in the great unfolding—would be something different. It might allow us again to notice the other life forms that surround us, to see ourselves in the cycle of life, and to sit amongst the ruins of our fantasies not with eyes full of despair, but of possibility.”
As we in the northern hemisphere once again witness this longest day of light as the season turns and the days begin to wane, it is an especially good time to reflect on our own relationships with time and nature. The image that may be most widely associated with the summer solstice in the popular imagination of modern times—ironically, perhaps—is the sun rising over the stone pillars at Stonehenge. While the significance of the sun returning once again to rise over a point in a great circle may be lost to our modern consciousness, it need not remain so.
Matt Miles is a writer, poet, permaculturist, maker, and rock climber. His work has previously appeared in Dark Mountain. He lives in the Blue Ridge Mountains of North Carolina where he and Tasha Greer run the reLuxe Ranch, a whole systems farmstead.