Summer Solstice 2021

At about 10:32 central time on June 20, the earth aimed its axis up over the sun, like a kid on a summer afternoon holding a fishing pole over a pool of unseen perch. For the earth as a body, this annual moment is unexceptional. It has happened about 4.5 billion times. After the 100th or so it must have seemed old hat. For humans and animals, however, the instantaneous summer solstice is momentous. We’ve built pyramids, temples and rings of massive boulders to mark it precisely. We celebrate it. To all the non-human animals and plants of the temperate zone, it is a marker as well: for an instant the northern hemisphere is flush with sunlight, and then the days begin to shorten, the earth continues to warm for about a month, and the forests and prairies and wetlands hit at their stride, running toward autumn senescence. The year pivots on the solstice.

Earlier that day in Maple Grove, the dark skin of blue cohosh seeds was beginning to show through their waxy blush. A log I know well and will be watching for massing Cribraria fruiting bodies over the coming two weeks was pasted with oak catkins. Woodland bluegrass spikelets had mostly fallen. Enchanter’s nightshade flowers were opening. Wild ginger seeds the color of chestnuts were hardening, still embedded in the fleshy ovaries rotting on the soil’s surface. Wild geranium seeds had sprung off into the woods and given way to the gauzy blue of great waterleaf, which dominates most of our forests in early summer. Eastern wood pewees were calling as they might on any afternoon in Downers Grove. At home, our garlic was just out of the garden and curing in the basement.

That night, an hour past the solstice, our younger son woke me. I had slept through the winding up of the storm sirens and winds whipping the trees around and blowing rain into the house through the open windows. We closed the windows, and he wondered whether perhaps we should all take shelter in the basement. I judged that the storm had mostly blown past us already, and I told him he was safe to get back into bed. I sat in the back room and watched the storm furying over the homes to the south of us, the tent in our backyard sheltered by the fence and the garage, wind whipping over the top of it, trying to drag it into the air, making it a study in Bernoulli’s principle but miraculously not carrying it away. Lightning strikes hit over and over, piled on top of each other and hardly countable, but far off; I counted the time from the brightest strikes to the loudest booms, and everything was a couple of miles away at least. The storm tapered off after 20 minutes or so. I walked in the dark back to bed and nearly tripped over our dog Brooklyn, who was sleeping on our bedroom floor.

I found the next morning that the storm was much worse than I had realized. One tornado or more had touched down, destroying houses beyond the edges our neighborhood. Two families we know were displaced. Emails and texts came in as everyone checked on one another; everyone we talked with was safe, but two families were temporarily displaced. The news reported that 225 structures were damaged in Naperville and eight people were injured, some critically. Debris appeared to have been blown to nearly four miles in altitude.

But Lyman Woods, at least the section of trail I walk most often, showed hardly any discontinuity with the previous day. The dogbane was still flowering along the trail adjacent to the marsh. Fowl manna grass spikelets were about as fragile as they had been for a week, dropping with a shake but not quite at a touch. Sedge achenes of all flavors were still ripening. The only echo of the previous night was the opening of a spike of woodland tick trefoil flowers, which appeared to have been shocked into a state of attention action by the thunderclaps.

Tornados, thunderstorms, wildfires, diseases and pest outbreaks, all the disturbances that beset the forest and its inhabitants are capricious. A solitary sugar maple, perhaps 200 years old and, to my eye, in good health, came down in Maple Grove this spring across a heavily-used trail. It snapped off about 15 feet above the ground and now hulks in plain sight just across the bridge over St Joseph Creek. I walk Maple Grove less than I did last year, and I have been caught off guard at least three times by it over the past month. It is not clear to me why the tree fell. It is somewhat exposed along the trail, so perhaps it was more vulnerable in a windstorm; but does a blowdown take out a single tree like this and leave the others around it unmolested? What turn of bad luck took this beautiful tree out but no others around it, save for the smaller sugar maple it tackled on its descent?

Wild leeks are straddling the solstice, balanced between the straight pale flowering scapes of the narrow wild leek (Allium burdickii), barely longer than my middle finger in some cases and topped with clusters of white flowers; and the angled, arched and bruised scapes of wide wild leek (Allium tricoccum), afflicted with mealybugs or something like them, flowers still hooded within the unruptured spathe, biding their time. I have gone several years denying the evidence of my eyes, but this spring I can’t avoid the conclusion that many—perhaps most, irrespective of what the dominant nomenclature suggests, and perhaps you yourself— reached long ago: these two must be different species. I read an illuminating and ambitious thesis on Eastern North America’s wild leeks over the weekend. I recommend it, but in case you don’t get to it, here’s a punchline: morphologically and phenologically, our two wild leeks are quite different, different enough that I can’t, based on what I have seen and read, see why we call them varieties other than by habit. It’s true, as Darwin insisted over and over, that there’s continuity between populations, varieties, and species. There’s no sharp line you can cross that marks the moment when two populations become different species: there are species at the far end of the road and ecotypes or populations at the beginning, and somewhere along this road, we like to switch to calling things different species. Our wild leeks seem to fall on the far side of that line.

The year does not begin or end on any particular day. Populations do not wake up one day and find they are new species. Even the solstice, a sharp line in the sand if ever there was one, is only an instant along the long path of the year. It is no more special than any other instant, but also no less.