Despite our laser-lit age, despite our daily use of light to read, cut, measure, scan, clean, carve, and more, light retains its wonder. Evidence of light’s enduring power will surface tonight on a sweeping plain near London. There crowds will gather beside enormous granite monoliths. Beneath a full moon, they will danc and drum and wait, wait for the sunrise on the longest day of the year. Here’s what they will see:
Regardless of any weather, heedless of any clock, summer light comes early to England’s Salisbury Plain. Well before sunrise, the enormous, vaulted sky flushes gray then white, salmon then yellow. Light floods the rolling landscape seventy miles west of London, spreading across a green as broad and smooth as a country club fairway. Here on this expansive plain the ancients came to chart light, to pay homage, to feel its power. Here light’s long story is written in stone.
On most nights, cars and trucks plow the four-lane A303, their drivers paying scant attention to roadside shadows. The hulking granite slabs for which the Salisbury Plain is world famous stand alone in the dark. Stars whirl above and the moon draws little notice. But this night is different. Though the sky is still black and brooding, some 20,000 people have gathered at Stonehenge. Swarming around the horseshoe of stones, dancing in the glow of distant floodlights, the crowd includes an array of colorful characters. Some are pagans, dressed as if the term “hippie” did not suggest a period piece. In painted faces and flowing robes, they will drum and chant all night. Allllllll night. Others are neo-Druids – men with bushy beards and white tunics, women with leafy crowns and flowered dresses – holding forth with neo-ancient wisdom. And thousands more are just college students or tourists with good timing, who heard that on this particular morning, in this particular place, dawn is tantamount to magic.
In defiance of our floodlit age, the annual summer solstice at Stonehenge has become a Woodstock of Light. Each June 20, shortly after sunset, crowds begin streaming in from the “car park” to assemble around these stones. The annual pilgrimage to light is a blend of tourist promotion, New Age mysticism, and timeless revelry. The current gathering owes its origins to the Stonehenge Free Festival, a solstice rock concert that drew up to 60,000 people in the late 1970s, leading to the 1985 “Battle of the Beanfield” that saw dozens injured and a ban on solstice celebrations. Cautiously revived in 1999, without the free concert, the solstice gathering has grown steadily and is now large enough to merit a police presence, package tours, and warnings from the keepers of this World Heritage Site:
Rules include no camping, no dogs, no fires or fireworks, no glass bottles, no large bags or rucksacks, and no climbing onto the stones. Please use the bags given free on arrival and take them out, filled with your litter, to the skips provided. Please respect the rules so that we’re all able to enjoy the solstice morning at Stonehenge for years to come.
As twilight fades and night descends, music drifts through semi-darkness, reggae and samba mixing with still more drumming. Come midnight, revelers blow bubbles or stand with arms outstretched in ecstasy. On the fringes of the crowd, carnival-colored hoops spin. Light blinks from wands, and glitters on headgear ranging from top hats to sombreros. Human joy seems palpable here. Light is coming. Forget war and poverty, hunger and despair. Light is due.
Watches and phones now read 3:30 a.m. Overhead, the sky is sprinkled with stars. The Big Dipper wheels; the night rolls on. Encircled by the massive slabs, drums echo off the granite. Small groups chant and cheer; lone dancers twirl and glide. Huddling for warmth or pacing away the hours, those less in light’s thrall begin to wonder whether dawn will ever come. Then towards 4:00 a.m., the eastern horizon softens to a royal blue. Clouds appear, stacked like shelves – grey over white over pink. A palpable surge passes through the crowd. Above the stones, the sky slowly pales. One by one the stars go out. All eyes focus east, fixing on a brightening smear of yellow. Hands rise in greeting. Primal shouts soar. The horizon seems driven toward this moment, as if in the E.E. Cummings poem, “this is the sun’s birthday.” Yellow now silhouettes the black skyline of earth, framing the heads turned towards it, waiting, waiting. Finally at 4:52 a.m., a spear of light bursts over the earth’s edge. The sun gilds the stones, sweeping down their surface, catching each lifted face full on. Raucous cheers arise. Light! Light again! As it has for more than 4,000 years, the eternal has returned on schedule, on the summer solstice, to Stonehenge.
(Adapted from the opening chapter of Light: A Radiant History from Creation to the Quantum Age) Read more