HOW A BUNCH OF HILLBILLIES PUT THE ESTROGEN — AND THE EAST — BACK INTO EASTER…
Born and raised in the Appalachian mountains of north Georgia, Erwin Dillard lives in a town that bears the name of his ancestors–a place whose main intersection is marked by the only set of stop signs for miles in any direction. And Erwin is wrestling with demons. He’s trying to be a good neighbor and a devout Christian–to welcome into his neck of the woods those overly educated oddballs who are designated as “urban escapees” by the Chattahoochee National Forest Service. While he’s striving to polish his image and expand his little construction business, these growing numbers of counter-culture people are striving to live off the land in ways that smell suspiciously pagan. For several months now, Erwin has been taking his banjo to the full-moon gatherings of a group of folks who have a mighty good time making music.
This group, the “Copernican Conspiracy,” emerged from my friendship with Tom Knecht, a ‘60’s Berkeley activist and an expert on photo-voltaic technology. He and I were teaching at an environmental education center in Persimmon, Georgia during the early ‘80’s and we were enjoying the challenge of putting down roots in the oldest mountains on the face of the earth. (I was born and raised in the suburbs of New York City, where my father commuted to Wall Street.)
Tom and I had good reason for calling ourselves Conspirators. We knew, as you do too, that our planet is alive because of a breathing arrangement between plants and animals. Our respiratory systems inhale the oxygen that plants exhale–and vice versa. And our word, respiration, comes from “spirare,” a Latin term meaning “to breathe.” Spirare is also the root of our words, inspiration, spirit and conspiracy. To con-spire means to breathe with, to breathe together, to breathe as one. (And there is power in this!) Now, you may also be aware that 90% of the cells in your body are not human; they are bacteria and other micro-organisms that are digesting your food and performing other vital functions. So, you are not an individual; you are a colony of organisms fueled by the oxygen inhaled by your respiratory system: you are a conspiracy. And thanks to the respiratory relationship between plants and animals, life on earth is a global conspiracy.
Tom and I called our little group the Copernican Conspiracy in honor of the man who humbled us into recognizing that the universe isn’t revolving us. Actually, our Planet Earth is a revolutionary; she is revolving around the sun—and she is carrying us along with her. If we looked at her from another planet, we’d see a beautiful point of light in the sky—a heavenly body illuminated by the star that she’s orbiting. Tom and I regarded ourselves as Copernican Revolutionaries, teaching our students that our blue-green planet is a heavenly body–and we need to treat her as such. One afternoon while we were waiting for a busload of school kids to complete its three-hour journey from Atlanta to Persimmon, Tom reached for his guitar, plucked a few strings and sang, “It’s for Copernican Revolutionaries to come together in a Copernican Conspiracy. Let’s gather at the next full moon!”
The Copernican Conspiracy never had any formal membership. Our gatherings in a big, old, ramshackle house on Betty’s Creek Road in Rabun Gap, Georgia attracted folks from all walks of life and from all over north Georgia and western North Carolina. Our only “admission fee” was a willingness to make some sort of music–to shake a tambourine, bang a spoon on a pie pan, or play an instrument. Fortunately, we always had enough musically talented people to compensate for the spoon-bangers like me. The rhythms of the music that we improvised entangled us with each other until we became the roots of a single organism. As the spirit moved us, we’d often stop making music and start brainstorming with each other until the wee hours of morning. During one of these brainstorming sessions, in March of 1981, I met Erwin Dillard…
“What people call death is what nature calls composting!” proclaims Erwin, proud to be speaking the eco-language that he’s been learning from his new, urban-escapee friends. “I know so because I’ve been growing mighty fine peaches, collard greens and other crops for a mighty long time. I fertilize ‘em with the recycled death from my compost heap.”
Tom’s blue eyes sparkle with the light of a thousand stars, as they always do whenever he hears somebody talking of compost. His composting toilet is the piece-de-resistance of the off-the-grid house that he and his partner Kathy built with their own hands from recycled materials. “Hey Erwin,” Tom says, giving him a friendly punch in the arm, “I like the way you said that. I also like the way our Mother Earth–our Spaceship Earth–follows a schedule for transforming death into life. In autumn the forms of life die, and in spring the force of life rises up, feeds on the compost and creates fresh forms.”
“Best of all,” responds Erwin, holding his large, red-shirted arms akimbo, “the resurrection of Christ happens with the resurrection of spring.”
“Hallelujah!” chimes in Pam, an Episcopal priest and environmental activist, as she beams at Erwin. “Easter is coming soon, and… you folks just gave me an idea… I’m wondering,” she says, gazing into the eyes of her fellow Copernican Conspirators, “if you can help me put some earth-reverence back into our Easter celebrations? It was there along time ago, and remnants of it are still with us today in the rabbit and egg fertility symbols.”
A steaming, brooding frown takes control of Erwin’s face. His spine arches defensively, and his head jerks downward as he awkwardly pretends to examine his heavy, mud-splattered boots. His jaw is locked with pride, but his lips are twitching with an uncontrollable urge to speak. “Fer… uh… fer-TIL-ity symbols?” he drawls, eyeing Pam with a long, suspicious, sideways glance. “I… uh… I don’t spend a whole lot of time thinking about symbols, m’am. But I have a pretty good suspicion that fertility symbols are some pagan thing. And I am most definitely not happy to hear you claim that we use pagan symbols when we celebrate the resurrection of our blessed Lord Jesus!”
Pam’s mouth drops open and sucks in air, as her head jerks back with the painful realization that she’s unthinkingly hurt one of her fellow music makers. “Oh, my goodness, Erwin, please do excuse me,” she apologizes with a deliberation that gives her time to read his body language. Within a few moments, her large, brown eyes liquify with compassion for his struggle. Then, spontaneously, her hand places itself over her heart, as her spine slowly and almost imperceptibly straightens with a graceful resolve. “Golly, Erwin, I didn’t mean to upset you… I’m… I’m afraid this Easter thing is a long, long story, and I really don’t where to begin telling it…” Pausing, she searches Erwin’s face for some kind of cue.
Meanwhile, my primal-scientist passion is rising like tree sap in springtime. As I feel it surge, I feel the urge to step into this mess. But it demands a diplomacy that I’m not sure I have. Stalling for time, I nod politely to Erwin and then to Pam. Then my mouth opens and I hear myself almost whispering: “Maybe we can make this long story shorter by remembering what you said, Erwin, that inspired Pam to sing ‘Hallelujah’.”
Erwin’s blue-gray eyes dart this way and that, searchingly, and then stare into the distance. Suddenly, they light up. “Oh,” he exclaims, “I said that the resurrection of Christ happens with the resurrection of spring.”
“Hallelujah!” I respond, imitating the sound of Pam’s voice. “And both of you know that we have spring, summer, fall and winter because our planet is tilted to the path of its yearly journey around the sun. Thanks to our tilt, we lean toward our sun during part of our year–the long days of summer. We lean away from our sun during the opposite part of our year–the short days of winter. About March 20 we arrive at the spot in our orbit where day and night are equal. From this moment on, until we reach the opposite side of our orbit around September 20, our northern hemisphere days are longer than than our nights.”
“And this moment is the spring equinox!” Erwin exclaims proudly.
“Praise the Lord, and thank you Erwin,” sings Pam, looking relieved. “I’m sure you know, Erwin, that the church determines Easter’s date by following three guidelines, and the spring equinox is one of them.”
Erwin’s eyes brighten with recognition and then focus in on Pam. “I do remember that,” he replies. Then, his eyebrows rise up quizzically. “So… Easter’s timing is about our planet’s relationship with the sky?”
* * *
Pam’s green-sweatered shoulders rise up in a shrug, as she tilts her head and grins. “I’m no expert on our planet’s relationship with the sky,” she confesses to Erwin, “and your face is telling me that you aren’t either…”
His red-shirted shoulders mirror her shrug. “You just said, m’am, what I was thinking!” An awkward little chuckle escapes from his mouth, and he seems relieved that he and Pam have stumbled onto a patch of common ground.
Pam steps cautiously onto their common ground and says, “We both know that Christ arose from the dead on Easter morning after his crucifixion. His death stemmed from his betrayal at the Passover Supper–the “Last Supper” he shared with his disciples. We both know that Passover’s date is set by the Hebrew calendar, and… uh… I’m no expert on that, but…”
My compassion for Pam’s lack of Hebrew-calendrical expertise moves me to speak up. “The Hebrew calendar is older–it’s more primal–than the calendar we use today,” I explain.
“More whaaat?” Erwin asks me, squinting as if to see me better.
“The Hebrew calendar does more than our calendar. It isn’t just tracking our yearly relationship with the sun; it’s also tracking our relationship with the moon. It’s like the Moslem, Chinese, Tibetan and other more ancient calendars because it’s showing us where our moon is in her ‘moonthly’ orbit around us…”
Childlike wonder lights up Erwin’s eyes and animates his face. “Moonthly!” he exclaims with a grin. “How ‘bout that… Moonthly… I like that. And I know what moonthly means because I plant by the moon–I follow its moonthly journey around us. When the moon is bright at night, plants reach up toward its light, so their above-ground parts grow taller. When the moon is not bright at night–when it’s below the horizon–plants put their energy into below-ground growth. Of course, below-ground growth is what you want with your root vegetables. So, you’re smart to plant your root crops during the dark of the moon. You’d be stupid not to.”
“You’re following a primal calendar Erwin!” I respond, feeling joyfully relieved by the direction this conversation is taking. “Our word, primal, is like primary, meaning first or original. It’s also like primo, meaning first in line, top of the line. As you know, our first calendar, our original calendar, is the sky. In ancient times people known as Magi observed the sky–and our cyclically changing relationship with it. Their observations led them to understand natural timing. And natural timing is what you, Erwin, have just been telling us about. Natural timing, as you know, is the key to having food in your belly; it’s the secret to survival.”
“Thank you, Erwin,” exclaims Pam, “for wisdom that brings us back to the timing of Passover and Easter! I’m sure you know that Easter’s date fluctuates because the church’s rule for determining it involves more than just the spring equinox–more than just our life-giving relationship with the sun. Easter’s timing also involves our life-giving relationship with the moon.”
* * *
The thoughtful expression on Erwin’s face has me wondering–and worrying–what’s going on behind it. I wonder if this Sunday school teacher is pondering the possibility that the roots of his religion reach down into nature. I worry about this man, who’s kin to nearly everyone in the county, because he and his kinfolk are feeling deeply threatened by the increasing numbers well educated urban escapees like Pam and me—and by the increasing numbers of wealthy Floridians building glamorous retirement homes in these hills. Erwin’s kinfolk still outnumber the outsiders—they’re still making the decisions in local government—but how long can this last?
The depth of thought that I see in Erwin’s eyes invites more thought. “Erwin?” I address him, “you and your kinfolk know much more about nature’s rhythms than city folks like Pam and me. We have a lot to learn from you. Since you’re usually a man of few words, I wonder if you’ll permit me to try expressing in words what I’m seeing in your face?”
Extending his upturned palm toward me, he gestures his permission.
“Thank you, Erwin,” I reply. “I’m learning a lot from living in these most ancient mountains on Earth, and I’m learning a lot from folks like you.”
“Mighty flattered,” he replies, nodding politely and suspiciously. “What is it that you’re seeing in my face?”
“I see our close-to-nature ancestors. These folks may not have known that our Earth is a spinning, orbiting planet whose axis is tilted to its orbital plane, but they treated her like a heavenly body. They observed her life-giving rhythms—her cyclical relationships with the sun and moon—and they honored her by living in harmony with these rhythms. They learned things like when to plant their crops and when animal protein is available.”
Erwin nods politely again, and I take this as a cue to continue.
“I’m sure that when Pam upset you with her comment about Easter, the last thing in her mind was undermining your faith.”
“Is it OK, Pam, to assume this?” I ask, looking at her.
Nodding reassuringly, Pam turns to Erwin. “The roots of our faith,” she says, “reach deeper down into nature than most folks realize because most folks don’t spend their evenings curled up in bed with church history books.”
Erwin blushes a bit and examines his boots for a long moment. “I can’t say,” he drawls, “that I spend much time reading history books.”
“History can be awfully dry,” she responds, “unless you go far enough back in time. If you do, you discover why our words ‘Easter’ and ‘estrogen’–you know, the female hormone–both sprouted from the same root.”
Blushing more deeply now and examining his boots again, Erwin confesses, “I, uh… I don’t spend much time reading about word origins.”
“You don’t have to!” I chime in. “You just need to notice what’s happening in the sky! When you get a big enough perspective, you’ll notice connections that are blurry and hard to see from up close.”
* * *
The glow in Pam’s cheeks says she’s grateful for my interrupting. She savors her gratitude for a moment, and then lights up with an idea that moves her to speak to Erwin. “If you’d like to enjoy the powerful Earth-and-sky experience that inspired our ancestors to celebrate Easter with bunnies and eggs, you’ll want to peel back the buffer of civilization. You’ll want to visualize yourself living back in the days before cars, fridges, electricity, stores and central heating. You’ll want imagine that you’ve been putting up with winter for months now…”
“I haven’t eaten—I haven’t even seen—a fresh vegetable or a fresh fruit for months now,” Erwin chimes in, with a knowing grin.
Pam nods gently and leans toward him, encouraging him to continue.
“I’ve been trying to avoid killer-cold temperatures by hunkering down in front of my fireplace every night for months now. The cold is so wicked that my backside is freezing even while my front is burning to a crisp.”
Pam smiles, knowing that Erwin understands this better than she does.
“I’m down in the dumps from so little sunlight,” he explains.
“But… finally, at long last, spring arrives!” exclaims Pam, “And…”
“Birds lay eggs, flowers pop open, bears come out of their caves, snakes slither from their holes…”
“And all of this is happening,” I chime in, “because our hemisphere is now tilted more toward the sun than away from it. Finally, our days are longer than our nights, and our bodies respond to all of this extra solar radiation by vibrating with promise, passion and spring fever.”
“Sex is on everybody’s mind,” Erwin blurts out, as he suddenly turns red with the embarrassed realization of what just escaped his lips.
Pam deftly draws attention away from Erwin’s distress by picking up the conversation. “The resurrection of life at the spring equinox,” she intones in a scholarly manner, is deserving of celebration. Even more deserving of celebration is the first full moon following this equinox. After all, the lunar and solar cycles regulate the rhythms of life. So, during the first full moon following the spring equinox, resurrection is so rampant it’s almost riotous.
“Our primal ancestors felt so grateful for–and so inspired by–the first full moon following the spring equinox that they honored it with a festival. Our Germanic ancestors called this festival Eostara, in honor of Eoestra, their lunar fertility goddess. We get our words estrogen, Easter and estrus from Eostra. Estrus, you know, is the period when a female mammal is in heat—when she’s burning with the urge to make more of her kind. Anyway, if you read your church history, you find that the lunar fertility goddess, Eostre, has a loveable, egg-laying mascot who’s called the ‘moon-hare’.”
“Wait a cotton pickin’ minute!” cries out their friend, Louisa with happy, hearty laughter, as she jams her hands onto her hips and cocks her head quizzically to the side. “What could our moon possibly have to do with bunnies?”
* * *
“Our moon has nothing to do with bunnies, but her cycling around us has everything to do with them!” I reply. “Our lunar cycle is a fundamental rhythm in the dance of our lives because it’s synchronized with so many life-giving cycles, including a woman’s menstrual cycle…”
“A rabbit’s gestation period is also synchronized with the lunar cycle!” adds Pam, with child-like enthusiasm. “My mom and dad always kept rabbits when I was a kid, so I learned about this first-hand.”
“Gestation,” I add, turning to look at Louisa, “is the time from conception to birth. Rabbits gestate so rapidly that they’re world-famous for making lots of babies. In fact, many different cultures talk about seeing a rabbit in the moon.”
“Gosh, I wonder…” muses Pam, “if they aren’t seeing the moon in the rabbit?—or the moon’s cycle in the rabbit’s reproductive behavior?”
Louisa’s eyes widen and she taps her temple. “I’m not a zoologist,” she exclaims, “and I’ve never kept rabbits. But I am an artist, so I know about symbols. Psychologists tell us that symbols speak more loudly than words do because they penetrate the subconscious. Symbols also outlive words, for the same reason. So, if I wanted a symbol to celebrate life’s awesome capacity for resurrecting itself each spring, I’d choose a bunny.”
Pam is speechless with gratitude. Folding her hands prayerfully, she bows toward Louisa. “Have you ever heard of the march hare?” she asks.
“I think I remember it from cartoons,” replies Louisa.
“March hares are nocturnal most of the year,” explains Pam. “But when mating season starts in March, they’re looking for love all day long. The female is so ferociously fecund in March that she can conceive a second litter while she’s pregnant with the first one. Also, the males are so turned on that they get ferociously frustrated if they’re rebuffed by a potential mate, and they go bouncing all over the place. Between them and all the babies, it’s ‘rabbit city’ in March! So, it’s not hard to see why our close-to-nature ancestors embraced the hare as a lovable symbol of spring.”
“The moon-hare,” I chime in, “was such a powerful and empowering symbol of life’s capacity for resurrecting itself that it was proudly displayed on the banners of the British Queen Boadicea in defense of her people against Roman invaders in the year 60 A.D.”
Erwin’s face is slowly contorting itself through a cascade of negative emotions—confusion, doubt, insecurity, suspicion and fear. His eyes grow small, hard, cold and distant. “I get the feeling,” he declares in a thick, dark voice, “that y’all are trying to seduce me into believing that the resurrection of our blessed Lord Jesus is linked to some old pagan lunar fertility goddess!”
“I’m afraid,” calls out Louisa’s husband, Chase, “that we’ll never really know what a pagan is until we know what a ‘pagus’ is.”
* * *
Pam looks at Chase with a quiet knowingness, while the rest of us react to his ‘pagus’ remark with blank expressions.
“I’m no church historian,” Chase confesses, “but when I was in law school I had to learn a lot of Latin legal terms. One of them was ‘pagus’.”
“What’s a ‘pagus,’ dear?” asks Louisa, looking up at her tall husband.
“It’s a rural district, so its inhabitants, the rustic folk who lived there, were called ‘paganos’–pagans. Our word, peasant, comes from this.”
“Am I supposed to be getting some benefit from this high-minded talk about Latin legal terms?” demands Erwin.
“Gosh, no…” responds Chase. “Not yet. Not until you ponder the problems of the Roman Catholic Church in its early days. As you know, the Roman Catholic Church was a state religion, a big bureaucracy. Its priests were under pressure from higher-ups in the system to expand the reach and the power of the bureaucracy. So, they built missions outside the cities where there were already churches. However, their outreach efforts were stunted by the lack of cars or trains. I mean, how far out into the country can you build your missions if you have to travel out there by foot, by boat, or on horseback? What do you do about of all those folks who live so far out in the boonies that they’re beyond the reach of your missions?”
“Are those folks the inhabitants of the rural ‘pagus’ areas?” I ask.
“I don’t understand…” says Louisa, her voice growing thin, “If pagans are just country bumpkins… then why is pagan such a dirty word?”
“It’s a bit of a story,” he responds, leaning back in his chair, stretching out his lanky legs and gazing into the distance, as if searching for words.
My Copernican Revolutionary passion is rising like tree sap in spring, inspiring me to step into this pause. I have no idea what I’m going to say, but my years of life-enriching experience with primal science won’t let me keep silent. “Excuse me,” I say, nodding toward Chase and Louisa, “I have a hunch about these country folks. They may not have known that our Earth is a spinning, orbiting planet whose axis is tilted to its orbital plane, but they treated her like a heavenly body. Country people everywhere are more Earth-reverent than urbanites because urbanites have so little contact with nature. Country people express their reverence out in nature, not inside buildings. So long as they’re outdoors, they can feel the natural power whose life-giving rhythms they are so grateful for.”
The dramatic plucking of a single guitar string tells us that Tom, seated off in a corner, has been with us all along. “I a-a-ask you!” he croons, with a twinkle in his blue eyes, “would you want to sit in a dark, stone church on a sunny, spring day when you could be outside watching rabbits make babies? Would you want to sit on a hard church pew when you could be swinging from a tree limb watching baby birds hatching from eggs?”
* * *
Erwin is still sullen and suspicious. “I’m a pretty much a peasant myself—a proud peasant,” he declares. “I like nature as much as y’all do. But I do not like the way y’all are covering over our blessed Lord with all this other stuff. I do not like the way our blessed Lord is getting lost here.”
Pam’s eyes grow wide and wet with compassion. Her palms join prayerfully. “Yes, Erwin,” she responds, “It looks like Christ is getting lost in this flurry of historical and scientific data. But not to worry. There’s really only one way Christ’s message of love and forgiveness can get lost.”
“Excuse me?” asks Erwin.
“Christ’s message of love and forgiveness can get lost only if we Christians stop behaving with love and forgiveness.”
Erwin’s boots capture his attention. While he’s studying them, Pam turns toward Chase and says, “I believe you know how the word pagan got to be a dirty word?”
Turning his palms upward and tilting his head sideways, Chase responds, “I’m no church historian. But I do know that for most of human existence most people were illiterate. During the early days of the Roman Catholic Church–during the mission-building–the only people who could read and write were the Catholic priests.”
“Ahh… Hahh!” croons Tom, with a suspense-filled strumming of his guitar. “Let me guess who wrote the history books!”
“History is never written by the ones who lose the battle,” adds Chase.
“Battle?” cries Louisa. “Who says we have to view this as a battle?”
Chase, Tom and Erwin all stare at Louisa, as if to say, “Show me.”
Straightening her spine, she takes up their challenge. “OK,” she says, “Let’s look at this: The country folks don’t want to give up their traditional ways because they don’t want to lose their access to the rhythms of natural power. This creates a problem for Rome: How do you get the peasants to give up behaviors that are working for them? You don’t. You just piggy-back your message of love and forgiveness on top of their Earth-reverence.”
“You schedule Easter,” adds Pam, “for the first Sunday after the first full moon after the spring equinox. If Rome hadn’t piggy-backed its message of love and forgiveness onto Eostra’s bunnies, lilies and eggs, its message might not have been heard. Its message might not be with us today.”
“When I look at the way we observe Easter,” says Louisa, “I see a beautiful blend of beliefs—a creative collage of traditions. I see multiple messages all helping me to remember that resurrection is possible–and inevitable. To me, Easter is like those wonderful crazy quilts that your mom, Erwin, and some of the other ladies in these hills are famous for making.”
“Could it be?” I ask, “that the story of Christ’s resurrection and the story of Eostra’s bunny are two different perspectives on one powerful–and empowering–place in our Earth’s orbital journey through the heavens?”
* * *
“I think I… made a mistake,” confesses Pam, lowering her eyes.
“You did?” asks Erwin, eagerly.
“Yes, I thought we needed to create a more Earth-reverent way of observing Easter. But I was wrong. We just need to highlight the Earth-reverence that’s been there from the beginning,” she explains.
“If we do that, we’ll also have to highlight the east in Easter!” I chime in.
While Pam is digesting this, Louisa jams her hands onto her hips, cocks her head to the side and laughingly demands, “The EAST in EASTer?”
I drape my arm around her shoulder and laugh with her for a moment. “Yeah,” I respond, “the east in Easter almost got lost. Fortunately, a little shred of it is still with us today, in our Easter sunrise services. You know how these sacred dawn rites are outdoors, with everyone facing east.”
“Oh, no! More pagan stuff!” groans Erwin loudly, rolling his eyes, as a tiny hint of a smile darts across his face.
I pat him on the shoulder. “When you see the Earth-and-sky origins of our Easter sunrise services, you’ll also see how our word, Easter, came from our word, east.”
“Aw, Harriet, you know me,” he responds with a faint chuckle. “You know I don’t clutter up my head with all those old word origins.”
“You don’t have to!” I reply. “Just keep your eye on the sky.”
“That I can do!” he responds warmly. “And what should I look for?”
Erwin’s question affects me like a stone thrown into a pond. Its ripples activate memories… Memories of stumbling onto a battered shard of primal science in 1970… Memories of deciding to research this thing… Being shaken to my core by the research… Being stunned to realize that the people who created this science (people who we today know only dimly as Magi) had far greater, deeper knowledge than our historians and scientists give them credit for. “How could this be?” I asked–and am still asking–myself.
In my search for answers, I’ve done many things, including building myself a primal observatory. Now I realize that when the Magi looked at the sky, they were not just competing with each other to become famous for discovering some new sky object. Nor were they trying to do fortune-telling. They were looking to the cosmos as a way of gaining a greater perspective on what it means to be living on this blue-green planet.
“Thanks Erwin, for you question!” I respond. “You just gave me an idea! I want to invite you, your wife and everyone else who’s here tonight to come over to my house. I’d like you all to visit a little observatory that I built in my back yard. It’s really radical; it operates with only four rocks. It has no moving parts because it needs no moving parts; the Earth does all of the moving. If you folks will join me in my observatory, you’ll see the east in Easter.”
* * *
Let’s pretend, my dear reader, that you’re a guest at my little observatory. I guide you over to a low, flat rock that’s about as wide as a chair seat. “Please sit down on this rock and make yourself comfortable,” I say. While you sitting down, I make sure you’re facing east.
As soon as you look east, you notice three tall rocks in front of you…
I painted “summer solstice” on the left rock because it marks the spot where the sun rises at the summer solstice. (It’s 23.5 degrees north of due east.) I painted “winter solstice” on the right rock because it marks the spot where the sun rises at the winter solstice. (It’s 23.5 degrees south of due east.) I painted “equinoxes” on the middle rock because it marks the spot where the sun rises at the spring and fall equinoxes. (It’s due east.)
When Erwin, Pam and my other friends visit my observatory, Pam’s eyes light up as I’m pointing out the three stones. “Ooh 23.5 degrees,” she exclaims, “that’s the tilt of our planet, that’s the reason for our seasons.”
“I don’t know much about Earth-tilt,” says Erwin, “but I’ll tell you what I see every year with my own eyes. From June 21 to December 21, the sunrise-point travels from left to right (north to south). Then it stops and reverses direction; from December 21 to June 21, it travels from right to left (south to north). Then it stops and reverses direction. I know this because I’ve lived in the same house all my life, and the mountain peaks to the east of me provide me with solstice and equinox markers.”
“Gosh Erwin!” I exclaim, “You’re as observant as our earliest Magi! Actually ‘Solstice’ means ‘sun stopping’ because ‘Sol’ means sun, and ‘stice’ means ‘stopping’. ‘Stice’ is related to station—like train station. And you’re observing this just the way our first Magi did, with natural rock formations.”
He responds with a sexy sparkle in his eyes. “What the sun does at the spring equinox is a lot more passionate than what it does at the solstices.”
“Is that why the Roman Catholic Church had trouble getting the peasants indoors to observe Easter?” asks Pam, with a warm, knowing grin.
* * *
“We have a choice, my friends,” I declare. “We can sit here in front of these three rocks every sunrise for the next year, or we can just ask Erwin and Pam to help us re-discover the east in Easter right now.”
Pam looks at Erwin, extends her upturned palm toward him and says, “You, sir, know this from experience. I know it only from books.”
“Golly, Pam,” he responds, blushing, as he struggles to resist the temptation to study his boots. “I never knew the word Easter came from east until Harriet told us. I don’t know this word-origin stuff—but I do watch the sky. To country people, the sky is God’s calendar. And now that y’all are getting me to stop and think about what I see happening in the sky at the spring equinoxes, it’s a no-brainer how our word Easter came from east.”
Everyone in our group looks at him as if he’d just grown a few feet taller. Erwin stuffs his hands into his pockets and studies his boots.
“Erwin?” says Pam, softly. “I know we’d all appreciate your telling us what you see in God’s calendar, starting when our days are shortest.”
Erwin turns toward the stone that says “winter solstice.” Pointing at it, he explains, “For a few days around December 21, you see no change in the place where the sun rises. After a few days, the sunrise point starts shifting back toward the north, but the shift is so tiny you don’t notice it unless you’re paying super-careful attention. With this shift our days start growing longer, but the increase in daylight is so tiny you don’t notice it unless you’re paying super-careful attention.”
“Are you saying,” asks Louisa, with a tone of wonder in her voice, “that the winter solstice gives us a tiny but undeniable message of hope that the darkness isn’t going to take over completely?”
“Hey, now we’re thinking the way our Earth does!” I sing out. “When our hemisphere is pointed away from the sun, we have minimum light. Fortunately, our tilted planet keeps orbiting, so we eventually reach the opposite side of our orbit, where our hemisphere is pointed toward the sun, giving us a maximum light. But, when we’re getting minimum light, we’re elated to see evidence—even if it’s just tiny, new-born evidence—that darkness isn’t going to take over completely.”
“Erwin?” asks Pam. “Do I hear you saying that the winter solstice gives us a tiny but undeniable reason to hope, just as the birth of the baby Jesus gives us a tiny but undeniable reason to hope at this time of year?”
Erwin’s eyes widen, as he gazes into the distance for long, thoughtful moment. “Gosh, Pam,” he responds with an almost angelic voice, “I guess I’m starting to see that the roots of my religion reach deeper into nature than I realized.”
“If the message of the baby Jesus really is true,” Pam responds, “then doesn’t it have to be true on every level?”
* * *
“Let’s not forget about the east in Easter!” sings Louisa, with her arms akimbo. “And let’s not forget about the estrogen, either!”
“We’re getting there,” I reassure her. “But before we arrive at Easter we need to orbit farther.”
“We also need Erwin to serve as our guide to the changing sky scenery as we travel through our orbit,” adds Pam.
Erwin blushes. Resisting the temptation to study his boots, he looks around at everyone in our group. Then he steps onto the flat observing rock, points toward the three upright stones, and says, “We all know that a few days after December 21 the sunrise point starts creeping slowly back toward the north, toward our northern hemisphere. So our northern hemisphere days start growing a tiny bit longer. Each day the sunrise point moves northward at a faster rate; each day the amount of sunlight grows. Finally, at the spring equinox, the sunrise point is racing across the horizon—and the amount of sunlight is increasing faster than on any other day of the year.”
“The rate of change reaches a fever pitch at the spring equinox?” asks Louisa.
Erwin’s head nods rapidly and excitedly a few times. His eyes twinkle.
“The change reaches a fever pitch–as in spring fever?” asks Pam.
Erwin nods more.
“The sunrise point travels along the horizon ten times faster at the equinoxes than it does at the solstices,” I explain. “The days change length ten times faster at the equinoxes than they do at the solstices.”
“Folk who relate to the sky as God’s calendar are aware of this,” adds Pam. “Peasants in Europe were fond of saying that the sun dances at the spring equinox. Throughout Europe folks gathered on hilltops or open plains to watch the sun dance. They ring bells and shot off canons at daybreak. In England and Ireland folks placed a pan of water in their east-facing windows so they could observe the dancing sun mirrored in it.”
“Should we be surprised,” I wonder out loud, “that Eostre, the lunar goddess of spring and fertility, is also the dawn goddess? Should we be surprised that eggs are one of her primary symbols?”
“The Roman Catholic Church,” adds Pam, “forbade the eating of eggs during Lent, but on Easter this ban always ends.”
“The dancing sun, the lengthening days, the bouncing bunnies, the buzzing bees, the hatching eggs,” croons Tom, with a spring-feverish plucking of his guitar strings. “Whether we call her Mother Earth with her changing seasons or whether we call her Spaceship Earth with her tilted axis, her spring-equinox message is one of passion and resurrection.”
“I wonder,” worries Erwin, “what’s left for a Christian to believe in.”
Pam smiles at him and responds, “Need I struggle valiantly to believe in resurrection, when I see proof of it in the sky and all across the land?”
* * *
I don’t know how to tell you what happened next because you and I are a few words shy of the common language we need. Fortunately, we’ll find these words if you’ll join me in re-visiting a dream that jolted me awake at 3 a.m. on April 2, 1972—a dream that ended up earning me two international science-writing awards. This dream allowed me to look at the cosmos–and our relationship with it–through the eyes of the Magi. This showed me why these primal scientists are revered as wise ones: they studied our human nature by observing our Mother Nature. Yet their methodology wasn’t classical-scientific; they didn’t relate to nature as a supply of specimens to collect, count, label, dissect and categorize. They related to her as a dynamic web of life-giving rhythms. Since they weren’t clinical dissectors, but reverent observers, they recognized that the rhythms of life on Earth are the cycles of Earth-and-sky. In other words, the Magi knew how to keep their eyes on the sky–and their feet on the ground.
It’s hard for us today to understand the wisdom of the Magi because we were educated by people who fell under the spell of Aristotle, Euclid and Democritus. Our society assumes that material things are the only things that matter. Of course, when material things are the only things you see, you miss the supra-material relationships between these things. You cannot see–nor can you benefit from–the dynamic relationships that connect you with the cosmos and empower you with its rhythmical flow.
Fortunately, not everyone in our society fell under the spell of materialism and reductionism because not everyone was educated. Of course, uneducated people seldom matter in our society—unless they’re Benoit Mandelbrot. This pioneering Ph.D. mathematician was born into a European Jewish family and grew up as the Nazis were coming to power, so he couldn’t attend school as a child. Yet, he did go to university in France because French law allows people to enroll in university if they pass the entrance exams. (As a child Mandelbrot taught himself math by manipulating shapes that he saw in his mind.)
1977 orbital journeys after the Magi spotted the Star of Bethlehem, Mandelbrot’s pioneering book, The Fractal Geometry of Nature, was published. My husband, Harold, reacted to this book the way a person struggling across a desert reacts to water. When he finished reading it he gave it to me with a grin so divine it seemed to widen his face by inches. “You’re gonna love this!” he sang, as he bowed ceremonially and placed the book in my hands.
Mandelbrot’s discovery–actually, recovery–of nature’s geometry is radicalizing the way we make sense out of our world. We owe this to the fact that Mother Nature never went to school, so she operates with a simplicity that’s so miraculously unifying it’s bringing our scientists to their knees. This unifying simplicity cannot be seen through the filter of reductionistic science because nature’s geometry isn’t reductionistic. Or, as Mandelbrot explains to us, “Nature has played a joke on the mathematicians.”
* * *
Now that the joke has us laughing, we’re breathing more deeply and seeing more clearly. We’re seeing that nature designs and operates her creation with supra-material patterns that Mandelbrot calls “fractals.” We’re also seeing that she is more economical than our economists: she needs only a handful of fractal patterns to do a wide variety of seemingly unrelated jobs. For example, she uses the branching pattern that’s in your bronchial tubes (a fractal) in the movements of river deltas and in some types of trees. In other words, a fractal has no particular location characterizing it, defining it, or limiting it because a fractal is “nonlocal.” Also, a fractal has no particular size characterizing it, defining it, or limiting it because a fractal is “independent of scale.” A fractal is always appearing in more than one place and size at a time because fractals transcend the limits of matter. As we explore fractals, we’re realizing that they matter as much—if not more—than matter does because they guide matter’s behavior.
Thanks to nature’s transcendent geometry, our mathematicians are discovering that one equation describes such seemingly varied phenomena as optical systems, business cycles, electrical circuitry, fluid turbulence, solid-state devices, populations and learning. How is this possible? Because seemingly different natural systems behave identically. This unity was invisible to us until recently because we were looking at our classical-science categories and yardsticks more than we were looking at nature. Fortunately, cultures that have been looking at nature—“native” cultures that never heard of Euclid—have observed her recurring patterns and have preserved them in their language, arts and traditions.
You may remember the Native American expression, “Many moons ago.” The people who spoke these words were not referring to the moon as a material object, but as a supra-material pattern–a recurring “moonthly” cycle. This cycle, as you know, is synchronized with many life-giving rhythms in the sea and on land, including a woman’s menstrual cycle.
Native Hawaiians also related to the moon, not just as an object, but also as a pattern. When you and I do this, we can feel and smell the warm, soft, life-giving womb wetness that’s synchronized with this lunar rhythm. We can sense the nurturing, caring and protecting of the fetus growing inside the womb. So, we’re not surprised when we learn that the Hawaiian word for “nurturing, caring and protecting” also means lunar month and moonlight. This word, malama, means “the ninth month of pregnancy” in the related language of Samoa.
Yes, our discovery of nature’s unifying simplicity is bringing us to our knees. From this humble position we’re re-evaluating the thinking of pagan people. Their thinking looks like mystical, mythical mumbo-jumbo to classical science because it honors phenomena that are not limited to one particular place or one particular size any more than a deity is.
* * *
The lub-dubbing pattern of your heartbeat, the spiraling growth of a cauliflower, the meandering of a river, the shape of a coastline, the zig-zagging of lighting, the morphing of a cloud, the eroding of a mountain, the patterns of wind on sand, the dotting of earthquakes across a landscape, the fluctuations of sunspots, the orbiting of a moon: these dynamic behaviors are fractals. They are “shapes embedded in the fabric of motion,” says science writer James Gleick. These fractal shapes, as you’re about to see, have a natural power that’s inconceivable–and therefore invisible–if you view nature as nothing more than a source of raw materials for industry and a storehouse of research specimens for science.
The inconceivable natural power of fractals was discovered by Mandelbrot as a result of his struggle to determine the accurate length of a coastline. “Do I measure around every boulder? every rock? every pebble? every bubble of sea foam? every grain of sand? every particle of silt?” he asked himself. By learning to think this way, he ended up making a radical discovery: No matter how closely you zoom in on a coastline, it keeps on revealing more and more detail and never becomes defined. In other words, the characteristic fractal shape of a coastline recurs at closer and closer levels of magnification.
This led to another discovery: If you “dissect” a fractal (if you magnify it, expecting to find out what it’s made of), you find that it’s made of a smaller version of itself. If you magnify this, expecting to find out what it’s made of, you find that it’s made of a smaller version of itself. This goes on, and on, and on… In sum, if you assume that you can reduce nature to component parts and pieces, she plays a joke on you.
The inconceivable natural power of a fractal is its wholeness, its unity, its integrity. In other words, a fractal cannot be divided and conquered. By trying to reduce nature to parts and pieces, we have reduced ourselves.
Our discovery of nature’s supra-material geometry is telling us, says pioneering mathematician Ian Stewart, that nature “operates on all scales simultaneously.” She puts as much effort into the micro as she does into the macro. Nothing is less important to her than everything is.
As we drop to our knees in awe of nature, we’re humbly re-examining close-to-nature people—those “native” and “pagan” cultures that never heard of Euclid and never practiced reductionism. Their “ethno-sciences” and “ethno-mathematics” are serious topics of scientific research now. Their supra-material philosophies–and their supra-material “gods” that transcend the limits of scale and location–are a lot less fanciful to us now than they were before we learned that nature’s fractals have these same transcendent properties. All of this is making me wonder: Can you guess what our discovery of nature’s geometry has to do with the pagan “gods” that we still honor in our celebrations of Easter?
* * *
Erwin nervously examines the button on his left sleeve, while twisting it around on its thread. “That gosh-darned moon goddess,” he grumbles, eyeing Pam suspiciously with a darting sideways glance. “That Eostre and her estrogen. I don’t like hearing that an ol’ goddess–a friggin’ GODDESS–is mixed up with celebrating the resurrection of our blessed lord Jesus.”
Pam sucks in air and steps back a bit to give Erwin some space. Then she joins him in examining his sleeve button. “Uh… Easter,” she says almost inaudibly, “is what the church calls a ‘moveable feast’.”
“So we should eat each course of our Easter meal in a different home?” asks Tom with a zany warmth that relaxes some of the tension.
Pam smiles at Tom with relief and gratitude. She turns toward Erwin with the smile still warming her face and she explains, “Easter is a moveable feast because its date changes from year to year—its date moves.”
Erwin’s eyes brighten with twinkles of recognition. “Yes, of course,” he says, standing taller, “I’m aware that Easter’s date depends on our changing relationship with the sun and the moon. I don’t have any problem with the astronomy. It’s that goddess thing…. I mean, what’s a devout Christian supposed to do with a smarmy ‘ol moon goddess?”
Suddenly I flash back into my ’72 dream. I’m looking through the eyes of the Magi. I see two basic ways of looking at the sun, two basic ways of looking at the moon, two basic ways of looking at anything. One of these two perspectives is static, and the other is dynamic. One perspective sees objects, and the other sees processes. One sees individual things, and the other sees the relationships between them. So, when our Magi looked at the sun, moon and planets, they didn’t just see objects in the sky. They also saw what we’d see if we took time-lapse photos of these sky objects; they saw the patterns traced out by each of these bodies as a result of its motion. So, when they said, “moon,” they weren’t just talking about a rock in the sky; they were also talking about the moonthly cycle—and about the vast array of natural behaviors that all share this moonthly cycle. In other words, they saw a fractal. This “Fractal Moon” is a pattern appearing in so many different places and sizes that it transcends any one particular location or scale.
Many people feel that nature’s capacity for transcendence is divine or godlike. Many people regard the transcendence of Fractal Moon as goddess-like because it’s synchronized with the cycle of a woman’s womb.
The scuffing of Erwin’s boots brings me back to my friends. “Uh, excuse me, Erwin,” I say. “I have a hunch that when our primal ancestors looked at the moon they saw it differently than most people do today. Most people today just glance at the moon occasionally, so they think of it as an object. They’re ignorant of its cycle. However, our primal ancestors related to the moon way you do, Erwin, when you use its cycle to guide you in your seed planting.”
* * *
Bundled up against stinging mountain winds, 36 folks huddle together on the frosty ground of my little observatory at 5:45 on Easter morning. We mumble to each other sleepy but sincere expressions of gratitude for the unusually clear sky whose rosy fingers are promising sunrise soon.
“We don’t need a sign to show us which way east is,” I remind my friends, pointing a mittened hand toward the growing glow of the sun.
The light show in the east and the anticipation of sunny warmth tug at us, and we all aim our bodies and minds eastward.
Tom, looking lonely without his guitar, has his hands deep in his pockets, his shoulders up around his ears, and a grin stretching his face. “Let’s remember,” he croons, dramatically arcing his body eastward, “that the sun isn’t rising; we’re spinning toward it!”
“Because the Earth beneath our feet is a planet!” adds his partner, Kathy. “And planet Earth is transporting us through the heavens.”
“East is where we’re going!” sings Louisa, bowing toward the east.
“West is where we’ve been,” sings Chase, placing his back to Louisa’s and bowing toward the west.
“North and south are the two ends of our planet’s axis,” I chime in. “North and south are the points that we’re spinning around.”
Inspired by what they’ve just seen and heard, Kathy and Tom glide over to Louisa and Chase, then place their backs at right angles to Louisa’s and Chase’s backs. “Now bow,” whispers Tom loudly. All four of them simultaneously bow toward the direction that each one is facing, creating a pattern that looks like a cross if seen from above.
Erwin’s hands fly out of his jacket pockets, as his arms arc toward the heavens. “North, south, east and west,” he intones, as if he were in a pulpit delivering a sermon, “are much, much more than just arrows on a map.”
“Celebrating Easter in the cathedral of the sky,” sings Pam, “reminds us how sacred the four directions are. North, south, east and west are the cruciform pattern of our Mother Earth’s relationship with our Father Sky.”
“Our Mother Earth is also our spaceship Earth; her body is a heavenly body,” I chime in. “Her cyclical dance with Father Sky is the cosmic order in our everyday lives. And this order deserves to be celebrated.”
Do I need tell you, dear reader, that we put the east—and the estrogen–back into our celebration of Easter that morning?
Harriet Witt, Administrator