Summer Solstice

It was rain and shine for the Tuen Ng Festival last Tuesday; and I wonder how many of you registered that while you were basking in the sun or soaking in dragon boat rain, you could be celebrating summer solstice which was serious business before modern Judeo-Christian-Islamic faiths were popularized, when the sun and the moon were revered as sacred, and when life and livelihood depended very much on the change of seasons.

Summer solstice falls on or about 22 June and traditionally marks the beginning of summer, when the warmth of the season brings in the first harvest of the crops or herbs planted during vernal equinox. On this day therefore, the hard working folks would celebrate and enjoy with great seriousness the fruits of their labours in the last season. This is the longest day of the year when the sun stays in the sky longer than any other day because of the peculiar path it takes, thus giving more time for the people to be joyous and thankful. It is also a time of cleansing and renewal and a time of love and growth.

And do you recall what you dreamed that night. Traditional folklore has it that whatever is dreamed that night would come to pass. If you do not believe me, read Shakespeare’s A Midsummer Night’s Dream again.

June is also a popular month for weddings or wedding engagements, and once again, the urge for the bonding could have been inspired by the feeling of bountiful from the harvest of the land.

Even today, many people still celebrate summer solstice with vigour. For example, there were reports that on this day this year, there were happy crowds of over 20,000 people gathering at Stonehenge to catch a glimpse of the sun rising between the standing stones, and reportedly, there were more people watching the sun set over Stonehenge that evening.

But not all the crowds gathering at Stonehenge were happy crowds. There is one group in Britain which was founded by two persons 30 years ago. They staged the first Stonehenge Free Festival during the summer solstice of 1974. They were described by the authority as an anarchic and punk group. On that day, about 500 hippies climbed a barbed wire fence put up by the Ministry of Works. Not only that, a hardcore of 30 defied a court injunction and stayed there for another six months. The court case itself gave the festival the publicity it needed and in 1975, attendance doubled, with wood fires, tents, free food stalls, stages and bands, music and magic, and so on. However, one of the co-founders did not turn up. He had been arrested for possession of LSD before the festival and had been committed to a psychiatric hospital. He was released shortly after the festival and committed suicide weeks later.

His ashes were scattered over the stones during the summer solstice of 1976 when attendance had again doubled. The myth of martyrdom helped attendance to double every year such that by its 10th anniversary in 1984, there were 70,000 at the festival, making it the biggest free festival in British history.

It was too much for Margaret Thatcher. On 1 June 1985, the police arrested 300 would-be festival-goers and put 12 in hospital. The government deployed 500 officers from various forces and dropped 15 tons of gravel onto a road seven miles from the stones. They also used council vehicles to block the path of a 140-vehicle convoy traveling to Stonehenge.

What followed afterwards was hotly debated and I would spare you of the details. Suffice it to say that the English Heritage effectively banned the festival and successfully secured a court injunction to prevent 83 named individuals from traveling within a few miles of Stonehenge. Margaret Thatcher had on the records said that she was only too delighted to do anything her government could to make life difficult for hippy convoys, adding that if the law was inadequate, she would have to introduce fresh law. I wonder whether this episode had escaped the attention of my ex-colleagues in the administration.

Margaret Thatcher meant business. In 1986, she introduced the 1986 Public Order Act which made trespass a criminal offence. The law stated that “Two people proceeding in a given direction can constitute a procession and can be arrested as a threat to civil order.” She was successful in stopping the festival and those hippy convoys in their tracks, but every year now, the police are on high alert for gatherings after the event.

The Stonehenge is indeed a national icon for Britain as well as a symbol for mystery, power and endurance. No one knew why it was there and the purposes for which it was constructed. It could be a temple of worship or an astronomical observatory for marking significant events on the prehistoric calendar. Archaeological finds have indicated that considerable time, commitment and manual labour had gone into its construction, which therefore suggest that Stonehenge must have been constructed for some very important functions.

To start with, construction began nearly 5000 years ago and had taken about 500 years. The stones were transported on site from afar, from 20 miles north of the site for the heavy sarsenstones, to 240 miles in Wales for the smaller bluestones. The sarsenstones are hard grained sandstones and weigh 50 tons each. It was estimated that it took 600 men to move one of them up the steepest part of the passage to the site. The smaller bluestones which are mostly igneous rocks and volcanic ashes can weigh up to four tons each and there are 80 of them. All in all, their transportation would have presented enormous problems and called for immense engineering skills and human endeavours.

One cannot help feeling awe struck by the sight of Stonehenge itself. I had been to Britain quite a few times, but sadly, I have yet to visit the place. Stonehenge is now closed for visits, but one can still watch it from a reasonably close distance.

There are indeed many other places in many countries and cities that one would like to visit, for their beauty, historical, archaeological, anthropological or other reasons. Many of these sites have since been closed, very often due to over-visitation or inadequate maintenance. Some sites have changed beyond recognition because of human activities, notably human conflicts, and life would never be the same thereafter.

Man is probably the single most significant ecological factor that we have known. Man is capable of transforming the landscape of the environment which he did not create. The debate between environmentalists and architects over conservation and development would no doubt continue. Ultimately, the question can be reduced to a simple and unambiguous one, “Why are you in this world?” How would you answer the question?

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