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Gardens of the Cross Timbers: The stones hold secrets

By Becky Emerson Carlberg
Contributing writer
Stonehenge on a freezing cold February day.

First day of summer.  Longest day of the year.  We’ve been feeling the heat for days.  Officially summer arrives at 4:44 this afternoon. Why not go outside, stir up a little dust and do a sun dance to celebrate the northern solstice.  Our earth’s pole is tilted as far as she can go toward the sun.  Old sol is as high in the sky as he can be bringing more sunshine on this day than any other day.

Another way of looking at it.  Today is Midsummer, as in Shakespeare’s play “Midsummer Night’s Dream”.  Summer just started, so what’s with the Midsummer?  Today also marks the middle of summer astronomically speaking and from tomorrow on the days get shorter.  The astronomical summer ends at the autumn equinox, Sept. 22nd with equal day and night and the earth’s equator is closest to the sun.  

Celebrate the first day of summer at Stonehenge on the Salisbury Plain in Wiltshire, England.  The summer solstice will go on, except no one will be there.  All activities have been cancelled.  Last year 23,000 people gathered to watch the sun rise over stones arranged in a field beginning 5,000 years ago.  

On midsummer day the sun peaks just to the left of the Heel stone that lies outside of the ancient monument.  Archaeological digs have uncovered a large hole to the left of the Heel stone which may have held a partner stone.  The two stones were the ancient entrance that framed the first of the sun’s rays as they shot into the circle, going between the “slaughter stones” to hit the “altar stone” in the center.   Go on-line and experience being at Stonehenge with other virtual travelers.  English Heritage will be streaming the event free online via Mental Floss beginning 30 minutes before sunset June 20th until the famous sunrise the next morning on June 21st.  The sun rises in Stonehenge at 4:52 am UK time.  Oklahoma time is 6 hours back, so here, the Stonehenge sunrise will be at 10:52 pm the evening of June 20th.  

My family and I have visited Stonehenge twice.  The second time was a freezing cold day in February. The stone ring was open due to extremely low temperatures.  A few of us hardy souls quietly stood inside (after I had corralled our two sons who had taken advantage of just getting out of the car after the long three hour trip).  It felt like we were inside a Cathedral. One lady stood between each set of sarsen stones and extended her arms out as if to channel some unseen energy force.  The place definitely has atmosphere.  

Sarsen stones topped by lintels with bluestones in front.

Stonehenge predates the Pyramids.  The treeless Salisbury Plain was formerly forested.  About 10,500 years ago three tall pine posts similar to totem poles had been erected.  In the area Neolithic people built burial sites and excavated long deep furrows.  Four hundred ancient monuments including seventeen shrines (some in the shape of a circle) have been located.  Stonehenge was built in several stages.  

Six thousand years ago it consisted of a circular chalk ditch filled with animal bones and flint tools.  During the next phase, timber posts were built within the circle.  Below ground were cremated human remains.  As time passed, the timbers were replaced by heavy 2 to 4 ton bluestones arranged in a circle.  The northeastern entrance was aligned with the Midsummer sunrise and Midwinter sunset.

Father and family at Stonehenge.

Enormous sarsen sandstones were probably transported 20 miles from Marlborough Downs. Thirty giant sarsen stones still remain in a partial circle.  Tongue and groove joints secure the lintels to the tops of these 25-ton rocks shaped by hammerstones.  The largest is 30 feet tall and 7 feet wide. Fifty-three sarsens out of the original eighty-five remain.

Inside the sarsen circle, in a horseshoe shape, are an additional five sets of sarsen stones with lintels.  They are arranged in height, with the tallest (24 feet) at the back of the horseshoe.  Eight feet extend below ground.  Bluestones were placed in a circle within the sarsens and it appears they were rearranged 4 times over the years.  Forty-three out of eighty remain.

The stones are huge.

Bluestones get their name from having a bluish tinge when wet or broken.  The stones have unusual acoustic clanging properties and are called “singing rocks”.  The volcanic rock quarry, now hidden by plants and trees, was one hundred seventy miles to the northwest near Maenclochog Wales. Bluestones were used as village church bells until the 18th century.

Carvings, Roman coins, and even medieval artifacts indicate the ring was continuously in use. Six thousand years ago humans came from the area of the Aegean Sea, followed by western European hunter-gathers, farmers and the Bell Beaker people who arrived from mainland Europe about 4,500 years ago. The Beaker people were well organized, had strong trading ties and became wealthy from selling tin.  Southwest England tin ore could be found in gravel streams and soil surfaces.

Thousands of years ago, Salisbury Plain was a good area for hunting. The wild auroch migration route crossed the area, no doubt attracted to fresh water springs.  The wild auroch, ancestors of present-day cattle, were decimated by man and are now extinct. Didn’t rescue them as we did the Bison. The last auroch died in Poland in 1627.  

Astronomical observatory, place of healing or site of worship?  In the 1920’s, a nationwide campaign put the lands in the hands of the National Trust to protect it from encroaching development.  English Heritage manages the prehistoric circle.  The environment is now being restored back to calcareous grasslands adapted to alkaline limestone. The savanna has dry mosaics of bare open areas with patches of dogwood, hawthorn, juniper, grasses and wildflowers.  Legumes are very common in this ecosystem frequented by rare butterflies, bees, magpies, starlings, and mice.  Through the summer night, glow-worms and bats feed on insects, worms and other invertebrates.  Speaking of invertebrates, perhaps some seafood for old dad tomorrow on Father’s Day!

Clouds before the Tuesday pop-up storm.

Sonora Smart Dodd helped her dad, a Civil War veteran, raise her five siblings after his wife died in childbirth.  Sonora heard about Mother’s Day being proposed as an official holiday and felt her father, and other fathers, deserved recognition as well.  Sonora told her pastor.  The Spokane Washington Ministerial Alliance got together and chose the third Sunday in June.  The first Father’s Day was celebrated June 19, 1910.

Mother’s Day had been held since the 1860’s. Official proclamation by President Woodrow Wilson set the date May 9th, 1914 to be observed every second Sunday in May.  After a long fight, the Official Father’s Day was signed into law and declared a national holiday by President Nixon in 1972 to be celebrated every third Sunday in June.

Dads are special, so plan something unique.  Let him brand his shrimp with his special monogrammed forged iron.  Then again, it could be too hot outside to fire up the BBQ.  Let him sleep late (snore in air conditioning), watch movies on TV (easy chair in air conditioning) and order Takeaway (eat in air conditioning).

Relax and stay cool.

The Portulaca say “Summertime”!

Becky Emerson Carlberg, graduate of Oklahoma State (Plant Pathology) is a teacher, artist, writer as well as certified Oklahoma Master Gardener and Master Naturalist. Contact her at Becscience@att.net.