By Sonia Fernández LeBlanc
In July 2021, I had the pleasure of being the featured cover writer for the July issue of the New Earth Almanac with my article titled "Sync." I actually took a portion of that work from a workshop I created and facilitated at the start of 2021, and I would like to share a story from that workshop here as I think it will reintegrate the New Earth Almanac article even more deeply.
In the year 536 CE, a cataclysmic event happened, known to some as “Volcanic Winter,” that disrupted life on Earth in every continent. In writing about this time in history, the Roman statesman Cassiodorus describes a dim Moon and a Sun that lost its “wonted light” and appeared “bluish,” as if in a “transitory eclipse throughout the whole year.” Climate issues ensued for the next 12 to 20 years. We know about this event because of a combination of ancient writings and scientific research.
In a 2016 article in Historical Climatology titled “The Global Cooling Event of the Sixth Century. Mystery No Longer?,” Dr. Tim Newfield of Princeton University shares some fascinating details.
He says, “Mediterranean texts describe the 536 event as 12 or perhaps 18 months long, but (Michael) Baillie (a tree ring expert) surveyed trees from Ireland, Germany, Scandinavia and the U.S.A. that clearly show that the event lasted for roughly a decade. … Tree ring studies have confirmed that the 536 event was hemispheric, and at a point global. … For years, the 536 event or 536-550 CE downturn figured as a particularly cold stretch (in fact the coldest) in a long cool phase that set in more than a century before 536 and has many names: The ‘Vandal Minimum,’ the ‘Early Medieval Cold Period,’ or the ‘Migration Period Pessimum.’ Very recently, a multidisciplinary study concluded that the 536-550 event triggered a longer cold period within this Minimum. They call it the ‘Late Antique Little Ice Age,’ and argue that it was possibly even chillier and more unstable than the better-known early modern Little Ice Age.” Further, Dr. Newfield asks, “Did this cooling have profound consequences for sixth-century societies?”
The short answer, from the research I have done on this poignant time in history, is yes. Accounts of famine, drought, dense fog, veiling of the Sun and Moon for years, civil unrest, the rise of Islam, and mass adoption of monotheistic religions as a whole can be traced to this era. The fall and/or devastation of civilizations, such as Teotihuacan in Mexico, the Moche of Peru, and the mythological event known as Ragnarök is said to have occurred during this climate downturn. And finally, Justinian’s Plague from 541-549 CE was the first of the plague pandemics that swept through Europe and Asia from the sixth to the eighth centuries. 800 years later, the Black Death, which is more commonly known in mainstream lexicon, was caused by the same strain of bacteria as its predecessor, Justinian’s Plague.
Ever since I learned about this historical event while doing my favorite hobby of wandering down ancient rabbit holes, I have felt a deep sense of connection to the people who lived during that strange time. I can’t help but presume that they might have had a great deal in common with us in our own era of global climate crisis and pandemic. I wonder if we can stretch ourselves back to their ancestral trauma that we still carry epigenetically in our DNA and begin to heal it in ourselves in the coming years, which I believe are going to be similar, on a global scale, to what they endured during their 20 year climate crisis.
In addition to healing ancestral trauma, we have an opportunity to learn from these ancestors as well! Research discusses the resilience of the people and communities that lived through these times. An excerpt from “The Global Cooling Event of the Sixth Century. Mystery No Longer?” offers insights into more scientifically-minded narratives from historian Michael McCormick, in which he explains that the cooling event had moderate implications. Narrative histories on the effects of the downturn have been gathered around resilience and adaptation to this sudden cataclysmic climate change and are deemed as important and interesting as the histories gathered around the failures and collapse. Newfield says, “This is clear in new work on the effects of the downturn, from the Yucatán to Fennoscandia, which emphasizes coping strategies and a certain hardiness in those that lived beneath the veils.”
We don’t know a lot because it was a long time ago. But here is what I know as a lover of ancient history and a claircognizant visionary. I know that a global impact event, like what happened in 536 CE, which affected the entire human population together in similar ways hasn’t happened in our collective history since that time. Sure the plague hit different areas in different ways around the same time, but the catastrophic implications of the 536 climate event on global society feels deeply resonant to what we are living through right now. We are all, every human on the Earth, affected by this pandemic at once, regardless of opinion or belief, and we are tuned into each other 24/7 because of our global technology connectives. Obviously the people of the sixth century weren’t tapped into one another to the extent we are today, but the collective was surviving this traumatic event that went on for decades in similar ways across continents. That common suffering must have connected humanity in indescribable energetic ways. I hope that we don’t have to live with the repercussions of this current common suffering for generations to come, but so many signs point to that being more likely than not. Moving forward, we can plan our lives out in a way that embraces the present moment and understands that we don’t really know anything for certain.