Saturday, December 26, 2015

Why Light a Bonfire to Celebrate the Solstice?

Let’s start with five basic “reasons,” but as you'll see below, it's way richer.
Students lead building the pile, with care and pride. 

1. Truly to celebrate the fact that, after the solstice, daylight hours will increase for 182 days in a row. Longer, lighter days seem like a blessing on December 21.

2. To relax, escape the malls and shopping. To see friends and be peaceful and natural during a crowded season.

3. To celebrate woods, trees, wild animals, and the planet and - of course - the workings of the solar system. To be conscious and appreciative of it all.

4. To thank the stewards for another year’s generous work. To thank the neighbors and the public generally for their patience and support.

5. To get rid of a huge amount of invasive brush  – cut to restore health to the ecosystem  – and teach people why that’s good. The brush we slay is often so thick that to leave it heaped everywhere would just stress the ecosystem in yet another way.

The event is a drama that starts slowly, with a single match.
You’ll notice that there’s no strictly “religious” reason above. This festivity is not “faith-based” although it is “faith friendly.” Somme Woods Forest Preserve is owned by the people of Cook County, Illinois and is situated in the Village of Northbrook. This town has large numbers of Christians, Jews, Muslims, and people of other religions as well as fine citizens who observe none. To the ancient Druids and Celts, solstice bonfires may have been directly religious. To Christians and Jews, 'festivals of lights' and 'good will' are said to have some historic connection with the general time of the solstice.

Religions adopted a tradition going back to the Romans, Celts, and Druids. Stonehenge had been erected to mark the Winter Solstice date. From before history, people lit the sky with bonfires, and each year the fading light began to build once again.  

Yet December 21st today is fundamentally science. As the shortest day of our year, it’s an opportunity to explain to curious kids what the sun does and how the tilt of the Earth’s axis works. Our solstice is a day when religion and science can relax together.

Thus our solstice event has sought to join:
science with the spirit
ecology with neighbors and families
tradition with new metropolitan realities.

Stewards cutting brush often say, “Let there be light.” There’s joking and interesting discussion throughout the year as the Somme Woods volunteers slay invasives to let in the sun. One day a boy said to his dad, “Oh, I get it. You need the ‘photo’ to have the ‘synthesis’.” 
Death by shade is the sad fate of many woods. Stewards work to bring biodiversity back.
There’s a parallel between “ecosystem death by shade" and shortening December days. But getting up and coming home in the dark is only temporary. The oak woods and prairies of the American Midwest are fire-dependent natural communities. Thousands of species are declining and going locally extinct because, in the absence of controlled burns, invasive trees and shrubs shade out the understory. Ecosystem extinction is like what would happen if after 182 days of darkening, the sun just kept shutting down. Ecosystem recovery after brush clearing is like spring. At the solstice bonfire, we celebrate "the return of the sun" in two senses.
Thriving natural woodlands need stewardship and community support.
For five million years, the lightning-lit fires that swept the prairies and oak woodlands followed rhythms somewhat like the seasons. Vegetation would burn off, grow back, and burn again. When the “Native Americans” here arrived from Asia, following the retreat of our most recent glacier, those new Americans started burning the landscape, as people do over much of the temperate world. Thus our major ecosystems evolved with fire for millions of years and as tweaked by people for the last few millennia. Without fire we lose the species, resources, and heritage of that long evolution.

This year for Somme's 17th annual bonfire, four hundred neighbors showed up. We don’t advertise beyond a couple of Facebook posts and a banner by the entrance. Possibly, part of what’s good is that it was never hyped. People come by word of mouth. They relax about it.

After the procession following the bagpiper, people at first study the pile, as a looming odd curiosity.  (People are restricted from standing in the downwind area, so any animals would have an escape route, and so people don’t get burned by falling embers.) Initially, especially on years when the wood is covered with snow, the fire kindles slowly. White smoke is mostly evaporating water. Over five or ten minutes the conflagration grows, and people move back, and then farther back, again and again. Every year we feel awe for its power. When the flames are going up thirty feet or more, they make a roar and a wind that shakes the nearby trees. It becomes a power of nature. Like an earthquake, lightning, hail, or a tornado. It humbles us. Going beyond the surface in religion or science humbles us. Feelings of peace and good will may be facilitated by that humbling power.

After the fire peaks, generous people serve home-made spiced cider, hot chocolate, and baked morsels. We watch the aesthetics and physics of the fire, and talk, and think. Some sing or play music. In conversation, stewards thank neighbors for putting up with occasional smoke, or tell them of seasons when the preserve is especially worth visiting to see plants and animals, or we all just talk about whatever people talk about.
Kids line up to master the art of climbing a tricky tree - and then perform.

Parents let kids play. In these  woods creative youngsters consistently discover a giant playground. Every year in different ways they mine the opportunities. Big old downed trees look festive as kids in their bright colors drape themselves over every limb. They make snow sculptures or turn over logs to check for creepy crawlies. Streams and ponds lure them. Parents supervise but treat them with holiday indulgence.

As the fire dies down, the drama draws to a natural close. People move closer to the flickering embers, especially if the day is cold. We and the ecosystem are ready for another year.

Photo credits: Carol Freeman, Lisa Culp, and Tina Onderdonk

A different blog on this event, written mostly for stewards, is at:

Two more photos below:

When we leave the parking lot, following the ancient strains of the bagpiper, we enter and different world and time.
Falconer Rob Sulski brings a red-tail or goshawk each year.
It's another way to engage people with balances of nature and the magic of the ecosystem. 

Saturday, December 12, 2015

Log of Life and Death

Some people (mostly in Europe) think forests should have rotten logs cleared out, on the theory that they harbor tree diseases, or just look rotten and untidy.

Other people burn up logs for "fuel reduction" in Illinois oak woods - against their better instincts - because our woodlands so badly need fire - and logs can be one more annoying distraction to deal with during controlled burns.
This Somme Woods log stopped me in my tracks. Not a hard thing to do - by a log of life and death.
Logs are loved by salamanders and mushrooms - and also by lovers of salamanders, mushrooms, and fecund beauty. I sit on younger logs to eat my lunch. Chipmunks leave nut shells.

A Cooper's hawk sat on this log to eat its woodpecker lunch.
E.O.Wilson once wrote that an observant person could enjoy a day traveling slowly on a Magellan-like voyage around the trunk of a single tree. This log could inspire books, symphonies, or films of gravid art. What species of fungi, mosses, and lichens pull life from this dying wood?

The insides of logs house salamanders, ants, beetles, slugs, and rolly-pollies. We used to pull them apart for nature discoveries. One time some unseen creature stung me so ferociously I almost passed out. A surreal experience. None of us ever saw the creature. Is it ethical for conservationists to tear logs apart to explore what's inside? Bears do it. Kids learn passion for science through such discoveries. But if forests are small and rotten logs few, are critical habitats being lost, if there are too many eager scientists?
At first the little plants puzzle me. 
What is that moss with especially big leafy parts? I wonder, until I see yet bigger ones further down the log and realize that thousands of baby ferns are emerging. In most nearby woods, ferns are hard to find these days. Often just a few lonely fronds, and I wonder why. Do ferns need special habitats for their complex reproduction? When this log has decomposed away, will a line of ferns remain behind.

My heart goes out to the woodpecker ...
My heart goes out to the woodpecker that gave its life here for the ecosystem. My heart equally goes out to the hawk that caught it and left it as a work of art on this lively log. My perception at first interpreted the red as blood. Only when I studied my cell phone photos closer up did I realize that the "blood" was brilliant feathers that had adorned the bird's handsome head.

This meal must have been a red-bellied woodpecker. All our woodpeckers have red on the backs of their heads. But only the red-bellied has the hint of peachy red on its breast, as seems to be scattered here. I imagined the predator was a Cooper's hawk, because few other woods predators could catch a wily woodpecker.

When we started at Somme, the Cooper's hawk was on the Threatened list. A pair showed up and nested exactly in the center of an opening we made by cutting brush and pole trees from a patch of noble oaks. The oaks were dying without reproduction, because excess shade kills oak seedlings. The drama of life and death is central to forest conservation. Nature helps many of us feel depths of life.

What kind of oak leaf is this - covering the baby ferns?
Photos help me look close. Is this the leaf of a pin oak? I hadn't thought they were at Somme. But this area is too wet for a scarlet oak. It's on the edge of a marsh. I take photos on the run - as I hasten from one conservation task to another. After dark, when I take a relaxed look at the photos, I notice more - and realize I have to go back and study.

I pause, feel, photograph, and then head off to adventure after adventure. Good-bye impressive scene.
Oak leaves and buckthorn leaves, on the edge of the marsh. This is just the kind of area where nature would likely have kept moldering logs a thousand years ago. After all, the original oak woods probably had few dead logs lying around in most areas, because they tended to burn up when the prairie fires swept through. Maybe damp places burned less often and had more unburned logs. Who will study log biology for us? What creatures shelter in and under this one?

Friday, October 30, 2015

A Fall Walk in the Tallgrass Savanna

A slender footpath threads its way through an Illinois wilderness – as the growing season ends – a time to relish the passing richness – and to think about what comes next.

Scarlet oaks stand out, and the bur oaks among them are nearly invisible. But burs have secrets worth knowing.

In the foreground, a young bur oak's craggy limbs, already leafless. Bur oak foliage is the first to fall. Why is that?
Perhaps because burs are the most fire-adapted of our trees.
Thick-barked bur oaks live on the edge of woodland and savanna – nearest the fire-prone prairie. Burs can’t survive in the shade of any other tree. All other species can outcompete it - except for its weapon of fire. Raging fire is how burs clear the competition – young invading trees that would shade out and replace them. The sooner the leaves fall, the more chance bur oaks can employ their leaves' crisp, stored fire energy to burn the sap out of their competition. 

Indian hemp grows among the oaks.
The Potawatomi didn't smoke it. They used the fibers to make string and rope for their needs. We who love the savanna
are learning to re-inhabit and care for an ecosystem that has had people as a part as long as it's been here. 

Not only trees, grasses, and wildflowers - shrubs may be more key to the savanna than to any other ecosystem.
This one is arrow-wood viburnum. Deer eat shrubs. Arrows kill deer. People maintained the savanna in part
because it was so rich in the food, medicine, and other materials that they needed. Our society today needs it for genes to benefit medicine and science, for ecosystem services, for generosity, and for our soul.

In prairies, New England aster is seen as kind of a weakling, typical of young restorations, 
dropping out as the community matures.

But a curious thing happens on the way to the savanna. This shrub is hazelnut. As with bur oak its leaves fall early
and burn hot. But without bur's armored stem, the above-ground parts of the hazel burn too, and it starts over.
Plants adapted to disturbance, like New England aster (leaves at lower left, above) find their niche for a year or two,
until the shrub grows back. 
The fringed gentian is a much rarer and more conservative plant than New England aster.
But it too seems to appreciate disturbance.
Here the gentians are just a couple of blue dots in the background of a partly-burned-off nannyberry shrub.
Probably all the grasses, sedges, and flowers here have some adaptations to their dynamic fire-pruned shrub neighbors.   
Briars are beautiful, delicious, and under-appreciated members of the shrub club.
This one is black raspberry, identifiable by its powder-blue canes. 
Many species of roses are also support shrubland wildlife. Tangles full of roses are especially appreciated by birds
for sequestering their nests. This one, with most leaves in fives, is swamp rose. 
And here, most leaves in threes, is Illinois rose, one of the biggest, sometimes climbing ten or fifteen feet
up through the shrubs and saplings. Its hips (fruits full of seed) are eagerly sought by Shrub Club restoration teams
(and of course by the animals that eat them). 
But in the savanna, the oak dynamic is key. Here a lone bur oak (no leaves, center) - with its thick, corky bark -
can be expected to outlast and replace the scarlet oaks that surround it.
Scarlet oak, like hazel, has thin bark and under a natural fire regime is a shrubby "re-sprout tree."
In many areas of Somme Prairie Grove, most of the trees are the "upstart" scarlet oaks.
They invade former pastures quicker than burs because their small acorns are spread far and wide by blue jays.
Most survive our relatively mild controlled burns for many years, but bit by bit they seem to be replaced by burs.
Squirrels rarely venture out here, so the stewards are spreading the fat bur oak acorns. 
Gradually some savannas become bur oak groves, very resistant to fire.
But oaks may live three or four hundred years. Some here predate the coming of the Europeans. They are our elders.
Vestal Grove's biggest oak is this giant, now with a fire-scarred hollow trunk.
Since most of the old oaks have met premature death, because of wounds suffered during nearly two centuries of invasive pressures, we wonder if we should rake around this one to keep in from burning up.
Sometimes we do it. Sometimes we don't. So far it survives. We're not sure what's best. 
This grand old wreck of a tree stands by itself,
framing views of dramatic scarlet oaks and hidden young burs in the distance. 
Nearby lichens, mosses, fungi, and animals are gradually turning the trunk of a fallen old giant back to soil and air. 

We remember when it fell. It was precious to us as a tree, and now it's precious as a log. We're glad it finally had a chance to reproduce, and we rejoice in its many saplings nearby. These organisms are our friends. As we learn and understand more and more about them, we enjoy being better neighbors. It's a good feeling to walk through all this thriving natural richness, season by season.