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. 


James McGee said...

I am curious if the technique of putting the largest diameter logs on the bottom and progressively smaller stuff on the top helped reduce the impact of the burn scar? I have been able to prevent the vegetative community from being killed by the heat of the fire by building a brush pile on a pile of snow. If the pile in the first picture was burned on a very cold day when the ground was deeply frozen then the vegetative community might have survive.

I have considered building the bottom few feet of brush piles in a log cabin style to elevate the faster burning material above the ground. This additional technique should further help prevent soil sterilization. If the pile was elevated then I would be able to push additional snow under a burning pile as was needed to keep the ground from getting too hot. When I last spoke with Chris McCabe she said some stewards were using "alter" fires. I would like to know how stewards are making “alter” fires and if they are preventing soil sterilization.

Stephen Packard said...

Well, no, actually, we aren't concerned about the soil getting hot - or the perhaps more lasting impact of the caustic ash that's left behind. We are promoting the return of healthy natural woodlands. When we burn a pile of invasive brush, we're doing much like "nature" does, when a big old fallen tree burns. It's a wound much like those caused to an ecosystem by lightning, or a tornado, or flood. The ecosystem is long adapted to it. Certain plant species depend on events like this. They are like a scab that helps the ecosystem heal, and then wait for another big fire. After a while, the formerly burned areas look just like the rest.