Monday, December 31, 2018

Why Celebrate the New Year with a Bonfire?

To Celebrate the Return of the Sun – and Life?

To feel humble as we face the overwhelming power of fire and climate as forces of nature?

Yes, yes, for all these reasons. But there are more.

Let's start with a taste of the fire itself. People have stood in awe of that power for thousands of years. Click here for an example (a pale example - since you aren't in its real presence) but a taste:

Let’s start with the five easiest reasons:

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. By January 1 the days are getting longer by about one minute each day. 

2. To relax, to escape the malls and shopping and "tiz the season" responsibilities. To see friends and be peaceful 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 Somme forest preserve stewards for another year’s generous work. To thank the neighbors and the public generally  – for patience and support.

5. To get rid of a huge amount of invasive brush  – invasive trees and shrubs  – cut and piled to restore health to the ecosystem  – and teach people why burning brush and replanting natural diverse seeds are good. (The brush we slay is often so thick that to leave it heaped everywhere would just stress the ecosystem in yet another way.)

You’ll notice that there’s no strictly “religious” reason above. This festivity is not exactly “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. Somme Woods is owned and appreciated by Christians, Jews, Muslims, Hindus, Bahais, people of other faiths, and fine citizens who aren't interested in religion. To the ancient Druids and Celts, solstice bonfires may have been directly religious. In some current religions, 'festivals of lights' and 'good will' are said to have historic connections with the general time of the solstice. 
Marty Maneck on the bagpipes leads the procession through the woods.
This celebration is partly tradition and partly very new.
The solstice and New Year today mark something that's fundamentally science. They are 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.

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. Ecosystem death can be permanent.

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 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 did 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. 

Somme Woods has celebrated this season with a bonfire every year since 1999. It started small. These days hundreds of neighbors show up. We don’t advertise beyond some Facebook posts and a banner by the entrance. People come by word of mouth. They relax about it. 

After the procession and bagpiper, the pile is lit. People study it as a looming, dramatic curiosity. The initial billowing white "smoke" is mostly evaporating water. Over five or ten minutes the conflagration grows, and people move back, and then farther back. 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 below 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. 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:

Friday, December 28, 2018

Eager Embryos for the New Year

Some of us stewards have been raking leaves in the forest. Are we crazy? Have we been duped by that Finland nonsense? 
Raking forest leaves into piles and onto tarps? Really?
Then tossing tarp-fulls on to a bonfire? What gives? 
In fact, we are restoring nature, guided by actual scientific experiment. Previously, we found that our rare, precious seed produced few or no seedlings when we broadcast it on dense woodland leaves. See photo below from 2015.
We had sowed patches of seed in circular plots a) where leaves had been raked away and b) in similar unraked plots. Only the raked plots produced bountiful seedlings, as shown here, during the second spring, following a burn. 
For more on this experiment, see Endnote 1. 

Where we cut away the dense buckthorn, there is little flora left to recover. So, as suggested by the experiment, we generally broadcast our seed after a burn removes the leaf litter. The seed then works its way into that blackened, bare ground – and seedlings thrive. But we didn’t manage to have a prescribed burn this fall, because a strange wet fall didn’t give us a single day when the leaves were dry enough to burn (has not happened in the last 40 years). We plant with some success (we believe, though we are only now starting comparative tests) after spring burns as well. But some species need to be in the ground all winter. So, experimentally, we rake leaves off some areas for seeding. 
Nine bags of seed for “MW” or “mesic woods” (mesic meaning in between “wet” and “dry” woods). We gather a dozen different mixes, with tens of thousands of dollars’ worth of seed, if we were to buy it. But the local ecotype is not available commercially. In other words, this rare seed is invaluable. We don't want to waste it.
The handfuls of seeds that we carefully broadcast are the future of the ecosystem that will support butterflies, birds, salamanders, beetles, coyotes, and the whole family. 
What to do with those leaves we rake off? We sometimes make piles. But that’s not the preference in the areas that have diverse spring flora. The piles are thick enough to kill much of the existing flora that comes up underneath. (It’s the summer and fall flora that’s dramatically killed off by the excess shade.)

Although it’s more work, we sometimes toss tarp-fulls of leaves over a brush bonfire. Then we’re rid of them. They burn more like dry leaves would burn in a controlled fire, more completely and hotter. Such burning is very different from the smoking piles of leaves that drew public outcry years ago by people sensitive to smoke. This is different smoke, and convection tends to loft it happily out over Lake Michigan. 

So, raking means “Happy New Year” to the literally millions of rare embryos of the more than 200 plant species that we have gathered, prepped for planting, sorted into wetness-and-shade-level mixes, and now raked for and broadcast.

We look forward to celebrating with them their bounteous futures in years to come.

Spring: In a restored area, blooming geranium, robin plantain, yellow stargrass, and bastard toadflax share space with species that bloomed earlier, like wood betony, and which will bloom later, including cream vetchling or “wood pea.” 

In early summer this restored open woodland features blooming wild columbine, spiderwort, and beardtongue. All these and many others had been killed off by the buckthorn shade and were seeded back in.
Later in the summer, Joe-Pye-weed and woodland sunflower start to overtop the starry campion, wild coffee, and woodland brome, which bloomed earlier. 


Endnote 1

In the photo, six of the raked circular plots are obvious here in the second year of this experiment – because of the diverse vegetation emerging. This vegetation did not emerge in the unraked circles. Indeed, the sparse emerging vegetation outside the raked plots now is almost exclusively young maple trees. Oddly, lots of maples emerged in the un-raked patches, but not in the raked patches. Perhaps the maples couldn’t compete with the restored turf from the diverse seed mix? Maple invasion is a major degradation threat in the oak woodland.

How did the grasses, sedges and wildflowers of the oak woods reproduce before we were here to rake leaves? Perhaps only after burns? Or perhaps just very slowly. We notice that in scattered small patches the ground is bare of leaves because of animal disturbance, or wind, or whatever. Perhaps most seedlings once germinated in those patches. 

Another possibility is suggested by our experience with savanna and prairie seeding, which is much different than our woods experience. While we’d prefer to seed on the year of a burn, there’s actually seedling-establishment potential in savannas and prairies during non-burn years because the structure of the previous year’s vegetation prevents the build-up of a thick mat of fallen leaves. Unlike tree leaves, much prairie vegetation is more vertical than flat. Perhaps as the years progress and diverse vegetation is restored, seeds will do a lot better in the better-vegetated woodlands without our help. 

for photos to Eriko Kojima and Stephen Packard

for hard work and high spirits - to scores of Somme weekend stewards
(P.S. You're invited to join in. See our schedule at Somme calendar.