In the last few years Amy and I along with our children have attended the annual Winter Solstice Bonfire held by The Friends of the Somme Preserves in the Somme Woods Forest Preserve near our home in Northbrook, Illinois.
This event never fails to dredge up powerful feelings in those that attend, even with its seemingly simple design.
The event consists of little more than a huge stack of invasive trees, felled in the surrounding forest, piled to a height of fifteen or twenty feet that are then set ablaze.
Something about witnessing such a conflagration seems to touch many people in a deep place. Flames rise thirty to fifty feet in the air. The heat generated by the fire is palpable and impressive. Jaws drop as our inner-neanderthals awake. Its a whole lot of fun.
Over the last three years that we have attended, we have seen the crowds grow from maybe one-hundred attendees three years ago to this year's crowd of approximately four hundred and fifty.
The event's founders and ringleaders are Stephen Packard and his partner Linda Masters. Stephen is a seminal figure in oak savanna restoration and founder of many successful conservation efforts including the Chicago Region Biodiversity Council (Chicago Wilderness). Linda is the Restoration Specialist at Openlands. In some years Mr. Packard has spoken at the event on the importance of restoration in general and the role of fire in particular, some years not.
Another creation of Mr. Packard and Ms. Masters, The Friends of the Somme Preserves volunteer group toils endlessly restoring the oak savanna, forest and prairies of the Somme Nature Preserves: Somme Prairie Grove and Somme Woods. Stephen and Linda and The Friends maintain trails, harvest and spread seed and remove invasive species year round. Their combined efforts over the last four decades has resulted in some of the most ecologically viable restored habitats in the region.
The bonfire event starts with a procession from a gathering place in the parking lot, down a trail through the forest to the bonfire site. A bagpiper and drummer lead the march.
This year, with the help of some children from the volunteer group and the surrounding neighborhood, we made a small artistic contribution to the bonfire procession in the form of cut-out cardboard animal icons and buckthorn crowns.
The crowns were twisted from the very invasive trees that we came to burn and handed out to the participants. The children carried the corrugated cardboard icons of Coyote, Raccoon, Red-Tailed Hawk and Great Horned Owl (that they had colored) on buckthorn staffs at the head of the procession, right behind the bagpipes and drum.
The cutouts represent animal communities that benefit from ecosystem restoration. On their face is an image of the animal, colored by the children. On the reverse appear their names: Common name, Latin name and the name given them by the Miami-Illinois people who were previously the stewards of this region.
This year the day was magnificent, sunny and all too warm. The crowds were large and the forest benefited.
And the size of the crowd told us that something about this mix of spectacle and science is working.
For this post, I've stolen part of the title of Bruno Bettleheim's 1976 book, The Uses of Enchantment: The Meaning and Importance of Fairy Tales for a couple of reasons.
One is that in his book, Bettleheim proposes that the dark and terrifying storylines of many fairy tales mirror the often fearful internal lives of children and resonate with them for acknowledging those emotions and providing them with ways to think about and process those feelings. The tales enchant, but they touch on real-life fears and relationships.
Recent world events seem to indicate that facts, in and of themselves, are not convincing large masses of people about the pressing need for stewardship of the planet. In the race for the hearts and minds of our neighbors we have made the assumption that facts speak for themselves. It seems they may not. What the success of a spectacle like the Solstice Bonfire suggests to me is that somehow it is meeting a deep-seated, psychological and emotional need in addition to our need for logic and data.
It might seem surprising that the simple act of witnessing a rather large fire would stimulate anything on the emotional spectrum in us. But it seems to operate on a level that is hard to quantify. Maybe its the genetic memory of hundreds of thousands of years of our ancestors gathering around fires that protected them, cooked their food and created comfort for them in an often cold and relentlessly hard world. Maybe its just that we don't witness such a display often in our modern lives. I don't know. And that is what is interesting about the experience for me. My inability to locate and quantify its power. But just as Bettleheim located the power of fairy tales to aid children in arriving at an understanding of their world, cultural events like the Bonfire give all of us an opportunity to process our changing world on our own terms.
Each person has their own reaction to it. And one of the most powerful reactions has been increased levels of participation in both the event and the growing community of restoration volunteers. The real power of the event may lie in cementing a community of those touched by nature, and committed to participating in the transformation of the world and themselves in the process. The fire itself being just a particularly dramatic and tangible sign and symbol of that transformational process. I would invite everyone who attends the bonfire to come out to the Somme Preserves in each and every season to witness for themselves the renewed vigor of these restored landscapes.
For Amy and myself this year's event was a timely reminder that not all of human culture happens indoors, on museum walls or in auditoriums, the halls of academia or the entertainment industry. That the place for cultural practice is really everywhere people go and have gone throughout human history. Even, and perhaps especially, in the outdoors.