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Wednesday, December 23, 2015

Solstice Bonfire

Making Friends for Biodiversity Conservation
(and being happy while we’re at it)

How much work should biodiversity conservationists invest in engaging neighbors, hikers, and the community at large?

We asked that question with some intensity nearly two decades ago. Then – at some North Branch sites – “the neighbors” were carrying protest signs against cutting and burning. Angry opponents charged that we stewards planned to turn the woods into prairies – based on confusion, intentional misinformation, and complex politics. The Forest Preserve President shut down all restoration for a while, county-wide.

At that time, we wanted to engage our Somme neighbors with something pro-forest and pro- steward. One event we decided on was a Solstice bonfire. Cutting brush means “the return of the light.” Generous holiday spirit and the science behind it – might that click? But we worried that people (in the context of all the negative publicity) would accuse us of destruction or Paganism. We wanted friendliness, inclusion, community.
The Solstice event started small ... and gradually got bigger and bigger.
For the first couple of years, a few dozen people would show up. The newly organized Friends of Northbrook Forest Preserves (with a strong representation of community leaders from the schools, churches, and recognized citizen activists of many kinds) made an advertising banner and moved the solstice event from the Prairie Grove to Somme Woods with its much bigger parking lot.

Our third annual solstice fire – in 2001 – followed the horror of 9/11. We reached out and found allies of nature representing the three faiths that were most impacted by the ugly terror. That year our bonfire, as always, was dedicated to peace and harmony. But this time it was lit from three sides by a Christian priest, a Jewish cantor, and a Muslim scholar from the Northbrook mosque. Well known and respected locally, Father Jay Risk of St. Giles set a generous tone. Honor for creation as seen by all three faiths was compellingly and simply expressed, and the related ethics of the humane volunteers who worked all year to protect the woods and the planet seemed embodied and illuminated by the profound words.  A good ceremony and celebration gives positive energy while making us a bit wiser.

The event celebrates nature, but it's about people - we the people who honor nature.
For many years the welcoming speeches by varied volunteers have tried to engage people afresh each time with the spirit of the season and Somme Woods ecosystem. We’d report: Endangered plant numbers have been rising. Rare birds have returned to nest. Most people don’t pay attention to such questions for most of the year. Being reminded of them in a season of good will (while escaping the mall and various responsibilities) seemed right.

These days the crowds are too big for people to hear a speech. The event is like fireworks. The power is in the drama of the performance. We do hand out a written summary as people enter the preserve. Then we process through the woods, following the stirring notes of the bagpipes, and are awed anew by the power of the massive fire that unites nature, and physics, and good stewards.

Once the blaze is dying down, the home baked refreshments and the antics of the kids take over.

Here’s a sample press release from 2008. Notice how the drafters tried to include both the human and the ecological.



An offbeat and sweet feature of the holiday season in Northbrook is the towering bonfire of brush that marks the winter solstice in Somme Woods. This year, the event will feature a procession through the woods following djembe drummer Josh Baigelman. The procession leads to a ten-foot tall pile of invasive brush, cut to improve oak woodland habitat during 2008. When it’s lit up, it’s impressive.

It’s a festival of renewal, since our shortening days will start to get longer on the solstice, December 21st. The event is sponsored by the Friends of the Forest Preserves, North Branch Restoration Project, and the Forest Preserve District of Cook County. The event is appropriate for all ages, but dress warmly for the walk through the woods. (Then expect to start unzipping layers, as the fire builds.)

The solstice is one of the most widely celebrated holidays over huge areas of Europe, Asia, Africa and the Americas. Christian, Jewish, Buddhist and many other traditions have included such “festivals of lights” and rejuvenation. The Zuni or Hopi of the American southwest made “prayer sticks” at this time to bless their community, homes, animals and plants. At the Northbrook solstice, participants are invited to choose a natural stick from the forest floor, invest it with the thoughts of some important event from 2008, or hope for 2009, and toss it into the bonfire for a sort of consecration.

Is the bonfire symbolic? “Heck, yes,” says Linda Masters, one of the forest preserve stewards. “It’s a big pile of destructive woody weeds, and therefore symbolizes evil, greed, injustice, thuggery and death. The generous volunteers who cut all this brush did so to restore beauty and health to the natural habitats of a noble woods.” Participants are invited to appreciate the beauty of the huge ancient trees and listen for the calls of winter birds as they join the procession to the pile.

The Forest Preserve volunteer coordinator Bill Koenig added, “This event thanks the generous people who’ve done so much to help, and it invites everyone to experience the woods in winter, in a friendly and sociable way.”

Josh Baigelman is a Glenbrook North High School senior and a forest preserve volunteer. He is fascinated by the African djembe drum, that is about one foot in diameter and two or three feet tall. It is covered by goatskin and used in rituals and dances over much of Africa.

The event is free and will include spiced cider, hot chocolate, and tasty treats. Everyone welcome. The annual Solstice Bonfire is Sunday December 21 at 2:00PM in Somme Woods Forest Preserve on Dundee Road in Northbrook.
People gather around the Solstice hawk and ask questions. Rob Sulski explains predation in the ecosystem. 
How Did It Go In 2015?

We no longer feel we should advertise it. The entire parking lot fills up, and street parking is inconvenient (due to having to then walk across one or two busy 4-lane roads. But people pour in.

On Sunday, Dec. 20, 2015 – four hundred neighbors showed up for the 17th annual. It is now part of the local culture. Some new people still ask why we burn the wood, and what restoration is about. There are great discussions from many different perspectives. Cutting, herbiciding, and burning for biodiversity conservation require people to rethink much of what they know and feel about nature. It’s complicated, and even good, clear answers don’t register with full clarity for most people on the first hearing. On the other hand, for these people, biodiversity conservation in the Somme preserves is now part of Northbrook.

People filled Facebook with comments like “This is the best – perfect for the holidays” and “One of my favorite events of the year.”

Young people came, old people, families. Kids who discover varied "woods fun" every year. They climb on fallen trees – break ice on the shallow ponds – throw wood on the fire. And cooking, can marshmallows be a wholesome tradition? They cook potatoes too.

Kids line up to goof off on a strange tree. They master the ascent.
They perform and cheer each other on. Parents watch, worried and amused. 
Since the public owns this land, it seems crucial that we the public love it and have a feeling for the care of it. Aldo Leopold said, “A thing is right when it tends to preserve the integrity, stability, and beauty of the biotic community.” We stewards, who also like kids and peace and the drama of the bonfire – believe this event fosters the integrity, stability, and beauty of our own human community as well.


PHOTO CREDITS: Many thanks to Carol Freeman


  1. What a wonderful tradition you have created! Thanks for all you do for the natural world and introducing it to the community.

  2. Merry Christmas, Happy Holiday’s, Season’s Greetings, etc., etc. to all you philosopher warriors who protect the Holy Grail that is our precious little remaining wilderness.

    May your long hard efforts continue to awe people and bring happiness to children during your Solstice Bonfire.

    1. I feel compelled to mention I do not desire that the way restoration is accomplished along the North Branch be the rule for how restoration is practiced everywhere. The FPCC has instituted rules to solve specific political problems that are not relevant outside certain jurisdictions. The practice of cutting, stacking, and immediately burning makes me feel like I am helping to clean up a city park rather than working to preserve a wilderness. This extra work to clean up the forest comes at a cost of getting more work accomplished to control invasive species. I think a gathering such as the Solstice Bonfire would be best centered on food at sites where getting the job done is a higher priority than making the forest pretty.

  3. Invasive brush can be a Grinch that can steal the beauty of a late Easter Walk or a May Day eve. Traditions are good. It is better to start them early with a new family.

  4. It's beautiful to see a tradition like this! But as you point out, tradition can get eroded as times changed. I hope this one can stick around.

    1. Good point, Patent Lawyers Guy. These days, a "tradition" that's lasted for 20 years impresses people. But bonfire ceremonies feel real quickly. You relate to people seeing and feeling the same - 20 thousand years ago. People also notice it when we're harvesting rare seeds in the wilderness. People start talking about "hunter-gatherers" regularly. It's natural to us.