We glided quietly through the winter night, down a dark and winding road. I could tell my son was tired by the nature of his questions – deep and searching, the way he often speaks in the gentle minutes just before sleep. “”How would the world be different,” he asked, “if I had never been born?” No one ever warned me that five-year-olds could be so philosophical.
Not too long afterwards, we pulled into the almost hidden entrance of Belwin Conservancy and rolled slowly down a narrow driveway, tires groaning in the snow. Finally, we rounded one last curve and saw a gargantuan bonfire ablaze in a clearing near the edge of a pond. It was like out of a dream, this golden light hidden away deep in the woods on the longest and darkest night of the year.
Dozens of people were already gathered round the fire, bundled beneath hats and scarves. Their faces glowed warm in the light. Soon, Charlie found other children in the circle and they laughed as they rolled in the snow, darting in and out of the shadows. Eventually, Susan Haugh, Belwin’s Program Manager, grabbed everyone’s attention to introduce Crow Bellecourt and Robin Day-Bedeau, two Ojibwe musicians who drummed and sang a few songs for the group. After the music, storyteller Erika Rae shared a touching tale of a little girl named Estrella (Spanish for star) who loved sunshine and the prairie. After the story, Bellecourt and Day-Bedeau urged us to hold hands and dance slowly around the circle as they played one last song into the clear, cold night.
The Belwin Conservancy includes nearly 1400 acres of land in Afton and West Lakeland Township, much of which is remnant and restored prairie. Said Haugh, “Our mission at Belwin is not just to nurture the land, but also to help people connect with nature. One of the ways we can do this is through art.” Earlier this year, ArtReach St. Croix convened a group of local artists and environmental professionals as part of a project called NAVIGATE St. Croix. Both Haugh and Belwin’s director Nancy Kafka participated. Through the course of five day-long retreats, the group developed a shared vision to “work at the intersection of arts and nature to shape change in our communities.” Belwin’s inaugural winter solstice bonfire is one of many new events and activities to come out of the NAVIGATE project.
Since 1971, Belwin has provided outdoor environmental education for students from St. Paul schools. In addition, a partnership between Belwin, the Minnesota Land Trust, Trout Unlimited, Valley Branch Watershed District, and the Washington County Land and Water Legacy Program has helped to protect 125 acres of important habitat along Valley Creek, a designated trout stream in the area.
On the night of December 20, neither the prairies nor the stream at Belwin were visible beneath a blanket of snow. As Charlie and I joined the circle, linking hands with strangers on our left and right, the only things we could see were the blazing fire at the center of the ring and the half-lit faces of people gathered round. Deep beneath the ground, however, the roots of the blazing star and bluestem were still alive, clinging tenaciously to the soil and gathering strength for the coming spring. Beneath the snow, the life-giving water of Valley Creek continued to flow as well. In the dark and frigid water, tiny bodies lay quietly resting, preparing for the moment when their bodies will literally transform, as they emerge from the water and fly out into the world.
The solstice celebration came to an end, and my son and I climbed into the car to head home. As we drove away, the darkness folded back around us like a blanket in the night and once again, the fire and the music were nothing but a dream.