On Not Lighting a Solstice Bonfire

ocean edge, foam!! copy

Winter Solstice, the longest night and shortest day of the year.  The time of the year when darkness reigns and light seems a weak challenger.  When the sun appears to stand still, and time stops.  A time for letting go, for cleansing and release.

For decades now, the Reclaiming community of Pagans here in San Francisco has celebrated the Solstice at the beach, with a plunge into the ocean and a dance around the bonfire.  The shock of cold, the trail of gold on the water, the exhilaration, the wild wind all carry away the last scraps of meanness and whining and disappointment left from the year.  And the bonfire with its leaping flames offers warmth and light and community.

A simple ritual, its power carried by the elements themselves.  It doesn’t depend on profound thinking, or poetic trance, or eloquent words, which you can’t hear anyway at the beach.  Just the ocean, the fire, and the community.

But this year we won’t have a fire.  Some years ago, the Golden Gate National Recreation Area banned fires on the beach.  There were a number of reasons for this—trouble with litter and fires left untended and rowdy drunks, none of which applied to us.  But there were also other issues, some of them environmental.  After a big public outcry, they designated a small area at the north end of the beach, a good couple of miles from our more sheltered site, and the Burning Man artists created some special fire pits for it.  But that area is crowded, wide open to public view, and not so beautiful and sheltered as the area where we traditionally hold our ritual.  So for many years we simply ignored the ban.

Until this Summer Solstice, when we arrived to find the street lined with cop cars and the beach swarming with rangers armed with fire extinguishers.  There had long been a plan in place, if the fire was threatened, to defend it with civil disobedience.  But we’d had in mind a dignified blockade, leading perhaps to arrest where we could fight the matter in court as an issue of religious freedom.  We hadn’t pictured the sacred fire extinguished with chemicals, and the firemakers served with something more like a parking ticket.  In any case, after a discussion and a rough consensus, the group decided simply to forego the fire.

In retrospect, we should have gone to the GGNRA the next day and filed a protest, and begun our discussion then.  But being busy people with a lot going on in already crowded lives, and having six months before our next beach ritual, we pondered, and grumbled, and muttered, and it wasn’t until the fall that we got organized and held a meeting, and not until this last week that we actually met with the GGNRA.

And the result was—mixed.  On the positive side, we were assured that the GGNRA actually does respect our religious rights and is willing to work with us.  But the issue involving the fire is out of the hands of our local office.  For the beach is part of the snowy plover protection zone, one of only two places where they nest, and their protection is a matter of federal law.

Which leaves us in the position of asking for an exemption to an environmental law we actually support.  Civil disobedience did not seem like the appropriate move, here.  And so the discussion will go on—after Solstice, to determine what we do next summer, and next winter, and the summers and winters beyond.

And the issue has thrown me smack up against something I realize I have been trying to avoid, a deep and abiding sadness.  I think everyone who loves the earth must be feeling it, that sense of things slipping away, pulled by the tide out of our grasp and gone—places of great beauty, species of remarkable birds, rain patterns we can count on, the confidence that our children’s children will inherit a world in which they can thrive.   When we attune ourselves to what nature is saying, she’s shrieking in our ears that it is all spiraling out of control, too fast now to be easily stopped.  And all the big systems, the governments and international agencies that are supposed to kick in and shift our direction are themselves all spiraling out of control, like tops wobbling in a wild gyre, crashing hardest on those least able to construct bulwarks of money and power.

I’m an optimist by nature, and an activist by choice.  As long as I can still balance on creaky knees and draw a breath into wheezy lungs, I’ll keep on fighting the destruction and working for regeneration.

But on this Solstice when time stops, I have to stop, and draw a breath of the sea air, and face the possibility that we might lose.  All our efforts might not be enough.  Decisions made far away from us in inaccessible stratas of power steal away our future, and maybe we won’t be able to stop them.

It is everyone’s birthright, to plunge into the clean waves, to dance around a fire.

But  the waves aren’t clean. By next summer, or next winter, if not already, they may carry to our shores the radioactive poisons of Fukushima.  And the fire is banned.

Laws are blunt instruments, and I don’t for a moment believe that our bonfire on the beach would actually endanger a single snowy plover’s egg.  (For one thing, they don’t nest in the winter!)  But in this time of great extinction, I’ve got to throw my weight behind every effort at preservation, no matter how clumsy.

Yet I need this year’s cleansing.  I need the great elemental forces to wash through me and carry away some of this grief and renew my faith in life’s resilience.

So tonight I embrace the cold.  Call it in—cold is what we need, to cool the overheated earth, to bring back the rains.  I offer up the fire, to the snowy plover, to all the endangered species, to everything and everyone whose simple birthrights are stolen.

Let this be the Solstice magic.  Tides turn.  Miracles happen.

Out of darkness, light is born.

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