Fire and Light Mark the Longest Night

It all started with 20 red pines, standing tall, crowding out one another to get to the light. Planted in an unnatural plantation decades ago, they were situated too close to the Belwin Outdoor Science Education Center and susceptible to disease—ripe for thinning. Such plantations are called “ecological deserts” by many naturalists because so few native species, from flowers to birds, can survive in the monoculture.

Thinning the trees last fall not only allowed greater growth of native species on the land, the trees were also going to give a second gift: fueling a great bonfire on the longest, darkest night of the year.

On December 20, 2017, Belwin Conservancy hosted our second annual Winter Solstice Bonfire, celebrating the return of the light, the turning of the Earth on its axis, the angle of the sun reaching its lowest point of the season. This was the depth of winter before it turned back to bring light and spring (eventually) to Minnesota.

Belwin Conservancy staff started the fire early in the day, using an excavator to lift the heavy pines into place and tossing smaller logs by hand. (Watch video of the team building the fire.)

To restore and maintain the nearly 1,400 acres of land it owns in Afton and West Lakeland, Minnesota, Belwin employs a variety of land management practices. The solstice bonfire celebrates one of those practices: prescribed fire.

“Fire is one of our most effective and efficient management tools,” said Belwin Land and Facilities Manager Justin Sykora. “It is also an essential part of a prairie's ecology.”

Fire prevents woody plants from slowly converting grasslands to forests. It also clears away dead grasses and other plants, making room for new growth and returning nutrients to the soil where it will feed the next generation.

More than 100 people, from young children to older adults, from all over the Twin Cities and western Wisconsin, came to Belwin on the 20-degree December night to surround the huge bonfire and experience the musical storytelling of Twin Cities women-led ensemble Impossible Salt (IS).

The ensemble told an original story—of a night troll and the brave mother who confronts him in order to save her village—by singing phrases and asking attendees to repeat and sing along. As the story was told and voices rang out around the great bonfire, the meaning of celebrating the solstice together seemed to sink in: we will get through this night, and this winter, if we stick together.

The Winter Solstice celebration is one of four major events that Belwin hosts each year. (Visit for more information.) On December 20, 2018, Belwin is planning another Winter Solstice Bonfire, with family-friendly entertainment, night hikes and more. We hope everyone will join us!

“The bonfire was a great way to introduce more people and families to Belwin and what we’re all about,” said Susan Haugh, Belwin program manager. “We’re looking forward to all of the great events we have planned in 2018.”