Sunday, December 22, 2013

Burning a Bird's Nest

Last night about twenty people gathered at my house to celebrate the Winter Solstice. The evening began at 6 pm with a pot luck dinner. At Lou Ann's suggestion one of the guests read this ancient Solstice chant:

"Root to root
seed to seed
may all that we have
be all that we need."

Comestibles included oyster casserole, venison pate, quiche, meat loaf, ham, green beans with pomegranate, a green salad, deviled eggs, grits & cheese casserole, and homemade bread.

At the conclusion of the meal we repaired to the front yard for the burning of the bird's nest. First, however, we read Thomas Hardy's poem, The Darkling Thrush:

I leant upon a coppice gate
When Frost was spectre-gray,
And Winter's dregs made desolate
The weakening eye of day.
The tangled bine-stems scored the sky
Like strings of broken lyres,
And all mankind that haunted nigh;
Had sought their household fires.

 The land's sharp features seemed to be
The Century's corpse outleant,
His crypt the cloudy canopy,
The wind his death-lament.
The ancient pulse of germ and birth
Was shrunken hard and dry,
And every spirit upon earth
Seemed fervourless as I.

At once a voice arose among
The bleak twigs overhead
In a full-hearted evensong
Of joy illimited;
An aged thrush, frail, gaunt and small,
In blast-beruffled plume,
Had chosen thus to fling his soul
Upon the growing gloom.

So little cause for carolings
Of such ecstatic sound
Was written on terrestrial things
Afar or nigh around,
That I could think there trembled through
His happy good-night air
Some blessed Hope, whereof he knew
And I was unaware.

Next up was the burning of the bird's nest. This is a ritual that Tom Pahl brought to the island. Four generations of Tom's family have made it a tradition to burn a bird's nest on the Winter Solstice. Tom avers that no one knows how the magic works, but inevitably the sun begins its slow but steady ascent the day following the burning of the bird's nest.

Since Lachlan, Amy, and I were all present at the burning of the bird's nest this has now become an Ocracoke tradition spanning three generations of islanders!

Everyone present had a jolly good time. We thrive on quirky behavior. Molly Lovejoy kept repeating, "I love this community!"

Our latest Ocracoke Newsletter is a 1921 letter written by a former slave, Harrison Williams, to Ocracoke native, Martha Ann Howard Wahab. You can read it here:


  1. We could not go outside into the bleak mid-winter as it was raining in Northern Indiana. We chanted, shared an abundance of food, and read poetry including selections from Mark Strand and Wendell Berry. We concluded by the lighting of my Christmas tree (yes, with real candles) and sang "Oh Christmas Tree," and I sang it in German, of course. Most folks stayed until after midnight; no one wanted to venture out into the night. We did not take many photos as we forgot. Happy Solstice to all of your readers, Philip.

  2. What a nifty celebration! Thank you for sharing it!

  3. Anonymous9:52 AM

    A year or two ago, I visited a small museum near Eden, NC. They have an exhibit talking about folks immigrating into the area, through the mountains, etc. One of the items in the display diorama is a bird's nest. It was pointed out that the easiest way to get a fire going was to find a birds nest and use it to start the fire. Makes great sense!

  4. Anonymous8:12 PM

    Oh my goodness! I haven't read that poem since I was in high school, and that was quite a while ago. It was my favorite poem at the time, but I couldn't remember the author. Thank you for a lovely memory! Judy