Living in a concrete jungle has left me deprived. The classic crackle of a bonfire is the aromatic symbol of springtime that so quickly warms your senses and burns your toes, and I have missed it dearly.
Watching the flames dance and just as quickly disappear into the atmosphere is a serene pastime that burns the day away. Muddy shoes and an inescapable fragrance are synonymous with your typical backyard fire. In Manayunk, it’s done a little differently.
A crowd gathered as bundles of wood were set ablaze and cast out onto the Schuylkill River Canal on two pontoons. The roaring fires supplemented the falling daylight as the celebration of the Vernal Equinox began on a chilly March 21 night.
“Hold this stick in your hand with intention,” Jane Lipton, executive director of the Manayunk Development Corporation, said as small pieces of kindling were handed out to the crowd. “Think about who you are and what you can become in the next few months and instill that in the stick. Think about what today is – with spring comes little flowers and green meadows. This is a time for growth.”
And with that introduction, I thought long and hard. What is there that I could improve on? Procrastinate a little less, forgive a little more? Spend less money on ice cream? Make a point to do my laundry before it starts stinking up the place?
The possibilities seemed endless, but I made up my mind and transcended the intention as hard as I could into that little stick. Simultaneously, 27 hands deposited their wish sticks into a wicker basket.
“For the Vernal Equinox, we are instilling ideas of how you want to grow for the next year into the sticks, and then we place them in a basket and light them on fire,” Kim Wood, director of MDC said. “The wishes burn up into the sky and dissolve into the universe.”
The event was essentially a spring cleaning of the mind with the ceremonial lighting of the pontoons – a symbol of a fresh start. Resting my arms on the railing, I watched as fire outlined the weaved pattern of the basket and fell to embers. Gone were the wishes, sent off into the air leaving nothing but a comforting scent and traces of a story behind.
The remains weren’t the only story that was told that night however. Along with the Vernal Equinox, National Storytelling Day is celebrated annually.
“Where you are sitting, stories have been being told for thousands of years,” storyteller Brian Schultz began. “The Lenape Indians inhabited these lands and would teach morals and aspects of nature through stories. They spoke a different language than you and I are accustomed to, so I will begin with a story that is partially in Spanish.”
Children lined the stairs of the patio area, intently listening with their chins in their hands as Schultz went on to tell the tale of Hermana and Hermano Ratón, or rather sister and brother and mouse.
With words and a slew of amusing gestures, Schultz led the audience into the bushes where the pair of mice provoked un gato de largo, otherwise known as the big bad cat.
Parents watched in admiration as the captivated children jumped when the feline chased after the mice, and giggled when mama mouse saved the day. Schultz had a real knack for painting a vivid image through his stories that carried attention through to the end.
By the end of the hour, Schultz and fellow storyteller Dennis Strain had told tales of leprechauns, wise women and shoemakers while the fires on the river burned.
Their tales were enjoyable, making it truly a shame that the crowd was so thin. A larger crowd was expected for the seemingly underrated event, according to Wood, who promised to promote harder for the summer solstice event.
“To me, it’s really important to be able to tell stories, no matter the crowd,” Schultz said. “To be in front of someone and capturing their interest they are away from everything electronic.”
“These stories have been passed on for years,” Strain said. “Not only are we handing down the tradition from generation to generation, but the stories tell some of the struggles we have as being humans.”
And what a better time than the beginning of spring to diagnose the human condition? These stories were reaching the new technology generation, and it was a comforting realization to see the only light on the audience’s faces coming from the flickering fire.
For what may have been just an hour, there was a true display of unconstrained human interaction, the likes of which seems to be increasingly rare as the techno-frenzy rages on.
The engagement of storytelling fell into the theme of growth that the Vernal Equinox fire aimed to achieve.
“Carrying on these stories is giving everybody a way to better themselves,” Strain said.
Brianna Spause can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.