Druids in our midst: The Winter Solstice celebration in Bluff

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Throughout the ages, cultures around the world have found their own way of celebrating the Winter Solstice, that point in the year when the sun reverses its southern course and days begin to lengthen. 

This event marks the beginning of a new year and new possibilities. Bluff, as usual, has found its own unique way of celebrating the shortest day of the year.

The ancient Druids of the British Isles based much of their culture around the sun’s annual renewal. 

The great Stonehenge is a vast altar where masses of people made pilgrimages to observe the setting of the sun between the stone columns. 

The burning of a large willow sculpture, called Wicker Man, was a regular and important part of their celebrations.

For decades, the people of Bluff gathered their dead branches and downed limbs and brought them to an open field in the center of town. There, on New Year’s Eve, folks gathered and torched the dead foliage. 

Eight years ago, that tradition was remade by Bluff artist Joe Pachak.

Joe is a talented, experienced, and hard-working sculptor, and he came up with a better use for the discarded wood. 

He began designing, with the help of many local volunteers, and creating huge, woven-willow sculptures made for the express purpose of burning. He focuses on monumental depictions of Southwestern animals, some soaring more than 40 feet high. 

Joe’s first flammable piece was an elk, followed in later years by a mammoth, a bison, a desert bighorn sheep, a pair of blue herons, and a team of dancing bears. Last year’s effort was a gigantic wily coyote, and this year the subject will be two ravens.

His initial structural work begins during the annual Bluff Arts Festival in October and volunteers regularly show up for the next few months to work under Joe’s direction and add to the effort. 

This year, construction has made good progress and everything will be ready for the conflagration on the evening of December 21, with festivities beginning around dusk.

Creating works of art made specifically for destruction might not seem logical, but worldwide, many sculptures are made just for that purpose. 

Referred to as Ephemeral Folk Art, people are familiar with temporary creations like snowmen and scarecrows. 

The beautiful sand paintings used in Navajo Healing Chants are created to be destroyed as part of the ceremonies. In a sense, so is Joe Pachak’s work.

People begin arriving at Bluff’s Winter Solstice as the sun and temperature begin to drop. While people mingle and final preparations are completed, the crowd entertains itself with impromptu drumming, free-form interpretative dance numbers, and gossiping. 

Anticipation grows until Joe rather reluctantly addresses the audience, and the festivities begin. 

Usually, flaming darts are launched with a prehistoric atlatl into the dry-brush sculpture, which explodes into an inferno in minutes.

These days, the audience has grown well past Bluff’s usual 250+ population, with folks arriving from Durango, CO, Farmington, NM, and more exotic locations to take part in the inflammatory event.

As the fire grows, the fragile wooden sculptures are consumed by flames and collapse into a fiery heap. Red heat radiates on everyone’s face and what had been a chilly environment grows suddenly warmer. As the flames lower, a curious parade begins to unwind.

Almost as one, the audience begins to slowly circle the bonfire, moving together in a counter-clockwise direction. Many stay to enjoy the fire until only glowing embers are visible. 

This piece of neo-pagan choreography seems the proper response to this annual gathering of different individuals becoming a temporary community, if only for an hour’s duration – the very definition of the word ephemera. 

Later, folks begin to depart and look forward to what Joe Pachak plans for next year, when once again the ancient wisdom of the ages will be repeated: “When in Bluff, do as the Bluffoons do.”

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