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Outside the other evening I sat on a stool near the cast iron yard stove alongside my house. I’m not, tell the truth, a campfire person, meaning not one of those who find a thrill in campfires. It’s odd, perhaps, because over decades of summer work and canoe guiding I must have sat around thousands of outdoor fires. For me the new or exotic is not dealing with firewood, not drinking morning coffee flavored with wood ash, and not living the lore of smoke following wherever you sit. Plus for fifty years the bulk of my home heat came from local wood. What else explains the construction of woodsheds large enough to dry-season wood for two years ahead? The clunk of froze-solid birch as familiar to me as pop tunes are to others. The value of pine knots and split kindling were drilled into everyday routines and reality.
Wood was part of work and life, so it is a different experience for me to have leisure fires. The elemental side of burning wood, however, sees no difference between a useless campfire or airtight wood stove. Whatever distinctions or meanings we find are drawn from experience that can’t be easily generalized. On wilderness lakes with guests, few if any of them guessed my attitude toward evening campfires as essentially a waste. There’s so much can be done in silence without smoke. There’s the way moonlight weaves on still water or dances peaks on waves. Why not enjoy the subtle boundary between wooded dark and open shore, listen quietly to nature’s whispers, or observe in perfect silence the transit of a shooting star?
I’m seldom far from having low opines of my fellow beings. Maybe only the powerful hand of nature made me tolerant at all. Nature told me they were not to blame. Our civilization was the blessing-curse that drew these creatures to sit in circles to observe flames while a wider by far world was all around them. Thousands of campfires were essentially one story of bare-skin apes huddling around fires representing a universe more their size than the celestial giant looming over them in the dark. Oh, I didn’t detest campfires or make an issue of them, but it struck me sad there was so much more to see and take wonder in than what we’d let in.
The other night, then, when I looked at the fire I remembered past events and people, none of which I can claim to ever have understood. The hint of damp evening cool, faint hiss of breeze passing through Red Pine needles, and a hint of aspen smoke is a bigger story than I am able to tell. How can I describe years of cycling seasons contributing hints and glimmers of the natures interleaving that resulted in this single piece of firewood incensing the night air? Things don’t come much bigger than Mother Nature (hopefully acceptable sexism, though I’m not confident the same would hold for Father Time with scythe and long white beard). If you’ve worked with wild nature you realize wild rice in the fall or maple sap in the spring carry recent histories of growing seasons. The right conditions in May leads to better rice later; the same to be said on differing scales for trees, cattails, deer, loons, etc. You won’t see direct evidence of frogs or walleyes in the rice crop, but those along with leeches, water fleas, and American Bittern are part of the fabric. Seated in the circle of amber at a campfire the human creature looks inward in the confines of light and society.
Smoke and distant sounds carry faint hints of the much larger world outside the comforting circle of howler monkey comradery. But certainly humans are better than wee apes aren’t we? At least humans around a fire don’t groom one another (according to rank) looking for ticks and fleas. Gossip about St. Paul or Peoria shows how better we are. Do you see, perhaps, why I’d consider silence more splendid than jabber? Unlike its noise making counterpart, a quiet mind is open to feel not only the fear of the huge empty outside the friendly circle but to know some of its grandeur as well. I liked to think that in the individual silences after the fire was doused people felt a fraction of the eternal as they went quietly to bed. Maybe. It was a surer bet than finding it while making noise squeaking at the cosmos..
There have been advanced souls who’ve questioned the ruin I’ve committed burning so many trees. The pure can call me Destroyer of Forests, and they’d be on somewhat factual ground and totally human ground justly pointing to the sins of others. Why on earth do we do that, pick fights when burning wood (cut by people I knew, students and neighbors) was no more evil than the method the complainant used to stay warm. In general people employ what’s available. Not much birch forest to burn in Fridley so they use oil. Is that wrong? In urban areas that act as massive heat sinks in summer I’d think it natural to use air conditioning else folks would live in basements until fall. The sorry side of life looking inward in a comfy circle of light is the production of narrow-view judgmentalism feeling secure in saying this view is right. It is if you don’t look beyond. Outdoors on a wilderness lake when un-light presses deeper all around the individual wee ape who is put in her or his place in the broader design. Most of us do not know what that is or understand it beyond a feeling of how frail and small we are.
Around his fire, faced in, his back to the huge outside a human casually snuffs a mosquito. In the comfort glow of their fires other human plot snuffing suspected Justice Warriors, Fascists, or unbelievers. Only humans do this. Nature does not create authoritarian worlds. We alone do that. Perhaps we should pay closer attention to what’s in smoke and try listening to the great silence at our shivering backs.