As part of our no-presents-communal-experience based Christmas theme this year we made the collective intention of having more campfires. We have a heavy cast iron fire-pit, a purchase from a previous fire intention, that we’ve dragged from one house to another and use too infrequently.
For me, campfires are emblematic of my youth and adventure. As a kid I went to bonfires at YMCA camps in upstate New York and on the beach in Maine. Oddly it’s my friend Holly’s brother’s tree fort, deep in the woods of Princeton Massachusetts, that I think of every time I smell a campfire. I have no control over the association, it’s rather Pavlovian. Here’s the deal about the tree fort – there was a functioning wood burning stove IN the fort, complete with a stove pipe that vented out the back wall. This was an old school tree fort, the kind that requires climbing and squeezing through a trap door in the floor.
My freshman year of high school Holly, Maria and I would sleep out in the fort on winter weekends. Each of us told our parents that we were at the other’s house. We never did anything exciting or raucous. We talked, smoked cigarettes and tended to the fire but I thought it was the coolest thing in the world. I loved it for all the reasons why other teenagers would think it was dull. We weren’t partying or chasing boys. It was my job to keep the fire going. In my mind we were surviving alone in the woods – my first taste of independence. It was sooty, smoky and damn cold even with the wood stove. Our secret lasted for only one winter as our friendships faded and we went in different directions.
Last week Georgia and I made our first seasonal fire attempt. We dragged the fire-pit over to the granite gravel by our back porch. We crafted an excellent tinder starter pile but all the wood was wet from the rain the previous week. Not wanting to dampen her enthusiasm, we pushed forward but ended up with the smoky mess I expected.
Last night the girls left on a two day trip with friends. Leo and I decided we would try again at the fire.
Leo: “Hey mom, where did you store my blow torch?”
Me: “I think it’s in the shed, why?”
Leo: “I’m going to get the fire started but the wood is still wet.”
Me: “Isn’t that kind of overkill?”
Leo: “Not really, anything a match can do a blow torch can do faster and better.”
Matthew and Leo, in a rare display of outdoorsmanship, decided that they would split the wood I collected from a friend’s downed pecan tree. Yes our axe is dull but their chopping antics involved getting the axe stuck in a log and banging it on a rock and other logs. Their greatest success came by using their newly invented log-axe to split the other logs. Eventually they both chopped enough wood to feel worthy of a primal scream. As I watched them I was thankful they are both good in math.
We then did what humans have been doing for 1.5 million years, when Homo Erectus built the first intentional fire. We sat around our makeshift camp and stared into the hypnotic red and orange flames and were glad to be together.
We woke up this morning to Big Otis standing in the fire pit.