The affect of a blazing fire on body and mind always amazes me. You’ve seen campfires a million times on television—always very faked campfires; for a flame chewing through wood is a living animal, a carnivore at its meat. On the first day of Spring this past week, we performed our third or fourth burn of brushwood since moving to 25 acres of wilderness last July. The hilltop had been cleared years earlier for a domicile that was never built; and the result was that, robust trees having been bulldozed and piled into various remote corners, briar and vine and gnarly trees more akin to shrubs took over around the “compound”. The piles of deadwood (for none was carted off) also became a breeding ground for unwholesome things. Cedars are strangely dying hither and yon in the forest, and I have to wonder if one cause might be an imbalance in the ecosystem that unleashed some kind of boring beetle upon them.
I certainly can’t put all of that straight by slashing and burning my way through vines and wild blackberry… but I can protect, perhaps, the substantial parts of the old forest that remain. I can also ensure that, in the catastrophic event of a local brushfire, my property isn’t a tenderbox just waiting to pass along the wall of flame in a grim relay race.
Just standing over the maw of the fire pit, however, you’re unaware of any long-term endeavor. The effect of the sheet of warmth that comes flapping against your chest and face is hypnotic. Sometimes, if the breeze abruptly shifts (as it’s wont to do around an open fire), a wreath of acrid smoke sends you running away in a crouch, your eyes wincing in tears. Probably it was at one such time that my sweatshirt got singed by an ember. I never noticed: my wife pointed the hole out to me when she was washing clothes. When you try to make a pet of a big puma whose nature is to tear passing shoulders apart, you discover claw marks all over your hands and forearms after every “playtime”.
We had plenty of brush and deadwood to sunder and shift into the pit; but even without that activity, standing before the flames proves to be oddly exhausting. You come away parched and worn out, as wrung of vital energy as a fruit of its juice after some gorilla hand has fingered it. How firefighters work for days on end, sleeping a couple of hours here and there, during a major forest fire is a mystery I’ll never solve.
The trick with this or any controlled fire is to concentrate the flames. A piece of paper or some pine needles will catch fire at once, but the flame will not endure. The temperature must rise high enough to eat into the heart of a solid block of wood… and then you have a fire that won’t burn itself out for days, as long as new blocks are pressed into the coals. On the day after a burn, if it hasn’t rained, you can toss a forgotten limb into the ashes—and within minutes you see an orange tongue lapping and a string of white smoke rising. Even two days—even three days—after the burn, you can get the whole show started again by stirring a few fresh blocks and chips into the ashes. The pit doesn’t go completely cold for perhaps five days.
I elected not to have a wood-burning fireplace in our house, merely because the scent of burnt wood often troubles my sinuses. Now I feel that I blundered somewhat into a very wise decision. The power of a genuine wood-fed fire is fearful. If our slightly fraudulent gas-fed fire is ever hooked up, it will be immensely easier to tame and control. Even if some sort of calamity cuts off all gas and electricity indefinitely, the fire pit forty feet from the house will be a rude, wild friend quite close enough for my taste. We might want a large watchdog at some point, too—but we won’t keep him indoors. Shuttling forty feet to and from the ashes with supper would not be an agonizing hardship; and ashes, by the way, are a fine stove. Anything you shove well into them for five minutes, wrapped tightly in foil, is cooked through and through.
Everyone who hasn’t grown up in a cave is well aware in this nineteenth year of the new millennium that exhalations from human settlements into the atmosphere may give cause for concern. When you’ve actually lived side by side with one of these “existential threats” as it snoozes in its lair, however, you acquire a less theatrical respect for it that more resembles a working relationship. We can’t rid ourselves of carbon emissions any more than we can of solar radiation—and we don’t want to, if we intend to stay alive. Plants need carbon dioxide; and my fire pit’s ash, finally cool, goes on the yard to give nourishing carbon in another form to my garden. Amputation of any appendage is cultic lunacy. You don’t eliminate threatening realities: you learn to live with them, and indeed through them.
Adapt and adjust—don’t eradicate. The crematoria of Auschwitz were built by “visionaries” to purge with fire one of the human race’s “blemishes”. All they did was char an entire civilization for as long as collective memory will endure.
Use fire, admire fire… but keep your distance from it, as from everything excessive by nature.