Before roosters crowed last night, I donned a bonnet, thick leather jacket, put on my sneakers and limped out in the garden. It was cold and pitch black. I lit the spotlights, it turned the dark shadows into beautiful hues reflected by the trees and flowers. The garden floor burst into light, glistening from the dew heavy on leaves and sedges. Not too many night critters were awake. Nary was even Jiminy cricket. On the second floor terrace stretched Saddam, his full frame barely six feet, with Princess quietly asleep on his side. Both German Shepherds are shy eight years. On the first garage under my worn-out Pajero wagon lay Sha-sha, the Labrador-Dalmatian halfbreed. They are about my only companions day in, day out, weekend, week out..months and months.
I want a campfire underneath my Monterey pine. I never have enough of natural fire in my fireplace. A real fire is an open fire. Under the cold night, alone, where I can watch the starry sky. Where I can smell the scent of burning pine needles that lifts the senses to the forest. Where wisps of smoke cross my face as it gets blown now and then by a lost gush of the Siberian cold. Where flames burn steadily in praise of every living thing that it puts light upon.
Nothing beats a campfire. On my woodpile, I can choose the best fuel that burns the brightest, gives off the least smoke and burns the longest. I get a pine log knowing its resin and e-pinene chemicals will easily heat, while putting four wrist-thick mulberry branches, that flame almost without smoke and a couple of petroleum nut twigs as tinder before I lit a flint wood (saleng) from a dried pine root. The fire leaps and dance , turning the cold air into refreshing warmth. I could start a fire even without a flint wood, even with wet wood, even without a box of matches. That’s how good an outdoors man I am.
In my many years I’ve had campfires in mountains and forests –in Ireland, India, China, Nepal, Indonesia, Taiwan and faraway Tanzania. If I’ve walked on days, and had campfires with farmers, forest dwellers, tree planters, even colleagues. But mostly alone.
Often, after a tiring day from a long hike in wet weather, with feet and shoulders aching, and a cold front rolling behind I would immediately build a campfire.. And all of my tiresome things melt away. I would just stare at the rolling flames, while warming up myself.
A campfire can easily change my mood , lifts my mood. I gaze at the fire, transfixed by the vines of light tangling in the air. The brilliance, the warmth, the crackle of the firewood.…it brings life to the cold surroundings. There is always something mystic about those flames. It feels like it is sending a message from the Earth, from nature itself, an encouraging note of warmth and energy. Even Saddam, Princess and Shasha feel this as they snuggle closer to the fire.
Sometimes I do my cooking over my campfire. Literally cooking over the fire.. It feels like an ancient task. “Insalabasab”, my Ilokano friend Remy would say. I could almost feel how my ancestors did it. I still remember many meals done this way but were some of the best meals ever in my life. And not because it was well made, which it was, but because the entire meal was cooked on an open fire. It always lifts up my mood and fills my belly.
Spending a night or two out in my garden with an open fire brings out many memories, mostly wonderful. In the wilderness, it can be scary, but a campfire can chase away those fears. It’s a process that humans have been doing for eons.
The human race has a special relationship with campfires. It’s a ritual of light, a safe zone of warmth and community. Gazing into the flames, we connect to our past. For thousands of years our ancestors sat around fires, not for fun, but for necessity. Human history began by the firelight. When we build campfires, it brings a taste of the timeless into our cluttered modern world.
It’s essential to be safe when building a fire. Only build a campfire when conditions permit. Campfires are truly wonderful. A campfire can warm a freezing night and bond a family or friends. Gazing into the flames inspires you in ways that are hard to describe. The flames roll and your thoughts roll with them.
Years ago, with my son Miki when he was five, and his older siblings Abi, Grail and Phy on a cold Christmas night, I made a fire in our forest garden the Habitat and kept the flames going until morning. We roasted marshmallows, had barbecue and sang along with an untuned guitar. The flames twisted up into the night with our laughter in tow. I looked across the fire, into their eyes, they were loving every moment of it, throwing twigs that sent small burning embers into the cold air. The campfire underscored the mood, it was a shared love of the moment. With each pop from the fire, sparks floated up into the sky, mixing with the stars. We felt so… connected.
As the night ended, the flames fell into coals and the embers pulsed like a heartbeat. I tucked them to bed, zipping them into the tent and into their sleeping bags. I then sat alone, poking at the embers. Thinking, always thinking.
I always sleep like a rock after sitting around a campfire. It’s almost like the flames were a lullaby for my busy mind. One of the great things about a campfire is that it stays with you. The next morning you can smell the campfire in your clothes, an aroma of smoke, an echo of nighttime fun. More than once, I’ve been caught standing stock-still, sniffing my clothes and smiling, remembering the flawless joy of a campfire.
Last night, I settled onto a stool, close to my fire and thought of all those years. Of how I used to build a fire alone with my thoughts, pondering on solutions to problems. Figuring out why how humans could be so wrong. Why there is so much suffering. And why the Earth is dying while half of the world’ people are starving.
A bat swooped by as insects start to unruffle. Dawn is about to break but my dogs don’t mind a bit. I keep listening to the night, even of nothing. Keep glancing at the dark dancing shadows, even as no sight was really clear. I knew I was not alone.
With the campfire, I feel the warmth of a blanket on my shoulders. An assurance of a better tomorrow. A better sense of hope. The fire rekindles the spirit. I know I am enjoying a great gift from the Maker.
And only He can make this magic.