One of the most magical things in the world is a campfire, and I would like to write about its mysterious effect some day. Unfortunately, I haven't been able to do much writing lately. I have (at least a little) been able to read and think. Author and wilderness advocate, Sigurd Olson, has dominated my reading time lately, and I often find myself saying, "I want to write like that." So with my own thoughts allusive as wood smoke, I turn again to Olson's essay, "Campfires," from The Singing Wilderness (1956) and share these words with you. If you his words strike a chord for you, I hope you will then seek out Olson's books yourself, dream of wilderness places, and "make life the adventure it was meant to be."
"Campfires," by Sigurd Olson
Something happens to a man when he sits before a fire. Strange stirrings take place within him, and a light comes into his eyes which was not there before. An open flame suddenly changes his environment to one of adventure and romance. Even an indoor fireplace has this effect, though its owner is protected by four walls and the assurance that, should the fire go out, his thermostat will keep him warm. No matter where an open fire happens to be, in a city apartment, a primitive cabin, or deep in the wilderness, it weaves its spell.
Before men ever dreamed of shelter, campfires were their homes. Here they gathered and made their first plans for communal living, for tribal hunts and raids. Here for centuries they dreamed vague dreams and became slowly aware of the first faint glimmerings and nebulous urges that eventually were to widen the gulf between them and the primitive darkness from which they sprang.
Although the gulf is wide, even now we see the future in leaping flames, making plans in their enchantment which in the brash light of day seem foolhardy. Before them, modern conquests are broached and unwritten pledges made which vary little from those of the past.
Once a man has known the warmth and companionship there, once he has tasted the thrill of stories of the chase with the firelight in his eyes, he has made contact with the past, recaptured some of the lost wonder of his early years and some of the sense of mystery of his forebears. He has reforged a link in his memory which was broken when men abandoned the life of the nomad and moved from the forests, plains, and mountains to the security of villages. Having bridged the gap, he swiftly discovers something he had lost, a sense of belonging to the earth and to his kind. When that happens, he reaches back beyond his own life experience to a time when existence was simple.
So deeply ingrained is his feeling, and all it connotes, that even the building of a fire has ritualistic significance. Whether he admits it or not, every act of preparation is vital and satisfying to civilized man. Although the fire may not be needed for warmth or preparation of food, it is still a primal and psychological necessity. On any wilderness expedition it always serves as a climax to the adventures of the day, is as important to a complete experience as the final curtain to a play. It gives everyone an opportunity to participate in an act hallowed by the devotion of forgotten generations.
The choice of the proper spot to build a fire is important. No place is picked lightly, for there are many factors involved. From the time man first carried a living brand from some lightning-struck stub and then discovered how to generate a flame with a whirling spindle and tinder, he was set apart. He has not forgotten, and even today everyone is anxious to help the fire-builder get started. All join in the search for kindling, for resinous bits of wood and bark. How proudly each brings in his offering, what genuine satisfaction is shared when the flames take hold! As the fire burns, see how it is tended and groomed and fondled, how little chips are added as they fall away from the larger sticks, how every man polices the fringe before him and treats the blaze as the living thing it is.
Anyone who has traveled in the wilds knows how much he looks forward to the time of day when he can lay down his burden and make camp. He pictures the ideal place and all that he must find there: water, a good wood supply, protection from wind and weather. As shadows begin to lengthen, the matter of a campfire takes precedence over everything else, as it has for ages past whenever men have been on the move. The camp with its fire has always been the goal, a place worth striving toward and, once attained, worth definding against all comers.
G. M. Trevelyan once said: We are literally children of the earth, and removed from her our spirits wither or run to various forms of insanity. Unless we can refresh ourselves at least by intermittent contact with nature, we grow awry. What he was thinking of was the need of a race of men in which ancient needs and urges are still very much alive, a race caught in the intricate and baffling milieu of a civilization that no longer provides the old satisfactions or sources of contentment.
Thoreau implied exactly the same when he said: In wilderness is the salvation of mankind. The campfire would have typified a necessary means of contact to them both.
In years of roaming the wilds, my campfires seem like glowing beads in a long chain of experience. Some of the beads glow more than the others, and when I blow on them ever so softly, they burst into flame. When that happens, I recapture the scenes themselves, pick them out of the almost forgotten limbo of the past and make them live.
One of these glowing beads was a little camp on a bare shelf of rock beside the Isabella River. The moon was full that night and the tent was in the light of it. Because the river ran north and south at that point, the moon shone down the length of a long, silvery pool, turning the rapids at its base into a million dancing pinpoints. A whippoorwill was calling and the valley of the Isabella was full of its haunting music, a music that seemed to blend into the gurgle of the rapids, the splash of rising trout, and the sleepy calling of a white-throated sparrow disturbed by the crackling flames.
The tall spruces at the end of the pool were black against the sky, and every leaf was tinged with silver. A trout rose again and again, and widening circles moved over the pool, erasing the smooth luminescence of its surface. The campfire was part of the magic and witchery of that scene. For primitive man the night might have been tinged with superstition and perhaps with fear. We only wondered at its beauty.
Another time, I was camped at the mouth of the Range River where it empties into Low Lake. The bluebills had come and gone, and a snowstorm was raging overhead. Our tent was in the shelter of a ledge that protected us from the gale. It smelled of balsam, and our sleeping-bags were dry and warm. The little campfire out in front not only meant warmth and protection from the cold, but somehow made us part of the storm. Through it we could watch the swirling snow, hear it hiss as it struck the water, see the branches of the trees and the ground becoming whiter and whiter. Once, above its whispering and the roar of the wind, we heard the sound of wings, a last belated flock hurtling down the river.
There have been countless campfires, each one different, but some so blended into their backgrounds that it is hard for them to emerge. But I have found that when I catch even a glimmer of their almost forgotten light in the eyes of some friend who has shared them with me, they begin to flame once more. Those old fires have strange and wonderful powers. Even their memories make life the adventure it was meant to be.
Sigurd Olson, "Campfires," in The Singing Wilderness, University of Minnesota Press, 1956, pp. 106-111.