In the summers of my youth, campfires were rite of passage places where one’s physical celebration of the day could not consecrated until flames flickered and chased away the final shades of twilight lupine sky. It was a sacred time where a boy could poke a stick into burning embers and experience the raw power of Prometheus and Zeus.
Greek mythology teaches us about the dawn of man, when life was an epic struggle for survival. Mortals were at the whim of Gods whose capricious acts often visited disaster and plunged them into darkness. Humans needed divine allies in the heavens and there was no better friend than crafty Prometheus. Driven to return fire to the hands of man, The Titan trickster deceived all-omnipotent Olympian, Zeus, stealing the secret of combustion and releasing the heavenly bounty to mortals. In committing this celestial felony, Prometheus was condemned to have his liver eaten each day by a voracious eagle, only to have the liver grow back and be eaten again for eternity. With his gift of fire, Prometheus was ensured a heroic place in our pantheon of Gods. But he got burned in the process.
It seemed that fire has forever been both a blessing and a curse. With Prometheus’ gift came fascination, chaos, destruction, warmth, romance and mythology. As children, we learned some hard lessons and came to understand the risks filled euphemisms as “he likes to play with matches” and “that could easily become an uncontrolled burn”. Yet, we are fascinated with fire. We gaze into the bursts of swirling flames thrown from a bonfire on a clement summer’s night, we can almost sense something in the air – a magical confluence of charged ions, created out of combustion, smoke and an electric night. For a moment, we are at the warm center of a safe universe while all around us swirls ebony unknown.
From an early age, men more than women, seem to be obsessed by fire. Criminal profilers confirm that 90% of all arsonists are male. Many of these unfortunates use fire to act out unfulfilled aggression and power. Most women would agree with this prognosis as they watch their husbands, boyfriends and significant others yield to uncontrolled pyromania when afforded the opportunity to build a fire.
For men, there are essentially two types of fire starters the pyro-purists and the anxious arsons. The “pyro-purist” believes a fire is like a slow kiss. In the pyro-purist world, initial sparks should come from a flint and steel, flicked into a small hollowed log where it can be succored with gentle breath and fed like a baby chick — nurtured with small combustible pieces of cotton and rotted wood chips. The purist is certain that in a past life he was an explorer or mountain man. Near the fireplace are the tools of his trade – the building blocks of combustion : tinder dry kindling, paper, sticks and bone dry branches. For this hearty pioneer, each fire is like conceiving and rearing a child. He must give it confidence. It must be coaxed and led through its adolescence until it bursts into a mature blaze that is finally worthy of a log.
The purist knows that the finest fires come from a slow, even burn – a fire that throws off extreme heat with only a wisp of light smoke. These glowing works of art can only be achieved from hardwoods – ash, oak, hickory, dogwood and almond wood. Each type of wood is like an exotic coffee throwing off its own unique aroma and flavor with earthy rich smoke and even fragrant burns. If you are hosting an outdoor party, perhaps a split pinion pine with its deep resins and occasional pops and crackles might be in order. An intimate dinner for two requires a cedar, which offers a heat that slowly builds and throws off a seductive aroma.
A big-time burnmeister insists that all his logs be seasoned in a protected woodpile for six months. These fanatics of flame understand the gift of combustion and that each log brings a certain thermal energy content. It is not just a fire, it is homage to Prometheus.
At the other end of the spectrum is the “anxious arsonist”. This impatient greenhorn does not grasp the concept of kindling and combustion. After three frustrated attempts to get rain-soaked logs that are heavier than concrete sewer pipes, he retreats from the fire pit scouring the perimeter for anything flammable including his child’s favorite stuffed animal or perhaps his spouse’s ancient down jacket. The next phase of his helpless huffing and puffing might include hacking green branches from an adjacent tree which produce more smoke than an NYPD gas canister. To this environmental disaster, he may add toilet paper, torn magazines and even the road map that helped him navigate to his godforsaken campsite.
The neophyte’s blaze begins and ends unceremoniously with a great-polluted gasp of smoke and sizzled hissing that leaves all family members with coughs similar to incurable tuberculosis. The anxious arsonist is undeterred and begins a frenetic search for highly flammable items including Mennen underarm deodorant, perfume and the lighter fluid that was intended for the morning pancake breakfast. In one great mushroom cloud burst of incompetence, the fire ignites and the Dr Flamenstein is knocked back to the ground with singed eyebrows and a blackened face. It does not matter. He stands and proclaims, “It’s alive! It’s alive!”
Women witness this bizarre ritual every summer and shake their heads at the pathetic Groundhog Day behavior of the anxious arsonists and pyro-purists. It is simply a fact – men are obsessed with making fires. But according to some sociologists, the more advanced the civilization, the more men grow up unable to shake the arson monkey off their backs. It seems the less we play with fire as kids, the less the need to burn leaves our psychological systems. As anthropologist, Dr Daniel Fessler describes, western society is regressing. We have moved from playing with matches and to anxious arsons. Fessler writes:
“The latter aspect ( man’s penchant for fire making) stands in contrast to results from a survey of ethnographers which reveals that, in societies in which fire is routinely used as a tool, children typically master control of fire by middle childhood, at which point interest in fire is already declining. This suggests that when fire learning is retarded in western children, arguably due to patterns of fire use in modern societies that are atypical when viewed from a broader cross-cultural perspective, fire repressed men will have a higher probability to become arsonists.”
It has been confirmed that we need to let our kids play with matches. If we don’t allow an occasional controlled burn, we are elevating the odds that years from now we may be paying for junior’s decision to torch a truck stop outside of Bishop, California. Psychologists further argue that the need to make fire grows and becomes a surrogate for latent sexual frustration playing out in a destructive behavior. About this time, many men are saying, “I am not sure I like where this whole thing is going.” Ok, I admit it. I made all this stuff up because some kid paid me $20 to try to convince his Mom to let him shoot off some bottle rockets.
But, hey, it is summer time and a campfire remains one of life’s simple pleasures. The fire you dig may rest deep into the cool sands of a beach, blazing recklessly – urging its audience to dance some pagan homage to the summer equinox or it is hidden – tucked carefully between large granite rocks by a lake, sheltered from high alpine winds that sweep down, tugging at the flames and dispersing curious smoke that seems to follow you wherever you choose to sit. In the firelight, our shadows leave us and sway giving the illusions of shape shifting giants rising like great waves.
In the end, the fires we make are homages to the Gods. The fires we start allow us for a brief time to gather, share our mythology leaving only footprints and shadows. With the heat splashing our faces and our backs turned to the cold night, we come to better understand our physical world and chase away the things that go bump in the night. And when our little ones grab a stick, igniting a broken branch and their imaginations, let them play a while. It was, after all, a gift – – and anything worth receiving must be shared.