To Light a Fire

A Ghost in the Stars

Cottage Life Magazine

If you discount the light-bulb-in-red-tissue around which the 41st Cub Scouts gathered every Thursday in the church gym, my first was at a boys’ camp in Georgian Bay in the summer of 1959.   I can see that fire  now.   And smell it.  And hear it.  I remember the warmth of the flames on the front of my legs and the chill of the forest’s shadow on my back.   I remember watching the sparks scatter upward.  A  handsome councilor, with the improbably handsome name of Bailey Carlisle, led the singing.   His guitar was the colour of corn syrup in the firelight.  I was seven years old, away from home for the first time, and I hoped nobody could see my wet cheeks at the end of  “Swing Low, Sweet Chariot.”

What is it about campfires?  Why, when so many other summer memories blur, do they remain vivid?   I can see my first as clearly as the one we had at my sister’s cottage in Muskoka a couple of summers ago, after our mother’s eightieth birthday dinner.   Just as precisely, I can recall the campfires we had out on the smooth flat reefs of Georgian Bay when our two children were small enough for the entirety of our  life-jacketed family, plus dog,  to fit into a single canoe for the paddle there and (under an amazement of stars) the paddle back.  What is it about that circle of golden faces, that skein of wood-smoke, that ring of under-lit pines, that so sticks with us?

To say that the appeal is atavistic is correct, but not a complete explanation of the place that campfires hold in the mythology of summer.  Sitting around a campfire does connect us to our earliest ancestors.  But it’s not the antiquity of the ritual that draws us, marshmallow sticks in hand, to the flames.  Had the human race been born yesterday, campfires would be no less compelling.  They’ve been with us forever because they speak so directly to the most basic of human needs.  Warmth.  Safety.  Community. 

They are also sexy – which is just a slightly silly way of saying that they are sensual.  Campfires warm flesh, encourage languor, have a way of bringing a protective arm up around the shoulder of someone next to you.   I remember that at camp, the waitresses sat on a slight rise of ground, a little removed from the mosh of campers – as befitted their status as sun-tanned, gleaming-haired goddesses.  They wore rolled dungarees, heavy socks, plimsols, and, with their arms tucked round their knees,  the over-sized football jerseys of their boyfriends.  I’m not sure that any group of women will ever seem to me so resplendent.  

The campfire’s delights are the delights of being alive: of feeling warmth,  of slowing down, of joining in, of clearing a patch of cheer and fellowship in the wilderness of the night.   Whether populated by two people or two dozen, a fire on a rocky point, beneath a clear black sky, conjures these imperatives.  The rising smoke always looks to me like a ghost in the stars.  Like summer itself,  the campfire is a brightness encircled by a much wider and colder darkness.