When I Watch a Fire

“When I watch a fire, sometimes I think wood was meant to be burned.”



It has been six moons since my dear friend set to words the poetry we were watching while eating chicken tacos at a cantina.  A local woman was cooking a large pot of soup over an open fire on a clay, earth oven that afternoon.  

Those words have remained with me, especially coming to my consciousness when I am sitting by a campfire in the forest.

                I hiked a portion of the Appalachian Trail the other week with two old friends.  We were on our winter hike, an overnight outing consisting of eighteen miles of laughter, sore toes, and bacon fried in maple syrup. 

                We set up camp around 3:30 p.m. in a place we named “Pinos Escondidos”—Hidden Pines.  The trees, ranging from five to eight feet in height, covered the forest floor like a blanket of sleeping dwarves.  Just off the trail, there lied a small clearing amongst the dwarves.

                “Looks great.”

                “Will block the wind.”

                “Just have to move the downed branches and clean up a little.”


                By nightfall we had a gentle, pine fire warming our chilled bodies.  The air temperature was about twenty-five degrees Fahrenheit.   A half moon gave rise over the taller adult pines.


                “Never travel alone,” is the lesson of  Jack London’s Dionyssian tale To Build A Fire.  The story tells of Tom Vincent’s tragedy while traveling in the Yukon by himself.  He builds a fire to ward off frostbite after falling through the ice of a small creek.  As the fire builds, the snow-covered pine boughs above, disturbed by Tom while collecting twigs to add to the fire, become unbalanced, thus causing an avalanche-affect of snow to fall onto the fire below. 

                I remember the first time I read To Build A Fire.  It disturbed me.  A bit haunting, it was.  When not prepared, nature seemed to be harsh on humankind.  The elements were raw and uncivilized.  There was no place for them amongst our .com world, excluding pending death.  I stared blankly ahead, and then a smile came to my face.  “A brutal lesson it was,” I thought.  “But one young Tom will soon not forget.”


                That night around the fire at camp “Pinos Escondidos” we talked of London’s story.  We watched tongues of blue and orange lick their way around the logs.  Hot embers breathed fire from the belly of the rock hearth.  The pines, naked of snow, softly caressed the surrounding blackness.

                “Wood was meant to be burned,” contemplated Javier.  Around the campfire on a cold January night, it was truth.  We understood his revelation.

                Burning wood is beautiful.  The colors, the heat, the fuel energy…all combine to make it a living organism.  It is alive.

                Fire is alive.


(written 19 September 2001)


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