Philosopher, writer and student of the universe Loren Eiseley said, “If there is magic on this planet, it is contained in water.” While I certainly have no argument with Dr. Eiseley’s insightful declaration, it seems to me a polar opposite statement also has merit: If there is magic on this planet, it can be found in campfires.
What is it about campfires that’s so special? I’ve given a lot of thought to this matter — sometimes while perched next to gently flickering flames — and am no closer to an answer than I was as a youth. Perhaps the fact that a campfire experience involves all five senses has something to do with it.
The visual aspect is obvious. All those ever-evolving tongues of fire delight the eye as they change colors and dart among the limbs and occasionally explode in a burst of sparks. Same for each campfire’s hypnotic transformation as it consumes its fuel and gradually settles into a bed of pulsating coals.
Likewise, the auditory elements are vital; the snapping and crackling as the flames grow and eagerly reach for the top of the pile; the unexpected pop as resin and gases trapped in the wood ignite; the rustle as the sticks of firewood shift and collapse.
The warmth of a good fire is an obvious answer, especially in certain situations. On more occasions than I care to admit, campfires have relieved me of the bone-chilling misery after a canoe capsizing in cold water.
No doubt the smell of a good campfire also plays into the equation. Hickory and cedar are especially good at delivering pleasant aromas — rich scents which can linger for days in a sweater or jacket.
And, yes, you can even taste a campfire via marshmallows and hot dogs, and — some will say — in coffee brewed over the coals.
My guess is that there are also deep-seated psychological explanations for why we’re drawn to campfires. Campfires provide a sense of community and security to those gathered around the welcoming flames. And who could deny the relationship between campfires and romance?
I have friends who’ve built campfires in their suburban backyards for their kids, and I guess that’s okay, even if it is a poor substitute for the real thing. By real thing, I mean a fire far removed from the competing lights of urbanization. A fire built of hand-gathered sticks and limbs. A fire whose unique sounds aren’t competing with internal combustion engines or electronic devices of one sort or another. A fire that somehow reconnects us to our primordial origins.
Regardless of where your campfire may be, these reminders are important:
• Be aware of burn bans.
• Never forget that a good campfire can reach 900 degrees.
• Choose your wood carefully. Hardwoods such as oak and hickory give out more heat and less smoke than softwoods such as pine.
• Avoid building fire rings; the blackened rocks mar the landscape and can be visible for years.
• Fully extinguish the last of the coals before leaving a campsite.
• Scatter the ashes so evidence of your fire will quickly disappear.
I began this essay 50 years and 500 words ago and all I can conclude is:
1) campfires have an inexplicable but mesmerizing effect on me and millions of others.
2) there’s no better place to enjoy their mysteries than in Arkansas.
Joe David Rice, former tourism director of Arkansas Parks and Tourism, has written Arkansas Backstories, a delightful book of short stories from A through Z that introduces readers to the state’s lesser-known aspects. Rice’s goal is to help readers acknowledge that Arkansas is a unique and fascinating combination of land and people – one to be proud of and one certainly worth sharing.
Each month, AY will share one of the 165 distinctive essays. We hope these stories will give you a new appreciation for this geographically compact but delightfully complex place we call home. These Arkansas Backstories columns appear courtesy of the Butler Center for Arkansas Studies at the Central Arkansas Library System. The essays have been collected and published by Butler Center Books in a two-volume set, the first of which is now available to purchase at Amazon and the University of Arkansas Press.