White Oak Mountain Ranger: October Campfires

  • Wednesday, October 5, 2022

“Who has smelled the woodsmoke at twilight, who has seen the campfire burning, who is quick to read the noises of the night?” - Rudyard Kipling


“Before men ever dreamed of shelter, campfires were their homes. Here they gathered and made their 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.” - Sigurd Olson


My long-time friend, Chris Kelly gets credit for a phrase that’s managed to stick with me over the years.

Odd how some random string of words stick in your memory and just won’t vanish like so many thoughts you’re supposed to commit to longevity.


We were huddled under a leaky tarp on the Hiwassee River, escaping a chilly October downpour with a big wet fire that threatened to burn the edge of the canvas, when he said, “A man can’t have too many campfires in his life.”


I’m not sure if he coined that thought from a blinding flash of personal insight, or if he had heard it elsewhere and borrowed it as his own. But, it stuck with me and I have repeated it on many occasions around warm fires over the last few decades. It impresses me as a rather profound statement.


Chris spent a lifetime in law enforcement, so I figure he actually stole that phrase and it wasn’t born in his brain as an original thought. I guess it’s not all that important whether it’s his original bit of philosophy, or it isn’t. I suppose that what’s most important is that the statement contains wisdom.


If you try to put it in some kind of strange perspective, it’s a true statement, but only for the modern man. What I mean by that is simply this; there was a time, not so long ago, where the only light, protection and heat a man could gather was a good campfire. This must have been the dark era before the invention of oil, and manmade spontaneous combustion.


Students of fire postulate 1.5 million or so years, in Africa, early mankind began to experiment with “stretching“ fire from natural causes and bringing it home. Some find evidence of perpetual fires in caves 400,000 to 300,000 years ago.


Imagine the animals that preyed on these slow moving humans in those days. It brings new meaning to the phrase, “A man can’t have too many fires in his life.” The old fire goes out, and the next thing you know you’re getting eaten by some huge, toothy man-eater.


It’s relatively easy to get lost in these abstract thoughts about life and death, as you find yourself idly gazing into a good fire in the depth of some chilly, wilderness October night. A decently big, hot fire tends to keep the thoughts of being devoured by some big cave bear at bay. Every once in a while it helps to poke a long stick at a log and hurl a splash of hot, glowing embers skyward.


I think we do this fire poking reflexively because it comes from some gene pool deep in the recesses of the back of our brain. We poke fires just because somewhere in our dark past, some unwitting relative over indulged in too much woolly mammoth liver and passed out in a cave somewhere, and let the fire die one night. That was probably the very night that he watched in horror as some relative was dragged screaming into the dark by a snarling, hungry saber toothed cat, and that loved one was never to be seen again.


But, for modern man, the man that pays for electricity, the man we aspire to be today; a roaring October campfire is a novelty. Something to be coveted like some decadent sort of hidden treasure you can’t ever seem to collect too much of.


This is the time of year when you smell twenty-first century suburban man burning piles of leaves. The leaves are too early to burn, but they do it anyway. I don’t think these guys can help themselves.


These are the remnants of ancient souls that need a good campfire to poke, but they somehow are able to convince themselves at compromising for some smoky leaf fire. They’re pretty easy to pity, but it’s apparently the best they can do.


They call it “yard work” but it’s really that DNA stuck somehow, in the very back of their brain, that makes them do this sort of thing with leaves early in October. I’m convinced that they really all want and desire a big fire to poke. A fire so big as to ensure that the large bears are kept away.


Maybe we should feel a little sorry for the man that is too lazy to sit by a big fire at night in some vast wilderness and gaze at the stars illuminating a clear October night. On the other hand, a good leaf fire may be just enough for most modern men’s DNA problems with predators.


What is it exactly that fascinates us so much about campfires in October? Is it fear of the darkness? Is it the hypnotic effect of a good flame as it lights and warms the palms of your hand? Why do we reflexively poke the glowing log and scatter little fires into the clear night sky? Why is it that a “Man can’t have too many campfires in his life?”


What is it that draws us to the flame? Is it the sound of the crackle of the wood as we burn it to ash? Is it some strange search for long ago lost wisdom that a fire allows us to get a fleeting glimpse of? Or is it simply something that is imbedded in our genetic makeup?


All of mankind should seek a good hot fire to poke at somewhere in a remote and deep patch of forest in the chilled, clear moonlight of October.


The bears are still out there in the night. Just ask the boys that chase the deer at Cherry Branch and Shut-in Gap. They’ve got the videos to prove it.




WOMR Note: Strange are the recent comments collected about the campfire in October. One gentleman commented that the more babbitt he loaded, the more dove he dropped. He said he “drizzled” his own shot when I asked about where he purchased babbitt shot. Another commented that two scoops of Miralax in his morning coffee kept “things” going better than any coffee from Hardees. Both commented that mountain bears were constantly destroying their deer feeders.


Send comments to whiteoakmtnranger@gmail.com

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