Campfire pot

The campfire was a vital tool and utility in primitive times, but its value as a social hub and psychological comforter is still high.

Ummfh. Fire good.

People have been saying something like that for as long as humans in some form have been able to harness combustion in personal size servings. For thousands of years, folks have used fire as a tool, as a defense, as a wondrous source of nocturnal light, and as a hub for social interaction.

Fire was really the deal back in primordial times. Because they lacked TVs and their reception would have been terrible anyway, people needed something upon which to focus while they sat around and waited for morning.

Then, they “dreamt the fire,” staring endlessly into the mesmerizing, squirming orange flames as they told of the mammoths that almost squashed them earlier in the day. And yesterday’s leftover sloth wasn’t too bad as dinner fare after they reheated it over the shimmering coals.

And now, after all this time, who would imagine that people with perfectly good heat pumps, high-speed Internet and pay-per-view everything would still choose to scorn their amenities if only momentarily and dream the fire?

Now that November has brought us some temperatures with a little chill in them, outdoor combustion is even more comforting than it was back in, say, August. Still, there were people who toughed it out back then, only maybe sitting a little farther back or not minding that sweat was dripping off their noses.

We will call these incidences of intentional oxidation campfires, although there clearly does not need to be an actual camp involved. It seems to me that there is a rising trend for people to snub their various entertainment devices now and then, opting to gather with friends and family for evenings of burning sticks.

I wonder what the Neanderthals would think if they knew people would choose smoky fires, even in the backyard, over climate-controlled dwellings, electronic amusement and other luxuries. And that’s without any sloth meat.

Campfires, we note, burn year-round in those places we think of as camps, especially over the summer recreation period when we very seldom need the warmth of a fire. But as is often said, it’s just not camping without a campfire. (Yet, it really is sometimes a stretch to call it camping when you’re lodging in a trailer or motorhome appropriate for European royalty.)

This time of the year brings a flurry of more traditional camping. The deer hunting season is a kind of a throwback to more rustic ways. Friends and family deer camps frequently go a bit more native, much of the experience centered around a fire ring that becomes the den, group dining area, philosophy forum and pub of the camp inhabitants.

Supposedly, some native American is supposed to have said, “White man build big fire and stand far way; Indian build small fire and stand close.” If someone did say that he’s mostly right about the excesses of fuel consumption among non-native fire tenders. That’s because the way we do it, the campfire is not just to thaw your moccasins or to warm a piece of raw critter; it is an institution, a social pyre and a beacon into the inky black of the night.

There is something unexplained about the drawing power of the campfire to our species. Perhaps part of that is the fire apparently holds some other species at bay. In cold weather, there is thermal comfort. Maybe in all weather there is some mental comfort.

There’s not much of a plot to follow in a close observation of the campfire. Yet, if not highly entertaining, the flames at the least can enthrall in a hypnotic sense.

I have hovered around campfires when it was 88 degrees but the relief from tormenting insects was worth the sweat. And I have hovered closer yet when it was 8 degrees, turning like a rotisserie frequently to balance the singe factor in front with the ice crystals forming in back.

Along with temperature variances, I find that company also influences the size of fires and the proximity of fire gazers to the flames. When there is a couple dozen people in camp, you need a pretty big fire. That is necessary to illuminate the fronts of that many people sitting around in a rough circle facing the blaze.

On those chilly camp nights, you must have enough radiant energy to reach out to the circle, lest some of those have to slip off early to burrow into sleeping bags and miss some of the best re-told tales and exaggerations.

When the camp enlarges and the circle gets much bigger, the size of the conflagration needed almost becomes unmanageable. At that point, right about the time that the camp gets its own postal code, you probably need to branch out with two campfires.

In the other direction, I find that smaller camps dictate minimal fires for a couple of reasons. Not to be ignored, fewer people do not want to spend all their time foraging for campfire fuel. If you must maintain a blaze that can be seen from satellites in orbit, it is going to be one that consumes a plethora of wood.

In the extreme of a solo camp, one uses economy in providing campfire fuel. But one tends to sit quite close when the fire is the only company, what with all those bumps in the night.

After all, there still could be sloths out there.

Steve Vantreese, a freelance outdoors writer, can be contacted at