I guess the area of my pit as twice the size of a standard charcoal barbecue. The burned out ground is encircled by stones that I took from the shoreline, systematically picked so as not to remove any that served the purpose of erosion prevention from when the lake waves, in the throes of tempest winds, beat and tear at the land that would stand no chance without their protective composition to repel the relentless onslaught.
I have spent many years honing my ability at constructing the right way to burn neatly and easily, careful not to kill the flame by overcrowding the pit with wood, or choke the source of oxygen my fire needs so badly to burn.
Chopping the wood is just as cathartic to me as the warmth given off by the fire during the chill of 2 a.m. It takes me much time and toil but once I'm done the ache of repetitive rotation in my shoulders from swinging my axe, and my sweat and stink of work, turns from ache to satisfaction.
I cut four pieces of wood longer and larger than the others I will use to burn throughout the night. Two are made to fit as closely as I can eye-ball, always latitudinally, against the inside of the stone barrier of my pit. This is my base. My beginnings. My foundation.
I cover the bed between the base logs with dry twigs and red, dead spruce needles (nature's gasoline). I then place the other two longer pieces of wood across, longitudinally, over my base. I snap more twigs into smaller pieces and fill the empty nooks. I twist and shake more red spruce needles on top again to further aid in ignition. I want the fire I build to reach as high as possible on the structure I build.
Then comes thinner pieces of wood, more twigs, maybe some dead leaves, and more needles. With the wood stratified, what I have built resembles a Mayan pyramid--square and high and solid-- lessening in area from base to peak. The design is complimentary for when, and if, a Southerly wind kicks up and whisks through a few strategically allowed apertures in the stones that makes for a great natural bellows.
I'd like to say that I use no modern amenities when it comes to my pyre, but I can not. Just for good measure I ball a few strips of newspaper and stuff them in at the four corners of my base. It's a cheat and a luxury, I know, but I am not lost and scrounging to survive. I live in the modern world. I have its ease. Maybe one day I will master using flint and tinder, or learn the technique of a friction or bow drill or fire plough. It comes to me sometimes, that perhaps my lack of that ability of true form renders the skill I do possess, as not as precious, what with the newspaper and lighter I use to light my pit. But until that test, I will do as I have done until now.
Once completed I season the assembly with more dead spruce needles and some splinters(from misplaced axe strikes) in the right places.
As the oranges, pinks, yellows and reds of the setting sun are chased West by the greens, blues and violets of veiling night I light the newspaper I put in the corners of my base. It combusts wildly. The paper burns away with excited vigour followed by the needles and twigs that flash and crackle and that kiss and lick the aged wood that takes not much time to catch.
It's rare nowadays that I need to physically assist my fires once they've begun. They burn and assert on their own. Intervention is more of an admonishment than a compliment to my fires, but still I tend to it. Even though it thrives on what was once life, it requires a ringmaster to tame it, should it spark and wander outside its pit of consumption.
I stand no chance against the will of the growing, lifeless conflagration. That is why stoicism and respect are musts when sharing the environment with fire. I keep it fed properly; never the voracious tendency gratified. Out of control, I could become its next victim, mummifying me with bandages of flame.
I watch and stoke it appropriately until no harm from the elements can extinguish or enrage it. And only after I am satisfied can I sit and crack a beer against the backdrop on enveloping darkness.
I roll through my ipod to find something easy and fitting. I prefer a full album so I don't have to keep searching, that I can let whatever play while I spark a joint and I try to align my sub-,un-- and current consciousness'. I settle on Mazzy Star's "Among My Swan" to start the soundtrack of my night.
Across the water there are a few cabins and a fishing resort that are like an equator of lights, shining as beacons of something tangible in the night. Having been raised in the halogen haze and commotion of the city such quiet can make even the softest, faintest sound from my little stereo seem like it's being projected from an amphitheatre and that the music takes an invasive sojourn throughout the bay for everyone to hear. But then again, maybe that's just the weed.
After thought I return my attention to the fire. The twigs and needles are all gone and the coals that have fallen off from the wood remain smouldering, waiting for more to join them in deterioration. My four base logs still have not burned through and I re-stack my pyramid with pieces of my quick, but not too quick to burn, supply of wood that will also submit to the flames and heat. And soon, once the base logs succumb, I will be left with a base of incendiary appetite that will be defeated by nothing but sand, water or time.
A light rain and easy breeze come on around 1:30 a.m., by this time I'm well into "In Rainbows" by Radiohead and I methodically pile on a last few thin pieces of wood. The elements coalesced and an ethereal feeling washes over the camp. The wind counteracts the rain and the fire blazes in one last glorious reach of sparks and wisps of thin flame for the ceiling it can not touch. Each piece of wood that lays igniting before me competes with each other to be licked into ash by the many tongues of fire.
The wind picks up a bit and I hear the branches of barely illuminated trees swaying, almost like they are mourners at a funeral, watching powerless as I fed their kin to the fire. For a moment, and in one tear, I relate with the sad swaying trees and I imagine the process and the agony. From once standing tall and above and alive, bit by bit broken down to nothing.
I feel no solace in this. I feel no bleakness either. Just an acceptance and solemn regard. For the earth was the real base, the real structure that allows me to build it up or burn it all away. Where the great tree both weaves its roots and will one day rest its branches, boughs and trunk for life anew.