Two nights of storms have kept me awake and put my mind in perhaps the best state for where I sit tonight. My fire is low but cheerful and warmly radiant. I lay on a small spare groundcloth a foot or so away; close enough that the low red flicker aids my failing headlamp as I write for you. The side nearest the fire is uncomfortably hot, the opposite chilled by the damp of the ground and in the air left by the storm some hours ago.
A log, burnt through, fell and made me start with a shower of sparks. It has been burning for two hours now, and the soft pinewood has become a pile of ash that I must now readjust to be sure no log will roll out and spread flame to the soft floor of pine needles. This would not normally be a good place for such a fire, even with the rains, the pine needles will catch and burn along the forest floor, their pitch serving like lamp oil to keep a low flame alive long enough to cause trouble. It is my charge, though, to keep this fire through the night.
You know, this could so easily have been a fiction, but I am so glad to be writing this as it happens. Rather than the author looking back with a creative memory like the screen-writer of his own mind, it is easy to be honest with oneself in the moment. Honesty is a prize in writing. So many times I’ve camped and spent nights by a fire, but I’ve never watched one so intently, and with no other responsibility but to pay attention to it. Little flecks of ash land on my pages, as thought to remind me I ought no to be writing, and then a spark burns my arm to chide me for writing even then. I’ll walk around it for a bit, my over-tired body can use a stretch anyhow.
I have a little bag of almonds I’m eating five at a time every half-hour or so, just to see if the two handfuls I took just happen to work out to a multiple. I’m also not really counting every half-hour—rather I studiously avoid my watch in an effort to make time move faster. Of course, talking about it now makes me look, which isn’t fair. It’s like when you tell someone that the average person thinks of Abe Lincoln every 7.5 seconds—now that they’re thinking about it they don’t really have a choice.
Every time I shift something in the fire, bright new flames leap up and bring the opportunity to discover something new about my surroundings. This time it’s that my hands are dirty with soot invisible because of the dark; apologies for any smudges. Before that was that I sit surrounded by ripe black-cap berry bushes—if I feel bold enough to risk the thorns for a snack. Blackcaps aren’t actually blackberries, though they look almost identical. They tend to be more tart, but juicy and satisfying all the same in late summer. As a counselor, one spends a good portion of the summer warning campers not to pick them to preserve one’s own supply later on.
I push along through the minutes, wondering if I really want to be out here and alternating with my favorite Koan: “The student aked his teacher, ‘has a dog a Dharma-body?’ Teacher replies, ‘Mu’ (no-thing).” Time for a new log. Good, hard black oak that should burn for two hours slow and hot.
Daddy Long Legs just strolled across the far end of the big log that forms a wall of the fire. Just as he reaches the middle, a small breeze blasts him with the full heat of the fire that until moments ago carried mostly upwards, evidenced by the plume of smoke the wetter, punkier wood sends up. Poor guy was just looking to dry off after a long day in raindrops as big as his body. Never saw it coming.
In a stand of tall, straight red pines and even larger, knobby and spreading white pine, the strong breezes don’t penetrate low enough to be a bother with the full vegetation of late August. A boon, considering the unseasonably chilly weather of late. I’ve long ago had to pull on my old St. Olaf Ultimate sweatshirt. I’m pondering wrapping up in my sleeping bag for good measure, despite the hassle of having to air it out from the smoke and repack my whole rucksack. I just read Bill Bryson’s account of just how easy one can succumb to hypothermia out in the wild, along with colorful descriptions of the various states of confusion and dementia that the human mind likes to try and think itself out of. So the wind doesn’t much offend, but it does offer the most wonderful whooshing background to an otherwise very quiet night.
I have just watched for the past ten minutes what looks very much like a pool of liquid fire inexorably spread across the flat, slightly declined—which fact I believe is responsible for the exceptionally slow travel of the flame—face of my big wall-log where I now find no trace of poor Daddy Long Legs. The pool of flame doesn’t so much move, but imperceptibly incorporates each individual contour of woodgrain into the larger section of charred oak, just becoming ready to burn for real. I’m trying to teach myself patience, because I have somewhat lost the art of meditation. Practicing Taoism (philosophically) and Buddhism for a long time was something I strongly identifies with. I wonder if I simply lost the time to be more serious about mental and spiritual pursuits? Not only Tao and Buddhism, but things like conversation. I’ve been pretty hung up on what it means to be conversant and social of late. I’ve even written about it a few times, and here it pops up again! Never have I come so close a conclusion, however, about my feelings. Maybe I really just had to sacrifice some things that made me who I was, in the interest of my work life—who I was becoming? If that is true, then I’m looking forward to re-learning who I can be as it relates with where I’ve been.
So, two nights of storms have kept me awake, and now it’s my job to stay awake through the third. The mind changes drastically those perceptions which are often most familiar. It’s like waking up halfway in your room and seeing a drawer that you didn’t close on your dresser, but actually seeing some sinister shadow where none should be. This is the first really good feeling I’ve had for writing in some while, and I’m glad it’s been introspective for me. I can stare at the stars and wonder which constellations I’m only seeing half of. I used to know almost fifty constellations. Not sure how many I’d still get. None tonight, for the small patches of sky I can see. Since I’ve been here they’ve all shifted anyway. Maybe the sky needs to learn more patience.
Well, it’s time to put the fire out. Damn, only three almonds left. That’s too bad.