Monday, April 6, 2009
"And there Prometheus sat chained upon the rock by Zeus, continually assaulted by the eagle for his sin of giving man fire. As he gazed down upon the earth the fires of men revealed his reasoning was sound as he heard the sound of men rejoicing among the smoke."
Prometheus having his liver eaten out by an eagle. Painting by Jacob Jordaens
During a water cooler session last week the gang at work was discussing campfires in general in anticipation of the upcoming camping season. Winter is giving us it's last gasps and we are all looking eagerly at the sunshine and thermometer and biding our time. We discussed all kinds of items regarding campfires from cookery, to heating, to great memories of spending time around one, even to amorous interludes on fire lit beaches (the jury is still out as whether that was fact or fantasy but we're giving my coworker the benefit of the doubt.) In short, it was readily agreed that a camp without a fire was like St. Paddy's day without beer or a birthday without cake.
Except for that one.
That "holier than thou" type who thoroughly let loose on us primitives for our love of pyrolysis. Unless I'm camping above the tree line I can guarantee one thing- there will be fire in my camp. I'm a reasonably intelligent guy who understands a few things and I abhor garbage anywhere but particularly in the wilderness and as a rule haul out more than I haul in. I also tend to have a high level of respect for the environment in that I refuse to destroy terrain features and avoid cutting living trees whenever possible and keep a generally tidy camp in all respects. But the line is firmly drawn when I cannot make a fire in my camp. I understand the ethics of leave no trace and its my position some traces are inevitable and more desirable than others.
It is my not so humble opinion that a camp without a fire is a dark, damp, cold and generally cheerless place where one would go to suffer rather than celebrate. A tight tent, a cheery blaze and a percolating pot of coffee is the most welcome sight at the end of the day during fall moose season and there might even be a slice of backstrap, or a salmon, or a fat trout on that fire if the day has been especially good. In the morning, the smell of woodsmoke and bacon go so well together that I argue they were made for each other. Even coffee tastes better with a sprinkle of ash in it. Those of you in the know- understand every word I've just spoken.
I understand that a lot of backpackers and other wilderness users don't generally like fires and sometimes hunters will cold camp for reasons that confound me but most humans take to fire like a duck takes to water. I also understand that certain areas (Appalachian Trail comes to mind) sustain such high use that fires are simply impractical as there isn't enough dead fall to fuel them. But for all that, fire does something for a human being. Its one of the most comfortable things in the wilderness and our mastery of fire is one of the things that sets our species apart from all others. Arguably fire is the earliest form of technology applied by mankind. Why all of a sudden this disrespect for fire? Would Prometheus suffer for nothing?
Some of the reasons cited included "trashing the wilderness" in the form of fire rings and "habitat destruction" in the form of burning dead falls and even "pollution" in the form of smoke. But I must confess I think the reason is pure obstinacy. Folks like to think they are leaving no trace when they abstain from fire but that's not exactly true. That environmental impact is simply deferred. That spanky backpacker stove runs on something and that something is generally alcohol (methanol mostly made from wood and a damned lot of it) or compressed gases (generally isobutane or LP) from such a gentle source as an entire petroleum refinery. Compared to a petrochemical plant my tiny fire is practically benign in environmental impact.
Point being that "leave no trace" is an impossibility for all manner of creatures but unlike a grizzly who'll excavate a house foundation size hole to eat a ground squirrel, humans have some kinda choice on what type of footprint we'll leave behind. It's my position that a properly managed campfire is treading pretty lightly on this earth when all things are considered.