Tending the Fire

The breeze, the salt breeze, the fresh breeze, the one that comes off of the Gulf, interrupted by nothing but the bristling silhouettes of oil rigs, rolls across the shifting peaks and valleys of the waterscape, beyond the piled rocks of the breakwaters and comes ashore on the beach of Grand Isle, where I am sitting slouched in a camp chair, sipping a beer and tending a small fire. The colors here filter a tired tan through my sunglasses and leak more blue around the sepia edges of the lenses. But its mostly browns: water and sand, washed out by a shadeless light that burns white but still lends reds and yellows and all kinds of tints to the brush of the seashore, the blasted powder of the sky, and the moisture laden air that pales the intense blue and green and gold of the tent, of the cooler, of the beer cans crumpled in the sand. It is just before noon, the Sunday before Mardi Gras. This beach is only bearable because it is February, cool enough to wear long sleeves, but not so much as to preclude sitting barefoot, soles facing the warm little flames of the two log fire.

There is a picnic table here, slowly being consumed by the drifting sand, where my wife is cooking lunch on a camp stove. The smell of chili mixes with the woodsmoke doggedly following me no matter where in the course of the wind I place my chair. There is no plan today, no goals. Nothing to do or see. Today this fire is my task, and this chili, these beers my fuel, just as these logs piled here are the fire’s fuel. My world is defined by the crackling of flame at my feet, the calling of birds, and the rolling crash of the breeze-roughened surf a few dozen feet away. But there is also the world inspired by the flame and the water, the world connected by these most basic of elements to me, to the world inside my head, a world that stretches beyond the confines of comprehension, of history and time. There lay a world common to us al, defined by the ancient craft of fire tending.

Ancient crafts persist in our modern world, they pervade our lives in hidden ways and link us across the ages. These habits have been around so long we have evolved with them; they have formed every bit of our modern world. We have been tending fires for millennia, cooking our food, warming our feet and casting light on the varied walls of our shelters. We domesticated fire before we domesticated dogs, and from this partnership blossomed hundreds of thousands of years of steady, if violent, progress toward an end which remains as unknown to us today as it was when we first gathered around the yellow tongues of flame. But if fire has failed to grant us wisdom, it has shown us a path. The most remarkable thing began to happen when we gathered: we began to speak, to tell stories, and to stare into the shimmering embers and, for the first time, we began to think without direction, without explicit purpose. We began to discover that the world was not limited to what we could see, it included too a landscape within, just as bountiful and just as mysterious as that without.

The smaller log on the fire has grown black and cracks open, collapsing into a bed of coals that dance red and orange with the shards of breeze curling into the pit. With care (the little hairs on my knuckles were already lost in the lighting process) I stoop over the embers and place another log across the flames, shifting it gingerly here and there to catch the best of the heat. There are the little worried moments, the breathless waiting anxiety that somehow the fire will not take, but slowly the wood curls at the splinters and catches alight, following the grain up and down the log. The fire grows, the flames continue on, and with relief I crack open a new beer and slouch back into the folds of the chair.

We eat our chili out of familiar scratched and dented bowls, the sound of scraping spoons conjures the memory of tending other fires in other landscapes. Forests, rivers, deserts, islands, mountains: diverse places, experienced in a variety of lives, unified by the warmth of flame. Not just our lives but the lives of countless hunters and travelers in this land, perhaps even this very beach. The thousands of years of meals, the conversations over these flames and charred relic bones are only conjecture, but the last thirty years or so of my fireside meals are firmly planted in memory. The time as a boy, gathering brittle pine twigs for kindling in the red earth of Mississippi hills and discovering the abundance of life within the needles of the forest floor. The church events, the family campouts, bonfires with friends, these all kind of blur together for years. But there is also the little fire in the gypsy tent in Kashmir, the weak tea, and the lesson of communication without speaking. And waiting starving in the rain on another island of the Gulf coast for foil pouches in the coals to hiss an announcement that it was time to eat.

Resting, later, dishes washed in seawater drying in the early afternoon sun, we speak as people speak around a fire and I set another log into the embers. Time passes measured in words exchanged with increasing excitement and heartfelt investment. These words, these conversations, they mean something; they carry the weight of mystery given voice for the first time, recognized and identified and traced into patterns that can be for once described. But ultimately, no matter how noble and engrossing the subject, this is not a place for speaking for the sake of words. Conversation is destined to fall silent at some point in the face of these glistening embers, these translucent flames crackling in the sunlight against the surf and the birds radiating the feeling of not needing to feel. The openness, this absence of necessity embraces me and I lay back, head against the curled cloth chair back and stare up as the pale clouds whisper by.

Another hour and another and another, a few more logs on the fire, its size constant, it’s warmth even. Our conversations ebb and flow like the surf that’s been humming so low, so steady that most of the time we don’t even recognize it. The calls of birds and the crackle of fire, the rush of the wind in the reeds, the occasional playing child’s distant laughter all mix together with the surf and make the background of our day, and we manage to both hear and not hear it between every word and every breath. It is a big sound, massive, but not intense, in fact remarkably gentle, a whisper, if an omnipresent one, and this constant whisper, along with the day’s changing light, build the scene we watch unfold over the fire for hours upon hours without fanfare or ceremony or anything in particular to even remember.

This is peace. Not silence and not the peace that comes from emptiness, but the peace that comes from the low atmospheric hum, from everything being just full enough, from just existing for the sake of it. The peace of satisfaction: not the ecstasy of happiness, but the acceptance of reality. This reality crawls through the tail of the day slowly, the light fading, the sunset unremarkable. I’m not looking west anyway, I’m looking, as I have been all day, at the fire. In this manner the day falls to dusk, the fire, though I have faithfully maintained it at the same two log level all day, grows brighter. The orange from the sky is replaced by the orange from the fire and this first obvious mark of the passage of time shifts the peaceful stasis of the day to a reality more unsettling.

Because I know that like this day, the world is dying, that we are all dying. But I also know that like the embers of this fire, this slow death is beautiful, it releases sustaining warmth in its demise. I know that we will eventually run out of wood, run out of beer, run out of time. This fire will die and only ashes in the sand will remain. We will pack our tent and cooler into the car. We will leave this place, driving north on LA 1, cross the long causeway of the Fourchon bridge and get on the back road. Where that road ends in Larose we will cross the bayou to LA 308 and drive north, winding with the water to our left all the way to highway 90. From there we will traverse woods and swamps and canals and cane fields and the memory of all that once was until we reach Interstate 310. Quickly over the river, through the cypress forest to I-10 and past the floodwalls into the mire of the city. Dodging trucks and cars and shopping mall traffic we will merge onto 610 and at St Bernard we will exit, take a right, and return to the chaos of the city, the chaos of life. And so on and on until one day, like the fire, we will die.