Firelight in the
A backpacking trip to the solitary wilderness in southwestern Washington feeds my love of campfires.
e make our ascent up the short, but steep 3 mile trail into the Dark Divide Roadless area of southwest Washington’s Cascade mountains.
I had asked my backpacking friends to plan one trip this summer with moderate daily mileage. I wasn’t sure how my ankle would hold up after they rescued me in a backpacking accident three years ago. But really, it wasn’t so much the mechanics of my ankle, but the dread.
I carry that dread with me up the slope, until the rim. Then, wildflowers and alpine butterflies, views of Mount Adams, Mount St. Helens, and Rainier looming in the background. “You see that knob right there,” Eric says, pointing at an insignificant column of stone below the peak. “That’s taller than Mount Hood.”
It’s a reminder of the outsized nature of the Cascades in Washington — our mountains in Oregon are knowable, countable — not true of Washington’s ranges, which from this vantage point feels like an infinite sea of peaks and valleys.
It’s bright, and hot—over 90 degrees fahrenheit—but, almost immediately when we get to our camp on the ridge, Tim starts picking up scraps of wood and tinder, organizing, preparing for the campfire.
Is that wood-collecting an innate instinct in some people? Most of my years traveling on my own, and setting up a tent at roadside campsites, I just forego the campfire altogether - maybe not even thinking of it all, falling asleep to the halogen bulb of a headlamp.
ric has uncovered three cans of low-calorie Pabst Blue Ribbon, tucked away under a bush. Consumed by the thought of whether those sun and weather worn cans are safe to drink, he ponders them, for just a little too long.
While the afternoon heat cranks up to a blistering ninety-five degrees, it is almost tortuous, but we all know that evening is around the corner. And when the air cools and the low sun lights up the peaks around us, there is that smell, that singular smell. It is a smell that is all good things; more than just nostalgia, the smell of the campfire being lit.
The world has its share of smells that evoke nostalgic memories, smells that make you yearn for more of what they remind you of. The smell of marine gas, the smell of cut grass and lawn mower oil. The sharp botanical odor of marsh plants in early autumn, and the peaty smell of duckweed-filled swamps in the heart of summer. Garlic and butter on the pan in the morning. Botanical and asphalt petrichor after a spring rain. We learn those smells, and we become bound to them over time; they signal patterns of memories that waft with them, becoming stronger over time.
But not the scent of a lit campfire, it is not learned. We love that smell as a toddler, and we love it as much as an adolescent. We adore it in mid-age, our lure to it is unchanging and universal. Is the love of the smell of campfire innate, or even instinct?
ur shared meal is falafel. Everybody carries the light load in their packs. Eric, the pita, Tim the falafel mix, Jon the heirloom tomatoes and cucumbers, and I, the hummus. Such a simple meal, but next to a campfire in a mountain meadow, a thing of beauty.
When Eric holds up one of those low-calorie PBR’s, weighing the risks, just for a moment in the shadow cast by the fire, he appears paleolithic, archaic, suggestive of cave-dwelling pre-human.
“Can I eat this?”, would have been a common, almost constant thought among our earliest ancestors, before the age of the campfire.
The earliest hominids were sort of transitional between upright woodland dwellers and creatures of the tree. They spent time walking partially upright, but they also spent a great deal of time in trees. They probably slept there, in leafy and stick nests similar to squirrel homes we see in treetops today. They foraged there, comfortably picking fruits and other foods, probably their minds filled with local botanical knowledge, but also asking themselves, “Can I eat this?” all day long.
These early human ancestors were entirely vegetarian; their digestive systems would not have even been able to process meat. They were probably more solitary, consuming most of their time picking arboreal treats.
But, as hominids began their transition from tree to ground, they began to discover carnivory.
Scavenging meat in the forest meant more time on the ground, and more time on the ground meant, well, everything to the future of the human race.
he ground would mean that pre-humans would begin to understand large group behaviors; working together and employing methods of group communication, all of which would have been advantageous on the new horizontal habitat, where forest predators dwelled.
Social cooperation and an omnivorous diet led to the complete change of the digestive system and even the structure of the modern human body; the ground led pre-humans towards true bipedalism.
This evolution was leading up to, and then happening alongside the most important thing in human history —some anthropologists believe that the most essential and defining characteristics of the evolution of man, as well as the culture of man, all revolved around this one thing: the campfire.
Pre-humans would have seen lightning strikes out on the savannah, the resulting bushfires burned scavengable meat into something that you no longer had to ask, “can I eat this?”
Long before fire-starting techniques, pre-humans would learn to take a burning log back home. Communally, embers could be fed and coaxed to live for months.
In this age, where cooperation and communal lifestyles were necessitated by new foraging, scavenging and hunting tactics, the campfire became the center of life. No longer did pre-humans hide in the safety of their trees, but communicated, learned to make music, discuss politics, gossip and laugh under the protection of ground predator’s worst enemy - the campfire, while cooking meals that were collaboratively brought home.
During the age of the campfire, communication and language, cunning and humor, strategy and camaraderie all intermingled in a shared life by the warmth of a fire. The campfire imposed advanced communication and social interaction onto the arc of human evolution, and this is the time in which the human brain swelled in size - rapidly by evolutionary standards - to meet the demands of a socialized group.
n the arc of human evolution, there are fragments of our distant ancestors - our internal organs, our bones, our every fabric is a long story of fish and amphibians and tiny quadrupeds scurrying in the underbrush. But if our humanity stands on the shoulders of all the organisms that led to us, the one thing that makes us us is that orange light in the night.
In the Dark Divide, summertime brings off-road motorcyclists and rock climbers during the day. But few backpackers, especially in this August heat. We’re the only ones out here. Our solitary campfire is a single orange light, a hummingbird’s heartbeat under a sea of galactic starlight.
With just a single campfire, it’s easy to imagine a nighttime landscape with none at all. As summers in the West roar with climate-change fueled wildfires, the threat of more campfire bans looms. All of us in the West now know the stories - a firecracker, the metal of a bare wheel scraping against the road, a mismanaged campfire - sends billowing smoke, dooming towns and futures. As we struggle to replace third world carbon-emitting soot stoves and agricultural woodburning with more carbon-neutral practices, I have to wonder about the future of campfires. Our children will remember that smell, that sound, that joy of friendship and peace, but will theirs?
n the media, there is always that story of something we will lose to climate change. Chocolate will become more scarce! Fine wine from this region or that will grow less fine! Olives will not produce the same quality olive oil! All of these data points are not unimportant to the industries or climate researchers studying them, but these stories seem superfluous as something served to the general public, because they present a chance for the general reader to distill climate into the loss of simple luxuries. The more difficult, but relevant journalism would distill the actual consequences.
So, as stories begin to creep out in the media - will there be campfires in the future? - I am conflicted about whether I should disdain these stories too.
But no, it is not the same. If we fail to control our emissions, we will lose what made us human.
Jon, who travels to far flung towns for work, is telling us a story about a time when a gun was pulled on him. I can see in the dim glow of the campfire that Eric and Tim are as entranced as I am by this story. In the darkness, his story comes alive.
The first stories ever told must have been like this one. Under the enchantment of the flames, our earliest ancestors told the first stories - travel narratives: I walked out onto the savannah, and across the valley, and there was a large cat. I hid beneath the rock, and he sniffed for me but did not find me. When he left I snuck up the ridge to safety and foraged these fruits.
The smell of the campfire is not nostalgia, it is our innate connection to our prehistory. May our grandchildren see and hear and smell and imagine under the glow of the firelight.