Several July 4ths ago, when travel was possible…
Pine burns hot, fast and faster – tumbling headlong, embracing immolation in a hissing, spitting rush. It makes good kindling for harder species like oak and ash, a satisfying crackle of resinous sputters like tiny solar flares igniting the denser, longer-burning woods. I’ve spent the past several days of the stateside visit in a rite of passage – memories of my father, the sound of his voice and manner cascading inside my head – instructing my sons in the mysteries and intricacies of building a fire. Madeleine toddled along as well, but I’m not sure how much of the lesson will stay. We walk out to the pine woods that fringe the meadow to collect windfall or crack off the dead, dry lower branches – this has proved an excellent time filling/killing adventure.
“Comme ça, papa?” Holding their hands apart at the length I’ve specified.
“Oui, et no thicker than your finger…”
We trundle our bundles back to the firepit, build a small teepee over crumpled news of the day, layering first the fingerling pine, then thicker boughs gathered beneath the apple and cherry trees, finally a pyramid of splintery oak wedges, split and seasoned in Pappy’s drying shed.
We do this in late afternoon, while we still have light, slanting sun the honeyed harbinger of coming dusk. We’re planning on s’mores, another important rite, so the ritual of finding the perfect roasting stick ensues – not too short, not too long, greenwood so it doesn’t catch fire in the reaching flames.
And it’s gotten me thinking about things I’ve taken for granted –
It´s never occurred to me that my children might grow up not knowing how to build a campfire, go to bed in sweatshirts smelling of woodsmoke, or whittle a willow switch to roast marshmallows. I’ve always assumed they would have an upbringing similar to my fairly traditional, squarely Rockwell, Midwestern American Gothic. And I know sans doubt that much of my father and grandfathers, mother and grands will filter through my days – they are tightly wound in my warp and weft and inform in ways I will never know or note. But my Ohio summer was the scent of pine trees and clover, fresh cut grass, honeysuckle, and sun-warmed suburban asphalt (pig farms when the just right/just wrong wind blew in from the southeast).
Its sounds were distant trains, the ice cream truck, squealing games of hide and seek while dodging the scything headlights of evening cars. I remember it as joyful and breathless, full of wonder and running and fireflies, and rainstorms, and running, and running and running.
And now we’ve made some life decisions that leave all that squarely in the rear view. We’ve traded Ohio river valley for Rhône delta. Here the summer soundtrack is chisel on stone, carousel pipes, seagulls off the quai, and the creak and clatter of wooden shutters in the Mistral. The wind carries rosemary and woodsmoke, river’s edge, morning bread, and the familiar, pungent odor of horses and bulls that stampede through town during feria. It’s not terribly alien, but it is different. I’ve yet to see fireflies, although there is a French word for them (luciole), so I can hope.
The absence of a thing is often easy to overlook, and things will be easy to let go. The absence of a person can be difficult, painful, from shard-sharp stab to neverending ache. And it is the people we leave behind, whom we will see far less often, and some – being honest – probably never again, that will leave a lacework of tiny holes.
So we cling to rituals and rites because we can. Because they’re in our bones in any case. We find comfort in echoes and dancing shadows.
My children will make campfires in the Luberon, we’ll even attempt s’mores…graham crackers aren’t really a thing there, so we’ll use McVite’s Wholemeal Digestive Biscuits, a British import and a fine substitute; the chocolate will be better, and the marshmallows will be smaller. And pink. Most likely start the fire with vine clippings, just as eager to conflagrate as pine, and the smoke adds a flinty whisper of the terroir. It will be, like so many of the aspects annointing the days to come, a wholly new thing – partly of the old and somewhat of the new – and hopefully, eventually, perfect. Or at least it will become perfect as the echoes fade.
For tonight…we will stay up later than planned, talk and stare into the flames tumbled to embers until there’s nothing left to say, and swaddle in woodsmoke shirts, a hint of damp from the dew fall. I won’t launder them before we fly home, let this echo linger a little longer, maybe confuse the dogs at customs.
Life is good.