Spin the Globe with Justin Butner

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Zen and the Art of Fire Preparation

On the Queen’s Birthday* I was out in the woods camping with a group I didn’t particularly know. And after heavy drinking and a roaring fire the night before I expected both a hangover and coals to await me. Both did in only the slightest degree.

I woke to a light sky, though a cloudy one, and a bit of dehydration cured with a quick glass of water. Solidly awake despite the lack of sleep, my brain was only slightly clearer than the sky. What exactly had we been talking about last night? What was the plan for today? What was my plan for the rest of the trip? What did I want out of it? Out of life? Where would I be next? Next day? Next month? Next year? Was I happy? What would make me happy? Was I lonely? Was I floating? The questions didn’t come quickly or as clearly, or even really surface at all, but they were there floating around. Some I had already come to ask myself to no avail. Some were still waiting to be uncovered though they had already started to leave me with a sense of something being amiss. Largely, I just didn’t know and didn’t know how to know.

I did know one thing. I wanted an early start on the day. Eager to get back to town for a concert, I had no interest in the day starting at noon, especially since it was only seven and I was wide awake.

Fire. I could make fire. That would be productive and relaxing.

The coals from last night were largely burned out. The fire ring had ash and some cold coals. Under the surface there was warmth, but not excessively. I stirred it around with a twig. Then with my hand. Warm, but not hot. A couple embers and a dull radiance.

I retrieved an inch thick branch from under the car, broke it in half and lay the pieces side by side about five inches apart and pressed them into the ash. Between them I scraped out a trench. Any heat between them would stay there, reflected back and forth, breathing in fresh oxygen from the ends.

Next I consolidated all of the twigs and bits that had broken off of the wood from the past couple nights. They were all wet from the rain. I broke off sections a few inches long and lay them over the two poles in the pit. A long house, solid walls, thatched roof. Small twigs a millimeter across first, then a couple millimeters. Then the few that were a centimeter across. A long house build on top of a warm ground, insulating and reflecting the heat. And above the long house was the log still hanging over the fire pit, reflecting any escaped heat back down again.

Then I went off to collect any more branches and logs I could find. A couple good size pieces of firewood. And a collection of inch or two thick branches that would be considered large kindling. All of it wet from the overnight drizzle. Nothing with any hope of starting any time soon. These ended up in a lattice around the perimeter of the fire pit, a polyhedron frame of assorted sizes of damp wood.

By this point the kindling had all dried out over the heat. Still nothing glowing. Still nothing sparking. But it had dried, and that was enough.

I sat back in a chair next to the fire pit and ripped a piece of the bark off of the overhanging log. The perfect kind, not too hard and brittle, but old and stringy. Using my nails I worked a sliver off and shredded it further. Then another. Then another. Each bit of fibrous bark got balled up. I opened a hole in the thatched roof, put the ball of bark in, and moved the sticks back. Then again, in a different place. After another ten minutes, the long house was half full of shredded bark, between two dry reflecting logs and under a roof of tinder. I angled more inch and two inch thick branches against the overhanging log, forming a tall A-frame house over the squat long-house.

Still, nothing glowed. Nothing was so hot I couldn’t touch it.

About forty minutes had passed since I started. I thought of nothing but the next step in fire preparation. My mind did not wander. Each step was the sole thing in my brain, and it was of central importance. No question about the next step came. As each bit was completed, the next step was automatic. My mind was focused on what I was doing without stress or thinking through it.

I sat back, at peace. I knew I had built it. And I knew that soon, it would come. I did not need paper. I did not need a match. I did not even need dry wood. And I did not need to blow on the embers to kick them up. It would happen soon enough.

Five minutes later, smoke.

Five minutes after, fire.

Twenty minutes more, glowing embers.

Another twenty minutes and despite the fact that only small sizes of wet wood had been used the fire was radiating more heat than it had been all weekend. I had to move chairs back so they didn’t melt.

Fire is my meditation.

* Queen’s Birthday celebrated in Australia on June 11 this year.

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This entry was posted on June 20, 2012 by in Australia, NSW (Sydney) and tagged , .

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