A few semesters back, I took a group of USF undergraduates to the Suwannee for an overnight paddle. We camped at one of the Water Management District's shelters. It was chilly, though not unusually cold for north Florida. My students had shown up in t-shirts and flip flops. While in class I can barely pry them off their cell phones, though few had thought to check their devices for the forecast in Live Oak. They were freezing.
Thankfully we had Nina Shand.
I consider myself a skilled fire maker, but compared to Nina, I am a novice. Her uncle, from New Hampshire, schooled her in woodcraft as a young girl. For a while, Nina was working at Pathfinder, an outdoor ed program in south St. Pete, before Covid cut into their funding. Now she teaches middle school, though her heart is the woods, and she's ready to get back to outdoor classrooms.
The next months offer prime campfire weather, so my wife Julie and I asked Nina to drop by for a refresher course.
A good fire starts with the wood. When Nina appeared at our back gate, I was splitting some pieces that I had purchased last July from a tree service. It does not matter where your firewood comes from, so long as you let it season. In the past I went to the dump with my kid. That worked fine. And my favorite wood was salvaged from our old garage, which we had to tear down because of leaning; those chunks of fat pine were saplings during the Seminole Wars.
Even though my wood came quartered, I split the pieces further with my favorite axe—a nicely balanced Fiskars, with a synthetic handle and a blade sharper than sewing sheers. (Unpaid product endorsement.)
I loaded up my wheelbarrow.
Nina got to work. First she scoured the yard for twigs. Then she pulled from a palm some monkey fur (the filaments under the jacks) for starter.
We briefly talked outdoor fireplaces. Mine was a Christmas present from my mother, who loves to shop. These things rust out every few years, which works fine for our family—when this one goes, I'll ask my mom for a new one. You can dig your own fire place, I suppose, but the brick-lined-pit-in-the-ground rarely provides air circulation, and succeeds mostly in blowing smoke.
I lobby for a safe, secure fireplace with a screen top.
Nina prebuilds, with an almost architectural attention to detail, taking three times longer than I would. The monkey fur goes on bottom. She then hooks smaller twigs over the pile, forming a kind of Quonset hut. Above that, more sticks. And finally, an interlocking ring of thick kindling around the base.
We agreed that materials can vary. For starter, I usually shred the cardboard from an old pasta box, or maybe the carton of a Cigar City twelve-pack. (Another product endorsement!) The pages from last week's Creative Loafing Tampa Bay, twisted into balled knots, also work. And my favorite camping trick is to grill with briquettes, eat dinner, then tinder the fire over the waiting coals.
But structure is key. A good fire has three elements. Fuel, heat, and air. Some would add a fourth element, lighter fluid, though it's hard to see the poetry there.
After the core heats up and the outer pieces start to crackle, Nina makes a crucial shift, from teepee (or Quonset hut) to log cabin. Any blowing on the flames must be careful; set your nose right in there, as close as possible without singing your eyebrows, and pucker up, pushing a steady breath towards the bottom.
And now, add wood. Concentrate the coals, stacking larger pieces like Lincoln Logs around the coals. Keep the kindling close at hand and organized by size. With larger pieces, add some smaller brush on top; that pulls the flames out to catch the heavier logs.
Now one reaches a crucial point of the evening. The Lincoln Log structure will yield ample heat and flame, though it also tears through fuel. I am cheap and like to conserve my larder. So for our smaller party, Nina builds up, shaping the fire to a more economical pyramid.
And to the final stage. With friends and family settled around any well-constructed fire, the flames will eventually die down. A campfire brings community, equity even, which means that some yahoo will take it upon himself to toss on unneeded wood.
Inevitably, the carefully structured fire gets trashed. An unsplit log lands across the middle, and where there were flames five minutes earlier, now there is smoke.
How one addresses this affront varies between individuals. Being passive, then quick to anger, I typically watch my work get destroyed, wait out the botched recovery, then grudgingly rebuild. Nina claims these mistakes as teachable moments, posing Socratic questions—"Where do you think the best spot for that log would have been?"
Such patience means that Nina is not only the better fire builder, but I guess ... the better person.
We agree on one point, however. Winter in Florida is a glorious time. Any spare moment spent indoors misses the very point of living here. The next few months promise warm days, followed by cool nights.
Few things pull us together around one place like a well-made fire. We warm ourselves from the sunlight of lost and forgotten seasons.
Surely there's a lesson here.
Thomas Hallock teaches English and Florida Studies at the University of South Florida in St. Petersburg. His book A Road Course in Early American Literature: Travel and Teaching from Atzlán to Amherst (roadcourse.us) comes out this February.
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