I visited a campfire last week in Oregon, guitar in one hand, wine in the other. It’s been a long time since I’ve done that, and it made me recall other campfires:

Camping in the Rocky Mountains where the fire fends off the chill and coyotes howl  just beyond the flickering light;

Sitting near a fragrant pecan wood fire at a music festival where every person within the range of smoke plays some instrument and knows all the words to three hundred songs;

Tiny backyard fires, high school bonfires, cooking fires, and fires mostly to discourage mosquitoes. Humans have gathered around burning wood since saber toothed tigers lurked in the shadows. In those thousands of years, we’ve developed an entire culture and language for the tiny world lit by flames.

At its most basic, we gather for warmth. By gathering, we acknowledge that we’re all part of the same tribe. All the conversation and joking enforces this. That’s the sort of campfire I attended last week, and it was great fun.

When musicians gather around a fire, there is an additional layer. Music becomes a way to introduce ourselves that’s more efficient than handing out business cards or retelling our biographies. Within a few measures we can say, “I’ve spent ten thousand hours practicing this, it’s part of who I am.” The rest of us understand that immediately. We can say, yes, I know Joni Mitchell or Gordon Lightfoot or whoever– I understand all that goes along with that. We can convey that we only like certain kinds of music, or that we love all of it. Someone else might say: my family was too poor to buy musical instruments when I was a kid so I can’t play, but I love to sing and can make percussion sounds with my mouth. I’m part of your tribe.

At a music festival, everyone sitting near the fire came for the music. In that setting, we learn about the non musicians by how they listen. Some interrupt loudly, some don’t pay attention to the music at all but text and talk as if in an elevator with background music.¬† Others sip their drinks and engage in the tribe with the simple act of paying attention. They sing along, they tap their foot. Some folks are only interested in the music while they are in the spotlight themselves. Interestingly, that’s almost never the best musicians at the festival. The most polite listeners I’ve ever campfired with were headliners. Some people get their feelings hurt if you don’t think to invite them to take the guitar and try a tune. I’m afraid I’m not very good at remembering that.

It’s important that everyone around the fire drink their wine or tequila at about the same rate. Unfortunately, I tend to reach the “pounding a drum made of mammoth skin” phase much sooner than anyone else. During that phase, singing loud is at a premium and “correct chords” don’t seem so important. At some point, we usually reach the “time to load Kenn and his guitar onto the canoe and push him out into the river” portion of the evening. Luckily, I rarely remember much about that.

A complex interaction weaves itself among the swirling smoke but, to the casual observer, a bunch of people are just sitting around a fire joking with each other and singing a few tunes. I wonder if there’s a metaphor for life in there somewhere?

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