Signal Fires

Winter Solstice, 2017

Dim gray dusk of December.

I’ve been logging, a hundred yards northwest of the old house site.

Ready to be done for the day,

I pile slash, squirt diesel from a dish-soap bottle.

Fumble with a frozen lighter, then give up and turn to matches. 

One flares and dies, drops from my fingers into the snow.

The next one catches and I cradle it, touch it to a tendril.

A tiny flame,

slowly spreading. 


Three wall logs are stacked beside the trail,

and a big post log fifteen inches on the butt.

Skidoo, bobsled, chainsaw, hard hat,

and the coveralls I shucked when I finally warmed up.

All illumined in the circle of firelight now,

and I leap back from a sudden lash of flame.

Sparks and embers shoot skyward.

The pile begins to roar and crackle.


Firewood twice, I chuckle to myself — not many trees get that distinction!

Burned and left standing on the Fourth of July, three years back,

now seasoned, felled and limbed,

the logs to build with and the slash to burn,

on what does feel like the darkest night of the year.


I squint and step back farther as the fire builds, sends arcs and waves of flame nearly twenty feet up, gathers strength and goes completely out of control, so intense that now the very center of it is a pulsing black-orange orb of hot gas, like a miniature sun, a sphere of heat beyond any number I could try to put on it.  It is heat and flame unbridled, wild and way past taming.  It bears about as much resemblance to a campfire now as Virginia Falls does to a lawn sprinkler.

Peering into the heart of it, mesmerized by heat and roar and light, my thoughts swing suddenly to cremation, although I have never really fancied that as aftermath to my own demise. My preference runs more toward the “sky burial” of the Tibetans or the Plains tribes, high on a scaffold, gradually losing all my parts and pieces to raven, maggot, and wolverine. Tonight, though, gazing straight into the molten heart of this blaze, weary after a day in the dimly lit cold of this season, I am seduced by the allure of this hot purity, the appeal of such an utter and rapid transformation to nothing but hot gases, sharp crackle, bright light, and – at cool dawn the morning after – a few scoops of fine pale grit.  Maybe a Viking burial, true to my ancestry, cast off aboard a kindling-stacked wooden boat long past its useful life (I wouldn’t approve of burning a usable boat just for a send-off. You got that, family?) —  torched just as an offshore wind pushed it out onto the wide expanse of McLeod Bay – fire and water, air and steam and smoke – and, hey, no grit to fuss with the day after! 

My brief and somewhat morbid reverie ends as quickly as it came on. The final throes of dusk have given way to full dark, and out here “full dark” on a cloudy December night is dark with a capital D. But this was the second big slash fire I have torched off tonight, and the snow-scape just north of our cluster of buildings is now widely bright.  Such a surreal expanse of firelight is a thrill, especially in this season, and I gaze around at outcrop, hillock, and the stark surrounding forest of still more fire-killed standing timber. To the south the light reaches all the way to the white-drift sculpted roofs of our buildings.  All thirty huskies in the dog yard have started to howl, as they do when anything is out of the ordinary in their perceptions of this little outpost. With that sound as background, it all feels ancient and pagan, as if we were starting into a ritual far beyond the burning of slash and piling of cabin logs.

Kristen has walked up the path from the workshop, to find me and stand by the fire.

“Signal fires,” I say to her.

“Yeah, I wasn’t sure which one you were tending.” 

“Neither. There’s no tending these bad boys.”  

“Ed Dallas would be happy.  Remember how he was always wanting to light big signal fires up on the cliffs of the Kahochella – that, and shouting for echoes?”  We smile, thinking of a canoe trip 25 years ago, and of Ed. “And what are we signaling tonight, my dear?”

“Not sure. That we, the two-leggeds, can make fire? That we’re alive?  That it’s December?”

After she walks away, I stand and bask in the heat a while longer, then start the skidoo and haul the logs and tools down to the work-yard by the sawmill. 

Thinking still about her question – What are we signaling tonight? 

— That in this dark and cold, it’s a deep pleasure to set loose such an abundance of heat and light? 

— That we’ve arrived?

— That we’re still here? 

— That we’re staying?


“If, in North America, the Native Americans will grant white people, Asian people, black people, the right to be in love with the land, then – as much as the newcomers must grant the indigenous people the dignity and the respect coming to them – we have a start.”

– Gary Snyder, in a 1994 letter to Julia Martin — from his book Nobody Home  




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