Sometimes life delivers an extraordinary perfect moment, usually unexpected and always unannounced. One such moment was recently delivered to me.
Throughout the year I had been in the practice of gathering fallen sticks into a clearing for a fire. Branches that fell from the trees that were too big for the compost and too small for the fireplace found their way to the fire pit, although it wasn’t a pit at all but a clearing on the ground.
I’m a cautious fire tender. I wait until the ground is damp and there is no wind. Still I clear and hose down the ground around the fire spot. On the first cool day that meets my standards, I build a small fire and slowly burn the collected brush. Sometimes friends and family are around and we sacrifice a few marshmallows to the fire gods.
A few years ago, I was alone on the perfect fire day and so began my ritual burning. As I added new brush in small amounts, the flames and smoke leapt high with a few dried leaves still clinging to their mightier branches. I stood by with rake in hand doing what a fire tender does—watching. But this year was different—we had new students living next door.
I paid no attention when the fire engine passed our house. We live on a corner of 38th St., which is a main thoroughfare for emergency vehicles of all types.
When the fire truck turned on my side street, I looked up to see where it was headed. Oh no, I thought, there must be a fire in the neighborhood. The truck however, stopped next to my house. Towering over my fence, one fireman yelled, “There it is!” Like the emperor with no clothes, I looked around for the fire.
A cadre of firemen in full regalia walked up my driveway and into my back yard. I was standing next to my perfectly-under-control small campfire, leaning on my fire tool of choice—the rake. It was at that moment that I finally got the picture. They had found their fire and it was me.
We stood by the (very) docile fire discussing the many ways I was breaking the law. Yep, I was the creator and tender of an illegal fire. My new neighbors had become alarmed at the smoke and called for help. Within city limits, a fire must be contained in a receptacle appropriate to fires and must be used for cooking. You must also be burning only natural wood and not trash or construction debris. I was looking at no trash but no cooking and no container. One out of three isn’t too good. The illegal fire had to be extinguished.
The captain ordered his men to carefully carry the fire hose over my flowerbeds, for which I am eternally grateful. They doused my fire with one short burst and left me with a sooty pile of half burned wood. Two weeks later I knocked on the door of the fire station to discuss the definition of “receptacle.”
Turns out there are many appropriate receptacles including a hole in the ground. Ah ha, a fire pit was exactly what my little kingdom needed.
I build a fire pit the following spring, digging a hole four feet in diameter and three feet deep. I lined it with leftover pavers from my driveway and laid a limestone wreath above on the ground with three rounded points which held three substantial tree stumps for sitting. It’s topped by a huge welded grate—for grilling of course. It’s rough around the edges and looks somewhat ceremonial. It’s been described as a medieval thing.
On a recent Saturday I was expecting my neighbors for our quarterly potluck gathering of the hood. Potluck this time meant bring something for the grill. I had started the fire in the late afternoon since it generally takes three hours to burn it down to cooking coals.
Now there are bad fires—those that get out of control or never amount to anything. There are mediocre fires that do the job but just aren’t impressive. And then there is the perfect fire. It begins with the right architecture and selection of branches. Timing on additional materials is crucial. If done correctly, a really good fire is like a divine meal. You can fill your stomach with dry oats but when the flavors and textures of a culinary repast come together as passion in art, well, who wants dry oats?
I had built such a fire on this day and was letting it burn down now for grilling. Our guests had yet to arrive as I pulled up a chair to enjoy my creation.
The weather was cool but not cold. The sun was just beginning to set and the sky displayed our own violet crown. I was listening to the soundtrack from the movie “Frida” (excellent film, stunning music). I also held a glass of my new favorite wine, a Frescobaldi.
The warmth of the fire settled into a radiating mellow heat. The music drifted with ancient voices singing words I could not understand but with a passionate intensity that spoke clearly. At that moment I was alone and enveloped with the moment. I thought, “This is it. This is all there is and it is enough.” I had been the recipient of a totally perfect moment.
Originally published in The Good Life magazine