One person gathers sticks, while another clears a space on the forest floor. A third collects stones to line the space, and the last strikes the match and starts the campfire.
This modern ritual is played out countless times during campouts, and soon all the companions are sitting around the fire, laughing, or sharing philosophies, or telling stories of past years.
We all know that campfires hold a certain kind of magic. Around the flames, people start to open up. They share things they wouldn’t have shared a few hours ago during a daylight hike. They wonder about life, and the nature of reality, and why males have nipples. Strange and wonderful conversations ensue.
This modern ritual, of course, really has only one modern element, which is the match. If we hearken back to older times, that fire was urged out of two pieces of wood by means of friction, and considerably more work went into making the flames.
Perhaps that made fire more precious, but even though in modern times campfires are easier to make, they are also much rarer. In our world of microwaves and climate-controlled buildings and campfire restrictions, we don’t get to sit around a campfire every day. Many of us will see a campfire only once a year, or even less. And as campfires become less and less common, we might find that we are missing something vital in our lives.
Anthropologist Polly W. Wiessner spent over 170 days living with the Kung Bushman in Botswana. She found that during the day, their conversations were rather mundane, but in the evenings around the campfire, people started sharing interesting things, just as they still do today. This is an ancient human experience, and conversations held through social media or texting or video calls just aren’t the same.
There’s something visceral and evocative about those flames and the way they shift a person’s features, send an occasional spark onto someone’s lap, and create a mysterious shadow-play on the nearby trees.
There are many such things that are fading away. Our technology is a wonderful gift, yet as it moves unseen into our lives, it quietly pushes out aspects of the human experience that we may never regain. Are campfires and hunting and tree climbing and making forts in the woods just normal experiences that we can take or leave? Or do we indeed lose something if we forget the magic of those dancing evening flames?