To Build a Fire

Reading Time: 5 minutes

The family of four set around the fire. They were the only campers, having arrived past the weekend, so they had their pick of campsites. They chose the one closest to the clear, cold water of Gunner Pool.

The mineral stained, one sided limestone bluffs hemmed the North Sylamore creek into a natural swimming hole. Two-hundred-year-old gnarled cedar trees crawled out of the rock faces where cracks in the stone allowed a desperate root purchase in bits of soil.

This place was the destination of the father of the family. Jack favored the valley that had been carved into the rock. The seclusion and the bluffs that rose 40 feet above the water allowed the sun to clock short days at Gunner’s Pool.  Something about it made the man peaceful.

The last rays of sunlight had passed.

“I’ve got the book ready,” Jack said, as he turned the Coleman light up as high as it would go. It hissed and flickered. He adjusted his glasses. Turning the round knob on the base of the lamp until the pump plunger came free, he pressured the liquid in the tank to gas. The delicate ceramic mantle that looked like fine lace, glowed brightly. His small yet somehow mighty frame folded gracefully into the camp chair, one leg crossed over the other.  Men of his generation sat like this. The book pages were cream colored in the fire light.


Tenuous hope weighed on the fragile family, the ramifications from the new-found sobriety that Jack was living, one day at a time.  The mother was the last to join as she finished washing dinner dishes in the cold but potable waters of the pool.


Jack was going to read to them. The family loved the man, adored him really. And this new-found attention, this nighttime reading to them, signaled a new dynamic in the family. In the glow of the fire, the words took on meanings that were as diverse as the neural pathways of the three that listened, a son, a daughter and the wife.  The smoke feathered around their heads and flowed upward, out across the rocks to the stars, dissipating into smaller and smaller independent streaks of light.


“To Build a Fire”, he started, his voice rough, the cadence of his reading was unusual and interesting. The daughter was familiar with this talent he had.  She had heard him read poetry and almost wished she had a male voice that was as commanding.

...'It was a clear day, and yet there seemed an intangible pall over the face of things, a subtle gloom that made the day dark, and that was due to the absence of sun. This fact did not worry the man. He was used to the lack of sun. It had been days since he had seen the sun, and he knew that a few more days must pass before that cheerful orb, due south, would just peep above the sky- line and dip immediately from view...'

The daughter considered the place described in the story that she had never seen.  She drew on her imagination, complementing her mental picture of the Yukon with the lack of sun at Gunner Pool and the desire she knew was found in some to always turn aside from a main trail. These thoughts informed her, interpreted for her, as the short story that Jack London penned unfolded in the rumbling words of her dad.

She turned her back to the fire, carefully warming that part of her, her strong, short legs goosebumping across the front of her knees.  Her dad continued.

'...But all this--the mysterious, far-reaching hairline trail, the absence of sun from the sky, the tremendous cold, and the strangeness and weirdness of it all--made no impression on the man. It was not because he was long used to it. He was a new-comer in the land, a chechaquo, and this was his first winter. The trouble with him was that he was without imagination. He was quick and alert in the things of life, but only in the things, and not in the significances...'

Jack would finish the short story to his family, extinguish the lantern and leave his family to their thoughts. And, lucky or blessed for the family, he would remain sober, one day at a time, until he passed from this life to the next, short of twenty years later. 

But the daughter would have three sons, and despite the fact that she would never have the timber or rhythm of her dad’s distinctive voice, she knew the value words and stories and moments that could spell their own magic.  When they were old enough she read the story out loud to her boys.

'...The dog did not know anything about thermometers. Possibly in its brain there was no sharp consciousness of a condition of very cold such as was in the man's brain. But the brute had its instinct. It experienced a vague but menacing apprehension that subdued it and made it slink along at the man's heels, and that made it question eagerly every unwonted movement of the man as if expecting him to go into camp or to seek shelter somewhere and build a fire. The dog had learned fire, and it wanted fire, or else to burrow under the snow and cuddle its warmth away from the air...'

Thirty years passed and the daughter, now the caretaker of her mother, one son in Paradise with his grandfather and two with lives of their own, all three still the joy of her heart, came across another story…

'...An hour passes. at one point, a stray thought says you should start being scared, but fear is a concept that floats somewhere beyond your immediate reach, like that numb hand lying naked in the snow. You’ve slid into the temperature range at which cold renders the enzymes in your brain less efficient. With every one-degree drop in body temperature below 95, your cerebral metabolic rate falls off by 3 to 5 percent. When your core temperature reaches 93, amnesia nibbles at your consciousness. You check your watch: 12:58. Maybe someone will come looking for you soon. Moments later, you check again. You can’t keep the numbers in your head. You’ll remember little of what happens next...'

It caused her to remember the night on the North Sylamore creek, a million moments ago and the night she read to her own sons, just a few thousand moments shorter. It made her think about reading to those you love.

Couched in sciency language that the daughter had come to love, this new story had at its core, elements consistent with what she now knew to be part of the human condition. Similar character flaws were displayed in each of the stories and the dangers of those flaws was clear. She’d lived enough decades to know how easy it was to slip away from what is true…

Complacency is not automatically dissipated by technology or accumulated knowledge.  

We humans are far more frail than we would hope or assume, and over confidence and self reliance that denies the need for community are rarely the answer to most of life’s challenges. 

There is a level of wisdom that must accompany our living this life, whether one is talking about cold or a life of meaning and purpose.  There is a requirement for time spent, somewhere, where talk is exchanged and thought can prosper. There must be occasion where companionship and difference are allowed to flow around as if they were smoke snaking tendrils swirling into our neural pathways making us who we need to be.

She reflected a bit and prayed a bit more and thought about errors of complacency she had perpetrated. She considered their ramifications and found that she was glad that in the long haul of it all, there was a way to restoration. She rejoiced in joy unmistakable that comes from love given, because she knows of greater love given her.

She had been read to on Sunday and she recalled the wisdom of which she was reminded.: “For his mercy endureth forever.”

The woman made her plans. Around a fire they would sit, and she would read outloud. 

“Josh,” Janet said to her son. “Will you build me a fire pit.”

“Yes,” he answered.

And so he did.

Addendum: Want to build your own fire?!? The magic of words and places can be yours. The two wonderful stories Janet references can be found here: To Build a Fire, by Jack London and Frozen Alive, by Peter Stark. The promise of mercy everlasting can be found in Psalm 136. You should read these outloud, to those you love.  And for the fire of your soul this wonderful Christmas season, to KNOW just how wonderful mercy everlasting is, go here.  Oh, and take a visit to Gunner Pool. For those more inclined to YouTube how to videos and you want to BUILD a fire…pit…

One Response

  1. Your world is an oyster with pen in hand. You do things with words that capture the reader in a way that leaves one thirsting for “more”. In the meantime, destiny has sadly dealt you an unexpected. With God’s help, you will still be you when the winds cease to howl. I hope you will then take pen in hand to give us more of you. For now, I grieve with you.

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