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Hunched over the fire ring, lighter in hand, I have my work cut out for me: I have to get a fire started, or else. Or else Julie doesn’t get

Rosemary and Goat Cheese Strata

Hunched over the fire ring, lighter in hand, I have my work cut out for me: I have to get a fire started, or else. Or else Julie doesn’t get

Kin & Kindling: The Magic of Fire Season

People roast s'mores by a fire

Hunched over the fire ring, lighter in hand, I have my work cut out for me: I have to get a fire started, or else. Or else Julie doesn’t get to warm her toes, and drink wine as the first stars appear over the Blue Ridge Mountains west of Valle Crucis, and toast marshmallows for her beloved s’mores.

I have the three building blocks of fire laid out: tinder, kindling, and fuel. I’ve shaved a few splinters off a stick of fatwood. My fire-starting bundle looks good, but it’s not exactly leaping into flame. I poke it with a stick. It’s almost always a good idea to poke at a fire. It makes you feel like you’re doing something meaningful.

A few feet away, Julie looks at my handiwork, which so far has resulted in a single tiny curlicue of wispy gray smoke twisting out of the twigs.

“How’s it going over there?” she asks, knowing full well how it’s going over here.

The start of an outdoor fire.

With a crackle, pop, and sizzle, the first flames leap out from the kindling. photograph by AscentXmedia/iStock/Getty Images Plus

The woman loves a fire, and I’m feeling the pressure. I can’t get that scene from Jack London’s famed 1908 short story “To Build a Fire” out of my head. His protagonist is cold, wet, and wandering in the Yukon, and lights all 70 of his matches at once in a desperate attempt to start a life-giving fire. He’s unsuccessful. He dies soon after.

Bending low over the fire ring, I separate the curls of fatwood and pencil-thick twigs with my poking stick. This infant blaze needs a bit of oxygen.

Across the valley, I see campfires dancing through the trees around the campground. Other folks are ahead of me. Inside my fire ring, the smoke intensifies, then suddenly, a single flame flickers to life. I blow on the ember, turn my head to the side to gather another lungful of air, and blow a bit harder. The single flame gives rise to another and another. There’s crackling and popping and sizzling, and a few sparks bottle-rocket into the dark sky overhead.

There is fire.


• • •

This is the season for cozy fires, whether you build one in the den of your home, under a mantel crowded with family photos, or in the deepest backcountry of the southern Appalachian wilds. The very act of sparking a blaze is a touchstone to one of the richest shared experiences of all humanity. We may have traded a flint-and-steel for a Bic lighter, but little else has changed when it comes to building a fire. The flames catch and grow, crackle and pop. We scooch close and feel the warmth from head to toe.

We’ve never lived in a house with a working fireplace, so Julie and the kids and I have gone out of our way to have outdoor fires as often as we can. At the Grandfather Campground on the weekend after Thanksgiving, we would keep a fire going half the day, heating hot chocolate in the morning and apple cider for lunch. Few things in life are as affirming as holding a sleeping child on your lap, one side of their body warmed by a fire, the other warmed by your own flesh and blood. We’ve lit so many fires in the chiminea on our back deck in Raleigh that we’ve literally burned through the bottom of the firepit’s lower chamber and now have to slide a cookie pan in place to catch falling embers. There’s a fire ring in our backyard in Raleigh, a circle of nearly 100-year-old bricks, and another in our backyard in Morehead City.


S’mores are the essential accessory for the season of cozy fires. photograph by kellyvandellen/iStock/Getty Images Plus

At our Blue Ridge campsite, Julie and I sit by the fire as it burns down to a bed of coals. She mentions the giant fireplace that was a centerpiece of her childhood home in Henderson. “The hearth was so big, you could nap on it,” she recalls, smiling. I remember it: a cavernous brick affair that took up half a wall. It seemed like a fire burned there from October to April.

I remember the backyard fires that our kids had in their middle and high school years. They and their pals would drag every chair in the house out to the yard, and Julie and I would sneak out to the deck just to catch a glimpse of all their firelit faces below, and say a prayer that none of them would ever know a day void of the warmth of friendship.

And then, as with just about every fire I’ve ever been a part of, after the crackling, the light-leaping, the blush of heat and revelry, the searing, popping sparks and bottle-rocketing embers, there is the long, silent staring as the flames flicker. The dying fire is evidence of a certain steadfastness — it is older, wiser, something you can rely on. I chuckle when I think that in its last phases, a fire turns gray.

Toes warming by the fire

Whether you take your fireside sitting outdoors or in, our Ramblin’ Man recommends using the time for reflection. photograph by © Anna Sorokina/Stocksy United

I stir the coals with a stick, sending smoke and sparks spiraling upward in the swirling thermals of heated air. They dance like little bits of laughter from the last few hours by the fire, then wink out in the darkness overhead.

Beside me, Julie stretches in her camp chair like a cat awakening from a pleasant nap. We haven’t spoken in a while. Mesmerized by the fire, entranced by the embers and the dying flames, we’d retreated into our own thoughts. Now, it’s past time to hit the sack.

“That was a really nice fire,” she says. Yes, indeed. And I hear her words as a benediction, a sending out of light into the world, her sweet sentiment as warming to my soul as any fire I’ve ever built.

This story was published on Nov 27, 2023

T. Edward Nickens

Nickens is editor-at-large of Field & Stream and the author of The Total Outdoorsman Manual and The Last Wild Road: Adventures and Essays from a Sporting Life. His articles also appear in Smithsonian and Audubon magazines.