I got an axe. It’s an axe I’ve wanted for a long time and Rosie got it for me for my birthday. It’s a nice axe, handmade in Sweden. Longer than a hatchet, shorter than the average axe. It’s made for camping and canoeing. It feels good in the hand, and it’s good to look at. The head is well balanced for the length of the handle.
My friend Fisherman lives at his mom’s place. Her small farmhouse sits on an edenic piece of land on the north edge of my hometown. The deed for the property begins with its purchase by a famous local pioneer who’s name is taught to every child in the town’s schools. He bought the land from the federal government in 1862. She has a big yard with a chicken coop and a goat pen and a table situated in the middle of the lawn which is good to sit at on summer evenings. There’s an unused pasture stretching back from the house.
A little creek runs through her land. There’s trout in it, but it’s not really a stream that’s meant to be fished. It’s very small and the trout are small and wary. An old arched stone bridge on her land spans the creek, the bridge was built to help mobilize Union troops for the Civil War.
The creek rises from an alder swamp a mile or two northeast. It flows through some pastures and then a golf course. Railroad tracks join it. At the back of her land it flows flat and calm, but then it starts to angle downward toward the St. Croix River not two miles away. When I first started sitting around campfires with my friends, we often did so by a bend in the creek just before where it began to drop and the land rose to either side. After a summer or two there, the campsite was moved down into the small valley the creek formed a hundred yards or so downstream.
Here, the fire pit was just three or four feet from the creek. And the water, now being pulled down toward the river a little faster, provided constant background noise as it rushed over the rocks. The site was in what had long ago been a pasture-like bottom area of the valley. Behind the circle where we sat around the fire was a grassy area where we would sometimes pitch tents.
Directly across the stream was a giant willow tree. It had two main trunks and one had fallen so it laid directly across the stream. It was the bridge which you had to cross to come to the fire. Where it laid on shore by the campsite it provided seating on several levels, from a limb maybe six feet above the ground where we would frequently sit and look down at the fire, to even higher limbs where some would climb up to and yell down to us from. It was kind of like having bleacher seats around the fire. The trunk of the tree that was still standing on the other bank often had hammocks strung in its limbs some 30 feet up. Fisherman and a couple others frequently slept way up there.
My brother lives in New York, he has off-and-on for the past nine years or so. These days, he lives in the East Village and works at a coffee shop. Living in Manhattan doesn’t seem to afford you a great number of chances to stand around a campfire. He came home recently, a surprise to my mom for her birthday, and we wanted to get together Friday night and hang out. After talking on the phone several times that evening, I finally realized a bonfire would be just the ticket.
I called Fisherman and asked him if he and Honey, his girlfriend, were interested. He thought it sounded great. I left our new apartment with half a case of PBR â€“ duct-taped shut — and my new axe in hand. I picked up my brother and we rendezvoused over at Fisherman’s mom’s. After the usual putzing around the house for a few minutes, we set off across the pasture â€“ with a quick stop at the brushpile for whatever wood we could grab â€“ and then down the steep slope of the valley to the creek.
Nothing has changed about crossing the log. It is always at once a little precarious and uneventful. I’ve never seen anyone slip off it trying to cross (sitting on it drunk is another story), and the stream is only a few feet below and the water only a few inches deep. Nonetheless, it always feels good to set foot on the other side.
We got the fire going pretty quick and then got to the usual sort of talk you get to around a campfire. It is not the kind of talk that translates well to the written word. It is just talk, but with a fire burning before you, you talk a little different. There are more opportunities to pause in the conversation, and when you do, it is a comfortable pause because everyone enjoys looking down into a fire.
The big willow was sinking into the ground. The still-standing trunk on the other side was leaning dramatically away from the river like I’d never seen it. The hammock branches were much closer to the ground. On the campsite side, the bleacher seating was all but gone. The limb that had been six feet up had now collapsed down so it was nearly on the ground.
We talked at great length about the old tree, how it had used to stand, how it had been at different times in our lives. Its state, sinking toward the ground where it would inevitably rest and rot, served as a yardstick for memories. The year it had fallen, the year it had sunk down so that Fisherman had made a boxelder brace for it. We remembered the friends who had sat up there, who had crossed over to here on it and had stumbled back across it at the end of the night. I remembered all the people I had seen cross the log on various missions back up to the house, the cars, into town maybe. I remembered waking up one sunny morning down there, four of us laying shoulder to shoulder (two guys and two girls, though I never dated any of the girls that were sometimes there), damp from the dew.
There wasn’t much in the way of firewood so we also spent a lot of time roaming around the surrounding woods collecting fallen branches. Some of the high limbs reaching up from the willow had snapped off and now hung down, still suspended by the dead vines which wove through the tree. We yanked them down, the tree reluctantly giving them up, and broke them into pieces and threw them on the fire. My new axe still had not bitten into wood and toward the end of the evening, with the wood supply nearly exhausted, I asked Fisherman if it would be all right if I chopped off a limb at the end of the main branch near the ground. He said that was fine. The axe made quick work of the limb and it went on the fire.
My brother caught a ride home with Honey around midnight. At the same time they were leaving, another friend who just moved back to town from Chicago arrived. We told some stories, I especially liked the one Fisherman told about the black bear he had heard about up in northern Minnesota. This bear had a radio collar on it and they tracked it as it went a good 200 miles west out of its normal range one summer. Then, one day in the early fall, it set of at a dead run, heading east. It ran and ran and the guys tracking it followed it via radio signal for all the miles. The bear ran relentlessly east. The guys tracking it finally got near it on a logging road as it neared its home woods. They saw it far off running down one road and it disappeared around a corner. When they got there, it had disappeared. They used the radio signal to track it off the road and found it in its den, fast asleep.
It’s hard to leave a fire. Friends faces illuminated orange by the flames on a quiet, cool night in May are a comfort like nothing else. When I finally thought to ask the time, it was almost two o’ clock (bar close time in Minnesota) and I told myself and the others that even though I really should get going, there was no worse time to be on the road. If the cops didn’t pull you over for going two miles per hour over the limit, they’d pull you over for going two under. And if they didn’t get you, some drunk would take you out. So I stayed another half hour or so, heard some more stories and told some more stories, and then left, reluctantly. The walk back across the moonlit pasture alone is a familiar walk, and one that always comes to an end too quickly. Perhaps that is what we get when we die if we’re good in this life: a campfire on a cool night and enough time to soak it all in before leaving.