British Columbia

Campfires still beckon, even when they're not allowed

There's something about a flickering flame even when dry summers and modern life make campfires harder to come by. Research suggests we find something there we don't get anywhere else.

Why we crave the flickering flame, even as dry summers and modern life make campfires harder to come by

There was one ticket issued during the long weekend for recreational cannabis use in a provincial park, according to the Ministry of Parks, Culture and Sport. (Shutterstock)

The blue glow on the horizon dims, and here, around the fire, talk shifts into a different gear that's softer than the bright day. 

People sit close. A warm light dances on their faces.

Gathering around a crackling fire is now more luxury than necessity — and one increasingly out of reach, thanks in part to dry summers and regular campfire bans in parts of Canada.

But that doesn't mean we don't crave that special time around the flame, even buying and hauling around man-made hearths to achieve it.

Marshmallows, hot dogs, and foldable chairs are optional.

But there will definitely be stories — just as there has been for hundreds of thousands of years.

"There seems to be something about the darkness that is like a blanket that ties people together," said University of Utah anthropology professor Polly Wiessner who has studied the habits of African bushmen.

"Through the stories ... they had a shared imagination of their society."

There is a special glow around a flickering flame, whether it's a real campfire or the kind of propane stove that's allowed during times of high wildfire risk. (Shutterstock)

'People talk in a different way'

Matt Cavers had his fingers crossed for an actual wood campfire on his family's annual camping trip to Keats Island this summer, off B.C.'s Sunshine Coast.

"This year it looked like we might get lucky," said the father from Gibsons, B.C.

"Camping with an actual campfire feels really special, and there's something super nostalgic about it for me."

But two days before the trip, it got so hot and dry the B.C. Wildfire Service banned campfires and other open flame in the area  — for good reason, Cavers is quick to point out.

But even a necessary rule can be "a bit disappointing."

So, Plan B: a propane fire pit, which generates a flame in a metal ring. They cost around $100, and mean lugging a propane tank rather than chopping kindling, but they're still allowed during the ban.

With a campfire ban in place in many parts of B.C., families still gather around an approved flame — contained and fueled by propane — to roast marshmallows. (Matt Cavers)

"My first reaction was, this is sort of weird ... our fire isn't a real fire," said Cavers.

But the kids still roasted marshmallows, and once they went to bed — the firelight did its job.

"I find that people talk in a different way around campfires than they normally do," he said.

"You can't really see faces all that clearly, and I think people kind of open up to a particular kind of sharing."

What goes on at night?

It's a notion backed up by decades of research among the Kalahari Bushmen in southern Africa, that suggest a role for fireside chats over the history of humanity.

When humans started regularly using fire, perhaps 350,000 years ago, it didn't just give warmth or cooking ability, says Wiessner, the anthropology professor.

It meant more time awake — but unlike the bright light of day, these hours couldn't be used to gather food or make tools.

"This is economically unproductive time," she said.

"So my question was, what is it that goes on at night that's so important that would have made these changes in our sleeping patterns?"

She's spent more than 40 years recording conversations among the !Kung Bushmen in Botswana, and in a 2014 study, found striking differences between the day and nighttime conversations in that modern foraging society.

A !Kung Bushman, sporting a Calvin Klein hat, tells stories at a firelight gathering in Africa's Kalahari Desert. (Polly Wiessner/University of Utah)

The bright light of day was used for getting things done. Gossip and complaints took up one third of discussions, and economic matters like hunting for dinner was another third of the talk, with jokes just 16 per cent and very few stories.

That all shifted at night.

Around the fire, 81 per cent of talk was storytelling. Marriages over generations, tales of laughter and horror, winding down together from the trials of the day.

Telling stories, laughing

Sharing has a specific utility for the !Kung, who traditionally live in small bands with far-flung social ties, but Wiessner's descriptions of firelit storytelling don't sound foreign to any Canadian camper.

(Nor do her tales of !Kung youth, who today will "wander restlessly" away from the fires with mobile phones, trying to find a signal in the darkness.)

Away from electricity, or blue-lit screens of devices, the warm glow of fire here or there helps knit us together, she said. 

"It makes a big difference to go out and spend some time by the fire and just wind down at the end of the day telling stories, laughing."

A wrangler laughs around the fire in Three Forks, Montana, in 2012. Across cultures, fire time is used for storytelling and laughing together. (REUTERS)

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