Heating Up Litha With a Bonfire
by C. Cheek
Is there anyone who doesn’t associate bonfires with pagan festivities? Fire is the element of Midsummer, when the Sun King is at his highest. Sweet herbs laid upon coals purify the air, and the smoke from burned prayers or offerings rises to the heavens. Some revelers dance around the fire to infuse the night with life and laughter and lust, others gaze into the flickering light to see what the future holds. What could be wilder, more carnal, more appropriate to the Dionysian festival of Litha than a huge, roaring bonfire? All you need is a little planning and forethought, and you too can set the night aflame.
Most people want to host Midsummer on their own property or in a public park. Keep in mind that not all parks allow fires. In Seattle, for example, only Alki Beach and Golden Gardens allow fires at all. If you’re in a national forest or state park, fires are generally allowed except on no-burn days. You can call the park warden to find out the conditions in advance.
If you’re having a celebration on your own property, you’ll be restricted by your city’s backyard burning rules. Most cities allow small fires, as long as you’re not burning garbage. Call the fire department to find out if a burn ban is in effect, or check your city fire department’s Web site.
The safest place to have a fire is in a permanent brick or stone fireplace. Second safest is in a covered fire barrel with mesh sides, over a concrete or other non-flammable surface. You have to admit that this doesn’t have the allure of a fire built in a more primitive setting, but safety is still important. You don’t want to chance having the wind or a careless guest spreading the fire. If you have the fire pit on the ground, remove any grass underneath, and replace peat or bark mulch with sand or stones. Make sure there are no trees, bushes, buildings, picnic tables or other flammable objects near your pit.
No matter where you put your fire, you’ll need something ready to put it out. A fire extinguisher is good for emergencies, but you won’t want to use a fire extinguisher every time. Not only are they expensive to purchase and recharge, but some of them contain toxic chemicals. For a campfire, water is best. A single gallon isn’t enough. Have a hose or several large buckets of water ready. It may seem like a good idea to put sand or earth on a fire instead, but earth or sand can bank the coals, keeping them dormant until the wind stokes them up again. Every year, people who fail to completely extinguish their campfires start forest fires. Don’t be one of those people. If you leave a fire unattended, your karma will get so bad, you’ll be audited yearly for life.
Bonfires are communal events, so your best bet is to make everyone bring a little bit of wood — like a flammable potluck. That way everyone has contributed to the event, and the burden of gathering or buying wood isn’t all on the host.
Many people like to use Duralogs, firewood made from compressed paper. These are good because they burn cleanly and are made from recycled materials. Duralogs can help you start the flames, but cost about a dollar an hour per log to burn. They also aren’t structurally sound once they start burning, and you won’t be able to stack them very high.
Cordwood is a good choice, because most wood sold for fires has been well dried and comes from ecologically sustainable forests. Places that sell camping goods often sell small bags of firewood, but you’re paying for the convenience. Like many things, wood is cheaper in bulk. Depending on the type of wood you get and where you live, it will cost $100 – $200 per cord. (A cord is a stack of wood that measures 4′ x 4′ x 8′) Check the classifieds, or visit www.firewoodcenter.com for a list of dealers near you. The disadvantage of buying cordwood is that you usually have to buy at least half a cord, and you may need to pay delivery fees as well.
Another option is to use gathered branches. If you are having a fire in a national or state park, you are not allowed to gather wood for fires. If you are on private land, you can do it as long as you respect the wishes of the owner. Don’t cut down living trees. Not only is it bad karma, the wood will remain green and wet for far too long. Gather only dead branches. Dead wood is free and removing it helps the tree grow better. You’ll know it’s dead when it snaps off sharply. If it bends, it’s still too green.
If you’re on the beach or near a river you can gather driftwood. It burns much hotter than normal cordwood, and is generally free of rot and insects. Driftwood from a river will gather on the banks, especially on a curve, after floods. Don’t count on finding all the wood you need at one time or in one place. Plan ahead, and pick up a little at a time. It will add up.
If you are willing to invest the time you can get free wood in your city. It’s too late for this Midsummer’s bonfire, but next autumn, walk around your neighborhood, especially on days when trash collectors pick up yard waste. With a saw or a pair of loppers cut pruned branches into manageable sized pieces (one to two feet) and store them in a dry location, such as a garage or carport. In a few months, your yard waste will be burnable timber. The advantage of gathering the wood yourself is that it’s free, you can get to know your neighbors better and you can choose woods that have magical or emotional importance. Also, since you put more foresight and work into your fuel, the fire will have more meaning. Meeting the tree, cutting the lumber, and anticipating your fire for months and months is very different from picking up a couple of Duralogs at Circle K on the way to the park.
Don’t burn broken furniture, cardboard boxes, or other trash. Most city laws prohibit burning garbage, and with good reason. Plastic, varnished wood and even some papers release harmful gasses when burned. If you have mementos or items of spellwork that you want to burn for ceremonial reasons, either make sure they’re clean and free of chemicals, or use only a tiny portion.
A fire needs fuel and air. Place the fuel in such a way so that the air can get to the flames without extinguishing them. If you have patience, you can start with just kindling. Light a match under grass and slowly add small twigs. When you’ve got a decent flame, but before the fuel turns to ash, add larger thumb-thick sticks to the pile. When those sticks have lit, you can gently teepee or stack the larger logs on top. That’s how experienced campers do it. The rest of us use an entire box of matches, curse at everyone nearby and blame the damp earth and the wind for our failure.
If you’re one of those, try the cheater’s way. Clean and prepare your fire pit, whether metal or a hole in the earth, and pour in a pile of charcoal briquettes. Douse them with lighter fluid and toss a match on top. When the coals have been burning for a while and glow red, stack logs on top and fan the coals till the wood catches. If you do this well before your guests arrive, you can tell everyone you started the fire by rubbing sticks together. Hide the briquette bag and they’ll never know.
Once you’ve got your fire going, what to do with it? An old German tradition is to burn Sun wheels: everyone would bring a handful of straw, tie it to a wheel, and set it on fire. The men would roll it down the hill, past cheering women. Your local fire warden will not approve of this. An even older tradition (decried by the Romans) is to cage condemned men and women in a wicker effigy and burn them alive. This is also a bad idea.
Instead, give everyone an unlit torch. The leader begins a prayer, then lights each torch as they pass in procession. The torchbearer joins in the prayer as soon as his or her torch is lit. As the firelight rises, the chanting will grow louder. Once everyone holds lit torches, use them to light the bonfire simultaneously. As the bonfire burns, have everyone join hands and dance a simple grapevine step in a circle. Your coven leader can sing out couplets for all to repeat, other members can offer songs of their own, or people can simply sing whatever nonsense is on their mind. The important thing is to make some noise and loosen up. There’s nothing like the flickering glow and heat, the communal voices rising like sparks to the sky and the warm grip of palms on either side to make anyone feel fiery and sensual.
Some people might want to jump over the bonfire, but unless it’s very small, discourage them. Loose clothing and open flames don’t mix! I once had a cloak catch on fire while I was wearing it. Cotton lights quickly, hair burns faster than paper and synthetic fabrics melt and stick to skin. This is not fun.
Another ritual that’s great for bonfires involves preparation. Ask the guests to prepare a sacrifice (homemade incense works well) as an offering. Say whom the offering is for as you toss it into the fire. Conversely, you can invite your guests to burn that which they don’t want anymore: mementos of an ex, their pink slip, strands of pre-diet clothes. As they toss it into the flames, they ask the gods to remove it (and its implications) from their life.
Once the party gets going and the mead starts flowing, people might feel inspired to toss clothing too. As long as they don’t toss stinky polyester into the fire, why not? Hey, it’s Midsummer! What better time to go sky clad?
Enjoy your bonfire!
· Have the fire only in designated areas, and keep flammable materials away from your fire pit.
· If your wood has been stored outside, wear gloves and watch for wildlife. Snakes and spiders love woodpiles, and they might bite you for disturbing their home. Also, build and burn your fire on the same day so that you don’t unwittingly kill innocent creatures.
· Make sure you have a sufficiency of water and/or a fire extinguisher. It’s easy for a fire to get out of control.
· Don’t have fires on windy days, or when the land has a lot of dry brush. Sparks can fly.
· Keep children away from the fire. Watch the adults too. There’s often a joker who thinks he’s invincible, especially when he’s had a few beers.
· Don’t have fires under trees or other flammable structures.
· Don’t pour lighter fluid or any other flammable liquid onto an open flame. Flames can travel back to the source of the fuel, causing explosions. Also, never ever use gasoline to start a fire unless you want to see the inside of a burn unit firsthand.
· Keep the fire attended at all times.
· Make sure the fire is completely out before you leave. A cold puddle of ash is good. A smoking heap of coals is not.