Topic: Backyard

How to Build a Bonfire in Winter

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wood fireDeep snow, a brush pile, marshmallows, and patience are among the requirements to build a bonfire in winter.

Goal: build a bonfire in the clearing with snow deep underfoot, the glow of sparkling ice on nearby branches, the heat reddening faces and steaming clothes as you listen to the hemlock crackle and watch the sparks whirl up and up, flames that consume a dry branch in an instant, longer for wood that is wet or rotten or both, the child rolling a snowman by fire and moonlight, a mound of coals that will glow for hours after the feeding stops, the starry night sky over all.

Requirements: The brush piled high from seasons past, now brittle, dry, ready. A small wind—enough to keep the flames supplied with oxygen, but not enough to spread them where they should not go. Cardboard, paper bags, newspapers crumpled sheet by sheet. Marshmallows and hot dogs on sticks. A thermos of hot chocolate. A skin of wine (optional). Warm clothes, heavy gloves, waterproof boots. Matches. Good humor. Lots of patience.

Process: Start a small fire on a sheltered edge of the pile to ignite the birch bark, pine needles, the dryest, most delicate twigslike those from the very top of a skeleton pine that fell three years ago and has since lost every needle. Patience. Too much too soon and all is smothered.

Over blazing twigs, build a teepee of sticks so dry the bark curls and breaks away. The sticks burn and fall to the center, the teepee perpetually rebuilt—burning and falling until coals begin to form. Patience rewarded: A branch from the Christmas tree ignites instantly, and the flames reach deeper into the pile. Pull forward dry branches to satisfy the growing hunger. Feed the flame, build the coals until your arms ache and the threat of a false start has passed.

Step back and marvel as the fire comes into its own. Branches, as thick as a wrist, burn through the middle. When the ends fall away, push them to the red-hot center, which promises a long, steady, continuing burn.

With fresh-cut wands puncture marshmallows; watch them cook golden and melty or black and smoldering. Slow-turn hot dogs garnished with ash. Admire the child ‘s snowdwarf—no raisins or carrot, but charcoal for eyes and a stub for a nose. Laugh, sip cocoa, pass the wineskin. Stomp your feet, draw air snakes with glowing sticks, and accuse one another of pyromania. Smoke finds you and seems to follow, but the night air is cold, cleansing: Let it bring you to your senses as you toss fa lse priorities onto the bonfire you’ve created. The sparks are like stars. The stars are like sparks. A night world of shooting stars, real and imagined.

Now you know how to build a bonfire in winter.


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