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Column: Campfire’s glow shapes a chilly U.P. night

“You fill up my senses like night in a forest,” – John Denver

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MARQUETTE — The dark red and orange coals of the dying campfire glowed in the blackness of an early May night. It was shivering cold tonight for this time of year.

With an old, gnarled apple tree branch lying over the fire pit – silhouetted by flickering back lighting – the irregularly shaped fire looked much like a human heart beating, pulsing with each gust of a north breeze.

My back, exposed to the night air, through my T-shirt and covering flannel, was cold to the touch. But my face was warmed by the heat radiating up toward me from the coals.

The night was so quiet.

In times like these, my soul seems to hover in mid-air and the moment cracks open wide. It feels like anything could happen. Even the rocks ringing the fire pit might talk.

I can feel my entire being lapping up the quiet time, drinking in the silence of the stars and the blackness between. While solitude can often seem so hard to find I feel an intrinsic sense that it is vitally necessary to my well-being.

If I really have a chance to listen to the night I often find, at least here around the fire pit, that it’s hard to eliminate the noises of human activity – like trying to block out the lights from town on a meteor shower night.

Way back there in the mix somewhere I can hear a low rumbling sound I can’t identify. Closer to me are the sounds of cars rolling up the state highway or a train gliding over the silvery steel rails more than a mile away.

Sometimes, I can hear the siren whistles from fire stations or car horns. A car coming down the county road can be heard from such a long way away at night it is surprising. The sound arrives a long time before the glow from the dual headlights.

There are also the noises of screen doors shutting and big dogs barking in their low, gruff voices off in the dark. There are also occasionally unintelligible whoops and hoots from people somewhere out there excited about something.

The silence of the world late at night is special, in much the same way, ironically, there’s something almost sacred about the static a transistor radio produces in those wee hours that perks up your ears as you turn the dial.

It feels like there could be anything out there, like I could bring a radio station from Peru or Hong Kong, or maybe a lonely heart calling in to a late-night AM music request show asking to hear George Jones or Kitty Wells.

Lying on my back, looking up at the universe, satellites drift by silently and directly as the stars twinkle and wink back toward us here on earth. I think to myself that it sure seems easy to find a satellite in the sky nowadays. It used to be a novelty.

When I’m out there in the woods or on a shoreline late at night, the silence is a lot easier to come by. There the sounds are those of creatures of the night or the sloshing sound of the singing creeks and rivers or the softly rolling waves tumbling in toward shore – sounds much more welcomed by me.

Then there are the places where the deep woods part wide enough for a full view of the nighttime skyscape. How phenomenally grand.

With the evergreens providing a jagged, woodsy vignette effect, the sounds of silence seem to be funneled from all around me, from under the tree branches, they come whispering from the woodlands, swirling gently up to the skies.

These are the places where my heart slips into soft repose and my mind opens-up, allowing me to reflect on the secrets the woods reveal to me.

I can hear the twittering, tapping sounds of bats on the wing, the huffing of deer as they crash through the woods and the belly hoots of an old barred owl.

Curious souls those owls are. More than once they’ve appeared in the trees above my campfires wanting to chat, listen or see just what exactly is going on. They seem to react to voices and other sounds of folks around a fire.

Maybe they don’t want to be left out? Maybe it’s the light and not the sound at all?

The dark woods can be a lonesome place if you’re not inviting of the experience, but also very much a place where loneliness, silence and fulfillment coalesce with grace.

I wonder how far my mind travels around the world on a night like this. It seems to be racing from one end to the other. Like rapid eye movement during sleep, once the roaming stops, I can finally settle into some actual listening and relaxation.

It’s like there’s a coat of roughness or jaggedness I bring to the situation with me from my day that needs to melt off me before I can really focus on what’s around me.

Sometimes walking can break me into it too. I think hearing my bootheels softly keeping time in the dirt while I move creates a rhythm my insides find comforting.

When I first start out, everything seems rough and uneven – like an ox on roller skates. I can’t really hear anything that means anything, distracted by the clouds in my eyes blown up there from my day.

After awhile though, things smooth out all the way around. My eyes, nose and ears start to open-up, followed by my insides. Then comes the spongey effect of soaking up everything around me.

The long walk back, with all the kinks worked out, seems almost uneventful by comparison. Everything seems so much smoother, easier. As the twilight falls around me and Venus rises, I’m ready to head home.

Then I can retreat here to the ring of rocks around the campfire. I rest and relax, enjoying the heat from the fire and the sense of well-being I’ve gained from being out there.

The night feels as though it could stretch on for the longest time. I often lose track of where one day ends and another begins, the time melts out there amid the smell of the smoldering fire.

On occasions like this I think I would like to experience what the long nights of the latitudes farther north would be like. Lost in the darkness, where sounds take on a much taller profile.

As I’m thinking about this, the beckoning of a new day soon to arrive taps me on the shoulder reminding me that it’s probably a good idea to let the fire die out and go to sleep.

I stick my fire poker into the soft grassy earth next to one of the fireplace rocks. I slowly and begrudgingly pick myself up and turn my boots toward the back door.

I think to myself, “I’ll be back.”

I hear the screen door shut behind me. I wonder if someone in another backyard, sitting around a campfire, just heard my door shut like I’ve heard theirs before?

All of this goes around and around and around.

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John Pepin is the deputy public information officer for the Michigan Department of Natural Resources. Outdoors North is a weekly column produced by the Michigan Department of Natural Resources on a wide range of topics important to those who enjoy and appreciate Michigan’s world-class natural resources of the Upper Peninsula. Send correspondence to pepinj@michigan.gov or 1990 U.S. 41 South, Marquette, MI 49855.

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