I'm definitely a campfire kid. As a boy I was lucky enough to get sent north every summer to live for a month or so in a cabin beside a lake, surrounded by thick forests of pine and birch, where I would learn to say strange Indian names, and be a Mohawk or an Algonquin or an Iroquois.
We'd carve tikis, and lace lanyards, and drink bug juice, and of course, spend hours around campfires. I can still point out the constellations I first learned there, and remember ghost stories from counselors that scared us to pieces. Oh, and at night we shared all our 9-year old boy wisdom on important issues like masturbation and feeling up girls.
Sitting around a campfire is still a sacred thing to me. Watching the flames dance, looking up through the branches at a million stars, sharing songs and stories with friends, taking in nature at our most thoughtful and reverential - I feel closer there to God, or the Great Spirit, or however you conceive the creator of this world, than in any man-made house of worship.
Not everyone looks at it that way, as I recently found out. My family was part of large camping weekend, sharing a beautiful site on a lake with seven or eight other families. It was a great bunch of people, mostly old friends, and a few new ones. During the day we played games, rode bikes, took turns saving each other's children from peril on the dock, and shared a cornucopia of outdoor cooking. The kids, marshmallow-fueled, patrolled the camp in bunches, heavily armed with squirt guns.
Then there came trouble in paradise. That first night, with the young and less nocturnal zipped into their tents, conflict reared its ugly head at the roaring campfire in the form of a boombox. As soon as I saw it approach, carried by the blonde woman who had seemed perfectly lucid earlier, I knew it was going to ruin everything. Still, I tried to go with it; maybe she would play a few Jackson Browne or James Taylor songs - maybe it would be some African rhythms, new age stuff, something soothing and appropriate. How bad could it be? When the cassette door snicked closed and Led Zeppelin roared forth, I knew how just bad.
My friend Scott protested first. Come on, turn that off, he said. Others of us chimed in. Our tone was chiding but gentle. Surely she would back off. Surely she realized how out of place "Whole Lotta Love" was in this peaceful setting. She didn't. "Come on, don't you want to ROCK?". She turned it up louder, apparently thinking that surely we'd come around. Surely we didn't actually think listening to crickets and frogs could compare to Robert Plant at full yowl. And she wasn't alone - there were some others at the campfire taking her side, ready to ROCK.
We argued for a while. They were as baffled by our view of the campfire as a spiritual place as we were by their belief that loud guitar music was a necessary ingredient. Not known for his timidity, Scott finally got up, walked to the boombox and shut it off. She turned it back on. She wanted to rock.
Now don't get me wrong - I am not an old fogey. I am a musician, a drummer, in fact, and I have rocked, most of my life. But how often do we get to sit around a campfire on a star-studded night? How often do we actually listen to the crickets and frogs, or to each other? We can blast loud music pretty much anytime we feel like it.
One by one, most of us non-rockers got up and left the campfire. I wandered away, down towards the lake. The frogs went silent as I came to the water's edge, then started up again as I stood motionless, my eyes adjusting to the dark. I tried to block out the music from behind me. I thought about the other campsites around the lake, all hearing every note carried across the still water. I felt like I owed an apology to everyone out there, in their sleeping bags or sitting around their own fires, wondering what the hell was wrong with the city-mutant barbarians across the way.
I guess for some people, life has to have a soundtrack - a party just isn't a party unless the music is cranking. But nature does have its own music, if we turn ours off long enough to hear it. Maybe that's part of what I learned in all those summers at camp. There's a time to rock, and a time to not rock. I think the Iroquois would have agreed.