One-of-a-kind snowflakes

One-of-a-kind snowflakes

JOHN PEPIN

“By the dark of the moon, there’s a fire in the night. “ — Bob Corbin

My shovel made a “chuff” sound as its metal-edged blade sliced through a frosty crust of ice. Underneath, it was like an ice-cold sugar bowl filled with bushels of soft, granular white snow.

Somewhere below all of this was the fire pit I’d dug in my backyard last summer with my youngest son and his girlfriend. We gathered the granites and other rocks to surround it from places I’d connected to years ago.

These were places I’d first learned about because my folks took me there, either fishing, picnicking or just driving out in the sticks looking for peace and simplicity amid the rumbling tumult of the late 1960s.

Half a century later, I’m not a kid anymore, but I’m still seeking peace and simplicity in a tumultuous world. Like those old days of turtles, trees and seemingly endless time, I’m still always hoping for a new opportunity to connect somehow with the natural world.

With the snow dug out from around the fire pit, we got ready to start the fire. It was just over the freezing mark and rain was misting down from the blank gray sky.

The girls had invited a friend to sleep over and they were expecting s’mores. Of course, there would be a fire tonight. I spent a little time on fire starting instruction before the girls brought kindling from the snow-covered tinder box.

Darkness was setting in while they gathered a few bigger pieces of wood. Within a few minutes, our small fire was blazing. The flames leapt toward the sky, rolling and reaching, higher and higher.

Something about just sitting in a circle drew us closer; it must have been the face-to-face, eye-to-eye interaction. Nobody on a cellphone or pressed for time, just fun and a few laughs in a quest for the perfectly toasted marshmallow.

Though the girls didn’t stay long past their s’mores — following their mother into the house — I was grateful for the time the five of us spent around the fire.

I hope that in some way I am sprinkling seeds of nature’s magic into the minds and hearts of these girls that will enrich their lives, like my parents did for me.

If I am, and these seeds find fertile ground to germinate, then these young ladies will have many days ahead of adventure, solace and wonderment among the woods, the lakes and rivers and the animals and plants.

They will spend their lifetimes never losing a certain curiosity that will keep them enthralled for all their days. This is among my best wishes and hopes for them.

With the door shut behind them, I assume a familiar place out here next to the fire alone. The misting drizzle stopped some time ago. The wind had kicked up now, making the fire fight harder to stay alive.

Within the wall of campfire rocks, which remain as cold as the grave, the fire spits and hisses making a sound that doesn’t sound too far off from rain, like if you were hearing summer rain out on the road from the comfort of a couch on a cabin’s screened porch.

I love the colors and the shapes that continue to change as the fire consumes one log after another. There are electric blues, majestic purples and the deepest, warmest oranges, yellows, white and reds.

The side of one log enveloped in a dark blue flame burns slow. Not far away, the face of another log looks toasted, brown and rusty red. I see a maiden dressed in a long white cloak, facing her is a shapely brunette in a wispy dressing gown.

Logs burned black crumble to pieces. While the fire pops, red embers shoot into the sky. Smoke blows across one side of the fire and then another as the wind crosses hands.

Of all the things I ever did with my folks, sitting around a campfire wasn’t one of them. That’s a regret. That’s also one of the reasons I was so certain I wanted to put a fire pit in my backyard.

I want to have as many of those experiences as I can here with my kids and grandkids. Sitting around a campfire is one of the simplest pleasures that belies the deep truth and beauty that can be found watching the firelight dance in the eyes of those souls huddled around the warming flames.

As the winds sweep the clouds across the sky, I can see the starfield now visible high above me. I’m comfortable in my snow pants and boots, a flannel shirt and a corduroy jacket.

If I concentrate on watching the passing clouds, the stars look like they are shining from within a dark river sweeping past quickly. It’s a strange dizzying sensation to experience, but very cool.

A night or so before this, I called the girls outside to see that soft, puffy clouds had separated into rectangular sections that made the sky appear textured like a human brain.

I don’t hear or see the deer in the trees off to the sides of me, but I know they are there. Most likely they number at least a half-dozen.

Standing in the shadows of the maples and the beeches, they are waiting for me to go into the house, so they can plod through the yard sniffing and digging at the ground under the apple trees or in the space just off the patio where I have been known to occasionally leave a few apples and corn.

As the night slips into early morning, I continue to enjoy the fire and the solitude. I can see through the window the girls still up, playing another hand of “Exploding Kittens” at the dining room table.

I wonder why I haven’t heard the owls. Maybe it’s the wind in the night. Perhaps they don’t want to sing if they’re going to be drowned out by the likes of his howling north growls.

It’s getting colder, but I feel warm and comfortable out here.

I think about how great it would be to be that young kid again, this time sitting around a fire with my dad and mom and my brother and sisters, but then my kids and grandkids and our other relations would be there too, past, present and future all together.

As far out of reach as they are, I often think about those old childhood days when the swing in my backyard would get me closer to the big maple than ever before. It felt like if I let go of the chains and jumped, I would be right up there among the branches.

Back then, it only took the sounds of a train to make me happy. Playing in the sandbox was an all-day thing, making bridges and roads for toy mine trucks.

Dad was as close as the recliner in the living room, and mom was in the kitchen cooking something or out in the garden, digging. Like sepia-toned photographs, those old images are starting to fade.

As the flames die down, I get my stick to poke the unburned pieces of wood into the fire. I won’t toss anymore logs on the fire tonight.

A cold and wet snow starts falling from the sky, covering my hair and my jacket. I close my eyes and turn my head upward to feel the snowflakes land on my face, soft and sweet, like the kiss of a child.

After a few more minutes, I close the door to the house behind me, leaving the dying flames to be covered in the falling snow.

The stars are all gone now. From the black and blue shadows beneath the trees, the deer emerge slowly, following each other in a straight line out into the yard.

Editor’s note: 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.