Almost anywhere we go in the world the natural view we look out onto has been shaped in some way or other by humanity. When you climb a Scottish munro and look out across the high moorland you’re seeing a landscape that would have been temperate rainforest long since felled and cleared by Bronze Age industry. When you look at a beautiful sunset, you’re seeing light refracted into millions of colours through an atmosphere heavy with manmade particles and pollutants.
But this campfire, these flames represent a truly primal, natural, unchanged chemical reaction and I think that’s part of a flame’s attraction. When you sit by a campfire like this, when you look into its embers and get lost. You’re sharing a direct link from this experience right back through your many ancestors back, back to the very first spark of humanity's relationship with fire. When you gather with friends around a campfire on the beach, you're experiencing something which at its heart is almost indistinguishable from the experience of those most distant descendants, seven and a half THOUSAND generations back. They looked into a fire exactly like this one, got lost in exactly the same glow. I think that’s kind of an amazing bit of time travel and we didn’t even need a Delorean or a nutty professor, just sticks, tinder and a light.
Fire is the rapid oxidation of a material in the exothermic chemical process of combustion, releasing heat, light, and various reaction products. That’s as complicated as this needs to get. Sunlight fell on leaves, nourished trees who grew with it it and stored. Years later, long after the tree has passed, we ignite their timber, releasing the sun’s energy in the most calming and pleasing light show we know.
Through this gift we cook food and stay warm and the lions, tigers and bears are kept away. So, fire also protects us from harm. Modern technologies like walls, doors and central heating have distanced us a little from the pleasure of sitting around a fire with family and friends.
Now though, Covid restrictions have lit up a trend toward meeting outdoors meaning more and more people take to our beaches and wild spaces. This is great. We need these moments of connection more than ever, both with each other and with nature. A campfire makes these experiences more enjoyable and therefore more likely to happen.
But we're not always doing a very good job of it. Those ancient ancestors would be amazed at our modern tech but they’d find our inability to start a fire very difficult to respect.
A lot of people know exactly what to do to get a good campfire going. They know how to place the tinder, kindling and wood. But there are a lot of humans who are not so skilful or comfortable with fire. They’ll ask, what’s the best way to pile these sticks up and are they too wet? How wet is too wet? Is it too windy for a fire? If I light up now will the embers get blown about and burn down a nearby town? What is a safe distance from a structure? Are those trees or bushes likely to catch fire?
A fire should be gently nurtured into life and then cared for and although as a species we’ve been doing this for a hundred and fifty thousand years or more a lot of individuals have lost the knack. Fire lighting is a skill and without regular practice we most often will struggle and sometimes fail to get our fire going. Not many of us have log fires at home and no fireplaces means no log sheds, means no ready source of fuel which in turn means people get resourceful.
Along Portobello promenade garden fences get eaten into and just recently the primary school’s nature garden was pillaged by pyromaniacs for a beach bonfire resulting in a lot of really unhappy little kids.
The more thoughtful visitors might buy a plastic bag of logs from a garage or supermarket. That’s the best case scenario but let's come back to that because it gets worse before it gets better. Without a ready source of dry firewood campfire builders burn what they can. This can mean old furniture or scrap timber full of nails, screws and staples held together by toxic glues and often covered in gloss paint. And if that stuff is slow to get going, they’ll employ some fire-lighters or petrol. When you set processed timber alight it releases a string of poisonous chemicals that you really shouldn't inhale.Those plastic wrapped supermarket bags of firewood I touched on earlier aren’t really a whole lot better. Even if we ignore the plastic packaging, much of this timber is clear cut and imported from Europe's last remaining original hardwood forests or at great carbon cost on vast container ships from China. That’s not sustainable.
Another concern is the size and duration of the fires that are dragged together. Big is not always beautiful or necessary but without practice how do we judge how much fuel we need for our fires? It's not unusual to see the smouldering remains of the previous night’s fire fun and games in nature spots or hear about dads with tots and early morning dogs on walks getting nasty burning surprises.
This means something personal to me. I live right on the beach. I’m one of those dads. My kid and his friends run barefoot over sand increasingly strewn with nails and detritus. So, in Edinburgh we have this beautiful mile long sandy beach which is classed as a public park and it’s the only public park in the city where you are allowed to light a fire. People come to the beach to gather together as best as lockdown restrictions allow them and they like to do this around a fire. Of course, they do. From a distance the beach is dotted with orange stars flickering in the night and it’s beautiful BUT up close it’s all nails and chemicals. So how can we do better?
Well first of all, you don’t make positive sustainable change by shouting at people and telling them off. Nobody wants a campfire ban. Behaviour change happens when the old, undesirable behaviour (nasty fuel, vandalism and stealing) is less appealing than the alternative. If you can make a safe responsible fire easy then most people will go for that option (because most of us are quite lazy).
So, we started brainstorming, trying to come up with a safe and EASY way for everyday people to light a small traditional campfire. Something that wouldn’t take a lot of planning, Something that might work for a spur of the moment gatherin. What about logs on carts pulled by donkeys? It’s got a seasidey feel? We wondered about campfire vending machines or drones delivering little bags of logs. None of these get you past the building and lighting road block. So what about a campfire service. We could come set one up for you? It was all getting a bit complicated so we stripped it all back and what we landed on, in the end was this...
A picture perfect, historically accurate campfire with full time travel capabilities... in a box. It’s almost impossible to get wrong and you can buy your campfire where you buy your beers, pizzas or picnic bits.
Here’s how it works...(There’s instructions on the side box).
Step 1 - You clear a circle twice as wide as the box is tall and sit the box down right in the middle.
Step 2 - Open up the flaps at the top, you’ll see a box of matches. Take those out.
Step 3 - Push in all 8 VENTS and pull out the little door underneath the instructions. You’ll see a little pocket of tinder.
Step 4 - Strike a light right here.
Sit back and in five minutes you have a picture-perfect campfire. These flames are exactly the same as those your most distant ancestors saw. You’re gazing into the same rapid oxidation, the same exothermic chemical process of combustion.
It’s releasing heat and light and brightening the night so that you and the people you love can gather in close. You can roast sausages or marshmallows on a stick. Pop a little camping grill over the top and you’re good to go for burgers or even a wee pot of curry. This is not a mysterious box. It’s recycled cardboard. The logs are local, sustainably sourced, seasoned hardwood, sitting on top of straw and kindling that are byproducts of farming and construction. There’s no nails, screws or staples. No toxic glues or heavy metals. No petrol or firelighters. You’re not stealing anything or rooting in a bin you’re not dismantling the children’s nature garden.
It’ll burn for two hours if you nurture and care for it. That’s the perfect length of time for sitting chatting around a campfire. After that there’s nothing left but embers and the beginning of fond memories. You spread those embers out, pour some water over them and you’re good to go.
Now we don’t think for a second that this should replace considered and careful campfire building. It’s a powerful skill to have and we’d like it if more people took the time to learn but as a first introduction or an easy alternative on those days when you just need it to go right first time, being the fire starter doesn’t get simpler.
If we can make the route to gentler more sustainable campfires the easiest one for people to take we might be able to play a small part in shaping a cleaner, happier beach.
I think with this campfire box that’s something that’s easily within our reach.