Fire, food, fresh air – all had for a song
The Little Owls’ gully on a mild night in late winter, with a breeze easing to barely a puff, is as good a place as any to take warmth from a fire, food from its embers, and song from the two of us. Although the owls, of late so vocal at various times of day and night, kept their opinions on all of that to themselves. June wondered whether the fire, rather than our presence, had something to do with their mute response.
Singing is very much the exception not the rule for me. But I enjoy a bit of a sing-a-long once I get into it. June, on the other hand, would burst into song spontaneously if I gave her any encouragement – I don’t! Recently, she’s been making up for lost time; once a week, June and four or five other women sing whatever they feel like for an hour. Men are invited but no takers so far.
What’s a bonfire without campfire songs? A hesitant, tentative start from June (she knows what I’m like!) as we huddled to take warmth from the mound of furnace red embers, got me moistening my vocal chords; I decided I could cope with a song or two.
Another good thing about the singing group – June has just this last week resurrected her guitar from where it had been languishing, for years now, in some dusty recess. She’ll get in some practice and then, next bonfire, there’ll be a guitar twanging away to muffle my bum notes. Songs, guitars, bonfires – I like that. But what about stories told around a campfire? I’ll have to work on that – something else that has to be prised out of me.
Dough, spuds and sausages
I get ahead of myself. Basic needs first. Bustle about, get a build-up of searing hot coals, cook in and over them – eat!
The bread dough had risen well on the plate rack above the woodstove hob. The sausages (in a pan containing a little water), were precooked in the woodstove oven, and the potatoes in their skins were wrapped in tin foil.
Stop adding fuel to the fire
I’d stopped feeding the bonfire before we started cooking on it, but I still got the sensation, if I got too close, of what it must be like to be cooked in an oven. So when June brought out the cast iron camp oven she made sure I placed it on a low bed of embers well away from the heart of the furnace. “That’s enough on the lid!” Barely three centimetres deep, but she remembered last time: a slab-thick crust turned to charcoal.
I shovelled embers to the side of the fire and buried the foil wrapped potatoes in them. I’d put the poplar sticks, the ones we’d used last time to skewer the sausages, somewhere safe, because the ones I’d cut before that had somehow got lost. “I think you put them in the gun cabinet,” June said. Nope, not there. Not anywhere, Mr De Ja Vu!
Whittling away – a poplar pastime?
Cutting and fashioning fresh sticks from the straight slender branches of the Crows Nest poplars that line the drive was surprisingly therapeutic. I sat in the warm glow of the fire and cut and pared: whittling to a point and paring back ten centimetres from the tip.
Years ago I played with the idea of taking up whittling as a hobby. I forked out $75.00 for a Winchester pocket knife with a bone handle. Razor sharp (the knife, not me), I whittled away happily for all of a few hours in total. Watching telly at my parent-in-laws’, I attempted to whittle at the same time. A bone-deep slash across the pad of my left index finger was enough to convince me to look for a less dangerous pastime.
Bread, baked potatoes and sizzling sausages
I digress. The food was cooked to perfection. If you hadn’t been told, you wouldn’t have guessed that June had cut off a discus wide, centimetre thick slab of charcoaled crust: The base of the loaf this time. My excuse was that the camp oven’s slender legs had sunk up to their bottom into the hot ash. I’ll make sure there’s a gap underneath next time. Well you know how it is – we don’t do this sort of thing that often you know, you know, you know.
June got it right with the potatoes – dull foil surface to the outside. We’ve been caught out there too. Don’t put the shiny side of the foil on the outer – it far too effectively insulates from the heat! These ones were how baked potatoes are meant to be: skins not too thick – crunchy and chewy, and pulpy white flesh.
When it came to heating and crisping the sausages over the fire, I told June to skewer them longways. The sticks, well, the sticks were sticks. They worked okay, although June’s was too thin and bounced about when she put a sausage on the tapered end. I reckon I should look for forked sticks next time. (More whittling therapy?) I’ve used the forked method before (ages ago now). Put the prongs in the side – careful, a sossy can slide off and end up in the fire!
Appetites sated, fire keeping us warm below a cloud-filled, starless night: time for June to truck out her “One dark, stormy night, a gang of robbers sat round a burning fire. And one said, ‘Elga, Elga, tell us a tale.’ So Elga began: ‘One dark, stormy night ……’ ” Said in a different tone of voice each time, it usually takes a while for children to catch on that you’re repeating the lines.
I grunt in weary recognition that we’d yet again reached the limits of our stories by firelight. So a welcome relief when she suggested we sing a few ’rounds’. She chose the first verses of three songs that had been doing the rounds as ’rounds’ and much else besides for forever: ‘Row, row, row the boat’; ‘Frere Jacques, Frere Jacques’; and ‘London’s burning’.
With a bit of focus I managed to come in quite well at the beginnings as she finished singing the first two lines and moved on to the third. I was even allowed to take the lead rowing the boat and burning down London a couple of times!
Goes to show, you can have an experience – and not merely feel burnt out – for a song. You just never know, you know.
That’s all from Little Owl Gully till next Monday. Thanks for your company. Bye for now.