There is an elemental attraction to fire that spans generations and draws people together in their common need for heat and light. A well-made bonfire can be the centerpiece of a harvest celebration, create festive markers for solstices and equinoxes, or offer welcome relief and camaraderie on a raw spring or fall CSA workday.
The best way to achieve a long-burning, impressive fire is with the upside down technique. An upside down fire looks completely wrong, with the big wood on the bottom and the kindling on top, but this style of fire will revolutionize your fire-building skills. Lit at the top like a candle, the fire begins modestly, and gradually grows into a roaring blaze. When laid properly with good wood, the upside down fire slowly implodes on itself as it burns down, and it is entirely possible to have hours of entertainment and cooking use without adding any more wood. This kind of bonfire can be a reflection of the careful planning and work that you put into producing high-quality crops from your land.
Upside-down fire right before a celebration begins.
How to build it
Take a good look at your surroundings and anticipate the potential wind direction. Take no chances on overhead hazards such as power lines, tree limbs, or other sources of combustion. Access to unfrozen hoses and running water should be established before laying the first log. It may be worth checking with your local fire department to see if a permit is required.
Seasoned wood will make a good fire. Straight logs are best, and your goal is to have a diverse range of log diameters. Lay the base in a square or rectangle, with your biggest logs settled into place next to each other, and as level as possible. You may need to dig out small indentations or even small trenches. You are looking for stability in your base layer. If you are preparing your bonfire on a grassy, public area, you can remove all of the sod and keep it in a damp spot so that the site can be completely healed within a day of the fire.
Once your base layer is in place and you are happy with the stability of your foundation, you can begin laying the bonfire in earnest. Each succeeding layer uses a set of slightly smaller diameter logs that are laid crosswise to the layer below. Work carefully to get the best fit between the logs, aiming for an inch or less of air space, and trim their ends neatly so that they do not extend at all beyond the layer below. If you leave the ends of logs protruding, you are setting up potential smoking catapults. Because these fires burn from the center outward, the logs get burned through in the middle first. The weight of any unburned ends left sticking out eventually overcomes the weight of the burned-through centers, levering the smoking part of the log out of the fire. While not a disaster, it makes for a sloppy scene that is clearly less safe and far less pleasant to hang out around.
Continue building up your layers with gradually decreasing diameter logs of slightly shorter lengths with less air space between them until they are approaching stick diameter. At this point a good pair of lopping shears can be very helpful for maintaining the neat, architectural appearance to your pyramidal stack. Depending on the weather forecast, you can decide to add a few cheater pieces to the pile. Almost any type of thoroughly dry junk wood can be artfully disguised in the inner parts of some of your top log layers. Continue working your way up with decreasing diameter sticks until you reach finger thickness material. Donâ€™t skimp on these sticks, or make sudden changes in the stick thickness from layer to layer, because they are the basis for a successful start to your fire. Try for totally dry, seasoned material in these top layers with air spaces of or less between the pieces, and you will be rewarded with a sure-fire burn.
You now need to collect your final few layers of twigs, gradually decreasing in diameter to the size of a matchstick. It is best to save all of this tinder in a dry spot and then place it carefully, in descending order of thickness, right on top of the stack just before ignition. I like to have a few pine cones on hand for the very top of the pile, and if I have dry pine needles I surround the pine cones with a mound of them on the very top of the stack. Cedar shavings or animal bedding can be substituted for the pine needles. Leave a small hole or hollow in the topmost material to make a protected spot for your match. For a major celebration, the stature of your bonfire should be at least shoulder high to establish itself in your landscape.
The actual lighting of your bonfire can be ceremonial or matter-of fact, depending upon the occasion and the traditions of your farm. Make a final check to ensure that the area is free of trip hazards, scrap wood, rocks or holes. On all but the windiest of days, a single match is usually sufficient to light your bonfire. If you are facing really tough conditions, a candle poked through a waxed paper cup or wrapped in a cone of paper for wind protection can make the job a bit easier.
Open fire cooking is one of the joys of a bonfire, and because an upside down bonfire burns bright and hot from the beginning, you can start cooking around it much sooner than around a conventional fire. Hot dogs and marshmallows are all right as desperation fallback items, but with just a little creativity you can showcase your homegrown produce. Apples, potatoes, small root vegetables, sweet corn, sweet potatoes, even small globs of bread dough wrapped on the end of a stick can provide hours of entertainment and enjoyment just be prepared with very long sticks to deal with the intense heat that these fires throw off in their later stages.
The vigilance, caution and respect that you have shown your fire during the course of its burning must continue through to the end. When the party is over, stretch out your hose, make sure no one is standing near the ashes, and turn it on full blast. Ash and steam will billow into the sky, and you will see the ground boil and steam as you continue to pour on the water. Use your tending stick to make sure that all of the charcoal is spread out, soaked and cold. A bonfire left to burn itself out creates a dangerous situation where a thick layer of cool ash lies over a bed of deadly hot coals. The ash looks all white and fluffy, almost begging to be scuffled through, but with disastrous results. It is far better to make a big soupy mess with the soaked bones of the fire lying scattered about than to lay a potential trap. If you have previously saved the sod from the area, clean out the worst of the cold charcoal and lay the sod down to cover the scar. Water it in thoroughly and it should be set to go. The site is healed, but the warm memories of friendship, laughter and singing remain.
Dan Pratt grows on a 6.5 acre certified organic market garden in Hadley. Massachusetts. For more information, visit his website at www.astartefarm.com.