Immemorial Fires by Richard Burton(The Scent of Autumn Fires)


Immemorial Fires

AS the green gives way to the gold, and the browns and russet reds mingle in the landscape, while overhead the haze of autumn softens and makes infinitely suggestive the mood of Nature, comes once more the well-remembered tang, the pungent smell of smoke from innumerable fires. From boyhood it has been for me (and surely for many others) a provocative memory, atmospheric with associations.
I recall, from far-off fields among the upland hills, in the glad vacation time, how a boy, playing at hare and hounds, got the scent in his nostrils and, as he panted on toward the desired end, was in some strange way assisted by the familiar odor; it seemed almost an accompanying friend. Let him but savor it now, and the intervening years roll back, and across the chasm of half a lifetime arise the look and the voice of childhood. Or, turning a corner of the road, he is suddenly confronted with a band of gipsies, camped beside the way; dark, mystic folk, immensely exciting to a
lad's imagination. They converse in a tongue which has all the lure of the alien and the unknown; the garish picturesqueness of their garb is but an outward symbol of their higher spiritual implication; they tell fortunes, they know the stars, wind, and weather are their familiars, and, most of all, like Whittier's " vanishers," they are up and away when you are unaware, exulting in open-air liberty, disdaining to be bound by the fixed conventions and day-long duties of commonplace mankind. And ever, as their colorful forms take shape out of the time-mists, I see the spiral twists of smoke from their campfires crawl up into the blue air, and again the smell of autumn and of youth challenges my soul.
Or it may be, far up the side of the New England mountain, the same boy is camping out with his mates; on the very edge of the wood-line they lie; a few steps higher, and the bare, rugged, serrated boulders climb straight to the summit, wind-swept and splendid. Many hours has it taken to reach this place of shelter, and the little band of adventurers is wet and cold and hungry. A striking scene in chiaroscuro they make, as one bends down to give hand-shelter to the all important match; a scratch, a glimmer, and it is well, for, the sticks being gathered, the fire is alight, and soon, drawn together in a circle that is older than civilization, they swap stories while the kettle boils, prepare their food and look up, now and then, in a sleepy half-wonder, at the calm great stars seen through a somber setting of forest trees. Stand away a little from the fire, to windward, and get the drift of the smoke. There it is again, not a smell, but an evocation of comradeship, and a friendly call out of the past!
Stand with me, too, for a moment and lean against the old fence rail, as you let the eye in deep contentment range over a field where, in admirable rank and file, the corn shocks stretch away; like so many Indian chiefs they stand, sedate, dignified, in a beautiful tonality of yellow and brown and gray. And from somewhere, on the field's edge, drifts once more the smoke of a hidden fire of leaves and brush, and as it ascends into the winy upper sky it appears, seen through the fruitful rows, as if these silent braves were gravely smoking the pipe of peace. Nay, if you will but listen, is not that rustle that comes to the ear the echo of the murmur of the Indian speech, as these wise ones of the open places whisper the sacred secrets of their tribe?
But not personal only are such memories, summoned up by the fires of autumn; racial are they, too, an atavistic reminder of our forefathers in days of eld. We began this way, we denizens of the town; and let but that perfume of the soul of leaves get in our nostrils, and there is a stirring, vague yet strong, of happenings that well-nigh antedate the years. Beside such a fire, in Time's very dawn, once knelt the son of man; beside it, too, he ate his simple meal, ere he resumed the trail and faced the perilous future. To look forward to it on the march, or after the hunt, was as a beacon of hope; all the cheer and consolation of home rose in his mind with its smoky spirals, and the crackling of its flame was as the call of kin across gloomed, lost places. Its red eye through the wood promised protection at the day's end; the wild beasts slunk away, as did two-footed enemies, at sight of that sign of habitation, and the presence of that social odor. If the Promethean gift of fire brought the dawn of civilization, the camp-fire smoke and the smell of burnt leaves or clean, sweet boughs accompany man's passage out of the unknown into history. For the Israelite by day, the symbol of the pillar of cloud; but by night, the pillar of fire.
And with all our boasted gain in creature comfort, how glad are the epicure and the aristocrat to return to this primitive thing, the open fire, indoors and out! How he revels in the household group before the blaze, with swept hearth and apples a-toasting; while, beyond the confines of the housed-in life, he doubly relishes his simple food, if but it be prepared by the roadside or midwood fire, and eaten beneath sun or stars, in that "great, good place, outdoors." After all, we seem not to have come so far, despite all the devices and agencies of social evolution, when still to-day we can derive no greater comfort than from that which the Phoenician knew, the Egyptian welcomed, the red man cherished; yes, and the caveman must have used. The smoke-drift of their experience mingles with and makes mellow the time-drift of the years, and by a sweet, ancient odor are we all united. After all, the fire is still the great symbol of home. 
As Kipling says:
How can I answer which is best
Of all the fires that burn?
I have been too often host and guest
At every fire in turn.

And so it is that this month of October, the wine month, as the Hollanders call it, brings in its recurrent splendor, its sober majesty, along with other gifts and tokens not a few, this gift of fires that purify dead matter, with the attendant smoke that is a spiritual note in the autumn landscape and evocative of many far-ranging memories for the individual and the race. It is a month that breeds reminiscence; a month in which Lamb might have written "The Old Familiar Faces," or Landor penned the unforgettable lines to the memoried maiden:
Rose Aylmer, whom these wakeful eyes
May weep but never see,
A night of memories and of sighs
I consecrate to thee.
October! Like Keats's " farewell," " the very sound is like a bell "; a rich, chiming, deep-voweled word in whose reverberations, so many and so wide, I find this memory of fires by field and wayside and wood, with the fragrant scent of wind-born smoke and a magic out of old, old times.