Campfire Memories



In that brutal bad New Zealand winter of 2002 the worst storm ever recorded charged across the central North Island mountains, burying the forests in meters of snow and sending the few humans crazy enough to be out there in that onslaught fleeing for lonely mountain huts. Marooned by waist high drifts, fallen trees and winds colder than grief they huddled over cheerless fires while the storm howled and hammered at the windows like a break-in, eking out their food for the long wait. The canopies of that beautiful forest became weighed down by accumulating snow and when the lethal winds would not abate, toppled to the forest floor, their huge trunks shattering like match sticks. The great cathedral-like valleys and long skylines of ancient podocarps were decimated, a holocaust, their splintered blood red timbers oozing sap like the death of a great dynasty.

We came there for three days in 2011. The toppled forest giants lay in their beautiful ruins, engulfed now in ferns, algae, multiplying mosses, dissolving back into the earth, soil for the hibernating seeds of the new generations. Lichens, purple mushrooms, ancient symbiotic things competed for life on the armor plated bark; and myriad fungi, their delicate spiderweb filaments creeping out, hungry tentacles craving nutrients and life.

In pools of startling transparency, grandfather trout fit to grace any fisherman’s extravagant dreams lazed above pebble beds of smooth argillite and grey river stones. The water achingly cold, pure as tears. And deer tracks in the mud pans and snow, the splayed imprint of a hurrying stag, and last night, deft hooves of a hind, light, cautious. She stopped just there, listening deeply into the intense and telling silences, hearing every tiny sound of the night – stealthy wings, an owl trawling the dark; the mute whirr of a ghost moth; leaves moving, the sighing forest; the susurrations of water; far off a kiwi’s plaintive cry. Then reassured, moving on.

Our flimsy tent fly is not needed on this clear night and we lie on the forest floor in our sleeping bags, staring up through the dark shapes of trees into an indigo sky filled with dishevelled stars, a high tossed handful of jasmine flowers. Now the long wait till dawn, awareness without thought, the brimming silence, the attentive listening – not just into the darkness but into those deeper silences that are existential, open you up to other perspectives and broodings. The long night swallows up the follies in your mind.

Then 5 am, the dawn sky swallowing its last pale stars, retiring owls calling from the dark folds of hills, a dim figure shuffling down to the cold, crystalline river to wash. Then to meditate together around a fire piled high with deadfall. “ Look” says Ramana Maharshi in a passage I remember from somewhere. “ This little finger covers the eye and prevents the whole world from being seen. In the same way this small mind covers the whole universe and prevents Reality from being seen. See how powerful it is!”.

But in this silence before the dawn chorus of the birds the mind melts slowly away and there is only this moment attenuated out like a long string of presence, only the here and now and the simplicity of pure being. In this happiness, Guru writes, “we will really spread our wings, and we will feel that we are flying in the divine freedom-sky. The entire length and breadth of the world become ours, not for us to rule over but as an expansion of our consciousness. We become reality and vastness itself.”