The Bonfire

We have been having a perfect fall here in the midwest this year. Blue skies, warm weather and the leaves turning orange. Which means it’s time for Dennis and Claudia’s annual bonfire. Dennis and Claudia invite loads of friends over for soup, bread pudding then the bonfire. Dennis is a cabinetmaker,, and Claudia is a garden designer.

Its almost Halloween, which I’ll admit isn’t my favorite holiday. I loved Halloween as a kid, the costumes, trick or treating and the candy.  I still love sweets and even bought a Reese’s Peanut Butter cup today at the grocery store. But when I was a teenager I saw the movie the Omen, which terrified me. In college, a group of us watched Halloween with Jamie Lee Curtis, and I could barely watch. After I moved to Chicago, one Halloween my boyfriend and I took the train to the Indiana Dunes on Halloween. On our way back to the city we fell asleep on the train. When we woke up there were the strangest people on the train. It felt like a twilight zone episode. But it got worse from there. We took the El to Irving Park Road but couldn’t connect with a bus, so we had to walk home past Graceland Cemetery to our apartment. We were completely spooked by then. On the walk we came across a crate of dead chickens that had fallen off a truck. We practically ran home at that point and I vowed to never go out on Halloween again.

Dennis and Claudia have had this party for 7 years now and its become a tradition among their friends. Last year it was called Burn baby Burn 2009, or fondly “Tryna set the night on fire” This year it was called “Pyromaniacal Hijinx.”

Many other countries have bonfires. The practice of bonfires may have originated at a festival where bones were burned to ward off evil spirits. In Spain, there are the bonfires of Saint john celebrated around June 24. In Great Britain, bonfires are associated with Guy Fawkes night on November 5. In the US, in Louisiana, there are bonfires on Christmas Eve to light the way for Santa Claus.

Dennis told me “there is a pagan undertone to a large bonfire at this time of the year… traditionally marking the end of the year….the fire act as a release of that year ….and yes I love fires. He is a a cabinetmaker and build structures for a living. He works on the bonfire sculptures by himself. He calls then assemblages and he has been collecting things for months. He plans the structure and thinks about the silhouette of the bonfire as it burns. The dresser drawers had holes cut out of them so the flames would spill out. He looks at the weather and wind patterns to determine which side to light first. This year he had a coffin, a dresser and a wooden step ladder. He prepped the area for a week before the party and uses tarps to keep the sculpture dry in case of rain. The actual assembly of the bonfire took 6-15 hours. We visited him the afternoon of the party and the assemblage was remarkable.

I overheard many friends comment that the sculpture was too beautiful to burn. This year’s sculpture was particularly intricate and evoked a Louise Nevelson sculpture. But Dennis said  “This bonfire gives me a chance to create a large object and watch it being consumed by flames” He continued, “creation and destruction… that’s life.” All of us enjoyed the warm fall night as we watched the bonfire transition from art to coals. I hope Dennis and Claudia continue their remarkable tradition for many years to come.

2 responses to “The Bonfire”

  1. Fire is mesmerizing and needs to be staged and or timed so that the staring into it lasts just long enough that you’re not waiting and wanting for more but not so long that your drinks are drunk, food is all consumed and conversation and spook stories have completely given way to night shivers.