The Emotions Behind the Campfire

"Camp Fire Yarns." Alice Manfield. Photograph, ca. 1890-1930. Alice Manfield Collection, State Library of Victoria.
“Camp Fire Yarns.” Alice Manfield. Photograph, ca. 1890-1930. Alice Manfield Collection, State Library of Victoria.


The work I’m doing at the moment examines the somewhat romantic place that the campfire occupies in Australian settler culture.   It’s part of an attempt to understand how nineteenth-century European settlers imported northern hemisphere ideas of fire to the antipodes, as well as an examination of how they were forced to re-evaluate their understanding of burning.  As I work this paper up into an article over the coming weeks, I’ll be aiming to broaden my own understanding of the Australian sublime, seeking to theorize the emotions projected onto the outback and to understand how fires were used to assuage threats from the bush, both real and imaginary.

Fires have long been associated with story-telling as well as warmth, and while narratives such as Henry Lawson’s ‘A Camp-Fire Yarn’ celebrate the ‘mateship’ fostered around the fire, they also elide its potential for danger and destruction.  European colonists have had a fraught relationship with fire in Australia, not least because of imported ideas about the meaning and management of burning.

Tom Griffiths has noted that, ‘Fires are strangely historical.  They inspire stories, disturb dreams and evoke memories’ (Forests of Ash, 183).  Luis Fernandez-Galiano carries this idea further in his study Fire and Memory (2000), arguing that the combination of fire for warmth and fire for cooking creates a home.  According to this logic, the lighting of a campfire is an act of what Janet Myers calls ‘portable domesticity’, albeit a temporary one and, in this paper, I’m going to examine representations of the campfire and its perceived role in drawing settlers closer to their new environment.  Following Richard White’s argument that Australian national culture was founded in a ‘city-dweller’s image of the bush’ I shall examine the anxieties that settlers projected onto the uncanny landscape and the role played by the campfire in either exacerbating or diminishing their concerns.  I want to consider how—and whether—the campfire was deployed to tame the environment and, interpreting the lighting of a campfire as an act of (attempted) domestication, I will argue that it offered colonists an illusion of mastery over their surroundings—a mastery that was often both temporary and tenuous.

The campfire was, as the comment from Griffiths suggests, also connected with nostalgia.  Gaston Bachelard has written of the dreaming and remembering which occur in front of the fire, connecting repose with ‘reverie’ and the recollection of a sense of well-being (The Psychoanalysis of Fire,14).  The lighting of a campfire seeks to replicate the sanctuary of the domestic hearth, to impose domesticity, order or familiarity on a landscape that resists such attempts to tame it and, as such, the act is fraught with tensions.  While it may offer comfort to the weary traveller, a fire in the Australian wilderness means something very different from a fire in a forest in the Northern hemisphere and as a result, I would suggest, the campfire is always surrounded by a frisson of danger and uncertainty at the same time as it is evocative and homely.

According to Bill Garner, the Australian colony began as a collection of tents.  Garner argues that ‘the environmental circumstances of Australia…made campers of the English who came here, and camping out was a significant part of the process that eventually made them Australians’ (Land of Camps: The Ephemeral Settlement of Australia, 11).  It is, then, hardly a surprise that the campfire quickly attained iconic status in Australian culture to the extent that the publication of campfire songbooks, stories and poems became a big business from the 1850s onwards.  Julia Bowes has written of the work done by Banjo Paterson and Henry Lawson ‘to particularise the campfire experience to an Australian context’, citing the use of a specialized vernacular of ‘billies’ ‘swagmen’ and ‘billabongs’ to claim the campfire experience for the bush nationalist cause (In Richard White & Caroline Ford (eds), Playing in the Bush, 101).  While Bowes argues that ‘the campfire was a site where national stories were told to the backdrop of the Australian bush’, many of these works had a fairly oblique connection to the campfire (101).  Sometimes the fire was invoked as a catalyst for a sequence of sketches of life in the bush and often it was a plot device designed to appeal to metropolitan readers, who spent more time imagining the Australian countryside than inhabiting it.  Nevertheless, the campfire in fiction and in fact was used as a place to tell stories about the countryside and its strangeness, mediating anxieties about exposure to the landscape and its hostilities in what appeared to be a safe space.  The lighting of a fire was, in some ways, a point of continuity between the northern and southern hemispheres, a point of convergence and conviviality and also a space to remember past fires, on the other side of the world.  Thus while the campfire story often asserted the type of Australianness identified by Bowes, it was also tied to a longing for the north, which was emphasized by the otherness of the Australian terrain.

The vignette, ‘Memory’s Influence’ which appeared in Walter Dollman, Jr’s Bush Fancies and Campfire Yarns (1898) neatly exemplifies the campfire’s connection to memory and domesticity.  It opens with a vision of a neglected, untended fire:

A campfire, on a calm night, at the time of year when the warmth of a fire comes welcome.  It is not brightly blazing, as one might expect, but seems neglected, and is slowly whitening into ashes the sticks which have been heaped together earlier in the evening.  Now and again a half-burnt stick falls into the ashes beneath it, and a few sparks fly and crackle, then all relapses into silence again.  But if we look closer we may see a human form stretched upon a rude bed of blankets alongside the fire, and a human face apparently gazing intently into the smoldering pile (67)

Dollman’s narrator continues to describe that man as a ‘shell’ whose eyes look beyond the fire and into his past.  We learn little of the man, other than that he is thousands of miles away from home. The fire, which has stimulated his reverie, causes him to recall his boyhood.  It also, though, offers him a curious, mystical vision of his parents in the present, impelling him to move towards his old life, gravitating towards home and kinship.  The unnamed man, a kind of unsettled settler, has not been successful in the colonies and his life has been one of ‘hard living and ill-fortune’, yet the dying fire (which is implicitly connected with his dying parents), brings about a ‘softening’ in his ‘hardened composure’.  This alignment of fire with memory draws on Victorian symbolic realist conventions which, Kylie Mirmohamadi and Susan Martin have argued, were frequently deployed by nineteenth-century settlers to interpret and understand the antipodes (see Colonial Dickens: What Australians Made of the World’s Favourite Writer).  The landscape here is dismissed very rapidly, though, as ‘desert drear’, something to be traversed on the way home, and nothing more. The makeshift, temporary fire exposes the makeshift temporariness of life in the south, pointing the way home through its evocation of the past.

In 1878 Ada Cambridge (writing as ‘Mrs Cross’) published the poem ‘By the Campfire’ in the Australian Ladies’ Annual.  While the piece begins as an appreciation of Australian pastoral, with whispering gum trees and glimmering golden wattles, it quickly moves through clichéd European ways of framing the landscape to become something much darker.  Initially, the campfire draws creatures to it, ‘an opossum flits before the fire light,–pauses, peers,–/I see a round ball where he sits, with pendant tail and pointed ears’.  For Cambridge, the campfire is a type of defence, as it was for many nineteenth-century settlers, both literally and figuratively.  While it may attract the apparently tame, charmingly different bush creature, it provides an implicit deterrent against the wilder aspects of the bush.  Cambridge writes of the ‘curlew’s thrilling scream’, which stirs echoes through the mountain and is described as ‘the wildest bird note ever heard accentuating the horror reverberating through the darkness.

The ‘soft scratchings, up and down’ and ‘weird undertones’ also point to possible danger encroaching on the campsite from the bush.  At the height of her unease and, significantly, at the mid-way point through the poem, the speaker tells us in heavily Gothicized terms:

The darkness gathered all around is full of rustlings strange and low;

The dead wood crackles on the ground, and shadowy shapes flit to and fro;

I think they are my own dim dreams, wandering amongst the woods and streams.

It is neither the bush nor its fauna that pose a threat to the poem’s speaker, rather it is her own vivid imagination.  The bush, then, is not the source of fear, rather it is the settler who has projected her anxieties onto the environment, mediating the world around her through an Australian sublime that, Meaghan Morris—writing of a very different context–has noted ‘displaces the often bloody human conflicts of colonial history with a pale metaphysics of landscape in which Man confronts the Unknown’ (Identity Anecdotes, 85).  The difficulty with this displacement is that it is incomplete and that the rustlings and cracklings and shadows of the unfamiliar landscape and its fauna continually recall the suffering that is no longer visible.

Curiously, though, the poem’s tone then shifts radically and somehow the incredibly sinister ‘tangled trees…full of eyes—still eyes that watch me as I sit’ and the sound of feet, stealing through the darkness’ mutate.  Instead of signaling the horror of the countryside closing in on the speaker, who opened the poem by noting the mountains ‘enclasping’ her, the forest becomes empty and melancholy, leading to nostalgic recollections of England and a beloved who has been left behind.  The reverie inspired by the combination of the fire and the landscape’s extreme otherness leads to a yearning for the north and the comfort of the familiar.  Thus, nostalgia and longing become entangled with a desire to retreat or escape from the bush.  Like Dollman’s vignette, Cambridge’s poem rejects the claustrophobia of a land that is paradoxically larger than that which has been left behind, but which also threatens to entrap and overwhelm the speaker.  As Christina Thompson puts it, the Australian landscape is, for many migrants, a ‘nothing appalling and horrible…a nothingness which is actually something’, and that nothingness in turn becomes a space to which Europeans brought their guilty fears.  Ada Cambridge is far from alone in this regard, with other nineteenth-century writers like Barbara Baynton pointing to an intangible terror apparently emerging from, yet more probably projected onto, the bush.


While the campfire offers comfort, familiarity and continuity between north and south, it also becomes something different in an Australian context.  Part of what makes a campfire both thrilling and slightly terrifying is its potential to cause devastation if it is not controlled properly.  A 1961 campaign by the NSW Bush Fires Committee, urging campers to ‘make fire your servant, not your master’ and reminding them to extinguish their fires points directly to this danger.  This idea of settlers asserting mastery over fire is more broadly problematic in relation to the renewal of the landscape and the natural role of fire in Australia’s eco-system.  However, we might regard the lighting, feeding and subsequent extinguishing of a campfire as a staging of this control.  Julia Bowes has commented:

The exercise of building a campfire gave Australians an opportunity to enact the national myth of man overcoming nature.  In the same way that the pioneers overcame the harshness of the Australian landscape by developing survival skills and bushcraft, campers and bushwalkers often remarked on their triumphs over the dangers of fire as they harnessed and domesticated it to serve their own purposes  (106)

Domestication here is roughly synonymous with Europeanization, suggesting that the campfire’s comfort stems from its apparent containability.  The building of a campfire re-enacts in miniature the pioneers’ ‘management’ of the landscape, as well as their exploitation and abuse of it.  The campfire is fed by the forest—not always responsibly–yet there is an art to building and maintaining it that Bowes identifies as ‘bush craftsmanship’.   There is, though, something rather awkward about the idea of ‘bush craftsmanship’ in that it suggests a deliberate misshaping and re-fashioning of the bush that is both artificial and an attempt to impose European ideas of order and safety upon it.

The danger behind the campfire is occasionally registered in its stories , as it is in JCF Johnson’s An Austral Christmas (1889).  Set at a cattle station in Queensland, the work comprises a sequence of campfire stories told by thirteen men—some of whom are former diggers from the goldfields—who take it in turns to tell stories around a campfire after they have finished their Christmas lunch.  In one story, ‘Old Crab, the Growler’, set, as its narrator tells us, just six weeks before the devastating fires of Black Thursday (February 6, 1851), a bushfire breaks out near the home of a former convict, Old Crab, who is known for his misanthropy.  Old Crab is hated by everyone around him, except for a fourteen-year-old boy, Fred Thorn who loves him, for reasons that never really become clear.  There is no warning that the fire is coming and when it is first sighted nobody takes any particular notice.  It moves closer with great rapidity and the narrator takes plains to explain its swift-moving danger emphasizing the forest’s highly flammable qualities and its complicity in starting the fire:

[A] fire in a stringybark forest is most to be feared in the bush, as (unlike a fire on the plains, amongst the grass only) it is next to impossible to stop it, or combat it any way.  The blaze first catches the fibrous, ragged bark, mounts rapidly amongst the foliage, which, containing as it does so large a quantity of essential oil, soon ignites, and then, if the wind be at all strong, leaps from tree to tree, one vast sheet or roaring flame (52).

The plot is a fairly predictable one, in that a horse breaks its neck, thwarting escape plans and the eponymous  cantankerous ‘old Crab’ sacrifices himself to save a young man, Fred, who has previously nursed him through an illness.  Having bestowed his worldly goods on Fred, whose horse opportunely carries him away, even as he is expressing his reluctance to leave Old Crab, the reformed convict is presumably burned alive.  The narrator draws a veil over the particularities of his death, simply commenting that ‘the smoke and flame parted them forever’ (54).  While I’m interested in the melodrama and sacrificial elements of this story (there are quite a few suicides in post 1880 bushfire stories), what is immediately interesting is the presence of a bushfire in a campfire tale.  Implicitly, it points to the danger behind burning anything in the bush, reminding those who are listening (or reading) of the layers of fiction surrounding the Australian campfire.  While the fire may ward off venomous creatures, it can also draw in strangers, not all of whom may be welcome and, most importantly, if it is not observed closely, the fire may burn out of control at any moment.  The bushfire plot embedded within the campfire story reminds us that a lot can happen while you’re waiting for the billy to boil, as tragedy and comfort are awkwardly juxtaposed.

Percy Clarke’s Three Diggers (1889) also exemplifies the different levels of fear that settlers associated with fire.  Technically, the novel isn’t a campfire story, although as it begins in the diggings at Ballarat with three men sitting around a brushwood fire, in front of a canvas tent, it is possible to make a case for reading it as such.  The work follows three adventurers who have come to seek their fortune in the diggings and, towards the end of the story, they are caught up in an act of arson when some bushrangers set fire to the landscape.  This is part of an extensive, fantastically vivid description:

The fierce demon of fire, so useful a slave, so unruly a master, is truly in his element.  He flings all his bonds and shackles aside, and with electrical speed he circles around massive tree-trunks, snapping up the twigs and the leathery resinous leaves as he climbs the highest gum, embracing each neighbouring tree in in his fiery touch both alow and aloft in the twinkling of an eye.  See, as one speaks, the great branches flare up, redden, and crash down, while the trunk itself, half-eaten by the demon’s savage and remorseless tooth, sways and falls, in hideous embrace bringing ruin around it (227).

Clarke’s explicit connection of two apparently disparate aspects of Australian settler life points to the layers of anxiety with which migrants approached the countryside and the levels of discomfort that I discussed before in relation to Ada Cambridge’s poem. While Clarke’s narrator equates the uncontrollable fire with a freed slave, to a nineteenth-century Australian reader, the discarding of bonds and shackles would surely also have evoked thoughts of escaped convicts and their awkward, unnatural positioning in relation to both the landscape and settler culture.  The alignment of convicts and fire points to something savage, possibly sublime and definitely untameable in both, as well as signaling the guilt and neurosis that Morris reads in European reactions to the environment.  Both are something that settlers believed they could control and repress, yet both have the capacity to flare up and overwhelm.

The campfire and the stories told around it offered a means of mediating, if not completely containing, some settler anxieties about the difference and hostility of the Australian environment for those who were immersed in it and for those who simply liked to imagine it.  While some, like Ada Cambridge’s poetic persona, were able to identify themselves as the source of the horror in the bush, others invoked the campfire as a means of allaying the most confronting aspects of migrant culture.  The fact that for Europeans fires have traditionally prompted nostalgia and reverie adds a layer of complexity to the fire’s apparent security.  If the lighting of a campfire is an act of portable domesticity, then it is a fleeting one that signals the many challenges settlers faced in seeking to assert a permanent presence on the land they had stolen.  Furthermore, it is an act that is loaded with memories, personal and collective, pleasant and horrific and a melancholy that for many was associated with the permanence of the makeshift world of the bush.  Campfires should ‘disturb dreams’, to return to the words from Tom Griffiths with which I began this post, not least because they disrupt all sense of belonging both to the bush and to the Antipodes.


Posted by Grace Moore

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