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Impressionism: Civilization is going up in smoke, one chiminea at a time

There's a reason we have backyard fire bans. It preserves the peace
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It seems that when you run one of those window fans on a muggy night, you essentially suck the wood smoke from the neighbour’s illegal backyard fire directly into your home.

In this way, your dwelling place quickly fills up with the smell of a house on fire. You bolt out of bed at roughly 12:45 a.m., frantically searching for the source of the fire inside your home, ready to wake the house, crawl on the floor, tie bed sheets together, carry on your back those who need carrying.

And then you see through bleary, blurry, and rapidly blinking eyes the flickering of a campfire in a backyard, and two shadowy figures enjoying a few cold ones, mesmerized by the warm glow. And your instincts shift to those inherent to tribal warfare.

I love a good campfire, too. I love to just sit around it, stare into it, suck it up into my lungs, get transported to primitive times where I am perhaps wearing something in a nice buckskin, gutting a fresh kill and stoking the cooking fire.

But, you see, we live in a civilization now. We don’t hang out in the branches of trees for a good part of the day, waiting for a hedgehog or sabre-toothed tiger to pass over one of our clever little earthen traps.

Now we live in houses and apartments, in buildings with windows for the letting in and out of cool breezes. We’re above all of that cooking over an open fire thing, all that layering up with coats of soot and smoke to keep the human smell from the nostrils of our prey.

We are now civilized, at least civilized enough to know in this relatively new societal structure we live in, that these dwellings we call home are generally no longer visited by the scent of wood smoke in the normal course of living. And when that certain deep, long ago smell does drift in, waif among the bookshelves, linens and groceries, it is cause for alarm. It generally means your home is about to go up in smoke.

In this new, post-primitive society we have built for ourselves, we have crafted a series of laws and ordinances so that we are able to live together with a certain semblance of order and fairness. And not kill and eat each other.

In our city we have a ban on open backyard fires just so the neighbourhood doesn’t go up in flames in the event of a dry season, or to prevent the smoke from your slightly damp, crappy firewood, purchased at the local gas station, sending plumes of suffocating smoke up and into the blades of your neighbour’s cooling fan, filling his domain with stifling fumes.

This is the very definition what is means to be civilized: We don’t fill each others homes with smoke.

At some point along the way in our evolving civilization, human beings invented the notion of tasking a select few to craft the bylaws and procedures that keep us safe from our fellow citizens. These are often elected officials who are believed to be gifted at the whole right/wrong thing – very responsible, very dignified, almost holy people who know how to take care of the rest of us.

When they say ‘no open fires’ we trust their judgement explicitly. Most of us.

Our city prohibits outdoor recreational fires, including those in fireplaces, fire pits, and chimineas. It’s an offense the lawmakers of our civilized little settlement have seen fit to tag with a potentially hefty fine of up to $50,000 and a year in jail.

But the problem is, this civilization of ours is not only rooted in the wisdom of our great leaders, but shaken to the very foundations by the free choice of citizens, by their game theories and risk takings and romantic notions of summer camps past or drinks around the chiminea.  

Each one of us can choose to consider the welfare of our neighbour over a craving for roasted marshmallows. And while most appear to understand that rising smoke can, and indeed likely will seep into the open windows of neighbouring homes, others appear too transfixed on the flames, too absorbed by wanderlust to consider the societal consequences of their actions.

It is these backyard fire violators who threaten the very core pillars of civilization. It is these outliers who must be dealt with harshly. Them, and the sidewalk cyclists, but don’t even get me started on that lawless tribe.



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Rob O'Flanagan

About the Author: Rob O'Flanagan

Rob O’Flanagan has been a newspaper reporter, photojournalist and columnist for over twenty years. He has won numerous Ontario Newspaper Awards and a National Newspaper Award.
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