The Poetry of a Campfire

Carbon is not our enemy. It is the basis of life, working in tandem with the water and oxygen with which we are abundantly blessed to fashion all of the beauty of nature.

Let’s nerd out. Or at least I will. You don’t have to; you can just stop reading. Your call.

Why, you ask? Because I’m fascinated by the first law of thermodynamics. And by campfires (I’m currently sitting next to one). Campfires are basically the embodiment of the first law of thermodynamics.

I’ve always been fascinated by fires, and not always as cautious as I should be. You can ask my two brothers, and they can rattle off multiple times where I did something stupid with fire or fireworks. I’ll refrain from giving examples in this space though, as I don’t want to pass along any bad ideas. Heck, I’m lucky to have emerged unscathed given all the bad ideas I’ve put into practice. Let’s just talk about science instead.

Generally, the first law of thermodynamics states that the energy of a system is constant, though it can be converted from one form to another. It cannot, however, be created or destroyed. In the case of a campfire (the system), that means that as it burns away, it is converting the stored energy in the logs into heat and light. What comes out must equal that which goes in.

One of the drivers of the system is the carbon in the logs. With the application of heat to the wood, a chemical reaction with oxygen (O2) can occur, splitting up the complex carbon molecules that the tree sequestered in its body year after year. Since the reaction isn’t atomic (we aren’t splitting an atom or combining multiple ones into a new atom), we don’t lose the carbon or the oxygen (remember that first law of thermodynamics thing?). Instead, it is converted into a new form, mainly carbon dioxide (CO2).

I see poetry in this process. A tree labors patiently for decades at the task of growing, meticulously sipping carbon dioxide from the air and splitting it with the energy of the sun. That tree gifts the unneeded oxygen back to our atmosphere and keeps the carbon for itself, bonding it to other atoms to form its trunk and limbs and leaves. When the tree grows old and dies, the stored carbon offers a ripened source of fuel that will gladly give abundant warmth and light. What took years to build will burn away in mere minutes, as if in one dazzling celebration of a life well lived.

Moments like these, spent joyfully around a campfire, are welcome reminders of what Paul Hawken will often say – that carbon is not our enemy. It is the basis of life, working in tandem with the water and oxygen with which we are abundantly blessed to fashion all of the beauty of nature. Carbon is majestic.

That’s the good news about our struggle with climate change. We aren’t fighting against a poison that needs to be completely eradicated. Rather, we are seeking moderation, enough restraint to make sure we don’t indulge too much. That sounds a lot more manageable, doesn’t it?

Lisa Pellegrino (Sun, 13 Mar 2016 19:03:49 -0700): Thanks for this wonderfully nerdy reflection John. It also reminds me of Bill McDonough and his musings on "no such thing as waste, just misplaced resources", as well as his thoughts on how elements aren't inherently good or bad. Like lead, it's used in hospitals to help with x-rays, but ingested and it's a neurotoxin. It's all about placement and process I suppose...