When Jake Francis steps in front of an audience by a campfire, he transforms from a mild-mannered young man into a whirling dervish of energy and information. At least he did last week at the Thursday night summer campfire at the Schrader Environmental Education Center in Wheeling (www.oionline.com, 304-242-6855). And that's as it should be -- Francis is the Schrader Center's director of environmental education.
As dusk enveloped the wooded amphitheater and flames morphed into embers, Francis wowed the crowd of about 70 children, parents and grandparents with animated stories and sing-alongs. Then everyone roasted marshmallows and made s'mores.
The aroma of wood smoke kicked in powerful olfactory memories that whisked me back to Boy Scout camp. I recalled early-morning reveille, oatmeal and flapjacks, learning to paddle a canoe, the smell of wet canvas tents and, of course, campfire sing-alongs.
It also brought back more recent memories of backyard campfires with my daughters when they were little girls. At the time, it was just family fun, but in retrospect it was much more than that. I taught them the voices of barred owls, great horned owls and coyotes. We told ghost stories and shared our dreams. We learned the major constellations. And some nights we even got to watch meteor showers rain fire across the sky.
The girls are grown now and finding their way in the world, but I know they remember those special nights lying on a blanket -- watching, listening, whispering. Important lessons can be learned and memories shaped around a summer campfire. And those lessons and memories lay the foundation of a conservation ethic. Neither of my daughters is a biologist or a professional conservationist, but they both love nature fiercely.
Few of us live where we can have campfires in the backyard, but everyone can visit nature centers and parks that offer these special evenings. In fact, this fall the Audubon Society of Western Pennsylvania (www.aswp.org) is planning campfires Sept. 17 at Succop Conservancy and Sept. 18 at Beechwood Farms. And the only campfire better than one on a warm summer night is one on a chilly September evening.
Biologist, author and broadcaster Scott Shalaway can be heard 9-11 a.m. Saturdays on 1370 AM WVLY (Wheeling), and noon-2 p.m. Sundays on 1360 AM WMNY (Pittsburgh). He can be reached at http://scottshalaway.googlepages.com, and 2222 Fish Ridge Road, Cameron, WV 26033.