It Takes a Great Newspaper To Make a Good Smudge

Today, as I poise to begin a new series, is the Scottish Hogmanay, or day of oatcakes, and for auld lang syne you must do your "first footin' " to bring good fortune to your neighbor's household. What better way to first foot with my readers than to regale them with the latest word on smudges? The smudge, as something to think about, is offered by Gerald Lewis in his good year-end letter to prime me for the coming twelvemonth. I beg you all to come close and give dignified attention to the smudge as something to think about.

Gerald is a long friend of thoughtful manners, and being brother to a Maine State Fish and Game warden (or conservation officer) does not quite excuse him for his silly presumption that he knows something about cribbage as a cultural art. I think my old dog Tray could take him 2 out of 3. Once in a while Tray would beat me.

The smudge is not really a timely topic on Hogmanay, which in Maine comes during winter. The smudge's purpose, if you don't know, is to create a dense smoke that hangs over the periphery to fend off chiggers, mosquitoes, black flies, and other vicious and persistent carnivores that lurk in summertime. Gerald writes, in addition to his New Year's greeting, that last summer he taught a "sport" how to build a smudge, and a curious thing happened that has kept him wondering thus far.

He reasons that if he can unburden himself on me, he will have no more to do with it and yet know it is in able custody. He uses an antiquated preserving kettle with only one hole in it as a smudge pot, and when a tenderfoot, a paying "sport," asked him why the thing hadn't been tossed away, Gerald told him it was his smudge pot. Then he had to explain a smudge pot, and then he had to tell the "sportsman" what a smudge is. It was now well into August.

A smudge is a specially contrived non-burning fire that, instead of flaming, mulls along drowsily and sends up an acrid smoke that insects find unpalatable and to some extent avoid. It is kindled in a pail, or other suitable retired metal container, and it is kept to wind'ard of a wilderness camp or cottage retreat so the smoke will waft toward the folks who sit like flitches of bacon in a smokehouse. At the odd resort camps, where people came at great price for fresh air, the chore-boy who made the afternoon smudge was considered a technological genius.

The smudge smudged along, and its carefully selected fuel had such a low pyrotechnical flash point that a pailful of glop would run through evening reflection and well into the night. A person fully enjoying a Maine wilderness vacation would arrive back at Grand Central Terminal in New York smelling like the Chicago fire. But, the smudge discouraged mosquitoes and black flies, and never caused anxiety among the environmentalists. Gerald, you see, undertook to teach a rusticater how to build a smudge.

Instruction began when Gerald said a bit of birch bark made an excellent basic kindling, but that a smudge could also be started handily with a BDN. This is esoteric to anybody from away or, in Aroostook County, "from outside," and Gerald found the smudge held up while he explained a BDN.

Any nincompoop in Maine knows that BDN is the Bangor Daily News, a journal of journalistic uniquity with which all northern Maine children learn to read and kindle fires. It has a long, sturdy editorial policy opposed to slavery, free trade, sin, correct spelling, black flies, and Idaho potatoes. It is the periodical generally accepted as better than birch bark on a smudge. Seriously, with one outstanding exception, the BDN is the best paper in Maine. It does not publish on Sundays.

So, either with birch bark or a BDN, the smudge has its origin in the pail, and the student was next informed about the layering of the rest, right up to the brim of the metal container. First, a few dry twigs such as from a pine tree, no bigger round than a slate pencil, with the spills or needles long gone. Snap, break, and crumple these into a gormy bunch and lay them on top of the birch bark or the BDN, whichever comes first. These are meant to flame up and burn quickly, to ignite slightly the mare's nest of glop you gather to fill the pail.

EVERYTHING else, except the bark or BDN and these dry pine twigs, will become a smoking smolder. Neither fire nor flame, it will merely mull along like marinated sprats in a desultory benefaction applauded by man and deplored by flying insects. That, in much less time than it takes to do it, is the general idea of a smudge.

For the mulling fuel, wet leaves, bog moss, swale grass, and decaying duff are just fine. A punky basswood limb, a couple of seasons off the tree, goes well on top so an errant breeze won't blow things about and annoy the fire wardens. It is a majestic confection, and now you have only to touch a match down under to the birch bark or the BDN.

Gerald writes that he gave his student a wooden kitchen match, and his student scratched it on the metal container. Then the student reached down in, held the flaming match to the right place, and the smudge was instantly operational. The dry pine was aflame, and the wet leaves, etc., would soon be asmoke. Then, the student withdrew the match, blew it out, and tossed the match stick onto the smudge. Gerald asks us to consider, during 1998, the need to blow out a match you are about to toss into the fire. Opinions offered will remain confidential.

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