Around the Campfire, from The Starched Blue Sky of Spain, by Josephine Herbst (1991)

Editor’s note: In 1898, Josephine Herbst journeyed from Sioux City, Iowa with her mother and three sisters to visit an uncle in Oregon. Together, the two families traveled by wagon to the coast, where they spent a few weeks camping in the woods alongside a beach, playing, swimming, fishing, and talking at night around the campfire. Nearly seventy years later, she recalled that trip in an essay about her childhood, parents, and family, titled “The Magicians and Their Apprentices.” Unpublished during her lifetime, it was collected along with three other autobiographical pieces in The Starched Blue Sky of Spain and Other Memoirs, with an introduction by Diane Johnson–a book that, in my opinion, ranks as one of the finest works of autobiography written by an American during the 20th century.


This was a summer for lore beyond books. Your hands and feet learned more than they had ever known they could do: how to catch mud cats and cut them up for bait; how to cast a line in a trout stream; how to dig your hands in oozy mud after the clam had squirted the signal of his little geyser. How to wait on the tide and how to find sea urchins and small frogs and ferns of sea moss in quiet pools. How to pry the rock oyster from his stony bed and how to cook him. How to catch a crab without getting pinched. How to walk barefoot on a slippery fallen log across the fiery sparkle of a tumbling mountain brook. How to stand still when you saw a deer. How to sit still around the campfire and listen to the gorgeous talk of grownups, who lived in their world, and you in yours, neither troubling to be pals with the other but only good friends.

It was a summer to remember not just for the new things your hands and feet discovered but for the glitter it offered of some distant beyond. There was someone’s beyond behind you, and a beyond to come to pass, and this interlude was the curious glowing union of past and present, promises and reality. The grownups were the magicians, the children their apprentices.

It was at night, in the light of the big campfire of driftwood, where the burning splinters fell in sparks the color of the rainbow or shot into tiny sulfurous spurts or foundered in pools of verdigris green, that the magicians and the apprentices played their true roles. For the circle was so gently relaxed, some sitting on rugs, some lying down and extending hands or feet toward the blaze, that a child of six could feel as detached as a bit of moss in a pool now covered by the tide. The very sound of the ocean and the sight of the sky, where the stars were bright buoys floating on their own watery deep, made you feel gently suspended in water, rocking in the vast hammock of the night. The voices of the grownups, slow, sometimes quietly breaking into laughter, communing over things dead and gone, remembering when my uncle and my mother were boy and girl together in a big family of other boys and girls, now scattered or dead, cast long lines backward in time and across a continent. There became here and then was now. The magicians might have been casting lines across an ocean covering buried towns and farms, so dreamlike was the world they called to life, so haunting the images, so watery the night, so true the history that branched its coral islands to you, because it had belonged to them.

Strange names of towns burst like sparks of dying wood. A dead aunt once more played the piano on Arch Street in Philadelphia, and the wild boy who went south to Georgia sent home a bunch of bananas to hang at the top of the stairs. The red bird sang in his gilded cage, and the mockingbird died. Once more the faithful dog Rebbie begged for bread spread with smearcase and apple butter. And against the glow of the fire, the flesh of your bare toes became rosy luminous; the delicate dark skeleton showed stiff as the charred twigs of a burning bush.

from The Starched Blue Sky of Spain and Other Memoirs, by Josephine Herbst