I like the postcards of WaterFire. The way they can capture the fire glow against the riverfront and evening skies over College Hill seems elegant, even elegiac. But for me the postcards are nothing like the real thing. The actual experience of WaterFire awakens all my senses. The pictures tell only the least part of the story.
Just as the taste of food did for Proust, the heat and the light, the smells and the sounds of WaterFire summon unexpected memories for me. Smoke on the water recalls the sensations of bonfires on the beach. We were youthful adventurers gathered on an island far from the watchful eye of authority, where we would haul a pile of flotsam from the high tide line and set it ablaze. There in the dark we felt the dangerous seductive power of the sea and the unruly heat of our driftwood pyre. We talked and we sang, and sometimes we were silent, watching the flames, listening to the waves, feeling the breeze off the water. Smoke settled in our hair, and embers burned holes in our sweaters. In time the tide would rise to flood our bonfires, filling the air with the rank scents of salty steam and wet charred driftwood. Playing with fire and rowing in the blackness through deep water enthralled us. The sensual pleasures of danger made us slaves to risk.
The WaterFire postcards I send my friends picture a refined version of those pleasures. The striking image of the fires at dusk is a long way removed from feeling burn blisters on my fingers and seeing soot streaks on my hands. When I walk the riverbanks at WaterFire sublime sensations reawaken my senses and summon old feelings. Lucky is the night when the breeze blows smoke in my eyes and I am reminded of the time long ago when fire and water first engaged all my senses and made the world around me feel sharp and clear.
Rob Emlen lives in Seekonk. He likes to light fires.