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How to make coffee

August 18, 2011

Fill your kettle with clear streamwater.  The kettle should be aluminum, blackened by years of soot, with the rubber coating melted off the wire handle; otherwise, you’re not really making real coffee. Sometimes you’ll catch a frog in your kettle; make sure you release it before you boil the water.

If you’ve got a campfire, find a sturdy stick and carve a notch in it to hold your kettle. A walking stick is perfect; a trekking pole won’t work at all.  Crouch and suspend your kettle over the hottest part of the fire.  When the fire settles, you can set the kettle down on it directly, but take care that you don’t squash out the flames.  If you don’t have a campfire, call forth fire from your stove.  My dad runs his MSR stove on kerosine; I was fourteen when I learned the tricks of lighting it, and felt mighty.  A ball of fire and jet-engine roar will do that.

You probably overfilled the kettle, so you’ll know it’s boiling when your fire hisses and steams and you run over, panicked, from the rock where you were sitting contemplating the sky and the mountains.

Pour a handful of coarse grounds from the reindeer-skin coffee bag, its leather dark and supple from absorbing coffee oils over the years.  Toss a pinch into the sky for the weather trolls, in thanks for the wonders of atmospheric dynamics. Dump the rest into your kettle and wait for it to come back to a boil. When it does, use your stick (or your folded handkerchief) to take it off your campfire (or your stove). Pass it over the fire three times, briefly. Set it on the ground and pour in just a bit clean, cold water to shock the grounds to the bottom of the kettle.

Drink it from the chipped-lip wooden cup you bought when you were a student on your first visit to Finland and couldn’t afford one properly made from a burl.  Have a bite of cheese, too; wipe your knife clean on the blueberry bushes before you put it away.

Coffee, when camping, was a sacred drink and a drink that I hated.  The daily morning ritual drew me, but like most children I couldn’t stand the taste.  Instead I drank tea (made from bags and sadly lacking in ceremony) and crumbled up cookies to throw to the winds, because I knew that weather trolls could not subsist on coffee alone and would want some food, too.

My dad tossed coffee to the weather trolls when it was clear and when it rained, when the fog clasped close around the tent and when wind blasted through the valleys until we could hardly stand.  The thanks were not thanks for “good” weather.  “There is no bad weather,” my parents were fond of reminding me and my sister; “only inappropriate clothing.”  “And think,” added my father, “of how much work the weather trolls put into a good rainstorm or a nice fog bank. So much more difficult than a sunny day!”

We bundled up in raincoats and hats, stuffed our faces with chocolate, changed our soggy socks, and I learned to find beauty even in cold and wet places.  My heart lifts at winter mornings blue with horizontal snow; awe at things just barely seen fills me when autumn fog cuddles around red-leaved trees. I rarely feel more alive than during torrential rainstorms in which all efforts at staying dry are utterly futile.  Don’t get me wrong: persistent gray days drag me out and sun cheers me up just like everybody else.  But the attitude that takes any form of precipitation as a personal affront, or assumes entitlement to perpetual sun, leaves me perplexed and irritated.  The weather was not made for us.  It’s part of a vast and complicated system; we stand fixed in space as it eddies and flows overhead.  Why would you sit indoors, railing at the injustice of the rain, when a good raincoat and boots will take you out into the glory of it all?

I have learned to like coffee, though I’ve not yet brewed it outdoors.  The clothes in my closet suit the changing weather in my town rather better than the various social occasions.  I look forward to the days when the wind shifts, and now and then I still throw a cookie into the sky.

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