Several years before I had made any career decisions, I worked over my high school summers as a camp counselor. I first had the impressive title of “Junior Counselor” which paid nothing, and later “Senior Counselor” which paid just slightly more than that. To the girls that were under my watch, I was “Chief Sarah” and my senior (by a couple years) co-conspirator was “Chief Pam.” In retrospect, we had a mighty fine camping experience, filled with lots of mud, creeks, leeches, tents, bugs, hikes, home crafted water-slides, and camp outs. Good times were had by all. Or at least, by most.
My favorite activity of the week was the “wilderness camp-out” on which we took girls of all ages. Here was the plan: take a dozen girls (ranging in age from 6 – 12, depending on the week), their sleeping bags, pillows, bug spray, personal items, fire building tools, and dinner supplies into the deep woods. Hike all around the Lake that was the basis of our camp, and look for a flat(ish), cleared(ish), inviting area in which to create a wilderness camp site; build the site and transform it into our “Chipmunk Clan” abode; conduct crisis intervention after instructing the girls how to build a hole and pee in the woods; reassure a dozen girls that no wolves, bears, or aliens had been sighted in this location…for at least the last couple weeks; collect wood; build a fire; cook dinner for a dozen girls over the aforementioned fire; sing some songs around the fire; talk about the questions of life, God, and human existence around the fire; sleep under the stars when the fire dwindled.
The good stuff of life. Truly.
I have many, many fond camp memories. But, today I was thinking about building fires. This was a major lesson, and a challenge, on the overnight camp-out. For most of the girls we worked with, fire building was something they had never done, nor thought about. They first looked up to Chief Pam and Chief Sarah to make the fire for them. But, the “chiefs” knew it needed to be their fire. We would give advice, a bit of hands on help, and strike the match. It generally took several attempts at the fire to build one that would light. With some groups of girls, I can only credit divine intervention to get to that point. Around the same time I was a camp counselor, we read Jack London’s “To Build a Fire” in my high school literature class. I knew beyond the shadow of a doubt that Jack London had never been in the woods with a dozen girls. This would have required a completely different set of survival skills.
Before one can build a fire, one must have wood. So, the first task for the girls was to gather firewood. We had developed a whole series of rhymes to help the girls find appropriately dry (and right sized) firewood: “If it’s snappy, you’re happy!” and “If you can’t break it, Lake it!” were commonly chanted. “As long as your arm” was the measurement rule, although whose arm should be the standard measure was another issue entirely.
Once we had the wood, we described several fire-building techniques centered on maximizing the flow of air, distribution of heat, and increasing sizes of firewood to insure a working progression of the fire to the size where we could actually cook over the flames and coals. As we built these trial fires, many of which would not come to full fruition, we talked about what was happening.
“See those big flames from the pine needles you put on?? Is there anything for them to spread to so that the hot, quick flames can catch a longer, slower burning fuel…find something else to catch, otherwise they will just heat up and burn out and we still won’t have dinner.”
“Are you sure that stick was really dry? I think maybe it wasn’t snappy enough….see how the smoke just keeps building up? Green wood doesn’t burn, and it will just smolder and create a lot of smoke and no fire. We still won’t have dinner.”
“Wow…that was starting to be a great little fire. But that big log was just too much for it…it put out the fire and smothered the embers. Maybe next try we can try to increase the size of wood more slowly. We can’t make dinner on a huge log that smothers a tiny flame.”
We allowed plenty of time for fire building, because it is supposed to be a learning process. The inspiration wasn’t that dinner was something fabulous (often, it was hot dogs with boxed macaroni and cheese and canned baked beans), or even that the perfect coals would make the best s’mores. OK, on second thought, maybe the s’mores were actually motivating. But the real motivation was to create something out of nothing, to seemingly bring to life the element of fire on which we could cook food to nourish ourselves, create heat to warm ourselves, create light to keep the darkness at bay. In a scene reminiscent of Tom Hanks in “Cast Away,” this group of young girls would yell for joy, “I made fire! We made a fire!” I guarantee that was the best tasting hot dog, mac & cheese, beans…and undoubtedly, s’mores…that they ever tasted.
Looking back today, this literal creation of sustenance from the small light of a match onto paper onto tinder and kindling and branches and logs…that is an awakening to the primal forces that are still part of what makes us human. Our quick reactions to situations can burn out before any real change can be created. Our not-yet-dealt-with emotions can create billows of smoke and cloud our judgement because we’re all too quick to think we can burn them up and be done with them. Our over-eagerness to jump in and fix it can lead to trampling on the small sparks of innovation, new beginnings, small points of light that need fuel in order to catch on and grow.
Sit back. Be willing to learn the process of building the fire. Appreciate its warmth and glow, and the nourishment that it can provide. Tell stories around it with diverse and interesting people. Explore life, love, and God in the warmth, the flames and the light.