All this open time has got me thinking and reflecting, so this week I have another personal piece. Below I speak about my relationship with fire and the lessons it holds for us all.
We stumble through the pitch black woods: an exodus of bare-foot children with no sight under thick blindfolds. A warm fire surrounded by singing voices and the beat of a drum are our only guidance. Though branches and rocks cut my shins and grab at my 6-year-old face, I am not scared, for I feel the motherly flames growing closer. Fire and drum fade into one; a communal heart beat pulling us home.
This is the drum stalk at the Living Earth School, a nature connection school in Virginia. Many of Living Earth’s traditions were passed down from a Lipan Apache elder named Stalking Wolf through his apprentice, the ever-controversial Tom Brown and Brown’s apprentice, Jon Young. Fire is the soul of the community at Living Earth and is seen as just as valuable a mentor as any human instructor. Students are first taught to respect the power of fire, then they are taught to build a home for fire, to light fire, to maintain fire, and, finally, to love fire. Through these lessons, the fire raised me from timid student to empathetic instructor.
Fire: destroyer of homes, forests, animals, and people, is also the destroyer of self-esteem and dignity. I learned this through the process of making a wooden bowl. In order to make a bowl, you must keep a coal in the middle of a block of wood and blow on it until it burns a deep enough hole that you may carve out the rest. Last year, in my first summer as an instructor, I notice a small boy who sits away from the others, red in the face from both the heat of the coal and his frustration. I remember my own first bowl, when fire scolded me for my impatience by constantly tumbling out of the bowl and burning my skin. His coal too falls to the ground every few seconds, stinging his hands and sizzling out in the dirt below. Just as many animals can sense the feelings of humans, fire knows when you are fearful, anxious, or arrogant. I lead him in a few deep breaths and tell him to put down his bowl for a minute, for fire has sensed his desperation.
Building Fire a Home
Fire is a finicky guest; she requires a confident, direct, and intelligent host or she will disappear as quickly as she came. Over the 12 years I have been building teepees for fires, I have learned that a happy house guest requires a functional doorway, oxygen, and a roof tall enough that she may reach for the sky. She will not accept any wood that is too green or too wet. This is why you must welcome fire with intentional, honest, and patient hands. In order to teach Living Earth students how to prepare a proper home for this esteemed guest, we practice the art of the one-match fire. quote about RWK and singing. Today, when I make a one-match fire I sing the Eel River Song, a hymn about a drum stalk through the river. It reminds me to put trust in the earth and my body as I light the fire.
“Lay yourself down on the rocks now
Lay your body down by the river
Listen to the rhythm of the other side
Lose yourself in the meantime
Let your body be your guide
Let the waters decide
Lose yourself in the meantime”
At the beginning of every Living Earth session, an instructor creates a live coal with their bow drill kit as a flock of awed children watch. Once the vulnerable coal is safely cradled in a tinder bundle of cedar bark, it is passed around the circle of eager hands; each child and adult giving it a small breath of life. We sing a song as we pass the bundle: “burn fire burn, burn fire, stoke your inner fire, let the coal inside you rise and blow that flame to life.” The resulting fire must then be kept alive for the rest of the week, so we wake in turns in the night to stoke it and collect more kindling. This fire, more so than any meal or debris hut created at Living Earth, is raised and sustained by all hands and hearts.
Bowdrill is an exercise which uses your whole body and mind. In order to succeed, you must let energy flow through every limb. To start, you kneel, as if bowing down to a demanding queen, pressing on the hand-hold to keep it steady, your other arm moving the bow back and forth, and one foot holding down the fire board. The spindle twirls round and round on the fire board until the friction gives way to a small coal. When we teach the students bow drill, the weak of heart or the overly-confident are swiftly humbled and challenged by fire’s keen eye. There is often a young boy who insists he can manage on his own, but as he fights with the bow and his grip on the hand-hold slips, he bows his head to ask for help. To some, bow drill comes easily and they create a coal in a matter of hours, but for others it takes years.
I practice bow drill almost every day, and every day, as I push and pull my bow and the spindle dances on the fire board, my energy and excitement build, but eventually the spindle shoots out of my bow and I gasp in anger. I can produce a swirl of sweet smoke, but never a coal. Kimmerer writes that you can not force a bow drill fire, “It must unfold in the right way, when all the elements are present, mind and body harnessed in unison” (362).
Another Living Earth Tradition is the Temple of Fire. Students are asked to collect sticks and when night falls are asked to build a fire and light it with a single match. Then they must keep fire alive for 3 hours, or until a leader gives a wolf’s howl. For my first Temple of Fire as a 12 year old camper, I had a blazing flame that burnt through the hours easily, so when I am asked to do this again, 6 years later as an instructor, I feel confident. This time I have 30 minutes to collect enough sticks to last me the hours, and when the timer goes off I am pleased with my heaping pile. However, when night falls I find that my fire is voracious and in an hour has eaten up my entire store of kindling. I grab around in the dark for something, anything to feed her, but find nothing but dry leaves, which will not satiate her. And because her home was built in haste, it is crumbling, and she has nowhere to climb. Even as I stick my hand in the flames to rebuild her house, I see the tall sparks of my neighbor’s fires and feel self-doubt creep in. I blow and blow on the coals until I am too faint to continue and I slump onto the ground, in tears. Though I beg her not to go, my fire slowly loses light and succumbs to a bed of coals, leaving me to sit with only blackness and failure for company until I hear the wolf’s cry calling me home.
Many religions have assumed that fire either destroys or creates, but she also changes. Cherokee storyteller Robert Lewis tells the story of the first fire, which was created by lightning striking a tree. Lewis says that bear sent animal after animal to attempt to capture the fire, and each came back unrecognizable. Fire gave the raccoon his stripes, the snake his dark scales, and the rainbow raven his pitch black feathers (Cherokee nation). Today, when a log is burned in the fire, it is not destroyed but rather reincarnated into a piece of the person it warms or the bug for which it lights the way. In fact, many forest fires leave fertilized soil in their wake and allow young, native species to come back to the area (Hancock). Fire is the great liberator of the forest, for she releases seeds from plants, allows saplings to reach the sun, and burns away violent, invasive species.
Fire has also changed me. She has given me community, broken down my ego and challenged my confidence. She has made me cry, sweat, faint, and remember things I did not know I had forgotten (Kimmerer preface). I have realized that fire does not care if certain skills are difficult for me. She cares only for the effort, love, and vulnerability I have sacrificed to give her life. And just as in any relationship of reciprocity, as I breathe out my anger and sorrow, she recycles it into warmth and light.
In the closing circle of my first summer as an instructor, an elder tells us to envision the forest where we sit 10 years from now, still alive with laughter and community. Tears run down my face as I hold this small coal of radical hope and love for the future. Sam did not know that only a year later, the land Living Earth has called home for over 20 years would be taken away. But his vision is not lost, for we will not let the fire go out on our anger and grief; we will sing and carry her forward, together.
Thank you for reading. This week, think about the elements that we so often take for granted: air, water, fire, soil.