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To Build a Fire

Bootstrapping.  A newspaper fire lights a cedar kindling fire to light a red alder fire in a stove.  Photo by Lee Gass.

By the time I read Jack London’s To Build a Fire for the first time, a few years before reading it again in a high school English class, I had already made many mistakes in the wilderness, and I had learned from some of them.

For me in those days, the wilderness was what we called “the hill”, which began just behind the chicken house and went up and over a high ridge before coming to the first dirt road.  The hill was not just a hill, but a complex topography and an ecosystem offering complex choices for a growing body and mind.  It was hardly a real wilderness, but more than enough for a little boy growing up in it.

Think of the variety.  There were steep, slippery slopes, nearly impenetrable brushfields, three wetlands in very different circumstances, an abandoned orchard, and a variety of forest species including Douglas fir, red fir, ponderosa pine, black oak, live oak, yew, and incense cedar, not to mention anything about shrubs, herbs, grasses, ferns, mosses, or lichens.  And not to mention the wildlife.  Just think of it.

Until I was about 7 or 8, I could go anywhere on the hill I wanted, but only where I could hear my Mother if she happened to call me.  That was a big if, too, because she rarely did.  But when she called “Leeeeee-eeeee!” she meant me to come home right away.  I didn’t have to rush and she didn’t want me to, but I couldn’t dawdle on the way home.  Nor could I mess around.  I had to do it right every time, including being where I could hear her.

My Mom’s voice carried far, far farther than that of any of the other parents' - - men and women alike.  In fact they learned to rely on her, as a sort of foghorn for calling their kids if they knew we were together up there.  Some of the ladies wouldn’t have been caught dead making noises like that, and some of the men were pathetic yellers.  Morgie Jones’ Dad wasn’t at all pathetic, though.  When he bellered “Mooooor-gan!”, basso profundo, it was like thunder rolling around the hills.  But even Mr. Jones asked my Mother to call sometimes.  If I wanted to go anywhere outside her range, I had to tell her accurately where I was going, including topography, distance, forest cover, and the expected route both going out and coming back in, as well as my expected timing.  Those long excursions were special.  I had to take a lunch, I had to be back exactly when I said I would, every time.  I also had to be prepared to discuss contingency plans in case of broken bones, lacerations, or snakebite.   Later on, I could go anywhere I wanted on the hill, any time I wanted. 

I grew up on that hill and in its ecosystem.  It was a part of me, and I was a part of it. Here is a long story about, among other things, growing up on that hill.  Here is one about an encounter with a bear when I was small.)

I started thinking about the hill again recently while attending my 50th high school reunion, in Dunsmuir California, this past August.  I saw the hill and smelled it, I looked at it whenever I could, and I appreciated it immensely.  But except for a short scramble Paul Phipps and I made along the river on our way to the picnic, I didn’t set foot in it.

I thought of the hill again recently on Quadra Island while splitting kindling for the stove, which is our main source of heat for the house.  The kindling is cedar and doesn’t grow right here, but all of our firewood comes from our own land.  Felling, limbing, bucking, hauling, splitting, and stacking firewood are among the rituals of living here, and splitting kindling is a part of it. 

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