Thursday, August 21, 2014

The Impoverished State of the American Campfire and How to Build A Fire Properly

When I was in Japan what drove me (and most other Western foreigners) loco was the Japanese obsession with procedure and protocol. There's a correct way to do everything in Japan and if you don't do it that way, the outcome is often next to worthless--or at the very least the cause of furrowed brows.

Although true of everyday life, the preference for procedure over product is most pronounced in those things that are most definitive of Japanese culture. Take something as simple as making tea. There's a several-hour ritual just for making a freakin' cup of tea for God's sake! There's even a right and wrong direction to stir the tea.  Another example would be in judo: In Japanese judo (unlike the judo of many other countries) there is a heavy emphasis on the aesthetics of the throw. It's not enough to just throw your opponent for the ippon (full point). The throw also has to be pretty. How you perform the throw is just as important as throwing your opponent. Examples abound but I think you get the picture; and besides, at this point you must be wondering why I'm taking about the Japanese preoccupation with process when this post's title is to do with fire and America.

I'm talkin' 'bout J-pan in order to contrast it with its polar cultural opposite: 'Murica. To the extent that the Japanese emphasize procedure, Americans prize outcome. “We don't care two hoots how you do it, just get 'er done!” Only in America could duct tape be a solution to everything.

So, what's all this got to do with building a fire? I'm glad you axed. On my camping trip across the US of A, I noticed something that bothered me: The way Americans “build” a campfire.

The American camper, in his native habitat, puts his firewood into a pile, pours gasoline on it, then "drops a match on that bitch" (Wut! Wut!). Boom! Instant campfire: no fuss, no muss...and most importantly, no waiting. “I want a campfire, and I want it now! Get 'er done!” (high five's all around)

Call me a purist or perhaps a luddite, they might be one and the same, but I think important things are omitted when your method of starting a campfire is to simply douse some logs with gasoline. “But you said you wanted a fire, didn't you? So, I made one”

Yeah, I get it. The outcome's the same but I maintain that something's amiss.

For a while I couldn't figure out why I was so bothered by this practice. I mean, why should I care? It's just a freakin' camp fire and not even mine, for that matter. Last night, the answers came to me.

For starters, beyond avoiding singed eyebrows, there's no skill or art to the American way of making a campfire. There's something to be said for the skill and patience it takes to build a good campfire “old-school.” From gathering and arranging the right sized twigs, to nursing the flame in the early stages, to knowing when to add larger pieces and when to just let the fire breath. This is knowledge and skill that must be acquired through repeated experience that is usually shared and passed on by an early mentor...which leads me to the next point.

There's a social component to building a fire the “slow” way. Usually, in a family, the young children are sent out to gather twigs and sticks as kindling while the older children/teenagers get to wield the ax to split wood. One or two lucky children get to be the ones to use the matches to light the base of the fire. The parents coach the children in arranging and lighting the twigs “just right” as a skill is passed from one generation to the next. As the children progressively get older they get the “privilege” of graduating to and learning new fire-building tasks. These moments of interaction are precious. The fire is a symbol of learning and shared labor and its warmth is enjoyed all the more because each member of the group contributed in some way.

Think about it. Besides language-use, is there any other skill that is more quintessentially human than building a fire? The American method of fire-building breaks the inter-generational line of this skill's transmission that is intrinsic to our human-ness. The proverbial torch is quite literally not passed on to the next generation.  It deprives subsequent generations from learning and the current generation from passing-on a skill that was shared by virtually every single one of our ancestors. One more experience that ties one generation to the next is lost. 

All these goods "go up in flames" when, in building a fire, there is no regard for protocol and all emphasis is placed on outcome.


Or maybe I'm making too much of all this... Besides, perhaps if some isolated aboriginal group saw how I start my fires with a match they might roll their eyes at me for foregoing all the social good that comes from frantically rubbing two sticks together to get the initial heat to light the wood shavings and dry grass...

Maybe we should all bring a canister of gasoline when we go camping.

But probably not.

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